HORACE'S COMPROMISE: The Dilemma of the American High School by Theodore R. Sizer
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HORACE'S COMPROMISE: The Dilemma of the American High School

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Officially, this is the First Report from a Study of American High Schools Cosponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Commission on Education Issues of the National Association of Secondary Schools. Mercifully, it isn't another survey or collection of case studies. It's as much an essay, indeed, as a report. Sizer, former headmaster of Phillips Academy, Andover, and former dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, did visit 80 or so assorted high schools throughout the US. He found them remarkably alike. (The one distinguishing mark was the students' social class.) He also found, unsurprisingly, widespread good will, frenzy, and torpor. ""In a word, school is sensitively accommodating, as long as students are punctual, where they are supposed to be, and minimally dutiful about picking things up from the clutch of courses in which they enroll."" ""Horace's Compromise"" exemplifies the problem and its remedies. Suburban English teacher ""Horace Smith,"" a veteran with high standards, has 120 students. Though he believes that ""each student should write something for criticism at least twice a week,"" he settles for once a week; though he believes that his juniors and seniors should be working on short essays, ""he assigns but one or two paragraphs."" Cutting every comer, reading and criticizing the paragraphs takes him ten hours. HIS ninth graders should have individualized teaching; his three sections of the same course should be taught differently. ""He will compromise by spending no more than ten minutes' preparation time, on average, per class."" (For the resulting 42-hour week, Horace gets $27,300.) Sizer also presents a student's fragmented, meaningless day in Horace's school; portraits of vacant-to-hostile students he met; impressions of students outside the building and in control. ""My viewis that American high schools too readily stress the vulnerability and inexperience of adolescents and underrate the potency and authority that young people can exhibit."" Three classroom vignettes--the book's high point--illustrate effective teaching. Sister Michael, 72, engages 14 seniors in a Socratic discussion of Graham Greene's short story, ""The Destructors""; Charles Gross, teaching electricity to inner-city boys, presses ""both electricity and language: the students had to tell him what they were doing and why""; in Fred Curtis' ninth-grade suburban math class, a frustrated, fiddling"" girl eventually solves a problem--thanks to insistence, encouragement, and a little help. Sizer, invoking Dewey as well as Whitehead, would reduce the number of subjects, and increase the time for each. He'd allow time for coaching, to teach skills, and also reduce class size to allow for give-and-take, for teaching judgment. He'd have students demonstrate mastery to get their diplomas--by ""graduation exhibitions,"" not tests. Eschewing numerical claims and goals, Sizer risks oblivion--but his flexible traditionalism, along with his focus on teaching and learning (rather than structure), might stir aspirations anew.

Pub Date: March 16th, 1984
ISBN: 0618516069
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin