Friday, November 06, 2009

The Intentional Teacher, at last

I'm pleased to mention here that The Intentional Teacher: Forging a Great Career in the Independent School Classroom is at last available. Although the book can be ordered by phone directly from the publisher, Avocus Publishing (800-345-6665; their website is undergoing renovation), the best way to purchase at this point is from Amazon.

The book is intended for aspiring and working teachers as well as for administrators, mentors, and others who hire and support teachers in their schools. There are chapters on
* what it takes to be a teacher
* finding a job
* getting to know students
* classroom management
* planning
* setting standards
* feedback
* working with families
* diversity and equity
* advising and supervising outside the classroom
* coaching
* child and adolescent development
* curriculum and pedagogy
* professional behavior
* the teacher's role in the school
* career paths

There is a resource section for each chapter and a few useful templates--unit design, project planning, daily planning--that should be useful to schools.

The educational philosophy underlying the book is New Progressive in every way; it's about building relationships with students and creating learning experiences that are purposeful, engaging, exciting, and challenging. The independent school focus is really about making the most of one's personal and professional capacities in an environment that often calls upon teachers to play many roles in students' lives.

The sticker price is $26.95. Avocus has produced a number of books on independent school issues, and I have to say they have put this one together very nicely.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Best practice or travesty?

A while back I went to the Progressive Education Network's biennial gathering, held this year in D.C. (well, Bethesda, actually). It was an interesting experience to say the least, and perhaps one I'm willing to wait a couple of years to have again.

I had been invited to present on The New Progressivism, which I did both as a proponent and as a reporter of what I see as going on in the field. (You can find the PowerPoint of my presentation here; I apologize that Slideshare wasn't able to take in the rather nice old display font I used for the titles, leaving some oddly proportioned text here and there.)

First, though, there was the opening ceremony and keynote, given by the redoubtable Marian Wright Edelman. Ms. Edelman was late for the event, having been testifying at the capitol all day on health care issues and children. Not a problem, of course.

What was a problem, at least for me, was the kind of giddy glee I sensed in the crowd as the schedule unraveled--"in the spirit of progressive education," as one of the emcees said while filling in the time.

No! No! No! The idea that progressive education is some kind of loopy, anarchic "go with the flow" version of education is exactly what makes much harder the work of those of us who are trying to convince serious people that progressive education, done well by serious people, is serious. Sure, things go wrong, and sure, as educators we work hard to be responsive to student interests and teachable moments, but let's not start with the assumption that it's all going to get weird, anyway.

The expectation that progressive education is when things don't go as planned--or maybe they aren't planned at all--undermines pretty much everything that serious progressive educators from John Dewey forward have been trying to do. Progressive teaching, the crafting of educational experiences that may feel fluid and spontaneous but that are in fact extremely focused on achieving specific goals, is hard work.

But the next day, at my presentation, things got a bit more strange.

A very nice and thoughtful group of listeners paid polite attention as I went through my spiel. I thought the slides looked nice. So I wasn't quite prepared for a pretty personal tirade from one attendee, who accused me of a kind of intellectual totalitarianism, "pushing" "my" New Progressivism to the exclusion of all other kinds of education.

Jeepers! Hadn't meant to do that. Thought I had been talking about the ways in which some of the thinking of the Old Ones from the Progressive Education Association era had evolved, informed by new understandings about cognition, development, and social issues, into something new that preserved the intent of the founding generations but that used new science and new pedagogical principles to strengthen the educational impact of the work. I had also wanted to convey a sense that this kind of thinking about curriculum, kids, and teaching is becoming pervasive in many schools that are forward-thinking and outside the constraints of the standardized testing monster.

One listener helpfully suggested that what I was saying was that New Progressive teaching is pretty much best practice these days. Yes! That's it; although I'm glad I didn't use the superlative term there or the totalitarian brand might have burned even deeper. An Australian educator wanted to know why what I was talking about even merited discussion; it's the way things have been done Down Under for a while, as we know.

Thankfully, I guess, the conversation in the all-white group devolved into some talk about diversity, and everyone could agree that it posed serious challenges for schools. Then time was up, and I was off to catch my train.

On the way home, and since then, I've been wondering what inspired the philippic and the defensiveness. At best, I might think I hadn't been clear enough in stating my thesis, which was just to talk about how the ways had changed even as the intent remained the same, Dewey to Sizer.

