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ted sizer
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A prominent thinker on education reform, Ted Sizer is opposed to the for-profit privatization of public schools because, he argues, the interests of investors will necessarily come before those of students. While in favor of more choice and of better-designed schools, he says the answer is not "to drown the public sector and replace it with a for-profit sector," but rather to reform the public sector itself. Sizer is a professor emeritus at Brown University and former dean of Harvard's Graduate School of Education, where he is currently a visiting professor. He founded the Coalition of Essential Schools in 1984 and has served as its chairman and as head of one of its charter schools. He has also served as headmaster of the Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and is founding director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. This interview was conducted in December 2002.

[When did you first encounter Chris Whittle, and what was your impression?]

I wish I remembered the year. But when Chris Whittle was thinking about starting this enterprise [the Edison Project], he called me up at Brown University, where I was then a professor, and said he'd like to come up and try his ideas out. I was fascinated by this. He did come up and we went to Capriccio's, which is the place you go for this kind of thing.

If [Whittle] is a symbol, he's a symbol for the paralysis of the public sector. It should be easy to compete with somebody who has to get a profit for investors. I mean, hey, that's one arm tied behind his back.

I listened with considerable astonishment to what he proposed to do and found it intriguing, risk taking. He talked about designing a whole new kind of school, a whole new kind of school system. He was going to get the best minds and assemble them and come up with his plan.

At that time, as today, I think we badly need a better way of thinking about providing schooling, design of schools. So I found him fascinating, that he was going to do it. I was sort of disappointed that it apparently took, at that point in time, the private sector to speak so boldly about these things.

When he presented these ideas, did he say, "And also, Ted, I'm going to make money?"

Oh, he made no denial. He did not deny that this was a for-profit. He said, "We can do far better than the lumbering public. And it'll be in the interest of the children of the United States as well as the interest of far future-oriented investors to be part of this."

Did he ask you for advice?

I guess, in retrospect, he was listening, I think, to how I was reacting ... [how] somebody whose stake had been in public education and in school reform [would] react to what he had in mind.

What did you say?

I said, "I find it fascinating. I will watch with interest."

Did he ask you to help? Did he offer you a job?

He didn't offer me a job. But he, I think, was fishing. He probably was fishing with everybody. I don't think he felt that I would leave what I was doing, which was heading the Coalition of Essential Schools, and at that time the beginning of the Annenberg effort. ...

What was your impression of Chris Whittle? Did you think this guy could pull it off?

I frankly didn't know. The economics were not clear to me. But if anyone could pull it off, this quite flamboyant, aggressive, interesting, smart guy would be the one to pull it off.

Do you have a position on this idea of running schools for profit?

Yes -- which is I'm opposed to it, simply because it puts the investor at the head of the list. Under a system of compulsory education, and the compulsion provided by the state, the children should be at the head of the list. When there is any kind of financial shortfall, they should be at least risk. In a for-profit business, the investor's at least risk.

So, no qualifications?

No. ... I'm not against private business being involved in public education. If I was, I wouldn't be buying textbooks from the likes of Houghton Mifflin and the rest. There are plenty of ways that private for-profit industry can support public education. In many, if not most cases, they do it wonderfully. But the notion that the whole system is, in fact, driven, where the investor is the one most protected -- that's something different.

Is this a moral position, ethical position?

Yes. It's an ethical position. If the state compels a citizen to do something, in our system of government, that's an extraordinary step. It is the most intrusive and demanding claim that our government puts on us as people: "You will attend school." Because of the force of that claim, the protection of the children who are to be its actors is very special.

Did you say this to Chris Whittle? "Hey, this is fundamentally unethical?"

I don't remember exactly what I said, or whether I said it exactly that way. But I was not interested in that approach for that reason.

What about Whittle's own argument that the public education system doesn't do a very good job for an awful lot of kids?

Oh, I agreed with him. How could I not? He knew what I was doing in the Coalition of Essential Schools. But the question for me was, how do you so change the incentives in the public sector so that these hierarchical bureaucracies will do a better job? I also have long been a proponent of public school choice. A lot of people say, "Well, that's just privatization in different garb." I don't think it's privatization in different garb.

What if Chris Whittle could say, "Hey, Ted, come look at this school. You'll see cheerful kids who are actively engaged in learning. You'll see parents who are rushing to get their kids into the school. You'll see art and music and phys ed. You'll see teachers meeting every day to talk about kids' progress. You'll see all the things that you believe in."

I say, "Fine, be a for-profit private school. All the things making you into Chris Whittle, all the things you describe, you can see in the private school sector. So you have for-profit private schools. If that's what you want to do, fine. ... You don't need to be the agent of the public, the only agent for children in the district or schools involved. You don't need that in building these for-profit schools."

