Saturday, December 27, 2008

A tale of the New Progressivism (dedicated to Harry M.A. Hart, wherever he may be)

My "progressive education" Google Alert continues daily to dredge up bits and pieces of vituperation aimed at various individuals' odd notions of what progressive education is and why it is to be blamed for the end of civilization as we know it. (I've also noticed that some of the nuttier blogs are actually cloned and published wholesale under different authors' names, a practice that seems to me at odds with moralistic indignation; but then, I voted for Obama, apparently a sign of the feebleness of my own moral fiber. I recently read a piece that seemed, in a masterpiece of ahistorical thinking, to conflate the ideas of the president-elect with those of Horace Mann [1796-1859] "and the Harvard Unitarians" as being responsible for the putative evils of the self-esteem movement.)

But I'm not here to talk politics but rather to take the coming rollover of the calendar as an excuse to tell the tale of my conversion to the New Progressivism.

You'd have to look fairly hard to find anyone with better Traditional credentials than mine. My grandfather and father both taught Latin, English, and History in an age and in schools where they didn't talk about Roman families, contemporary literature, or the history of places that hadn't been part of either the Roman or British empires. In the boarding school where they both spent the bulk of their careers, the key word was "structure," and it was a rare hot evening that was truly hot enough for the proctors of the evening study hall--as teachers, they were called "masters"--to permit the boys to remove their suit jackets. There were plenty of good times and good fun, but education was Old School; Thomas Arnold would have recognized it all, right into the early 1990s, when my father retired.

I learned about teaching and school from these men in this place, even before I entered elementary school. Even in that nice pink brick 1950s edifice, the teaching was traditional. My first and second-grade teacher had taught my father, and most of my teachers had lived through the Depression. We diagrammed sentences and learned long-division the old-fashioned way, whatever that was, and when in seventh-grade I was ready for the selective independent day school my father had chosen for me, I was more or less ready.

The next six years of all-male schooling included more diagramming, more "Sir"-ing the masters, study halls in rows of desks bolted to the floor, and a series of gimlet-eyed old fellows (okay, there was a notably brilliant woman who was invited to teach our tenth-grade English class as an "experiment") who had us toe-ing the line in all respects as they prepared us for our destinies in all-male, Ivy League universities. In time, this would come to pass.

After college and graduate school, I began my teaching career at my father's school, but left shortly and completed my apprenticeship and began my journeyman years at two more all-male, pretty traditional New England schools. It was only a rash move born of personal desperation (I had just earned my "Ask Me About My Boarding School Divorce" t-shirt) that brought me to the progressive school I now inhabit, but even then my traditional leanings and experience served me well; in the post-Permissive early 80's, a teacher with Old Timey chops meant one less headache for administrators.

And so the 1980s rolled to a close, and I was a fairly experienced teacher of history and occasionally English. My textbooks were my curriculum and vice versa, and I had somewhere encountered Bloom's Taxonomy and so was able to construct some pretty clever and intentional assignments and tests. I was surely set to carry on into my Sunset Years, a Mr. Chips-to-be generally liked by students and congenial with colleagues and (generally) to bosses. I was happy; the rhythm of the years was regular, and I could only agree with an older colleague who observed, "It's always the same script; just the cast of characters changes."

I look at that period as something of Golden Age, but it would proved brass quite soon, I think. Fortunately, an older colleague--a man I didn't know well but who for some reason picked me--handed me in 1992 a cassette tape of Grant Wiggins presenting his landmark "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance" at the NAIS Annual Conference, probably in 1991. The man who gave me this treasure is the dedicatee of this piece.

One day as I was driving in the northeast part of our state I stuck the cassette in the deck, and for the first and only time in my life I had a "Paul on the road to Damascus" experience. After a few minutes, I had to pull off the road so that I could concentrate on what I was hearing.

From the dashboard of my car I heard Wiggins's voice telling me that everything I thought about "curriculum" and grading, and the purposes of education was, if not wrong, hopelessly off the mark, but that there were new and better ways of thinking about all of it. "Planning backwards," "rubrics," "authentic assessment"--these terms, as Wiggins defined them in swift, broad strokes, were the essence of a new mantra that could change my entire approach to teaching. It wasn't about content, it was about understanding, and students could be engaged in the process not because clever teachers could entertain them into learning but because thoughtful, intentional teachers could pose questions and create learning experiences that would naturally lead students toward knowledge. There were even "habits of mind" that could be defined and used as goals for learning.

I became a Wiggins junkie, and soon enough I heard about Project Zero and a whole host of other educational think-tanks and individual thinkers who were thinking about teaching and learning in new ways. I was lucky enough to be working in a school that was suddenly open, with a change of leadership, to these ideas. In time I was a department chair and the head of a curriculum committee that was given carte blanche (more or less) to look for great new ideas about education that could be incorporated into our work with the simply stated goal of "reaching every student." I served for seven years as academic dean, charged with building up a body of practice and a school culture that was based on the ideas I came to call The New Progressivism. My career has been the better for it, certainly, but most importantly, so has my teaching and all my work with students.

We've fought hard at our school to remind parents, students, and even sometimes ourselves that New Progressivism is about challenging work, deep understanding, and high standards, and we don't jump at every new idea that comes down the pike. Our teachers are expert curriculum designers who understand student-centered education, but they are also hard-nosed practitioners and promoters of their own disciplines. If our students have high self-esteem, it is because they earn it by hard work and authentic achievement.

The New Progressivism is not about fluff, or relativism, or feeling good and knowing nothing. It is about giving students the tools to think hard and critically about the work they do and the world they inhabit, and it is about demanding that they develop a set of intellectual values--habits of mind, or intellectual character--based on the active, critical application of intelligence and keen values-driven moral judgment.

So, that's my journey from traditional to New Progressivist education.

If an older guy feeling a bit reflective can be indulged for another sentence or two, I'd like to suggest that if my forebears had the benefit of the insights of Wiggins and the other apostles of the New Progressivism, perhaps they would have embraced them as joyfully as I did. At heart, you see, my grandfather, father, and I have all been pretty dedicated to doing the best we can to help our students do the best they can. The aims of the two approaches, at their best, aren't really so different.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Origins of The New Progressivism

That we are in the era of The New Progressivism occurred to me a few years back, when I whipped up the following presentation to kick off a professional development event. (It's clear that I could perhaps have used one of those Edward Tufte seminars on PowerPoint design, but that's another story.)

The point here is pretty clear, I hope: that New Progressives draw on their forebears for a number of basic values and ideas, but that a mindless devotion to the dicta and practices of Dewey et al. is not what we're all about.

For example, a good part of the focus of the New Progressivism is on curriculum and assessment, with standards playing a large role in this work. While the Old Progressives would applaud this, I think it's safe to say that their understanding of asssessment, in particular, was rudimentary in comparison to the work that both theorists and classroom educators have been doing in this area for a decade or more. Very early educational progressives were also much more interested in the idea of differentiation as a social tool--to enable educational stratification that would support a more intentional separation of students based on vocational potential (for lack of a better term)--than as a pedagogical tool to help all students succeed at a high level; exceptions to this notion did exist, of course.

Anyhow, this show marks the first appearance in my work of New Progressivism as a concept; it was three years later that what I saw as the pervasively New Progressivist content of the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference inspired my Education Week essay.

The "Third Culture" idea was an attempt to put a name on the idealistic expectations we have for the comportment and belief structures of our students--that in school, and we hope because of school, students will aspire to a more intellectually engaged approach to the world at large and a more socially and ethically circumspect approach to novelty and difference. This set of behaviors represents a "third culture" after the First Culture of the dominant popular culture (think South Park, perhaps) and the Second Culture of their own household and family heritage. The idea needed more work then and still does, but it is an attempt to come up with a shorthand way of discussing the values proposition (!) that progressive education seems to be espousing in the 21st century.