At worst, though, I had to wonder whether the anarchic strain of progressive education as well as the political strain that grew up in the Free School era of the 1960s remains at the core of what many practitioners of "progressive education" believe. The idea, then, that scientific discipline might be imposed on the "child-centered," "go with the flow," "we love kids and you don't" version of progressive education that is regularly ridiculed and condemned in the popular media might just look like being co-opted to folks who got into this work in a certain time period.

And of course, being co-opted--progressive practice as BEST practice; horrors!--would be a terrible thing, selling out your values to a host of straight-line, "traditional" schools whose faculties could hardly appreciate the spirit and genius of kids as progressive educators do. It would be, if you were a true believer in the idea that progressive education meant a kind of affectionate disorder, nothing less than a travesty.

Well, I think that the practices that I call New Progressive are indeed natural outgrowths of the work done by the "old" progressives of the pre-tie-dye era. I also happen to believe that the host of straight-line, "traditional" schools that have begun to grab hold of and thoughtfully, mindfully implement New Progressive practices are on the right track and that what they do every day both defines and refines what can be generally regarded as best practice in education.

I guess I should on the record here as understanding that there are many kinds of education, many kinds of kids, and many kinds of schools. I understand that some kinds of education are based on extreme structure and that these systems work for many kids; and that's more than okay--it's necessary. New Progressivism isn't the only approach to education, but I think that it happens to be a very good one. What I like about it, and what I respect about the approaches of, say, KIPP and Waldorf schools, is that, properly executed, all are the product of thought and planning. The spirit of New Progressive education is a spirit of purpose that accepts serendipity, not a spirit of serendipity alone.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Theodore Sizer

I would happily fill this space with a tribute to the late Theodore Sizer, but a colleague has written one that cannot be surpassed insofar as it says all the things that I think most need saying about our fallen comrade and leader. So check out "Losing Another Lion" by Jonathan Martin. The rest of the 21K12 blog is pretty great, as well.

What I will say about Ted Sizer is that his work on school reform came along just as many of us seemed to be ready to enter into a comfortable if perhaps a little lackluster academic middle age. The Horace books shook us up, and the Coalition gave us a set of ideals to which we might aspire. Later writing, such as The Students Are Watching and The Red Pencil, inspired even the least reflective among us to ponder our work deeply and powerfully. Along the way we discovered the complementary genius of Nancy Faust Sizer, Ted's estimable spouse and collaborator.

We will miss Ted Sizer, but thankfully his legacy will live on for generations of schoolchildren yet unborn.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Old Progressivism, redux

On my office wall for many years I've had posted a copy of "The Principles of Progressive Education," a seven-point 1924 document written on behalf of the Progressive Education Association by, I am told, Eugene Randolph Smith, a progressive educator who was founding head of both the Park School of Baltimore and Beaver Country Day School, outside Boston.

Mirroring the troubling national rise in politically intemperate speech, I have noted in recent weeks that the U.S. citations on the Google Alerts I receive on "progressive education" are getting weirder and more shrill. Progressive education, as usual, is blamed for all kinds of things and related to atheism, ignorance, socialism, and even (my late favorite) to a progressive educational plot to decrease literacy in America--the blogger who came up with that one found a Dewey quote, or rather a quote from a book about Dewey, that supported this wacky notion. So much for rigorous use of evidence.

I thought it might be time to trot out the 1924 Principles, which graced the inside cover of the PEA's magazine for five years or so and which pretty seriously fail to live up to any of the exciting, crazy things that are being imputed to it by 2009 blogsters.

I'll quote the entire document after the break.

"The Principles of Progressive Education

"I. Freedom to Develop Naturally. The conduct of the pupil should be governed by himself according to the social needs of his community, rather than by arbitrary laws. Full opportunity for initiative and self-expression should be provided, together with an environment rich in interesting material that is available for the free use of every pupil.

"II. Interest, the Motive of All Work. Interest should be satisfied and developed through: (1) Direct and indirect contact with the world and its activities, and use of the experience thus gained. (2) Application of knowledge gained, and correlation between different subjects. (3) The consciousness of achievement.

