By Jon Keller
March 05, 1984 12:00 PM

American education is under siege, and the battle is likely to heat up during this election year. High school academic scores are down, dropout rates are up, and unruliness is so much on the rise that President Reagan has added a plea for the return of “good, old-fashioned discipline” to his controversial proposals for merit pay for teachers and tuition tax credits. Perhaps the most radical and sweeping recommendation is a call for an end to compulsory high school, and it comes from Theodore R. Sizer, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 1964 to 1972 and later headmaster of the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Sizer is author of the just published Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95). A graduate of both Yale and Harvard (where he got his Ph.D.), Sizer, 51, visited nearly 80 public high schools during his study. He discussed his ideas with Correspondent Jon Keller at his home in the wooded hills of Harvard, Mass.

Why do you say that high school should no longer be compulsory?

I think people should not be required to attend school at all beyond acquiring the basic rudiments. But it’s in the interest of a good culture to provide all kinds of incentives that they do stay in school, on their own terms. We should say, “You may work along at your rate toward a diploma.” There are two benefits to that. First, it solves the ideological problem of the state’s right to compel citizens to do things. The state can quite properly compel its citizens to be literate, to command numbers and to understand civic life, but beyond that I don’t think the state has any claim. Secondly, it gets the incentives right. It says, “You want a diploma? You’re welcome to come. We’ll help you.” That’s quite different from saying we’re going to hold you in here under threat of law.

How can we be sure kids would attend?

School is the liveliest game in town. It’s where you meet your friends. Only a small percentage of kids think it’s cool to be truant. I think dropout rates would actually decrease under my proposals. Minority dropout rates might increase in some locations—schools that are responsive to their students’ needs will hold the kids more than those that are not. But I don’t advocate or foresee a mass exodus of 14-year-olds into the labor force.

What about the unmotivated students?

My experiences suggest that most kids want at least two things. They want a sense of self-esteem and a high school diploma. They know it’s coinage—they’re not dumb. You’d say, “Okay, the diploma can be earned when you exhibit your mastery.” So the kids can’t go to sleep in class anymore. Right now student incentive is just to serve time.

But what incentive will there be for children from families that aren’t educationally motivated?

If teachers challenge and meet the needs of individual students, then it’s more likely a kid can be persuaded to stay in school despite disinterest at home.

What is ‘Horace’s Compromise?’

Horace Smith is a composite English teacher at a typical suburban high school. He has 120 kids in five classes a day—a big city teacher would have closer to 175 kids. The function of a school is to help kids use their minds, and the way a teacher learns how a kid’s mind works is to have him write or otherwise communicate. But Horace can’t grade that many papers. So he knows that he’s only going to reach a few kids and he makes a bargain with the other nice, genial kids: Don’t hassle me, I won’t hassle you. They drift through, collecting their units, and get a diploma. That compromise is unacceptable.

Are we truly facing an education crisis?

When Americans lose confidence, they turn on their schools. Sputnik goes up and what do people talk about? Not advanced engineering training, which is what they should talk about. They talk about the schools. The Japanese compete with us and we don’t talk about the wisdom of management and the quality of business schools. Oh no, we talk about the high schools. The rhetoric we’re now using about reform is right out of Marine boot camp: “We’re gonna toughen up the schools, we’re gonna shape ’em up, we’re gonna get more demanding.”

What’s most wrong with the system?

The structure absolutely conspires against serious work for all children. A kid bounces off seven adults a day, from Physics to Phys. Ed to French to English to Social Studies, less than 60 minutes each, in groups of 20 or more. What you should do is dramatically simplify the time each student has with one teacher. A practical example would be to cluster the curriculum into four areas: inquiry and expression, mathematics and science, literature and the arts, philosophy and history. Instead of seven teachers, each student would have four. If there’s an aphorism running through my book, it is that less is more. Slow everything down. Make sure there is real mastery.

How would that alter the schedule?

It would mean two periods a day. Some schools have already experimented with these “curriculum blocks” with excellent results. It would mean, more importantly, that a small number of teachers would follow the way a student’s mind develops.

What’s wrong with the standard core curriculum?

Teachers must have the leeway to say, “That kid needs two years on this subject and this kid needs six months.” The solution is not to hammer people into a mold—reform by cookie cutter—but to adapt to the particular strengths of the kid. Right now the system makes no individual adaptations.

Why do we have so many dropouts?

The dropout problem is a serious one that has to do with elementary studies. High school dropouts are, in my opinion, the ones that aren’t literate. You don’t find many kids who have mastered the basics dropping out. Also, the percentage of kids who enter high school now is very high. When you realize the Second World War was fought by an army of eighth-grade graduates and the Vietnam war was fought by twelfth-grade graduates, you get a sense of the explosive growth in high school attendance. Before the ’60s, kids that might be dropouts now never even entered high school.

What role should discipline play?

Schools should be safe. If you need police with blaring radios in the hallways, terrific, let’s have them. But that’s different from discipline. Discipline has to do with manners and conduct, and you have to insist on standards in this. At the same time, I’ve been in a lot of schools that have gotten high marks for being orderly and are intellectually dead because everybody’s cowed. The goal is for the noise in a school to be constructive.

How do we get better teaching?

The so-called reformers are saying, “Teaching must be improved as a profession.” Full stop. New paragraph. “We will tell the teachers how many minutes a day they will teach. We will tell them what books to use, we will tell them the size of the classes they will teach, we will pick their curriculums.” Full stop. New paragraph. “Meanwhile, they must have a higher self-image.” Well, if you treat people like hired hands, they act like them. The only way we’re going to get good people in the profession is to trust good people, to give more authority at the individual school level. Teachers and administrators need to have more control.

You’ve said you’re worried that your proposals will be seen as elitist. Why?

Because they emphasize the intellect, and a lot of people really don’t believe that poor kids can think, or should think. People will say the proposals are genteel and naive. But my bias is the bias of a schoolteacher: that education is a humane process, and you cannot standardize people. I hope my voice is perceived as one from the trenches. When I go around the country, the applause is loudest from the people closest to the kids. Teachers like it. Principals like it more often than not. Superintendents are dubious, university types don’t know what I’m talking about, and state bureaucrats say, “Oh no, no.” These proposals will be bitterly fought by people who want to lie to kids, who want to give them a diploma that doesn’t say anything.