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Progressive School Challenge, Take II

A week or so ago I posted under the title "Is your school progressive?" a kind of Progressive School Challenge, seeking examples of truly progressive practices of the sort that might aggregate to a functional definition of The New Progressivism. So far: a response from a single school.

I repeat the challenge here so that any school or school person interested in submitting--just use the "Comment" form below.

"Let's look at the question, "Is your school progressive?" Here is my challenge to readers:

List three (3) pervasive practices at your school that you would deem progressive; these cannot be practices that exist in only a few classrooms or program areas. Justify your list, citing specific philosophical progressives sources and or practical progressive inspiration. You may also submit documentary evidence (or links to it) such as the school's mission statement, published values, and standards for effective teaching.

I also am of the opinion that effective progressive education doesn't happen by accident. And of course my proposed certification process violates the most excellent Coalition [of Essential Schools] Principle of school being a place of unanxious expectations.

I am looking forward to building a list of self-nominated progressive schools and to some great discussion of the nature of progressive practice."

For those interested in reading the full post in which the challenge was presented, here is the link.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

TEXT: "The New Progressivism is Here"

Since the available links to the article that started it all (see sidebar) all seem to require subscriptions or memberships, here is the article in its entirety, as published in Education Week On-line as "Commentary," April 29, 2008:

The New Progressivism Is Here

In February, I joined nearly 7,000 other educators at a revolutionary gathering in New York City. Probably few in attendance would have characterized the meeting as such, but the discourse, from main themes to individual workshops, was radically different from most mainstream American conversations about education. It promoted educational ideals that combined conventional practice with innovation from the leading edge of educational theory.

Yes, this year’s annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools —an organization many readers may envision as a bastion of elitism and hidebound pedagogy—felt like a countercultural force.

Ever since President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education proclaimed the country A Nation at Risk, 25 years ago this month, the United States has been in the grip of educational forces that are equal parts zealotry and hypocrisy. The zealots have decried “progressive” ideas as the root of all educational evil, from the “collapse” of standards to the enfeebling of character-formation by moral relativism and “multiculturalism.” The hypocrites, meanwhile, have determined that the education systems that produced them could never mass-produce “common” citizens. In compromise, the two sides both have embraced a test-driven, three-Rs-focused, teacher-loathing model of schooling, most succinctly represented by the doublespeak of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Over the same period of time, educational thinkers and a host of individual teachers have developed a body of practice that, when properly executed, addresses the concerns of both zealots and hypocrites. These are approaches to teaching and learning that I call the New Progressivism. Untrammeled by state regulation and the need for instant political accountability, independent schools have become the test bed for the New Progressivism. If the NAIS conference was “about” any single thing, it was a quiet celebration of this New Progressivism.

As represented in the practice of many independent schools, the New Progressivism has features that combine proven instructional techniques with efforts to prepare students for a globalized, diverse, and complex world. The essential characteristics are these:

Assessment against high standards. Along with their strong emphasis on basic skills, these schools have always been known for high standards, which are hallmarks of the New Progressivist curriculum. Drawing on the ideas of scholars and experts such as Howard Gardner, Grant Wiggins, and Robert Sternberg, New Progressives design crafted, purposeful classroom experiences and assessments using those standards as benchmarks of excellence. Examples include “planning backwards,” varied assessment strategies, project- and problem-based learning, and envisioning textbooks and teachers as resources, rather than as the curriculum itself or general founts of all knowledge.

Professional development. New Progressives believe in mission-driven professional development and a collaborative professional culture. Thoughtful induction and mentoring programs bring new teachers into communities of professional practice, while goals-based evaluation programs build teacher capacity. While it is true that independent schools’ overwhelmingly nonunionized teaching staffs may be more easily brought into line with institutional expectations, all schools can learn from their recruiting and training programs, which build committed faculties with a common set of skills, ideals, and approaches.

Real-world connections. Using their own communities as resources, or having students explore the wider world through projects, research, or even travel, New Progressives are committed to having students build understandings beyond the boundaries of their own world. The independent-school dean Nadine Nelson, a diversity expert, speaks of the “all-terrain kid,” a student prepared to engage with new issues and challenges and quick to understand and accommodate to new situations and cultural norms.

Multiculturalism as a process, not a program. New Progressives believe in creating communities whose members can connect, in every aspect of their education, across differences in race, culture, religion, ability, and way of being. “Multicultural” understandings and a commitment to human rights and social justice do not grow out of reactive or didactic teaching, but flow naturally through the curriculum and through all interactions within the learning community.

Character and creativity. Like the Deweyite Progressives who spoke of “the whole child,” New Progressivism inspires and rewards personal integrity, empathy, hard work, optimism, collaboration, and access to the creative self, along with the ability to reflect on experience and analyze one’s own ways of learning and knowing. Character lessons associated with winning and losing—plus the virtues of competition, teamwork, supreme effort, and physical fitness—have long been part of the independent school tradition of mandatory athletics. Whether secular or faith-based, New Progressivist schools, rather than teaching moral relativism, help students discover and strengthen deep and abiding personal values.

Likewise, progressives have always valued the aesthetic sense as well as the ability to think and feel originally and purposefully. In New Progressive schools, the arts are accorded respect, resources, and recognition of their value. Their students are also encouraged to exercise and develop creativity in other areas, from playing fields to research projects.

Civic engagement. John Dewey believed that education must prepare students to become informed and effective participants in democratic society. New Progressives find ways for students to discover the power of individual agency through service, advocacy, and leadership. Most independent schools are explicitly values-based, and their students are expected to discover ways to put these values to work for the common good.

Technology as tool. New Progressives have been both early adopters of emerging technologies and early skeptics about technology’s promise. They understand that technology is only a tool, albeit an often potent one, to enhance learning by freeing the mind for more interesting and worthy challenges.

Each of the several thousand independent schools represented at the conference had its own mission, culture, and history, but in February we found ourselves united by a sense of a collective mission. Historically, our schools have considered themselves aspiring utopias, intentional communities with the highest academic and personal standards that are also highly desirable places to learn or teach. Although some have been cautious in embracing the New Progressivism (and many still shy away from the “P” word and its residue of ’60s-era associations), the buzz at the conference was all about what one participant described as “the message that business as usual isn’t going to be good enough any more.”

With educators filling Radio City Musical Hall to hear messages of radical change from Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink, and the conference program knee-deep in sessions focused on sustainability, service, global education, diversity, and emerging technologies, it was clear that the ideals of the New Progressivism have taken root.

One does not have to believe that his or her students are “the leaders of tomorrow” to buy in to a philosophy of education that prepares them to enter higher education, the workforce, and civil society as innovative, flexible, and resourceful citizens and thinkers. Nor are independent schools the only places where such thinking prevails—many public schools and public school teachers are achieving extraordinary things with these same techniques. Together, these institutions’ successes should convince educational and political leaders to consider what the New Progressivism might mean for all schools, and all children.

© Peter Gow, 2008.


Monday, December 01, 2008

Is your school progressive?

I am asked quite often about progressive schools, and I nearly always disappoint them by failing to have a really good list at hand. I can always think of a few pretty radical places, a la Sudbury Valley (which my oldest child attended for some years), and then there are some pretty progressive chartered schools (I'm using the fussy term here in tribute to Clayton Christensen and the other authors of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. Schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools (see below) tend to be progressive by nature. I happen to think there are a whole lot of schools that have some very progressive things going on--in curriculum, in diversity and social justice ed, in sustainability/green initiatives, in global education, in student services--and so I think a list could be pretty long.

The other way to think about this question, I suppose, is to imagine a set of litmus test practices that would certify a school as progressive. I dare say most people interested in progressive principles could make up their own criteria.