"III. The Teacher a Guide, Not a Task-Master. It is essential that teachers should believe in the aims and general principles of Progressive Education and that they should have latitude for the development of initiative and originality. Progressive teachers will encourage the use of all the senses, training the pupils in both observation and judgment; and instead of hearing recitations only, will spend most of the time teaching how to use various sources of information, including life activities as well as books; how to reason about the information thus acquired; and how to express forcefully and logically the conclusions reached. Ideal teaching conditions demand that classes be small, especially in the elementary school years.

"IV. Scientific Study of Pupil Development. School records should not be confined to the marks given by teachers to show the advancement of the pupils in their study of subjects, but should also include both objective and subjective reports on those physical, mental, moral and social characteristics which affect both school and adult life, and which can be influenced by the school and the home. Such records should be used as a guide for the treatment of each pupil, and should also serve to focus the attention of the teacher on the all-important work of development rather than on simply teaching subject matter.

"V. Greater Attention to All that Affects the Child's Physical Development. One of the first considerations of Progressive Education is the health of the pupils. Much more room in which to move about, better light and air, clean and well ventilated buildings, easier access to the out-of-doors and greater use of it, are all necessary. There should be frequent use of adequate playgrounds. The teachers should observe closely the physical conditions of each pupil and, in cooperation with the home, make abounding health the first objective of childhood.

"VI. Co-operation Between School and Home to Meet the Needs of Child Life. The school should provide, with the home, as much as is possible of all that the natural interests and activities of the child demand, especially during the elementary school years. These conditions can come about only through intelligent co-operation between parents and teachers.

"VII. The Progressive School a Leader in Educational Movements. The Progressive School should be a leader in educational movements. It should be a laboratory where new ideas, if worthy, meet encouragement; where tradition alone does not rule, but the best of the past is leavened with the discoveries of today, and the result is freely added to the sum of educational knowledge."

I won't comment at length here other than to say I don't see anything crazy here, or for that matter many things that are far removed from what has become educational best practice in the age of New Progressive education. Don't think there's anything here that most of us wouldn't happily and proudly stand by today, 85 years after this was written. Perhaps what's most disturbing is that many of these ideas would seem new to some of our colleagues.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You've Gotta Be Sincere, But There's More

Had an interesting response from a reader (and former student) to the previous post in reference to the writing I've been doing on school sustainability. She is about to start a job at a nature center that works with a number of independent schools, and she is excited about some of their initiatives in the context of the broader rubric of school sustainability--as long, she says, as "it turns out to be sincere and holistic and not just a gimmick."

She hits the nail on the head, I think, at least from the perception side. Educators everywhere can be accused of grabbing onto any number of great-sounding ideas--the gimmick du jour, it sometimes seems--and of then failing to continue the work that would turn the idea into a sustainable and sustaining part of the practice and learning culture of their institution. Thus do good ideas shrivel into "gimmicks."

I like to believe that the issue is almost never one of sincerity or a failure of holistic thinking. Rather, educational ideas that are bruited about in schools and then fail to take root are almost always victims of a kind of institutional ADD, an almost extreme distractibility that stems from schools' failure to discipline themselves to stand firm in their missions and values as well as from the seductive allure of so many new currents in educational thought--what my boss quotes a consultant as calling "the tyranny of good ideas."

In recent years good ideas, many of which are part and parcel of New Progressive core practice, have swept through schools like Southern California wildfires, causing much consternation and giving birth to a host of committees and strategic goals around technology, globalization, environmental practice, curriculum, service learning, character education--you name it. All of these are good ideas, deeply rooted in sound educational thought and a profound belief in the capacities of children and the promise of schools. How could a thoughtful educator or a forward-thinking school turn its back on any of them?

If it sounds as though I am about to advocate doing just that, hold on. Earlier I made reference to mission and core values, and if a school is going to go "whole hog" in any direction, mission and values dictate what that direction must be. Rather than become an environmental school, or a laptop school, or a global school, or a character-education school, an institution must be the kind of school it is at its core, in its heart, and in its heritage. All the good ideas in the world, pasted on or plunked into the program just because they're good ideas, won't make a wobbly school sustainable or a weak school strong.

