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.

1 comment:

Emily Jones said...

Putney School - 3 pervasive practices I would deem progressive:
1. Transparency of governance, administration and operations to the students. They sit on the board of trustees, on all faculty committees, and are involved in most decisions of the school. They have to wrestle with the hard stuff about how to make community work, how to find consensus, how to get things accomplished. Hugely educational, if sometimes a little messy.
2. Work program, largely run by students. They work on the farm and in the gardens, producing a lot of our food. They work in the woods with chainsaws, clean the campus, cook, serve and wash up in the kitchen. This is organized by a student work committee, which assigns, supervises, and has the power to fire. This is where theory becomes reality.
3. No published grades until spring of junior year. It doesn't work perfectly, but it does keep students focused on learning more than evaluations.
Emily Jones

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