For example, I noted with both pride and some amusement a few years back when our school became a "national affiliate" of the Coalition of Essential Schools that, based on the Coalition's assessment of the lengthy profile I posted as part of our membership, that we were a "very high implementing" Coalition school. We did this without ever having consciously set out to be a Coalition school or to explicitly embrace Coalition practices; we knew about the CES, of course, and we'd read Sizer and other authors with CES connections, but we were already doing what many schools had had to change course to accomplish.

In the end, what "progressive" means to me is what Christensen et al. call "student-centric" in all regards, but going beyond what I think they mean, because it feels as though most of what they have to say about school is really focusing on curriculum and instruction. The roots of New Progressivism, like the old, lie in the way the school thinks about and treats kids, and how the school acknowledges and manages difference, whether racial, cultural, spiritual, or philosophical.

"Progressive" also has a great deal to do with the nature of the professional culture among the adults and how the school sustains and develops its teaching faculty in the service of its students. Do teachers share practice, talk about teaching, and use the opportunity of being with one another in a learning community to grow as educators?

Progressive is about turning away from deficit models of student learning or character or behavior--about not being a KIPP school bent on correcting deficiencies in students' upbringing, I guess, but that's just one way of looking at what they do, I realize--and embracing the idea that there are ways to reach every student and that the job of teachers is to find those ways.

Progressive is about the school enthusiastically embracing the idea that its job is not to create graduates who fit some ideal model of an independent school graduate but who are the very best versions of their individual selves that they can be--and that these students understand and embrace a set of optimistic and activist human values. These values are themselves progressive in a social or even political sense--they must be about peace, understanding, justice, and moving and sharing across boundaries.

I don't think it's so bad to remind ourselves that the roots of progressive education lie in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's notion of human nature: that the individual is born with powerful tendencies for goodness, curiosity, and generosity of spirit, and that progressive education allows these innate moral traits to flourish as it minimizes the constraints that breed selfishness and apathy. The other side, that individuals are by nature weak and self-centered and cruel and that education's task is to systematically suppress these characteristics by imposing external and arbitrary moral order, is clear enough in its manifestations.

So here's a challenge to readers. Let's look at the question, "Is your school progressive?" Here is my challenge to readers:

List three (3) pervasive practices at your school that you would deem progressive; these cannot be practices that exist in only a few classrooms or program areas. Justify your list, citing specific philosophical progressives sources and or practical progressive inspiration. You may also submit documentary evidence (or links to it) such as the school's mission statement, published values, and standards for effective teaching.

I also am of the opinion that effective progressive education doesn't happen by accident. And of course my proposed certification process violates the most excellent Coalition Principle of school being a place of unanxious expectations.

I am looking forward to building a list of self-nominated progressive schools and to some great discussion of the nature of progressive practice.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Progressive architecture?

I work in a building that was designed and built in the 1920s, in its day a model of progressive school architecture and still a pretty nice place to teach and learn. Deep in our archives lies a long essay by one of the early trustees (not the architect), a hands-on Boston Brahman of an engineer who wanted to make certain that the new country day school's classrooms received the maximum amount of sunlight each day. To this end, he had even built a model that could be rotated relative to the elevation and declination of the sun at various times of day throughout the school year. Sunlight was reckoned to be good for kids in lots of ways, not in the least because it was the best available source of vitamin D, which prevented rickets, the scourge of upper and lower class city children whose exposure to sunshine was limited by custom in the case of the wealthy and necessity in the case of the working poor. (Now most of us get our vitamin D from milk, to which it has been added since the 1940s.)

Kids at our school were unlikely ever to get rickets, as on a sunny day the light in our original building is clear, bright, and in warm weather even a little bit relentless. Along the way, the salubrious effects of good and plentiful light make for a pleasant learning environment. The classrooms are still adequate in size for classes today, and the hallways, dining room, and other areas serve their purposes remarkably well after eighty-some years. Just as the fine light makes reading and working more pleasant than it might be in a less well-planned structure, so do our flexible modular tables and chairs make it painless for teachers to shift from small group work to seminars to lectures with only a few moments' redeployment of the furniture. Add wireless internet and built-in projection devices, and teachers and students can generally focus on the work and not on getting set up to do the work.

All in all, our school, like most older campuses, has been able to retrofit our spaces and classroom accoutrements to meet our needs. Most of this has been done incrementally, and we have adapted pretty happily. Our hallways, however, are often clogged with students doing small-group work outside their classrooms, and our meeting spaces are booked pretty solid. The elaborately designed 1960s science classrooms are still pretty good, but they could be better, and the multilevel library of the same vintage has both accessibility problems and, increasingly, functionality problems in a world moving from paper to electronic research. There are ways that we could imagine all of our spaces to be a bit more functional, a bit more friendly.

But our systems all still work, and work well enough in their way, but the retrofitting is becoming a bit more of a challenge. As our founders did, we have recognized the need for some new conceptions, and so we have completed a master plan and are pondering the best way to bring the new concepts of space and work into being.

The challenges of new technologies and new approaches to learning have us thinking hard about our lovely Georgian building, and they will pose the same issues for schools across the nation and the world. The rational, endlessly replicable rectangular classrooms filled with chairs and desks or tables have their place in the educational world, but new kinds of spaces are needed to serve 21st-century goals such as collaboration, new media literacy, digital communication, and even virtual or enhanced reality.

Now, architecture and design do not equate to learning, but I think it's pretty much undeniable that student-friendly design and easy access to necessary classroom resources and technologies can facilitate learning by de-stressing the process for students and teachers alike. In the next town over from our school they are building a new high school that will cost around $200 million; I hope this will de-stress the people in the school, although the pricetag has sure as heck stressed the community's taxpayers. Arguments will persist over the cost, but the town will have a state-of-the-art school building that has been meticulously planned to meet every conceivable educational need for the next decades; one also hopes that the planners have left enough flexibility to accommodate the things of which they didn't conceive.

This afternoon I came across a wonderful and provocative slideshow containing dozens of ideas about and examples of revised concepts of space in schools. Rather than present my own analysis and pontifications, I invite New Progressivism readers to have a look and then leave their own comments. There is some cool stuff here, and I think you will enjoy it:


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New assessments needed, now!

The news seems to be everywhere these days: We need some new kinds of assessments that will truly measure students' capacities to do work that matters. Yesterday Education Sector published a report called "Measuring Skills for the 21st Century," and today researchers at UCal Berkeley have released a report on the LSAT , suggesting that while that test may predict One-L performance, it could better be replaced with a different kind of law school admission test that might actually predict the performance of future lawyers. For a while now schools and colleges have had plenty to chew on from psychologist Robert Sternberg whose research into intelligence and its measurement has generated a number of new approaches to secondary school and college admission that are in use at schools as traditional as Choate Rosemary Hall and Phillips (Andover) Academy. Tufts University, where Sternberg is now the dean of Arts and Scientists, has added a number of essay questions to its application process with the purpose of eliciting evidence of creative and practical intelligence and moral reasoning to supplement traditional academic performance data such as grades and SAT or ACT scores.

Why we need better assessments—let's even call them tests, at least in the context of both admission and the macro measurement of academic achievement—seems obvious enough.The workforce requirements of a new age, even with the economy as flat at the moment as Thomas Friedman's globalized world, are going to favor those who possess both precise content knowledge and a mastery of basic intellectual processes—reading, computation, scientific reasoning, technique in its many forms—as well as creativity, problem-solving skills, the ability to reason and communicate from multiple perspectives, and the ability to work collaboratively in multiple contexts and across cultural boundaries. The SAT, state assessments, and your average math or history examination measure at most a few of these capacities, often in narrow or even absent contexts. A few tests go a bit deeper—some IB and AP examinations, the ACT—but all are constrained by the challenges of both accurate norming and consistent scoring of any answers that aren't laid out as a row of bubbles.