My commentator's word "holistic," I think, holds the key to doing it right. Find the parts of the good ideas that resonate with the core and that can be thoughtfully and intentionally integrated into practice, and make them work. Oftentimes they will supplant or replace existing work, and sometimes they will supplement it in a way that enriches current practice. The work may be hard for the school and its teachers and challenging to its students, but if (and only if) it is OF A PIECE with what the school already does and stands for, it will embed itself sincerely and holistically in the fabric and life of the school. It won't be just another abandoned gimmick receding in the rear-view mirror as the school careens into an uncertain future but rather a part of the engine that drives the school forward on a course about which there is shared understanding and excitement.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Progressive = Good business

It's been almost six months since I've blogged here, and I apologize to anyone who has been waiting.

My "unassigned time" in the past half year has largely been spent doing some writing for the National Association of Independent Schools Financially Sustainable Schools project. I've been talking to CFOs, admission folks, development officers, and school heads, working to develop a set of principles and best practices for independent schools that would like to make it through a another decade or two. Not surprisingly, a fair number of my conversations have begun as inquiries into financial management.

But, funniest thing, the more I talked to the most creative and reflective people, the more I found myself on the familiar ground of New Progressivist thinking. Smart, forward-thinking schools that are actually DOING SOMETHING about improving their programs and professional practice`tend to be the ones that are thriving. Schools that are sitting on their hands or (worse) resting on their laurels are the ones worried about enrollment and whether they're going to have to lay off more teachers.

I have found myself talking with educators who have discovered in Multiple-Intelligence theory the keys to better curriculum design and who have successfully challenged even the most senior of faculties to attend to new understandings about assessment and evaluation so that their schools will continue to be the centers of excellence that annually bring bright, motivated, and intellectually engaged students into their classrooms--kids who become more engaged as their teachers become more innovative and intentional.

I have spoken with development officers who understand that schools have to be active, vibrant places where resources are used not just to make people more comfortable but to ramp up the level of the educational experiences and challenges that make students go home excited and even exhilarated--feelings that become the kind of word of mouth marketing campaign that no amount of money can buy.

I've spent hours on the phone with business officers who understand deeply not just the operational nuts and bolts that allow their schools to thrive but who are excited by the missions and values of the schools where they work--values that embrace taking care of the school community but that also acknowledge the higher quest for social justice and educational equity.

Smart school leaders everywhere are seeing the clear connections between innovative curriculum, the leveraging of technology, global thinking, and Green awareness. These are the connections that not only mean "doing the right thing" educationally but that also energize teachers, students, families--and even donors.

I'm just sorry that NAIS membership is needed to get access to much of the work that has come out of this project, including my latest big piece, "Alive and Well: What It Takes to Thrive in Hard Times." Over the next few weeks I will try to offer here a summary of the key findings.

When I first jumped into this work I assumed that it would be an interesting task that wouldn't have much to do with my New Progressive initiatives. Now that I've really dug around into what it means for a school to be sustainable, I'm ecstatic to think that sustainability in 2009 is inherently New Progressive. How cool is that?!!!


Friday, April 17, 2009

Innovation--then and now

I've been away for far too long, caught up in some writing projects having to do with school leadership in tough financial times. In the end what is common sense in school management now has largely been common sense forever, although there has been a tendency in recent years even for school folks to toss some common sense out the window. Everything may have seemed a little too easy, and "keeping on keeping on" became the watchword rather than, "let's plan thoughtfully for a future that may be different."

If nothing else, the financial crisis has made a few people and a few schools think about how they might conceive of and do their work differently. I've been listening to people talk to me about the need for all schools, not just those who identify themselves as progressive, to have an authentic community purpose as well as strong, innovative programs to truly differentiate themselves from other institutions and to establish their identities as centers of educational excellence.

A while back I was speaking with the head of a school with an old and very established "winter term" program. Some of us are old enough to remember when these programs--usually a few weeks in December of January devoted to mini-courses, travel programs, and other wholesale departures from the "normal" curriculum--were all the rage. I spent three years in the 70s teaching in a middle school where we stopped pretty much everything and threw all the students and teachers, grades 5 through 9, into intensive and experiential "projects" around such themes as "American agriculture" and "Life in the U.S. in 1840." It was a blast; I learned most of what I ever knew in those days about creating curriculum from having had a role in designing these programs.

