The Students Are Watching
Schools and the Moral Contract
Schools exist to change people, argue husband and wife Theodore and Nancy Sizer in The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract, their first coauthored book. They maintain that if we intend for children to learn and grow while they attend school, then change is inevitable. Drawing on their school experiences as teachers and administrators and on observations culled from countless visits to schools across the United States, the Sizers illustrate the ways that schools formally and informally teach the lessons that change students. In contrast to other books concerned with moral education, The Students Are Watching does not espouse a particular curriculum or pedagogy. Instead, it aims to promote thoughtfulness on the part of school people.
The Sizers structure this volume according to a series of verbs. After arguing that the nouns schools regularly use to set out their moral education goals — respect, integrity, and the like — are too large to be properly approached, they proffer several verbs that describe the practices, some real and some desired, of U.S. secondary schools. These verbs — modeling, grappling, bluffing, shoving, sorting, and fearing — are also the chapter titles and are intended to show how the design of schools can hinder or promote moral growth. Unlike other books about morality and youth, The Students Are Watching does not lambaste schools, teachers, and/or students for so-called immoral acts, but instead illustrates, through a series of vivid anecdotes, how the traditional structure of secondary schools, despite the best intentions of educators, can make real growth, learning, and change difficult for students. For example, the Sizers demonstrate compellingly that the huge teaching loads carried by most teachers in most schools mean they cannot know their students well. Structural changes that allow close relationships between teachers and students, the Sizers argue, would benefit the intellectual and moral growth of students. “Nothing is more important than that each student is known well and that the people who know each student have the authority and flexibility to act on that knowledge” (p. 110). One particular example, that of Dick Tomasino in the “Fearing” chapter, exemplifies this point clearly. Worried that his students are not keeping up with their reading, Dick threatens the class with a test of the book’s content. This threat propels some students to action, while it effectively paralyzes others. Dick’s huge teaching load makes it impossible for him to know which students are propelled by fear and which are shut down, and he therefore cannot know how best to motivate students or how to help them contend with imposed external pressures.
In addition to demonstrating how a school’s structure and practice can hinder student learning, the Sizers make clear other powerful lessons students learn from the structures of their schools and from the practices and actions of their teachers. For instance, what is the lesson when students are taught to call the custodian by his first name and the teachers by their last names? Or, what do students learn when their teacher, due to the overwhelming nature of her job, is forced to limit her preparation for class?
The structure of U.S. high schools is not regularly submitted to scrutiny. Instead, we take for granted the eight-period day, the traditional disciplines, the unnamed lunch lady. Many of the practices, and indeed the lack of scrutiny itself, offer students powerful lessons — some good, but many bad. A closer study of the habits of schooling might well benefit our students. The Sizers successfully show their readers that moral education is not a separate curriculum, but is instead deeply embedded in the life of a school.