Classroom teachers have known this for decades, and the spread of new ideas about classroom assessment—projects, simulations, structured discussions, presentations, service-learning—is actually old news. But next schools and prospective colleges see evidence of this kind of assessment only second-hand, as it is embedded in letter grades or fleetingly described in letters of recommendation. What students are truly learning, even in New Progressivist schools, must usually be deduced or teased out of the data. Most schools haven't really figured out how to either measure or report deeper learning, especially in summative context.

Better measures are out there. The Education Sector cites the College Work and Readiness Assessment (CWRA), a handful of high quality, high standards simulations, and United Kingdom's Key Stage 3 Information Communications Technology Literacy Assessment, while the Aurora and Kaleidoscope batteries developed by Robert Sternberg's group are already in use. These tests at least approach the kind of holistic measurement of a range of capacities—including traditional content knowledge and skills—that will help schools continue to develop curriculum that meets the needs of a real world of work, civic engagement, and personal development.

For independent schools espousing New Progressivist ideals, using traditional private school admissions tests like the Secondary School Admissions Test and the Educational Records Bureau's Independent School Entrance Exam, even supplemented by batteries of annual tests of academic progress, limits assessment to only some of the skills and knowledge we want our students to be able to develop as they enter and pass through our programs. Schools need to acknowledge the need to be looking for new kinds of minds that are open to and prepared for learning experiences that go beyond what "old-style" tests measure.

The time seems right for many, many schools—not just the handful already using the CWRA or Kaleidosope—to actively seek out and incorporate the kinds of new assessments that measure a broad range of vital skills. Here again, independent schools have the gift of being able to freely try new ideas and to think proactively and deeply about the meaning and value of such assessments.

In the twentieth century independent schools were disproportionately the pilots of "old-style" testing—the SAT, the Advanced Placement program. In an age where there were few mechanisms for identifying intellectual talent, these tests (born in part of the confidence that the early Progressives placed in psychometric testing as holding the key to human potential) served their purpose. But in a world gone mad with state assessments and where "test prep" and "teaching to the test" have become part of a college admission climate in which the term "gaming the system" is heard all too frequently, those tests and their ilk are headed the way of the dodo.

Now it is time for a new generation of educational leaders to grab hold of what we already know about intelligence and about the needs of a changing society and find ways to apply the promise of psychometrics in whole news to a new era in educational assessment.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Some alarming views of "progressive education"

I promise this will be short.

For the past few weeks I've had a Google Alert set to "progressive education" just to trawl the net and see what's going on.

I'm not going to dignify the Alert sites I've been given with links or specific citations, but those of us in the business of educating progressively might take note of a disturbing trend. In the post-election world, there seems to be a strange coalescence on the paranoid right of people who include "progressive education" in a list of bizarre social evils they expect to emerge in an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it Obama America. "Progressive education" (I'm going to keep the term in quotation marks as their usage, not mine) seems to equate with socialism, One Worldism, totalitarianism, and a host of other "black helicopter" fantasies. Out there in the reactionary blogosphere, "progressive education" is apparently seen as depriving our children of individual identity and individual will in the service of a set of social beliefs ranging from atheism to a love of abortion to heaven-knows what else.

Apparently much of this stems from reading John Dewey's comments on education as having a social purpose; apparently any "social purpose" is equated with the worst kind of "social engineering," in which citizens are stripped of free choice in every area by a controlling state. The people become zombies. The rest seems to come from any educational initiative (or school assignment, for that matter) that asks students to offer an opinion on pretty much anything. In an intellectual contortion whose irony confounds me, these folks assert that asking children to express their own ideas and thoughts--to suggest that opinion or point of view may be relative or held by the individual--is equivalent to taking away their freedom to give their allegiance to absolutes; thus "relativism" = fascism. These ultraconservative opinion-givers (yet another irony) have their own notions of what is absolute (and therefore correct), and any educator who allows students to differ or even to construct their understandings through reason and experience (yet another pernicious Dewey idea, apparently) is guilty of this kind of social engineering.

Now, how anyone can reach these conclusions is beyond me, but the writings to which my Google Alert has pointed me in the last few weeks certainly underscore how poorly educators have communicated with the general public in, say, the last century. If schools embracing New Progressivist ideals shy away from using the P word, they are perhaps not to be blamed if this is the context in which the word is coming to be used. Oddly, independent schools have taken leading roles in ideals like "social justice education," which seems to give the ultraconservatives hives, and yet they are all about school choice, citing private schools as far more desirable than public education.

In the end, I don't entirely get it, but it's there, and it's a bit scary when 3 out of 4 of my Alerts in a day cite bloggers who label what I do and believe in as a kind of absolute moral evil. It's sadder, still, that these folks somehow see the recent election as a first step in establishing a kind of global fascism in which progressive education plays a leading, terrible role. I've read the first volume of the Left Behind series, and I guess I can see where some of this "end of days" talk is coming from in the minds of some, but it is really pretty creepy.

At points in the past I have wished that my own school didn't use the word "progressive" to describe itself, in part because the word always seems to demand functional definition. But I don't think I'd ever want to avoid the term out of fear of being associated with black helicopters.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A mandate for hard work

It has to be the greatest headline I've read in a long time: "Election Unleashes a Flood of Hope Worldwide." The New York Times article on global response to the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president certainly mirrors local reaction among the educators and students where I work.

One of the words I have not heard very often regarding the election, however, is "mandate." A few years back any election that involved a simple plurality was hailed by the victor as a mandate, and yet, in this decisive year, pundits and politicos alike have refrained from its use.

But, idealist that I am, I do believe that this election was a mandate. However, I like to believe that the mandate was not for Barack Obama and his supporters to rule but rather for something deeper, and ultimately far more potent: the election was a mandate for the American people to pull up our socks and start working together to address the challenges that face us.

On the educational front the challenges are clear and the list of failed attempted solutions long. More and more public school children are being left behind as failure and drop-out rates soar while the teaching of real content is being abandoned in favor of year-long exercises in standardized test preparation as schools scramble to keep their increasingly meager funding and teachers sell their creative pedagogical souls in order to keep their jobs and their tiny raises. Teacher unions are caught between supporting real academic change that teachers know will help their students and defending their members from bad external initiatives and public attack; in a particularly vicious self-fulfilling prophecy, the more unions are seen as defensive, the more they are regarded as working against the interest of change, and of kids, and the more this seems to become the case.

In a cruel twist that is hardly surprising because it has become an American tradition, it is private and independent school students in more or less unregulated schools who thrive and proceed onward to four-year colleges in numbers vastly disproportionate to the percentage of American students they represent. The reasons for this are clear: not only are students at these schools more consistently (and often heavily) funded, they are often the children of relatively affluent parents whose commitment to and understanding of the educational process is high from the start. As socioeconomic classes have become increasingly stratified in the time of George W. Bush, the gap between material haves and have-nots has become an even greater gap between educational haves and have-nots.

But there are other reasons. As schools of choice, private schools and the subset of independent schools that are usually the intended subject matter of this blog, are privileged to allow their teachers to teach as they see fit and to develop strategies for engaging students--and families--in what at their best are true learning communities. Few licensure or standardized testing requirements trouble these schools, and accreditation agencies usually have little trouble giving their imprimatur to their work. Similarly, colleges accept their students in bulk and prospective families (many of whom can pay, but not all--financial aid improves access to many schools even for the poorest families) line up to fill empty seats.

Furthermore, these schools are free to pick and choose from among the best educational practices available. Guided by school-determined missions, their faculties and administrations can use any means necessary to serve student bodies they know well both as people and as learners. They need not fear including substantial elements of "character education" or learning focused on civic engagement into their programs, nor do they shy away from considering the arts and even athletic competition as part of a holistic learning experience.

Independent schools are seen as so desirable that "school choice" and voucher activists continue to work for ways to allow public funds to be used toward tuitions at such schools. For many reasons, such schools represent a kind of ideal to many families.