Well, my point before I started reminiscing was that this head commented that in some ways the school was resting on its laurels with this program, now probably in its fourth decade. The school has big plans at the moment to move forward in some truly exciting ways around curriculum and pedagogy. "Doing the new work is sort of a way of honoring the work that was done by people who put winter term together years ago," was the head's message.

I thought, Brilliant! Yes! Thirty years ago a new generation of teachers poured their hearts and souls into a wave of curriculum innovation. Even though some of it was conceived and executed by rookies like me, and no doubt flawed in all kinds of ways by the intuitive and sometimes haphazard way we planned, much more was based on the best thinking of the time, whether the inspiration was Jerome Bruner, Robert Coles, or Jonathan Kozol. (It's easy enough to see the genesis of a strong predilection toward social justice here.)

Much of this work was brought to a thudding halt in the financially dreadful early Reagan era, but the programs that survived--a pet curriculum here, a favorite project there, winter terms at a few score schools--had legs because they were sustained by passionate teachers and because they resonated with kids. In time some of these have become as traditional and fixed in their form and content as a Thanksgiving pageant or or an awards convocation, but some have evolved with the times and are as vital today as they were when they were devised by dewy-eyed baby boomers with just enough experience and confidence to think that programs could change the way their students understood the world.

Now, as this head of school was saying, the next generation of educators must throw their hearts and minds into new strategies, new practices, new programs. With schools now being led by many of those idealistic Boomers and a whole host of new, research-based understandings about how children learn and about how communities function, the potential exists for a tidal wave of innovative thinking about what schools are and what they can accomplish.

When schools (independent schools, in particular) start talking about ways to truly serve their communities, to open their doors and programs to their neighbors, and when schools are willing to embrace whole new concepts of curriculum content and design, innovation has established itself again. Just as a major financial scare put paid to much of the innovation of the 70s, our own recession seems to have motivated schools to start finding ways to make their missions, idealistic as they might be, real.

It makes me wonder whether there is some subtly contrary pendulum effect in economic uncertainty. The boom years of the 60s and early 70s gave us innovation in the form of a kind of progressive education that was fairly quickly neutered by the double-digit inflation and unemployment of the early Reagan Revolution, and now were are seeing smart schools using the current crisis as an impetus to embrace the social and curricular principles of the New Progressivism even more strongly.

Whatever meta-historical forces may be at work (or maybe it's just the Internet, for all I know), the result is encouraging. Schools are looking at new ways to be and new ways to do their work, and it's all quite exciting. I'm sure there are schools out there whose panicky boards want them to revert to some notion of education in the 1950s (which we seem to cling to as some kind of Golden Age, before things got complicated), but the best school leaders are responding to the exigencies of the day even as they honor the work of their predecessors by aggressively seeking better ways to accomplish their schools' missions.


Saturday, March 07, 2009

What is great curriculum?

Ever since Jerome Bruner and his followers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and elsewhere began thinking about curriculum in new ways half a century ago, the word "curriculum" has meant something more than a an orderly collection of facts to be learned in order. Most educational leaders have embraced constructivist principles, refined over time to include a host of concepts from "planning backwards" to authentic assessment and experiential learning. The Big Topics of our day--multiculturalism, sustainability, globalization--have become interwoven with traditional subject areas, and concepts like "teaching for understanding" and "habits of mind" are part of the argot of good teaching, whether in New Progressivist schools or traditional ones.

But the question remains: What makes great curriculum? What separates excellent curriculum (and assessment) and the outstanding, lasting learning that it generates from ho-hum, average or poor quality learning designs and experiences?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote here about the Independent Curriculum Group and its efforts to support schools that want to create their own high-level curricula and separate themselves from the College Board's Advanced Placement program. In yesterday's Washington Post, columnist Jay Mathews, an AP enthusiast, let loose a surprisingly shrill--for Mathews, who is usually pretty measured even when standing up for his favorite ideas--critique of some of the ICG's assertions in a spirited defense of AP curricula.

The issue, whether for Mathews or the ICG or any thoughtful educator, is the nature of quality curriculum. Educators have done a wonderful job of designing curriculum, and we've disseminated a world of terrific ideas among ourselves, but we have done a lousy job of engaging the public at large in understanding what quality means. For most people, "excellent curriculum" means lots of homework, the mastery of plenty of facts--the more obscure the better--and standardized tests to measure the result.

