|THE STUDENTS ARE WATCHING|
August 25, 1999
MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, a Gergen dialogue. David Gergen engages Theodore and Nancy Sizer, longtime educators who last year served as co-principals of a charter school in Massachusetts. They are the authors of The Students are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract.
DAVID GERGEN: Welcome. Let me ask you, Ted, for starters, what do you mean by this title The Students are Watching?
THEODORE SIZER, Author, The Students Are Watching: The youngsters in schools watch us all the time. They judge us all the time. If we are obviously interested in our subjects, they see that we practice what we preach. If they see us as merely cranking out meaningless work for them to do, they say, "this is... it couldn't be important because our teacher doesn't deal with it." If the schools are shabby and the libraries are under-stocked, if the laboratories are threadbare, they say, "well, they couldn't care about us because if they cared about us in this rich country, they would equip the school properly." So if we care about the values that kids develop as adolescents we have to care very much about how we, as adults, treat each other, treat our institutions, treat our subjects. The kids watch us and they learn from what they see.
DAVID GERGEN: I'm curious, on this question of values, you write in your book that we have a profound moral contract with our students.
NANCY SIZER, The Students Are Watching: Well, for me, it's profound. I think for very many adults it's pretty profound, that we would like to offer our children good schools. We tried to not make it an angry book because we love the people in schools, and we love the stories we can tell about schools. But we also would like to make people understand that we need to do a little better and that there are some ways we could be doing better.
DAVID GERGEN: The emphasis on your book seemed to be not just that we should not be teaching just students just to prepare for the world of work or to deepen their minds, strengthen their minds, but to teach them to be thoughtful citizens and decent human beings.
NANCY SIZER: That's the point of the book really.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. And that's a critical part of the moral contract, to help them grow up to be those kind of citizens?
THEODORE SIZER: It goes back to the basic reasons for public education in this country, way back into the 18th, as well as the 19th century. It's to learn up decent people to live in a republic, people who care about the community as a community, people who watch out for each other, people who share when sharing is appropriate, people who are in the habit of thinking hard about the important things. These are noble ideas. They go back long in our history. They're worth really articulating again strenuously, and we hope the book helps that articulation.
DAVID GERGEN: There's a great deal of emphasis now upon scores in classrooms, how well students do on math, how well they do on their verbal and that sort of thing. Is that emphasis getting in the way of helping students improve their character?
NANCY SIZER: Yes, because the best way a student starts to develop his own personal moral ideas and his final code really that... or at least little guiding sets of principles which help him to make decisions, is to wrestle out questions and he should do that a lot. He should do that with texts, which might be part of the school anyway, and where he could be learning two things, one is to read well and the other is to wrestle out questions. But he needs the time of his teacher, he needs the time of his fellow classmates, he really needs to put time into that problem, or else he won't have anything to fall back on when he needs to make decisions.
THEODORE SIZER: Don't get us wrong. It's not that we're against assessment and testing with a small "t." It's many that many of the existing tests trivialize the really rigorous work the kids should do, the kind of work that for adolescents, can only be truly plumbed in a dialogue, is that to have the youngster show his work to you, challenge him on it, question him, make sure, from a series of questions, that he really understands it. That's far more rigorous, at least to a far more rigorous standard than figuring out how to deal with something in a paper-and-pencil test over a short period of time. Paper and pencil tests are fine, they have their place, they tell us something, but they don't tell us most of the matter. And what we in education ought to do is believe that the standards should and must be high, but make sure that our assessment systems are as deep and as rigorous as they have to be to really push something important.
DAVID GERGEN: It sounds as if you almost would like to go back to a Socratic dialogue, of Socrates and academy and open growth in a small place, engaging students...
THEODORE SIZER: That's right.
DAVID GERGEN: ...and improving their minds and character.
THEODORE SIZER: You have this wonderful American education wonderfully in the second grade and in the Ph.D. program. It's the stuff in the middle that gets in the way. It's the kind of challenge that is very personal, somebody who is an expert says, "explain that to me, please."
DAVID GERGEN: What is the ideal school, then? There's an emphasis in many places, California is one, where they're trying to reduce the size of the classroom. But you seem to be arguing it's not just the size of the classroom; it's the size of the school. You have to get the schools down in size.
NANCY SIZER: You should do both. The classroom should be small enough so a kid can honestly learn to deal properly with airtime, which he would be able to have. At the present time, with 32 kids in a class, a student walks in there knowing that, if he speaks once or twice, that will be a good day for him. Ted and I have shadowed kids in schools and we've been with kids all day who never spoke once in class, never spoke once in class. That's dis-human. That's not human, you know, not to speak in the environment you're in. So we need to keep the class size down. We also need to keep the load of the teacher down so that the teacher can really get to know the student, not just his name and that he usually wears such and such a color sweater but something really deeper like how when he makes mistakes, does he deal with this kind of criticism or that kind of criticism or what helps him to resolve to improve, what kinds of things motivate him, things like that, which takes time.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. Are there models?
THEODORE SIZER: Oh, yes.
NANCY SIZER: Oh, lots of them.
THEODORE SIZER: There are lots of them, and that that is what gives us so much hope. Many of them are the products of the work over the last 20 years. They tend to be small schools, very simple schools, very focused schools, schools which are respectful of kids' minds. Often when you think of a pimply 15-year-old, you don't think about, you know, the strength of their minds. But good schools do that and push and push and push, but push in ways that are respectful of who that child is. And they're out there. There are too few high schools of that kind because for 100 years we've designed high schools like large factories and have processed kids, and it doesn't work. It hasn't worked. There is 40 years of detailed research showing that it hasn't worked. But it's such a interlocking, complex machine, the big high school, the big comprehensive high school, that it's very hard to change because you have to change it all at once. And where we see the flickers and real demonstrations of hope are new schools or big schools that have broken into little schools and they're popping up, particularly in big cities around this country. They started popping 15 years ago.
DAVID GERGEN: Are they charter schools by and large?
THEODORE SIZER: By and large not. They're schools that have been given running room by school boards and by union leadership.
DAVID GERGEN: Those are the ones who are fulfilling a moral contract?
NANCY SIZER: Well, that's very exciting and glamorous because in fact those students are able to make quite a leap over what they had before. So that the change in their prospects in life is really wonderfully dramatic. If you went out to a school that was more suburban, the change would be subtler because those kids are getting a lot of good things out of life already. And so they can sometimes manage not to have such a good personal school and still be bet other. For instance, we were talking earlier about a kid's mind works well. Well, maybe that's from conversations at home. Maybe that's Boy Scouts, maybe that's the church, maybe that's the school. Maybe that's all of those things. But I don't think we need dramatic change. We just need improvement.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, Nancy and Ted Sizer, thank you both very much.
THEODORE SIZER: Thank you.