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.


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