I think that one could argue as to whether freedom from regulation has been a cause or an effect of independent schools' relative success; as long as their students appear to thrive by conventional measures, there is little perceived need to control their work by such unconventional measures as annual testing or Adequate Yearly Progress reports. No one worries whether the science faculty at schools who send their students off to the most selective colleges are certified.

If President Barack Obama and the 111th Congress want to improve America's educational system, it is time to turn away from the failures of No Child Left Behind and the absurdities of hyperregulation. They need to invest the public--eager for real change--and their supporters in the teachers' unions in a program of educational reform that mimics not an industrial, one-size-fits-all model but rather the independent schools that have a proven and sustained record of success.

Along with a return to local control of schools in the context of a real effort to develop curricula that will prepare students for college and the 21st-century workforce, this would mean
* increasing funding for teacher education programs that support both subject-matter knowledge and real pedagogical and curriculum-development expertise, including finding ways to provide incentives for the most able students to enter these programs;
* encouraging all schools to create serious, mission-driven professional development programs designed to bring faculties together as communities of practice;
* looking around the world for model programs that bring families and schools together in the common cause of educating children well;
* instituting universal pre-school and kindergarten programs that focus on both cultural and pre-textual literacy skills that will prepare all students to read and succeed from early elementary years forward;
* abandoning mass-production standardized testing and replacing it with authentic and in-depth assessment that rewards real understanding, real knowledge, and the skills and habits of mind necessary for educational and vocational success in our century; such assessment is necessarily built by teachers and schools and is keyed to educational goals they set, informed by the most current research in education, cognition, and societal needs as well as knowledge of their own students and missions; and
* making access to college and top-flight pre-professional training available and affordable for all students.

Conservatives should rejoice that these proposals don't even require adding to a federal bureaucracy, although some of them cost money that will probably have to come from a combination of local, state, and federal sources. There's no real need for a department of education here, even, although I think that education is so critical that I can't conceive of the federal government not playing at least a clearing-house and advocacy role in education reform.

I began this blog in my belief in the value of a set of practices that I call the New Progressivism and which have obtained wide currency in independent schools. I believe that these practices, detailed elsewhere but implicit in the policy recommendations listed above, can save American education and American children, even in the lowest-performing schools.

The election should give heart not only to educators, but also to students, families, and citizens at large, but we need to recognize that the mandate is for all of us to embrace new and not-so-new ideas that can really bring change. I have presented a few of these, and, challenging as they might be to implement, I think that they could truly help make the kind of difference for which so many of us voted and which so many around the nation and around the world have been craving.


Saturday, November 01, 2008

Progressivism and Politics

I've had a number of people comment to me over the years on the connection between forms of education that are labeled progressive and a kind of liberal "slant" or "bias." Try as they might not to be, old-line progressive schools that hew to their heritage tend to be bastions of political liberalism. Why, I've been asked, must this be?

The answers lie both in history and in the philosophical meaning of liberalism, and the current election season seems to offer some illumination, although somewhat obliquely.

Here in New England there is suddenly a great deal of chatter about the end of "Yankee Republicanism," or what I knew growing up as Rockefeller Republicanism--a kind of fiscally conservative but generally libertarian approach to politics based on an ethic of civility, of profound respect for the Constitution, and of capitalism tinctured with enough regulation to prevent gross abuse. For better or for worse, this kind of Republicanism was the creed of Lincoln, of Theodore Roosevelt (the Big Stick walker and the trust buster), and of Ike. Its broadest premises were pretty benign, although it was always a creature of its time with regard to issues like race, the environment, and social justice. It kept its laws mostly out of bedrooms and its religion mostly out of laws. And it served the power brokers of the Northeast probably all too well for too long. Perhaps its imminent demise won't prove to be much of a loss.

I've been thinking about all this in the context of the deep philosophical roots of progressive education, which go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's and even earlier notions of human capacity and human perfectability. Student-centered education with constructivist notions of curriculum and the power of inquiry presuppose, necessarily, that children are innately capable not only of acquiring knowledge but also that they will do so naturally when placed in circumstances in which they are allowed to exercise their own will. On the simplest level, progressive education is based on the idea that children are inherently positive, inherently curious, and inherently good. Guided by the gentlest of hands, children will learn well and be good as they do so.

Truly progressive schools not only subscribe to this belief, but they also tend to be built around missions that are themselves positive and idealistic, even utopian. The doctrine of perfectability, whether spiritual or secular, is that people can achieve profound of moral and ethical goodness if they are placed in the right circumstances; progressive schools are intentional communities, aspiring utopias if you will--nothing less than places of "right circumstances" for the perfection of children.

As recently as a generation ago the opposite pole in education styled itself "traditional." Proudly coercive in its methods, traditional education took as its philosophical guide Thomas Hobbes and embraced the idea that children were something akin to untamed savages in a state of nature (imagine Lord of the Flies) who needed rules administered by firm hands to keep their worst impulses in check. Learning was not a matter of appealing to curiosity but of defeating sloth and laziness by the sometimes violent inculcation of rote knowledge and didactic moral teaching. Traditional schools might express great aspirations, often expressed in terms of the requirement that students subjugate themselves to the will of the school for its greater glory; the most successful individual students might then bask in the reflected glow of this glory. The beauty of the traditional model was that the notion of allegiance could be transferred upward to the university, the corporation, the faith, and the state.

I have painted too rosy a picture of progressivism and too bleak a picture of traditional education here, and I apologize. In both structures, the optimism of youth and the flexibility of the human spirit among both students and teachers have usually triumphed over ideology, and wonderful schools full of wonderful educators teaching wonderful kids in wonderful ways could be found on both ends of the spectrum of schools and school types that various iterations of these philosophies fostered.

Traditional education today, incidentally, seems to be a hollow shell of its former self. I'm sure there are a few schools that still operate on hard-core Hobbesian premises, but I'm going to guess that they generally exist in the 21st century as excretions of marginal ideologies, mostly political or religious. Traditional ideals seem to be most persistent in the spread of standardized testing, which most educators see as apart from their real work but which politicians and the public see as authentic and valid measurement of something important. A great many public schools have to devote time and energy to "teaching to the tests" in ways that would have been familiar a century ago and more even as their teachers learn of and yearn for better ways. Usually these are the ways of the New Progressivism., whose ideas have now become part of the philosophical landscape in most educational venues, even if they cannot always be found in practice.

This essay began with two seemingly unrelated premises: about "liberal bias" in progressive schools and the death of Rockefeller Republicanism in one region. The thread that ties them together, perhaps too obscurely, is a shared view of human nature. Just as Lincoln acknowledged "the better angels of our nature," progressive educators celebrate the better angels of our students' natures and insist on liberating these angels in the ways we teach and the ways we organize our schools. Historically, political Progressivism in the United States tended to grow out of the Republican Party, and the forward-thinking political reformers of the first quarter of the 20th century--the age of John Dewey educationally--were every bit as committed in their way to social justice and the full realization of positive human potential as are the most forward-thinking educators of today.

Although it's the belief I grew up with, I'm not going to miss Rockefeller Republicanism, but then I actually don't believe that it has gone away. Rather, I see the better angels of its nature enshrined in the finer ideals of the Democratic Party. As an educator, I also see in these ideals an identifiable version of the philosophical underpinnings of progressive education, both old and New.