So if Chris Whittle took you to an Edison school that's functioning well, you'd say that school should be shut down?

I say keep it a private school, great private school. What's wrong with running private schools? If you think you can run a terrific school, blessings on you. But don't expect it to replace those schools which are run by the public.

But if he's already running a public school that's working, what would you do?

Oh, I would say, shame on the district which allowed him to get ahead of it.

And then?

And hope there's some pressure on that district.

I suspect if Whittle were sitting here instead of me that he might say to you, "Why do you think we're going to put the investor first? Come look at this school. Kids come first." You seem to say, "Well, inevitably the investor will be put first." Why?

Yes. Because it's the [way] American capitalism works, that's why. I can't imagine people investing in an enterprise which put the children first. They invest in an enterprise to put themselves first. That's the way this system works.

I think they sometimes call themselves social investors. "Yes, we want profit, but we also want to improve society." Wouldn't that be a legitimate?

There are many, many examples of that in the not-for-profit private sector. I mean, those are the people who support the private schools in the Catholic sector. ... It's the way people support schools [such as] Phillips Academy, [of which I was the headmaster]. Generous people who care about the public interest.

So there's simply no way that for-profit public education could be appropriate in your worldview? There's nothing that would change your mind?

There's nothing that would change my mind ... at this moment, there's no question about it. ...

There's a lot of opposition to the Edison Project and the idea of for-profit education. I'm wondering whether your view that it's fundamentally unethical is a kind of mainstream education view?

Unethical may be somewhat too strong of a word. Inappropriate. When a state requires so much of a citizen, then that citizen's claim on the resources comes first.

And the for-profit model--

Puts the investor first.

We've been in communities where Edison is running schools, and it's hard not to conclude that there are people who want it to fail, maybe even are trying to help it fail. Does that surprise you?

No. I think that there are a lot of people in many communities that have long hoped that not-for-profit private schools fail.


That's right. There are a lot of communities which say, "We don't like private schools of any form. Catholic, non-sectarian." I mean, having worked in a private not-for-profit sector, I am aware of the prejudice against our kinds of schools, even the ones that are demonstrably serving the public interest.

But why, within the education community, would there be an unwillingness to see Chris Whittle succeed?

I think for many of the same reasons that the larger education community has very little time for private or independent schools.

Which is?

Which is, they are diversions. They are, by definition, undemocratic because they're private -- as though Scarsdale weren't private. There is a deeply held suspicion of anything, deeply held suspicion on the parts of people in the public education hierarchy, which are deeply skeptical of and antagonistic to schools that are not part of the hierarchy.

So wait a minute. This is fascinating. You see, here's a way in which you and Chris Whittle are brothers under the skin. You're both troublemakers, you're both out of the mainstream.


Do you have some sympathy for what Chris Whittle's trying to do?

I'm all for choice, and he's arguing for choice. I'm all for better-designed schools. He's all for better-designed schools. But many of my friends in the public sector are vigorously for choice and for better-designed schools. So, yes, we have a lot in common. It's just when you set it up so that the children are at the head of the list that there is a profound difference.

And you think public education puts children at the head of the list?

Philosophically, they should. Are they doing it now in many communities? No. But the answer to that is not to drown the public sector and replace it with a for-profit sector. I think the danger's in the for-profit sector. Plenty of examples in other lines of for-profit work suggest that, with all its problems, the public system -- publicly derived, publicly led -- with all its problems, is the better.

You've described the Edison Project as "One-size-fits-all education." It's about standardization and scale.

Oh, yes. ... You know, I'm no businessman, but I've run schools. And the only way you're going to make money on schools is if you have one system, one text, one routine, one school design. That's the way you make money. It's scale, scale, scale. That's why you hear from Edison, "We have to get bigger faster," because that's when the payoff comes. You have to sell enough of them so that the development costs are covered, with some left over.

Now, I happen to believe that no two schools that I most admire ever plan alike. Good schools are very much a reflection of who's in them and the community in which they rest. The notion of a cookie-cutter plan is antithetical to what I have observed as worthy.

"Cookie-cutter." That's such a pejorative.

Oh, it is a pejorative -- that we will judge all of the schools with exactly the same tests. We will provide exactly the same mathematics curriculum for exactly the same fifth grade in every school from Hawaii to Maine. That's nonsense.

Why is that nonsense? Two and two [isn't] four in Hawaii?

But go beyond two and two. I mean, it's easy to say, "Yes, sure, two and two is four." But when you get the little more complicated, you will find -- it's very inconvenient for those of us who teach -- that kids don't understand things in the same way. Their little minds work in different ways. If you're going to teach them, you have to, well, you have to get at them in the ways that seem appropriate to the way they're thinking, where they are rooted.