It's poor stuff, and we owe it to the students that we teach and to generations yet to come to explain ourselves better.

So often curriculum, and education in general, is seen as a succession of either/or issues: factual mastery or fluffy opinionating, bubble tests or fatuous essays, old math or New, phonics or whole language.

We know, however, that our work is all about complexity--the many kinds of minds in our classrooms, the material we teach, and the ways that we must teach it. Complexity, as well know, doesn't sell newspapers or broadcast media advertising time, and it almost never, alas, wins elections.

So we need to agree on some basic principles of excellent curriculum, and we need to make the story simple, and I'd like to propose a start.

Excellent curriculum, to borrow and reapply some terms from Tony Wagner's work, must be rigorous (although I like the term "intellectually challenging" a whole lot more, because it doesn't sound like a form of torture or the stiffening of a corpse's joints) and relevant.

We've also been reading lately about so-called "21st-century" skills that need to be included in excellent curriculum: collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, and all the skills required to make use of current and emerging technologies. Good teaching has included these elements forever, I think--back to Socrates, who wasn't exactly a slouch when it came to getting his entourage to think in new ways about difficult matters and whose dialogues are almost all group discussions. Collaboration as part of learning isn't exactly a new idea, any more than the application of the latest technology. Whatever the provenance of these ideas, though, they must be included, I think, under the rubric of "relevance."

Contextual relevance seems to bother many people when the concept is applied to curriculum. It's as if authenticity is somehow antithetical to actual learning, that problems or questions stripped of any relationship to the real world are somehow more real, harder, more about learning than others. No matter if every other aspect of human experience and endeavor is anchored in real life, "real-life" curriculum is suspect--perhaps the more so if it's connected to those 21st-century skills. Nevertheless, it must be regarded as an essential characteristic of excellent curriculum.

The Independent Curriculum Group can earn its salt, I think, by becoming a locus for serious discussions of serious curriculum. There's a lot of good stuff around, but what's missing are some benchmarks for excellence--not just for top-level courses equivalent to the aspirations of, say, Advanced Placement or the International Baccalaureate, but for every discipline at every level.

Intellectually challenging and relevant--to the individual needs as well as the lives of students--seem fundamental to me as characteristics of excellent curriculum.

These sound simple enough, but the next steps, adding detail to flesh out benchmarks by discipline and level, are of course much harder--more complex.

What do readers think?


Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Right Questions about Advanced Placement courses

Following up on the previous post relating to the Independent Curriculum Group and the Advanced Placement program, here is a list of questions I generated a few years ago for a presentation on the subject for the National Association of Independent Schools:


1. What resources—people, time, space, materials—do AP courses require?
2. What are the opportunity costs of directing these resources at an AP program?
3. Does the AP curriculum challenge your students in the most appropriate possible ways?
4. Is your AP program built on barriers? Do your policies exclude students from certain high-level courses that are proclaimed to be the “best” or most desirable in the school?
5. Given a roomful of motivated and curious students and a passionate, expert instructor, does an AP curriculum offer the best possible learning experience that could be devised?
6. Does the AP program offer courses whose content and methodologies embody your school’s particular values and mission?
7. Do the content and methodologies of AP courses reflect your school’s commitment to diversity?
8. Is the “vertical team” approach to AP instruction in certain disciplines consonant with the philosophical and developmental nature of your departmental curricula?
9. Do you use a winnowing or sieving process to make AP classes the apex of a pyramid of achievement or of aptitude?
10. Who is “winnowed” out of taking AP courses? Do you track this, both individually and by group membership?
(Click the link below for Questions 11 through 35)

