Book Notes for My Future Selves: Horace’s Compromise by Ted Sizer

This is my first post in the series. For background, read this.  Subsequent posts will all be here.

As soon as I joined the planning team for Harvest, I knew that I had to re-read Horace’s Compromise, the book that made me want to work in schools in the first place (here’s a piece I wrote about Ted Sizer’s influence on me when he passed away a few years ago).  Ten years ago, I was struck by its audacity and radicalism. Today, I’m struck by its conservatism and its prescription given the direness of its prognosis.

For me the “School Designer”

  • “For most adolescents, two incentives are dominant.  They want the high school diploma, and they want to respect themselves and be respected.  High schools will be effective to the extent that they design their policies and practices around these two powerful stimuli” (59).
  • Sizer reminds me that schools should do four things and nothing else: help students develop skills (through coaching), gain knowledge (by telling), develop understanding (by questioning), and attain decency.
  • We need to figure out ways to measure ourselves according to these questions: “Can graduates of this high school teach themselves?  Are they decent people?  Can they effectively use the principal ways of looking at the world, ways represented by the major and traditional academic disciplines?” (131).

For me the “Professional Developer”

  • In light of the four things schools do, I need to help teachers set reasonable goals for their classes in these areas, and help them choose the right teaching activities for each goal.

For me the “Advocate”

  • All my prescriptive writing should probably fall back on this clear description of what it takes to make schools work so students learn: “Above all, examination of the basic triangle [of student, teachers, and subject/content] will demonstrate the importance of incentives–the fuel that drives students and teachers.  If the goals for students are clear (‘These are the areas you need to master for your diploma’) and relevant (‘Succeeding at your graduation exhibition will honestly demonstrate that you can use your mind and knowledge rigorously and imaginatively’), student energy, much more often than not, will be productively focused.  If teachers are given autonomy and held ultimately accountable for the work of their students — in itself a gratifying compliment — they will perform to the best of their imaginative ability.  Equally important, the career of teacher will become more attractive than it is now.  Talented people seek jobs that entrust them with important things.” (213)

For me the Teacher/Advisor

  • “Any school of integrity, public or private, secular or religious, should try to help its students become decent people.  This is an appropriately limited objective: the values that a young man or woman learns to adopt should come from many quarters, among which the family is prominent and the school of lesser influence.  Decency denotes satisfaction of a widely understood and accepted standard and, as such, it is limited.  Going beyond such a threshold standard — that is, setting schools on a course to run out philosopher-kings or moral revolutionaries — is as repugnant as it would be impossible” (121).

Sizer, Theodore. Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.

Responses or questions to any of the notes/quotes are very welcome and appreciated


One thought on “Book Notes for My Future Selves: Horace’s Compromise by Ted Sizer

  1. ” Equally important, the career of teacher will become more attractive than it is now. Talented people seek jobs that entrust them with important things.” (213)”

    Admins forget and managers of all professions often fail to realize this. It is the cornerstone of rebuilding the teaching profession. We, as teachers, need to take back our responsibility and creativity in solving problems.


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