A moral 'contract' nurtures a school

Ted and Nancy Sizer value messiness and confusion.

What these longtime educators like to see when they enter a school are hints of positive turmoil wrought by adults striving to build a demanding yet caring environment.

"You notice at every turn, people thinking about the impact of their actions and words," Ted says. "People who are in the habit of looking long-range. You see places where accommodations are made to special circumstances."

It's something often missing from American schools, they say. So in their new book, "The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract" (Beacon Press), the Sizers spell out what they're after. They like schools where adults take time to examine student questions that may veer from the specifics of the lesson; where people grapple with the "whys" of behavior, and respect students' views; where expectations are clear, and teachers know kids well.

What that forms is a school with a moral contract between adults and students to "nurture our humanity," and where adults follow the standards they ask of kids. "We have to be good ourselves before we start perpetrating things on others," Nancy says.

Sound a bit Utopian? Perhaps. But the Sizers take readers into the classroom to show what's possible. Their views may not appeal to boosters of standardized tests, more tests, and closely charted paths to success. In the current push and pull between a hard-edged drive for tough standards and concern over school culture, however, these seasoned participants in the learning game provide one vision of how to balance the two.

The right conditions

Much of their focus revolves around the conditions of teaching and learning, with greater links between the strictly academic side of school and all the other forms of learning that take place there. The rhythm of daily interactions, after all, teach as much about character - or its absence - as programs or courses.

For teachers, Ted says, workload is a key issue. "If teachers have 135 kids to teach each day - that's like telling the New England Patriots to play in bare feet, with no cleats for traction."

The Sizers have practiced eyes when it comes to education. Between them, they've held a wide array of posts. Ted has been dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and headmaster at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.; Nancy trains intern teachers at Harvard's education school and taught history at Phillips Academy. Most recently, they were coprincipals of the Francis W. Parker Charter School in Ayer, Mass.

The couple are unrepentant advocates of a progressive approach to education - a school of thought taking flak for everything from US children's poor reading skills to a do-your-own-thing atmosphere in many high schools. But, the Sizers argue, the approach can set high and creative standards for academics as well as a school's environment. And that's what opens the door to the moral contract.

What troubles the duo currently is "a creeping harshness" and distrust in US education that may alienate many kids. Standards can be high, they argue, but schools don't have to make everyone meet them in lock step.

Current thinking, they say, has been shaped by a post-cold-war view of education as an economic weapon, and one that needs easy gauges if its effect is to be tallied. One result - increased testing - has also been influenced by for-profit school management firms that demand straightforward ways to measure how they're doing. "It's very powerful to have a simplistic description of success," Ted says.

Take the complex approach

The Sizers want complexity. Academically, the measure should not be tallied on a checklist, but gauge "how much time is a child really engaged. What does he produce by the end of the day?" Nancy asks. "Can he do math - and explain it?"

Moral lessons need to share that complexity. "There is a shimmering intensity and a fixed quality to concepts such as respect, integrity, and honesty which make them hard to reach for, let alone attain," they write.

"We have come to prefer verbs. There is wisdom to be found in examining differences such as that between 'moral' and 'moralizing.' Nouns are treated as completed statues lined up on the top shelves of a person's character. Verbs are active...."

The resulting engagement takes character education out of the realm of a poster campaign. It greases the wheels for kids and adults to apply school standards in a moment of crisis or indecision - whether the issue is cheating or bullying.

The Sizers claim that such a process is frequently alien to kids. "A lot of kids have never been asked to think hard about the rules," Ted says. "They're not asked to think hard about important things, much less to have the habit of thinking about important things."

And that goes back to the issue of conditions. The Sizers are adamant about the need for schools - or schools within schools -that are a manageable size. "Nothing significant will happen unless schools are organized so that every child is known well," Ted says. "The typical high school is excessively rushed, and a character-ed program or sermon goes for naught if the culture denies the likelihood of it happening."

School violence has put the spotlight on such problems. If there's a positive outcome, Ted adds, "it's to make us stop and say, 'Let's look at human connections and common values more carefully, and respect the complexity of it all.' "

Teaching a 'worthy' way of life

"We have a profound moral contract with our students. We insist, under the law, that they become thoughtful, informed citizens. We must - for their benefit and ours - model such citizenship. The routines and rituals of a school teach, and teach especially about matters of character.

"In the end, we teachers and other adults who care about children should attend to even the humblest of these actions and these dangers, so that we may teach our students - and ourselves - a worthy way of life."

- From 'The Students Are Watching' by Ted and Nancy Sizer


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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