11. Do you have the confidence to promote students for college matriculation based on the internal standards established by the faculty at your school?
12. What is your school’s philosophical and practical commitment to curricular depth over breadth?
13. To what degree does the existence of an AP program at your school reflect the anxieties of constituents other than your faculty and students?
14. Is the AP program at your school designed to provide a challenging advanced curriculum or just to help your more ambitious students get into college?
15. Have you developed your policies around students enrolled in courses labeled “AP” taking the Advanced Placement examination based on the individual needs of students, or on anxieties around perceived institutional integrity?
16. Does your faculty have the expertise to design highly challenging and engaging advanced courses on their own, or does the use of an externally driven curriculum serve in lieu of helping them gain that expertise?
17. When was the last time you heard that a graduate of your school had used an accumulation of Advanced Placement credits to “place out” of a year of college?
18. Do you track how often graduates of your school use Advanced Placement credit to place up into, rather than place out of, courses in college?
19. How are students assessed and evaluated for their work in existing AP courses?
20. Are your AP teachers teaching a subject, or are they teaching to a test?
21. Does your school weight the grades given students in AP courses in computing GPA or class rank? Have you collected and analyzed data to assure yourself that this weighting is equitable?
22. Is teaching AP in your school considered a prestigious assignment? Because it’s “AP,” or because teachers truly believe it is the best curriculum?
23. Do you believe that having an AP program adds luster to your entire curriculum? If so, do you then offer AP course enrollment to every student?
24. Who pays for students to take Advanced Placement examinations at your school?
25. Where would you begin in the development of an internally designed program that would replace Advanced Placement courses?
26. If you do not already have Advanced Placement courses, are you afraid that not having them will jeopardize your students’ chances at college admission?
27. If you do already offer Advanced Placement courses, are you afraid that discontinuing them will jeopardize your students’ chances at college admission?
28. If you do already offer AP courses, what do you anticipate the public costs would be of supplanting them with internally designed courses?
29. What data or evidence would be helpful to your school in your circumstances in deciding to discontinue or not implement an AP program? How would you collect the data?
30. To which constituencies would you be most answerable if you were to consider either discontinuing or not implementing an AP program? How would you address their concerns?
31. Do the concerns of Advanced Placement teachers in your school inhibit movement toward schedule reform that would otherwise benefit all students?
32. Do public schools in your area offer a more established and broader array of AP courses than your school is able to? If so, are your efforts to maintain your own program underplaying your school’s unique strengths and values in an arena where it may be difficult or impossible to establish a competitive advantage, anyway?
33. Does the perceived pressure of “having” to have AP courses on the transcript drain good, excited students away from arts, electives, and other challenging courses that don’t carry the AP label?
34. What would your school do when faced with the dilemma of having a sign-up for an AP course that was very small (and thus “expensive” to staff) or very large (and thus necessitating either paring down or adding a section)?
35. Does the calendar of Advanced Placement examinations in May impede the development of meaningful end-of-year programs for seniors at your school? Or does it otherwise interfere with other worthy or potentially valuable programs at your school?

I'd really like your thoughts and comments on these questions. To engage more deeply with this issue, visit and perhaps even join the Independent Curriculum Group Ning.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Independent Curriculum, High Stakes Testing, and the New Progressivism

A few years back educators at a number of independent schools, many but not all of them with Progressive roots and New Progressivist leanings, and a handful of public ones became concerned that the College Board's Advanced Placement program was exerting a dead hand on their curricula, especially at the upper levels. For many students in selective schools who intend on applying to the most competitive universities, the number of AP courses listed on a transcript (regardless of actual AP examination scores) has become a true measure of worth. By this standard, a student with six courses is three times as good as a student with two. In some schools the competition to enroll in AP classes, which at many schools are limited in enrollment and essentially "by invitation only," has become a mania.

Enter the Independent Curriculum Group. The brainchild of executive director Bruce Hammond, a former college counselor at a progressive school in New Mexico, the ICG "has declared its independence from standardized tests that dictate curriculum. We are part of a growing movement of nationally recognized college preparatory schools that have either dropped or de-emphasized the College Board Advanced Placement Program." (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Independent Curriculum Group's board.)

Click the "Read more" link to learn more about the Advanced Placement program and the Independent Curriculum Group.

The Advanced Placement program began a few generations ago largely as a way for the best students at competitive schools (many of them independent) to get a leg-up on first-year courses at Ivy League and other selective colleges. Over time, the program has evolved into a vast program in which public and private schools alike have piled Advanced Placement courses into their curricula as a way of demonstrating rigor and quality. The more AP courses a school offers, the better, and the more students who take AP examinations (regardless of results), the higher the school will be ranked. Politicians, the media, and local school boards have embraced the program as the answer to their prayers for a one-stop solution to all their educational image problems. In 1987 the film Stand and Deliver, whatever its message of hope for the prospects of inner-city students, glorified the AP program as the last bastion of hard-nosed, old-school, teach-to-the-test instruction that public has long equated with educational excellence (at least when it applies to other people's children).