You say cookie-cutter and standardization, but you could standardize and have reading textbooks. You could standardize and have exams. You could standardize and have ratios. You could standardize and have principals in the school.

Oh, no. Oh, no. Almost all those examples I wouldn't buy. Teaching reading to a kid whose home language is Mandarin is a little different than teaching English to a kid whose language at home is English. Teaching a youngster in rural Nebraska who is deeply involved in agriculture -- I visited schools of that kind. Teaching science out there is different than teaching it in inner-city Philadelphia. The kids out there have an experience on which smart teachers build. The kids in Philadelphia have a quite different experience on which smart teachers build. A single text won't do. ... You could use it, but it isn't efficient.

I want to go back to what you said about putting investors first, because, of course, Chris Whittle's heard that argument. He says, "No, in fact, we put kids first, because if we don't put kids first, and parents become aware of that, we lose the kids, and they are our customers. Therefore, we put kids first."

Well, I'm glad he might feel that way. But let me describe the real world for an example. A really financially-strapped city where the public alternative is demonstrably less attractive than a for-profit example, he might be able to pay off his investors first and even a threadbare school would be competition for what's there. So it depends how strong the competition is, the public competition is. The more that the public sector is strengthened, the more that that argument of his will not hold up.

Whittle says, "Look, of course, our investors matter. But kids matter more because if we don't have kids, we go out of business."

Your investors do not want you to go out of business, Chris, and they're going to hold your feet to the fire. You could talk that way all you want, but the board's going to vote. ...

When push comes to shove, he's in a for-profit business. How can he pretend he's not? He's going to say, "The children come first, so all of you investors are going to lose your investment?" I'm not sure.

So you just don't buy that?


The question of scale. Is it possible to run a school district that's spread all across the country, California to Maine, with the central office, regional offices? Is that a workable model for running a school system?

... It is, I think, theoretically doable, if you get away from any expectation of cookie-cutters. ...

With the Coalition of Essential Schools ... there are schools in most of the states. They have in common a set of ideas. How they play those ideas out is very much rooted in the local situation. The national effort and the regional effort is the constant comparing of notes. How do you do it? How do you do it? What have you learned? So, yes, you can do this. Sure, there are schools in Oakland that are akin, as far as their commitments, to schools in Boston, but they have variations which reflect the immediate local concerns. ...

I guess it's the question of efficiency and so on. It's the degree of centralization.

Oh, education is as inefficient as medicine. You know, all these people with aches. You have an ache in the shoulder, and your ache is a little different than my ache. It's bloody inefficient, because really, I'd like to just say, "I'll give you three aspirin," and it'll be the same for all of us. It's very, very inconvenient. But it's also the way the world is.

And schools are like that?



Kids' minds aren't alike. Until you know each kid, you don't know quite the best way to reach that kid.

But Edison doesn't say reach them in that way. Edison says, "You've got to get here. You've got to get to this point and we're going to test you in this way."

Yes. One test. One test. One curriculum. One system of age grading. It doesn't make sense. I personally believe American public education is far too monolithic -- that the hierarchical bureaucracies in public education make unwise assumptions about how similar things should be. School is school.

And Edison is even more so?

No, it varies by state. But the pressure, political pressure in state government is to make us all alike. We're all going to take the same test, have the same curriculum frameworks.

There's an aspect of Edison I'd like you to comment on. An Edison principal can earn a significant cash bonus for running the school well, both financially and educationally. Is that appropriate? Paid bonuses?

Oh, it would be appropriate if you could be absolutely fair about what is educationally better than something else. If I am told, as a principal, "You get your test scores up on these tests, and if you do, you get a bonus," I would be very unhappy, because these standardized measures are demonstrably inadequate and class-biased. So it all depends on the metric. I have yet to find a persuasive metric which allows me to say, "I'm more successful than you, because look at this printout."

Well, here's the system: Here's the test we're given, Principal Sizer. If you can get your kids' scores up and if you can run the school efficiently, you get a $10,000 bonus. What's wrong with that?

I think the whole thing rests on sand. ...

Promises to principals?

You know, high test scores and so on and so forth. ... The notion that you can clearly and fairly describe success. I mean, let's face it: High schools with which I've been associated are judged by what happens to their graduates, and it's not just entry into a freshman year of a desirable college. It is, are they in some even minor way clearly advantaged for having had that experience in high school? That's the metric. That's the test that families use. You can't nail that down in advance.

But Edison says, "All right, we need to teach these kids to read and write, do math, do science and so on and so forth. Here's the test we'll give. You're in charge of the school, you need to run the school well, efficiently. Don't waste money. Get the right resources. Hire good teachers. You need to do all these things. If you do them well, including good test scores, we'll pay you a bonus." You said that rests on sand.

Well, rests on sand, because the sand is the definition of success.