If certain schools feel particularly political and "liberal," it is because for the hundred years since Dewey's heyday their ideals have been aligned with a set of philosophical principles that are educationally, socially, and, yes, politically progressive. It's almost inconceivable that a school built around these principles could be or could attract numbers of teachers and families who were anything but progressive. (Of course non-progressive teachers and families do become part of such schools, and they are often surprised to learn that they represent a portion of these schools' diversity; but they really shouldn't be shocked to find themselves in the minority. The hope and expectation is that in progressive classrooms and hallways a wide range of beliefs can be respectfully aired and discussed, and that progressivism should not be suppress diversity of thought. )

As an election nears that appears likely to put progressive politics on top for a while, it's worth a moment or two to consider the role of principles and ideals in education in general. Teaching kids is the most important work that humans can do, and doing it intentionally from ideals grounded in fundamental beliefs about human nature is critical. If we are in a time of the ascendancy of Rousseau, I think that's a pretty good thing. I don't think New Progressivists who share these beliefs have anything to apologize for, or that schools need to hide their commitment to ideals that may seem "liberal," if that's where their missions and values lie.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Teaching writing

I had a call from an old friend the other day who wanted me to write about the question, Why can't kids write about history? This teacher believes that students today have better and more sophisticated ideas about societies and the way they work and interact than the students she met earlier in her career, but she sees more and more of these bright, inquisitive, and creative students struggling to write well about history. Where are the facts, the evidence, she asks, that support all these good ideas? Aren't schools teaching old-fashioned analytical and expository writing any more?

These are great questions, and they are probably as old as formal education; one can imagine Roman tutors and medieval monks wringing their hands over the poor writing of their students.

I suppose there are a couple of millennia worth of good answers, but I think part of my friend's concern is that her school, like so many others, has long embraced progressive principles. Unspoken in her question is a century-old critique of progressive education in general: the idea that somehow "progressive" writing instruction focuses on narrative or on the experience and opinions of the writer far more than it does on the construction of classically defined and structured argument.

For what it's worth, I really dislike this issue, in no small part because I think there is some truth to the critique; the last three or four decades have been very much about helping young writers to discover their "voices" and to reflect on and write about their own experience, to the detriment, in some quarters, of solid expository writing. In addition, the essays that were once familiar reading in schools as models of the expository form (think Bacon or even Montaigne, for example) have died the cultural death that has come, often appropriately, to so many dead white males. Thoughtful, tightly written non-fiction has drifted out of our schools as textbooks and test-prep have wedged their way in. An AP Biology student doesn't have time to read the reflections of Lewis Thomas, for example, en route to scoring a 5 on the examination.

I like to believe that the New Progressivism offers some help here, by reminding teachers that there is nothing un-progressive or anti-child about high standards. If good formal writing involves the generation of a strong thesis, the amassing of supporting evidence, and then the use of that evidence to build a connected, internally consistent argument, students need to learn how to do this.

It's actually countercultural, for those who like to think of themselves as that. Pay even the slightest attention to the current presidential campaign and see how the discourse has been reduced to sound bites, unsupported assertions, and statements of opinion. A couple of years ago Stephen Colbert and his writers created the word "truthiness" to describe the idea that something must be true merely because someone says and repeats it emphatically enough. In his little tome On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt speaks to the unfortunate power of lies, including the Big Lie, to embed themselves in cultural consciousness enough to pass as truth, and of the increasing willingness of purveyors of ideas to depend on truthiness, or bullshit, to make their cases. I'm a big fan of Jon Stewart, but some nights I just want to deconstruct the program and derive and then lay out, with actual evidence, the points that The Daily Show makes and "proves" to its audience by implication, ironic reference, and even innuendo.

Therefore, it seems to me, there is something important and even urgent in teaching our students the classical structures of good expository writing and the paramount importance of supporting assertions not with more assertions but with actual facts. It's not hard to do this, although it may not be as much fun as assigning students the chance to probe their own psyches or to write deep short stories about dysfunctional families (that might resemble they way they view their own, as the families of bright adolescents so often do).

New models of great expository writing abound, and the pages of the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Seed, Slate, Orion, and a host of other fine print and online magazines are filled with it every week or month. Go back a couple of decades to the best work of John McPhee or Annie Dillard or the more recent writing of Seymour Hersh for more examples; politics, culture, and the environment continue to inspire some of the best expository writing of our day.

But I want students to be able to write compellingly and extremely well about history, and literature, and injustice in their own community, and the state of the environment. In part I want them to acquire this skill because it is satisfying, and because their college professors and future employers will appreciate it. I even want them to learn it because good writing reflects well on the schools and teachers--New Progressivist and otherwise--that foster its mastery.

Mostly, however, I want students to be able to write well because of the good ideas to which my friend referred. We are a world sorely in need of good ideas, but to prevail, theses ideas will need to be presented with strength and substance--the Age of Truthiness must end some day soon, and then we will be desperate for alternatives that are authentic and above all, supported by the facts. Someone is going to have to save the world, and I think it's going to have to be people who think cleverly and who are able to convery their ideas as well as they think.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Starting from scratch

A cool conversation today with some folks who are pondering adding a high school to their PreK-8 school in California. What a great project, and what a great opportunity!

The whole idea certainly raises some fascinating questions.

What if you could start from scratch in your own secondary school? What might you want to keep from your own school, or what would you jettison first? Programs, policies, schedules? Advanced Placement courses? Who would you bring with you, or who would you recruit?

Of course it all really depends on your mission, and what you are trying to accomplish. (There's that backwards planning thing, writ large--it works for designing schools as well as units.) But it's hard to imagine anyone with the nerve undertaking a project like this without having some underlying New Progressivist ideals; this is all about taking risks and thinking outside the box, to use two apt cliches.

I think I'd want to go thematic and project-based, at least for the first year or two, and use that structure to focus on the development of some key skills and habits of mind. Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts used to have a comprehensive ninth-grade program that did just that, dividing the year into units built around real-world problems that students went at using all the basic academic skills from quantitative reasoning--explicit in some algebra and geometry--to the humanities--lots of research and writing--to the arts, with plenty of opportunities for creative expression.

The problem with programs that stray far from the known, experience tells me, is that quite often these things are highly teacher-specific. A single teacher or an enthusiastic cadre develop a great plan from scratch. They understand it from every perspective, they believe in it, and they are confident enough in the idea to be supple in the application: little problems don't bother them, and they can anticipate and think around big ones. In time, though, the originators drop away, and what is left is a cool shell that no one quite gets as the founders did. Soon enough, the great program winds up on the scrap heap.

If you've been in schools for a while, make a mental list of great courses or great projects at your school or schools that have been born, thrived, and died. It might be quite sad; I remember "Project Time" at one of my old schools, where we took the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break and devoted the whole middle school curriculum to a theme--agriculture one year, Life in the U.S. in the 1840s another. The whole middle school faculty threw itself into the project with heart and soul, creating some wonderful curriculum and great experiences, but after a few years the whole thing was "just too time consuming," and it was scrapped. In fact, the founders had moved on, and no one left could explain the whole thing compellingly any more.

Great curriculum, perhaps, should come and go. Few great ideas are sustainable forever; even the hoariest of capstone projects or flagship courses must have evolved, responding to changing times, changing kids, and changing faculties.

Which raises the question, as I ramble on, of teacher-created curriculum. I know an educator who hates elective classes, seeing them as self-indulgent opportunities for teachers; but I know many more students whose intellects have been ignited in elective courses whose subject matter was indeed beloved of the teacher. Great, engaging, challenging, mind-blowing curriculum is, I think, unlikely ever to be teacher-proof--it simply must have something about it that engages the teacher, or it will never engage students. Whether the teacher loves the content, the pedagogical challenges, the values embedded in the material, or the exercise of trying to create great curriculum makes little difference.

So if I were starting from scratch, I'd be looking for some great, creative teachers--teachers who love their subject matter but love ideas more, who know more than a thing or two about curriculum, and who love teaching kids even more than they love ideas; of course, they'd also have to understand and love the mission of the school. I'd gather up a few of them even before I started worrying about schedules and policies. And what's more, I'd figure out how to give those teachers enough time and space, and not just at the beginning, to keep their creative juices flowing.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Memory--It's A Good Thing

Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain provides an amazing discussion of both the history and neuroscience of literacy. Wolf, a professor of neuroscience and child development at Tufts University, tells a compelling and sometimes moving story of how the human mind learned, as part of our social evolution, and learns, as children (usually) to read.