We know what has happened with regard to standardized testing since then. We also know what has happened to the Advanced Placement program: burgeoning growth that has actually required the College Board to institute course audits to protect the integrity of its Advanced Placement and AP trademarks even as the number of kids taking the $86-a-pop examinations has skyrocketed. If you're sitting in a nice office at the Board, you have to feel good.

But if you're at a school where teachers are receiving continuous training in curriculum and assessment design and where teachers are educated as subject matter specialists--that is, if you're at most New Progressive independent schools--Advanced Placement courses can look like a large step backward. Add to this the various strange and mostly undemocratic policies that have grown up around access to Advanced Placement courses, and you have a program that

1) tends to be built around certified, teach-to-the-test methodologies and content (although to be fair the best AP teachers manage to make their courses fresh and exciting), limiting opportunities for students and teachers to take advantage of teachable moments, multiple points of view, and spontaneous thought and curiosity;

2) is offered only to students who have already jumped through some hoops to achieve enrollment and who tend not to represent the overall demographic of American secondary students; remember that the "conflict" in Stand and Deliver comes when the College Board refuses to believe that an entire class of Latino/a students could score at a high level on the test; and

3) is often taken by students far less interested in learning the content than in having the AP label scattered generously over their high-school transcripts.

The Independent Curriculum Group exists as a resource for all educators and all schools interested in returning to a world in which their own teachers and their own departments are free to design and deliver (standing or sitting) high-standards, high-level courses. Gone from this model is the fear of a class's poor performance, which might reflect badly on the teacher and the school and which is a major motivation for limiting AD class enrollment. Instead, schools are free to believe in the potential of all students to succeed and to allow students to take on any challenge they feel up to. As the ICG website states, "Students [in schools where the AP program does not reign supreme] retain more knowledge, probe more deeply, and have more motivation when learning is not subordinated to test preparation. Students who graduate from ICG schools attend the nation’s best colleges, and some of them take AP exams. But each school’s curriculum reflects the passions of its faculty and students." And, it should be added, the curriculum can reflect the school's mission and values, something hard to do when an external body in New Jersey is certifying what are perceived as your "best" courses.

Time will tell what influence the Independent Curriculum Group has on education as a whole, but as a step forward toward a set off principles that we New Progressives stand for, it's a pretty good thing.

As a post-script, it is exciting to me that not all the member schools of the ICG would necessarily spring to mind if you used the word "progressive." To me this indicates what I have been trying to get at all along in this blog: that New Progressivist ideas aren't about progressive-versus-traditional but rather an evolutionary stage to which many schools are arriving largely because the ideas are common-sense, proven, extremely compelling, and ultimately good not only for kids but for the kinds of adults these kids will become because of the education they are experiencing.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Progressive Education--what is it?

Another short post:

For those interested in wading into the morass of definitions, you can go to the Progressive Schools wiki and participate in the challenge of trying to define progressive education on the PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION: Toward a Working Definition page.

Maybe this is an impossible task, or even a fool's errand, but I am exceedingly tired of running into characterizations of progressive education, old and New, that are based on paranoid or utopian fantasy, flimsy evidence, or what can only be deliberate misreadings of either seminal documents or actual practice.

I'd love to see what the Best Minds of My Generation can do to come up with a working definition to which actual porgressive educators can subscribe.

Again, nothing to "Read on" about. C'est tout.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Progressive Schools wiki

People keep asking me for the official list of progressive schools, but of course there isn't one. I thought I'd draw on the expertise of readers here to help compile not only a list of schools but some resources on New Progressivism as well as on progressive education in general.

The result is the Progressive Schools wiki. It's open, public, and ready for any schools, ideas, resources, and questions anyone might have. I have modestly populated a few pages, but there is much, much more to say.

Please feel free to explore and contribute. Like any wiki, the Progressive Schools wiki is only as good as its contributors make it.

And by the way, Happy 2009!

(It says "Read more" below, but that's all there is for today. Check out the wiki!)

Click below to participate in the PROGRESSIVE SCHOOLS wiki