Spotlight on Justice

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Spotlight on Justice

Barbara Sizemore: Advocate for Social Responsibility through Education

Long before Democrats and Republicans began debating about the merits of public versus private education, Dr. Barbara A. Sizemore had begun to express an interest in raising the academic achievement of African American students in poor urban settings. An advocate for community-controlled schools and a highly structured curriculum, she was hired to run the politically and financially troubled schools in the District of Columbia, where she served as their first African American female superintendent. Her tenure in D. C. proved to be troubled and somewhat short lived, however, for she left the superintendent’s position under pressure percolated by philosophical differences with D.C.’s Board of Education.

After her less than graceful exit from D.C., Sizemore began teaching at DePaul University in Chicago and later became dean of the University’s school of education. She took a controversial stand on the use of standardized tests, which she referred to as “the new lynching tool.” She made it known that one of her goals as a university educator was to beat the system at its own game. Thus, in opposition to many popular pedagogical theories of the day, her campaign became focused on helping African American children improve their scores on standardized tests. All other educational concerns appeared to take a back seat to this emphasis. Helping students do well on standardized tests eclipsed other concerns.

In 1994, Sizemore started a program called School Achievement Structure (SAS). The process included 10 routines she developed to help intervene in failing schools and boost student success. Over time, the process was adopted by 30 schools in the city of Chicago. Sizemore gained a reputation for taking over schools that no one else wanted and making them work. While the Chicago Public School System lauded her approach to school improvement, not everyone supported her efforts.

Sizemore’s program was not without its controversies. She contended that practices like cooperative learning and using whole-language for reading and writing instruction–which downplay phonics and skills—didn’t have much success with low-income children attending racially isolated schools in impoverished neighborhoods. She said such processes worked with middle-class children who come to school already reading and with students who already possess the social skills to flourish in classrooms that give them plenty of choices.

Her critics, on the other hand, disagreed and did not believe that raising test scores should be the prime mover in an educational program for low-income children. These critics favored small, intimate family-like settings that gave students time and space to build trusting relationships within the learning community. Such schools, they contended, promoted social justice and self-determination. In small schools involving parents, teachers, students, and other stakeholders as equal, caring partners in the learning process, test scores were bound to increase, according to Sizemore’s critics.

Although both Sizemore and her critics advocated for promoting social responsibility within the school system by closing the achievement gap between the rich and the poor, their strategies for attaining the goal diverged on many key methodological points. Sizemore’s approach emphasized test performance. The critics emphasized attending not only to the test but also, simultaneously, to the social, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs of children.

The jury is still out on which methods work best, and the debate continues. But Sizemore has left her mark on education in Chicago Public Schools. She died July 24, 2004, at her home in Chicago. She was 77 years of age.

Read more about this educational pioneer.


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