I found myself focusing on her analysis of Socrates’ objections to the use of the written word, and it gave me pause to think about how as self-styled “progressives” in our culture we sometimes devalue the ability to remember, recite, and construct cogent, thorough arguments from the stuff of our memory rather than from data amassed from texts. Sometimes the use of memory really is a good thing, and even New Progressivist educators need to acknowledge those places where memory, and memorization, can serve our students well.

Calculators, for example, are great things, but the automatic recall of basic math facts is better. Anyone who has proctored a PSAT or other standardized test has groaned (silently, of course) at the sight of students using their TI-83 graphing wizard machines to do the simple multiplication steps of a problem; it’s a waste of just about everything from battery power to time.

And technology proponents who glibly announce that students don’t need to memorize simple facts (historical dates are frequently cited as the kinds of “useless” memorization that schools impose on their students) because they can always “look them up” fail to adequately acknowledge the role that deeply embedded facts play in giving structure to the rich contexts that we progressive educators try to help students construct. That the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, for example, doesn’t mean much by itself, it is true, but it is essential in understanding the flow of the American Revolution toward alliance with France and ultimate victory. And why shouldn’t students have some basic knowledge of momentous dates in their nation’s history?

The 1776 datum is also useful in giving students an understanding that the Revolutionary War preceded the American Civil War, which came before World War I and the World War II. I fear I have discovered students in my own classroom who have struggled with this, and it’s the kind of thing that “Polls Show Americans Know Nothing” news stories delight in exposing. Obviously, it’s no longer necessary for chemistry students to memorize the periodic table or to have students master the monarchs of England in order, but some things are important to have learned by heart.

I’ll risk sounding both pedantic and fussy (maybe even Dickensian, for all I know) by suggesting that educators ought to reconsider the wonders of human memory and how it can be effectively harnessed as a tool not just for superficial learning but as part of matrix of elements that go into teaching for deep understanding.

And check out Proust and the Squid—it’s terrific!


Thursday, October 09, 2008


The headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education says it all, but unfortunately the article says even more: that among the early victims of the financial crisis as it plays out on college campuses is likely to be schools' sustainability efforts. What for many schools has been discretionary spending--"slushy," as one college sustainability officer quoted in the article describes the funding for her job--will be curtailed as smaller colleges focus more tightly on services deemed essential.

The public's attention seems at last to have been brought to the idea that environmental sustainability is a survival issue, and forward thinkers in the education community have begun to articulate a comprehensive, integrated vision of sustainability as a strategic educational direction. It's lamentable, and possibly more, that the immediacies of faculty salaries and plant maintenance may limit or put an end to what some colleges are trying to do, just at what looks so much like the ideal "teachable moment."

New Progressivist schools at the primary and secondary levels have taken a range of approaches to the issue of sustainability, from whole-hog commitment to environmental studies, environmental action, and campus sustainability to more measured, curriculum-focused efforts to teach students the complex interrelationships between the human and natural environments, the economy, social structures, and even the arts. The common element is the desire to help students develop an awareness of the impact of their own lives--and vice versa--on the places and cultural milieus in which they live.

Among the more sophisticated approaches to issues of sustainability is "place-based education," in which Tip O'Neill's adage that "all politics are local" is extended to a deep understanding of the way historical and natural forces have converged to shape specific communities. An intensive study of a single city block or rural stream can yield extraordinary amounts of information about the way people have lived, the ways they have regarded their environments, and the ways in which stewardship for place might yet lead us out of our political, social, economic, and climatic thickets.

Rather than let operational sustainability efforts peter out in our educational institutions, I like to think that progressive educators will see the current crisis as little short of a mandate to guide students in digging even deeper into what has made aspects of our society so patently un-sustainable; this may seem re-active, but the work has already been started and needs only to be expanded and supported. Through place-based education, through the incorporation of issues of social justice and economic theory into our curricula, and through an optimistic commitment to sustainability as a mantra for building a better world, let us work as educators to keep the concept alive and well.

We'd love to have comments or be able to add links here that would provide a broad sampling of the ways that schools are approaching this topic.


Saturday, October 04, 2008


For an awful lot of people, including educators who ought to know better, the idea of progressivism in education implies a lack of standards and a lack of rigor. I'm afraid that the various "free school" movements that flourished in the last century did a great job of calling themselves "progressive," thus creating in the public mind the idea that progressive equals "permissive." At some point I started to collect examples of progressive schools as figures of fun, but I gave up--every badly behaved kid in a twentieth-century movie or novel seems to be the product of (eyebows raised archly) "a progressive school."

As John Dewey and others have made perfectly clear down the years, progressive education is hard work, and it implies high standards for student learning as well.
To create learning experiences that respond intentionally and specifically to student needs requires a rigorous attention to the nature and capacities of the students to be taught. It also requires a deep and thoughtful knowledge of subject matter and how itcan be presented to foster the desired learning.

Critical to optimal learning are the criteria against which the learning is to be measured. Sometimes these criteria are easy to identify--on a quiz on math facts, correct calculation matters. At other times, the criteria are a bit more nebulous; a persuasive essay has many elements beside the need to persuade, and so a teacher must decide what will matter and what level of performance in each evaluated area will be satisfactory and what will be excellent. We've been using rubrics for fifteen years or more to help ourselves make these decisions, and to clarify standards for ourselves and our students.

Some teachers still struggle against the use of rubrics, either because they see them as somehow confining or because making them seems like a lot of work. To the first objection, I would just say that we retain our right to be subjective, to reward excellence and creative thought when we encounter it. No rubric should prevent us from recognizing a brilliant exception that transcends our expectations, and it seems silly to imagine that a teacher-created rubric could so entrap the teacher who made it.

As far as the extra work goes, I guess I would liken the creation of rubrics and the enunciation of the specific standards they have to embody to the setting out of buoys in a harbor. Placing and dropping the markers may be hard work once in a while, but once they are in the water, everybody knows where to go.

Curiously, I think most Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers went to schools where standards were less than explicit, and yet somehow they are remembered as "high" or even rigorous. In traditional schools, an A may have been an A, and certain kids (some of whom probably became teachers because we were good at the work) figured out the standards for themselves. Many more didn't, and certainly were never told what they were, and they piled their confused and doubtless mediocre work under the center of the bell curve, right at the "C" level--it was possibly even a convenience for educators to have so many students performing at this level in order to justify their implied standards in a kind of inverse--or perverse--way, as being high precisely because so few students reached them.

To express and promote explicit high standards is hard work, but it is the kind of work that true progressive, and certainly New Progressive, educators have been doing all along. Let's keep reminding ourselves of this as we continue to raise the bar for ourselves as educators and for our students.


Saturday, September 27, 2008


Education has changed in the past few decades, and one indicator of this seems to be that we are all busier than ever. The start of each school year feels more like a scramble, with new initiatives, new ideas, new constraints, and of course new students. My father, who retired as a head nearly 20 years ago and who ran his school with an administrative leanness that is scarcely imaginable today, has a very hard time wrapping his head around the idea that teachers and administrators seem to have so many meetings. "What are you meeting about?" he asks, in an accusatory tone. Are we noisily tailoring new clothes for the emperor only so we look busy and important? Are we only working to out-guilt each other with our claims to be working under barely tolerable loads of stress?

On bad days I think he might be onto something, but on the whole I am confident that the work that good educators are doing these days is pretty substantial. One of the main characteristics of the New Progressivism is an almost fanatical commitment to the re-examination and continuous improvement of practice. If we are meeting more often than our forebears, it is because we are at last talking with one another about the work we do and testing our assumptions and our actions against principles and benchmarks that we are working to make explicit and alive.