Test scores?

Test scores. They don't tell you enough, even the good tests. Now you must remember, I'm talking as a high-school person, and the tests are somewhat better, considerably better when it comes to numeracy and literacy. It gets very complicated when you're talking about prose style in a high-school kid.

Whittle's dilemma right now -- he's grown, but he's also had a lot of trouble; raised a lot of money but has yet to turn a profit; lost a lot of money for investors. What is your sense? Can he make it?

I can't speak on the financial side, because I don't know how much you take out of an Edison school this year for the investor. I think one problem is that his schools aren't different enough from the competition, that they aren't radically different. ...

What excited me at the beginning in talking with Chris is I thought the way he was talking, he was going to go back to the beginning, which the public sector was not prepared to do. They were tinkering, fiddling with the system, rather than saying, "Wait a minute, [the world] is a different place. Information moves in different ways than it used to. The kids are bombarded by information now. They weren't before. We have the school system designed for a weak agrarian culture. Maybe we should rethink the whole thing."

That's what I thought he was going to do, which I thought was fascinating. He didn't do it. He, by and large, got people who were smart people, but not smart about schools. They came up with this design, which, let's say, again, looks to me like a common sense sort of mainline predictable school....

You know, they're clean, and they open on time, and there are enough textbooks. And that's fine. That's great. But just with a little money, the public sector can do that easily. Public sector schools all around the country do that easily. But something radically different -- and I'm not about to describe that, because I don't have it fully -- but clearly something radically different, again, particularly for high schools, is something which I had originally, the first time I talked to him, anticipated he might come up with.

Whittle himself says his schools are not radical enough. ... He says, "We're not radical enough." Does that surprise you?

I'm sure he's disappointed. I mean, some of the most radical schools that I know at the secondary level are public schools in big cities. They're small, they're highly focused, and they're very attentive to each kid. They're simple schools. They're not comprehensive. They're something quite different. Their record is, in most cases, terrific. "Record" defined as, do the kids stay in school? Do they ultimately graduate from school? Do they go to college? Do they stay in college?

So your disappointment with Whittle -- aside from your ethical position about making money -- your disappointment with Whittle is that he just sort of cleaned up the best of the conventional thinking?

That is my impression of his schools. Again, I'd love to be sitting here and saying I've been to 15 or 20 of his schools, particularly high school. I haven't. I've only been to one, some time ago. ...

Is Chris Whittle a symbol?

No, I don't think he's a symbol. If he's a symbol, if you force me into using that, he's a symbol for the paralysis of the public sector. It should be easy to compete with somebody who has to ... get a profit for investors. I mean, hey, that's one arm tied behind his back. He has to spend X percent of his money to investors, while we in the public sector don't have to do that. But the public sector is, in many cases, paralyzed, and that's the shame. So if reform is needed, it is reform within the public sector. ... That is the most likely way to get the improvements that we need.

Chris Whittle is a symbol of paralysis. Fascinating.

Yes. I mean, public schools are an easy target in many communities, particularly in under-financed, politically-driven big cities where he's made his principal inroads.

I sometimes get the feeling listening to people on the right that he might be a symbol -- that he's sort their bludgeon against the public, sloppy, inefficient, lousy, public system.

Oh, I think that's ill informed. The real villain for the right and the left is a system so paralyzed by its regulation and its traditional thinking that it can't reform itself.

You mean, if public education were functioning at even a reasonable level, there wouldn't be a Chris Whittle and an Edison Project?

No. I don't think so, because you couldn't make a profit. Why would you send your kids to an Edison school if you could go to an equally good or better one that was able to keep more of its money?

Do you want Chris Whittle and the Edison Project to fail?

Oh, I don't know that that's a world-shaking decision one way or the other. I'm just disappointed in what I perceive to be its lack of educational imagination. It is not a wonderful intellectual burr under the public school saddle. ... There are pilot schools in Boston. There are all sorts of interesting schools in the city of New York within the public sector that are really a burr under the saddle. That's where the energy is. It's in the public sector. And it's small, you know. It's constantly under pressure. ... But it grows every day.

Do you care whether Whittle succeeds?

I don't care. No. Frankly, if, in fact, the public sector is so utterly incompetent to allow him to succeed, then I would grieve. ...

There are more than 100,000 schools in this country. Edison signed a contract to run 20 public schools in Philadelphia, and it was front-page news in lots of places. Why does this get so much attention if it's such a drop in the bucket?

I think it gets attention for two reasons. One is the problems in the schools are page one business now in a way they haven't been before, very often. Second is that the Edison Project is very bold. That is, it says, "We're not going to just provide tests and books. We're going to provide the whole shooting match." It's that scale issue which makes it quite unusual.


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published july 3, 2003

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