I spent an hour yesterday morning sitting with a couple of department chairs and the assistant head of school talking about units. We're going to make unit design the focus of both our professional development efforts and our evaluation system this year, and so we need to establish some baseline language and baseline expectations with which teachers can do the work we will be asking them to do. It was a great conversation, ranging from the challenge of creating great essential questions to the feasibility of integrating some Understanding by Design and Teaching for Understanding concepts into a schematic diagram that would help teachers conceptualize a process at which most are already, in their individual ways, quite adept.

The biggest issue we had, however, was how to present these ideas in ways that will not overwhelm and discourage a faculty already working very, very hard. The trick is to help teachers integrate new understanddings into their work in a way that reflects what the Coalition of Essential Schools calls "unanxious expectations"--the idea that we work toward our best not in the hysterical and destructively competitive pursuit of abstract "excellence" but rather calmly and in the service of explicit standards directed toward deep understanding and profound engagement. We have to allow our teachers time and space to build new concepts into their work in a way that is organic and authentic, and we have to give the tools and training to do this well.

A major difference between older models and New Progressivist schools, I like to tell people, is that in our kinds of schools we are asking teachers to take on two jobs. The first is the day-to-day teaching, correcting, advising, and coaching that all teachers must do. The second is the professional work required both to hone one's own craft as well as to forward the aims and strategic goals of the division, the department, and the school. When I was interviewing candidates I called my description of these two tasks the "informed consent" part of the meeting. For a teacher interested in disappearing into a classroom in September to emerge only in June, the New Progressivism is a bad match.

So let's step back, in late September, to ask ourselves whether our busy lives are worth it in terms of educational expertise expanded and student experience improved. I think that in schools committed to institutional reflection, collaboration, and improvement, all the meetings, all the conversations, all the drafts and redrafts, and finally all the new and better ways of doing the work are more than payoff enough.

I'd go so far as to suggest that the modeling that teachers do in such schools has a powerful effect on our students. In a school where they don't sense complacency and self-satisfaction but rather steady efforts to improve, they learn that good enough is always just a starting place. Rather than "stressing" students, this understanding becomes internalized as an ethic of improvement and even craftsmanship that will serve them well beyond their years with us.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Letting kids be

In my working life I guide kids through the process of searching for and applying to colleges, and we're smack dab in the middle of essay-writing season. Seniors have to generate the perfect essay, you know, a 600-word distillation of their character composed with wit, originality, and verbal precision.

No newspaper account of the stresses and anxieties of college admission is complete without an arch comment by some admission officer about not wanting to read any more essays about kids' service trips to Ghana or Biloxi. Apparently admissions officers are tired of these essays.

I suppose I can sympathize. Some of these poor people are reading hundreds of application folders and expected to make sensible and internally consistent decisions about each student in a pool that is probably remarkable for its own internal consistency. These folks want, need, to be hooked and to some degree enlightened and entertained by the essays they read, which must be their only relief from tables of SAT and ACT scores and grade-point averages, and I can't entirely blame them.

As a progressive educator in a school with a string commitment to advocacy and social justice, I get to know, and know well, a whole lot of students who have gone on service trips, to Biloxi, to Kenya, to Costa Rica, to many other places ravaged by the pain of the post-industrial and post-colonial globalized economy, and even to the socioeconomically ragged edges of their own communities. When essay season comes around, many of these kids want write about their experiences, and often I really want them to. What they believe, and their teachers, families, and I know, is that these trips can change kids--that they really can be and often are the transformative experiences that educators and kids themselves hope for them to be. I want to go on record as saying that kids should be encouraged to write about these experiences, to testify not only to their power but to the power of an educational philosophy that connects students to their world in ways that matter.

Students steeped in non-triumphalist, unvarnished ways of looking at history and society will experience genuine and immersive work among people of different cultures and different ways of knowing as true, personalized educational experiences. Students whose education has involved authentic and honest exposure to a variety of ideas and the necessity of examining everything from multiple points of view are ready and able to internalize the lessons they learn from experience in the field in ways that are both compelling and inspiring--as just the kinds of experiences that college essays are designed to embody--and just exactly the kinds of essays that kids are told, for the sake of application readers, not to write.

I will be continuing to tell my students, the ones whose lives have been rocked and perspectives changed forever by working on the farm in Costa Rica or reading to homeless children in a shelter, that if this is the story they need to tell about themselves, they should go ahead and tell it. I am more than satisfied that, in no small part because of their experience in a New Progressivist school, their education in and out of the classroom has provided them with the intellectual and cultural tools as well as personal depth to write 600 words about themselves that will make even the most jaded admission officer sit up and take notice.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Technology, and then some

I've been trying to update the look and functionality of this blog over and above the cosmic wisdom of the posts themselves, and I find myself focusing quite a lot on technology. The links, widgets, and feeds that form the corona around the intended content are almost blinding, but I think that we're not going to be living without their like again. It's really too early to know what Web 2.0 will really bring, but already the possibilities seem endless, and even some of the old technoskeptics in my world are beginning to succumb. Give a man a phone, and he can make a phone call; give a man an iPhone, and he dreams he can do anything. (And yes, I have one, an "old" one, and I envy the 3G crowd and am shamelessly plotting to leapfrog them when the next iteration arrives; I check MacRumors every day in hope....)

But one of the cool things about the New Progressivism is the understanding that technology is a tool, and not an end in itself. If the tools of 2.0 seem compelling, it is because they support goals of collaboration, advocacy, self-expression, and creativity that are the hallmarks of the movement, and teachers quickly learn that students fluent in their use can move quickly to a mastery of skills and content and to depths of understanding that would simply not have been so attainable in a world without digital media. The possibilities for acquiring and using better and more complex data and for creating, editing, and polishing presentations in all media are simply astounding, and the best students become expert at technologically facilitated learning that is profound, real, and lasting.

The trick, of course, is to learn how to process and evaluate what students can do and are doing in ways that align with high, explicit standards and lofty, clear values. We have all seen student work whose form glitters with its own corona of bells, whistles, animations, widgets, sound files, and sheer cleverness but whose substance falls far short of demonstrating the intended learning. Teachers creating rubrics for the 2.0 world need to be astute, not astounded, when confronted with such work, and we need to be able to guide students toward truly effective and sustainable learning using technology. To this end, teachers will need to understand how it all works, even if they are neither expert in application nor wedded to the world of 2.0 in their own lives.

Thus, technology, and in particular the technologies of Web 2.0 and the world to come, may seem to be taking a place of primacy in New Progressivist thought, and I think this is all right for now. We have at times needed to accelerate rapidly in expanding our skills as educators in order to integrate new thinking in cognitive theory, curriculum design, sustainable development, and multicultural education into our work before, and we now have a compelling body of possibility from the tech side. Our students may be digital natives, but it is our job to harness and hone their skills as substantial tools in our common struggle to teach and learn in the name of global equity, opportunity, and security.

A goal of New Progressivism is to create "all-terrain" students, able to function and thrive in any cultural or intellectual milieu. Our students intuit that cyberspace is not a void that separates us but rather a membrane that connects us, but as educators we need to believe and act on our belief that there is even more: that connection is only the beginning of common effort and collaborative enterprise with the very highest of human purposes.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

New Progressivism: Ready to Go!

The funny thing is, it's five years later and I'm not sure things have changed in the world all that much--"progressive education" still raises lots of questions, and whenever we use that term in our school we get lots of head-scratching.

I'm still pretty happy with the idea of the "New Progressivism"--a student-centered approach to education that applies new ideas about teaching and learning to the development of thoughtful curriculum and assessment in combination with deep civic and community engagement around issues of equity and social justice.
I like to think that this is the way Dewey and his followers would have wanted it, but with higher standards.

The New Progressivism hasn't exactly taken root as a term of art, but I have hopes. More on this as time goes on. I'm back--tanned, rested, and ready for some good blogging on progressive education in the twenty-first century.


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