Progressive and Traditional in Independent Schools

Spring 2005

By John Love

This past July, 35 years after I first set foot in an independent school, I started working at Fieldston School in the Bronx.

Fieldston is my fourth independent school. I worked 8 years at Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island, 16 years at the Wheeler School in Providence, and 7 years at the Latin School of Chicago.

Portsmouth Abbey, a co-ed boarding school governed by an English Benedictine monastery, is unapologetically traditional. Although I can't recall many conversations about progressive education at Wheeler, it is certainly a progressive school. There was a lot of talk at Latin about tradition, and since the Francis W. Parker School up the street described itself as progressive, whenever Latin folks wanted to talk about the many non-traditional things we believed and did, we always used the word "innovative," which was Latinspeak for "progressive."

The five boroughs of New York City have a total of 58 National Association of Independent Schools member schools, and those schools come in as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins. In the competitive world of New York City admissions, this abundance leads to the making of some very fine distinctions, but however finely you cut, Fieldston falls into the progressive pile. This February we devoted an entire MAD, or Modified Awareness Day, to the topic of progressive education, with many sessions in the daylong schedule of events planned and led by students. Although we frequently fail the test, it is no exaggeration to say that at Fieldston we test everything we do and every change we contemplate with the question, "Is this progressive?"

If there is a corpus of beliefs about progressive education, it can be found in the writings of John Dewey. This statement, from an 1897 Dewey article in The School Journal, expresses a core tenet in that corpus of beliefs:
I believe that this educational process has two sides-one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following. Of these two sides, the psychological is the basis. The child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results, but cannot truly be called educative.

The statement lies at the heart of progressive education, but during the intervening 108 years progressive independent schools have developed a much wider array of practices than Dewey describes here or anticipates elsewhere. For their part, traditional schools have developed their own best practices, including many that Dewey would endorse.

So let's pose the question in 2005: is it possible to characterize the differences between schools that view themselves as progressive and schools that view themselves as traditional in a way that distinguishes the two groups? And can we do it in a way that doesn't equate either camp with best practice, to the exclusion of the other.

Let's proceed inductively. In other words, let's first identify a series of markers, relatively concrete, some even superficial, which most of us will agree distinguish progressive from traditional practice, and let's focus on Upper Schools, where differences between traditional and progressive are somewhat more visible than in Lower Schools. Then let's see if there are any universal principles or themes behind the markers.



In traditional independent schools, academic departments rule. Most courses are departmental, and most of the courses an Upper School student takes, whether elective or required, fall within departmental graduation requirements. Academically selective traditional independent schools normally offer a wide array of Advanced Placement courses, and many departments offer honors or advanced or accelerated courses in both Middle and Upper School. Most departments give semester and final exams. Beyond exams, the evaluation of individual student performance depends primarily upon the student's individually written papers, quizzes, and tests. Students receive letter grades on individual assignments and on report cards throughout Middle and Upper School.

By contrast, students in progressive schools spend significant time studying and working in courses outside traditional academic departments. The arts, community service, and ethics all offer as wide a range of courses as the academic departments, and students devote considerable time to those fields. Academic teams, independent study, interdisciplinary or extra-departmental courses, and senior projects are also a significant part of the academic program. Departmental graduation requirements are normally less extensive than in traditional schools. Advanced Placement courses are relatively few, as are honors or advanced courses. Most departments do not give exams, and the evaluation of individual student performance depends significantly on individual and group projects, presentations, and portfolios. Letter grades, if they are given at all, may be given only in the Upper School or in certain courses or departments.



In traditional English departments, other than a few classics from ancient Greece and Rome, the literature students read comes mostly from England and America, with a few canonical European authors also included. In Middle School students learn how to write short expository essays, and study traditional grammar. The focus of writing in the Upper School falls on critical essays and research papers.

In progressive English departments, required or core courses include the works of African, Asian, and South American writers, and there are electives devoted to the literature of those regions of the world. Creative writing, journalism, and journal writing are a significant part of the writing curriculum, sometimes at the expense of expository and critical essays, and, if it is taught at all, grammar is taught "in the context of the student's own writing."

A teacher of Shakespeare in a traditional independent school will accurately describe his or her class as discussion-based, but he or she is likely to come into class with several passages marked from last night's reading, and to make sure that those passages are discussed in class that day, so the students don't miss anything important. A teacher of Shakespeare in a progressive school is less likely to have marked out certain passages for discussion, and will let the students' questions and comments determine which passages are discussed that day.

Traditional history departments focus their attention on the history of western Europe and the United States. Most courses cover a specific country or geographic area within a specific time frame, and there is an effort, over the span of Middle and Upper School, systematically to "cover" the world.

Progressive history departments are likely to devote more attention to the history of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America, at the expense of ancient and early European history. Courses are frequently organized around themes or topics and cross regional and chronological boundaries.

Latin is frequently an important component in a traditional language department. At some point in Middle or Upper School all students may be required to take Latin. If not required, Latin frequently enjoys some kind of special status within the department. Students are grouped by ability in language classes to the extent that numbers allow such grouping. The best language students spend a significant amount of time reading literature in the target language.

If there is a privileged language in a progressive language department, it is likely to be a recently added non-Western language--Arabic, Chinese, or Japanese. Few language classes are grouped by ability. Of the four skills, speaking and listening receive significantly more emphasis than reading and writing. In addition to the language-related field trips and overseas trips that many schools in both camps offer, on-site immersion activities are a significant part of the language program in progressive schools.

Traditional math departments carefully sequence distinct pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry courses in Middle and early Upper School, and students are grouped into several ability levels, often beginning in Middle School. A significant percentage of Upper Schoolers follow a pre-calculus/calculus sequence in the upper grades.

Progressive math departments integrate algebra and geometry starting in Middle School. There is a relatively well-developed Upper School curriculum in statistics or in some other area of math for students who do not pursue calculus.

A math teacher in a traditional independent school will spend a significant amount of class time reviewing those problems in last night's homework about which the students have questions, and will introduce new material by demonstrating how to solve typical problems related to the topic. Whether he or she is testing student knowledge of last might's material or introducing something new, a math teacher in a progressive independent school will ask students to spend a good deal of class time doing problems they have never seen before and discussing their various solutions to those problems.

Biology, chemistry, and physics are the big three in traditional science departments, and most students are encouraged or required to study all three. Physics is normally taught last and requires a background in functions and trigonometry, if not calculus. As numbers permit, there are advanced or Advanced Placement courses in all three subjects as well. The best science students have the opportunity to pursue independent science research.

Biology and chemistry are frequently integrated in progressive science departments. "Conceptual physics" may be taught early in Upper School in lieu of the math-intensive version of physics taught in traditional schools. Some other area of science--animal behavior, astronomy, environmental science--may be a signature program because of faculty expertise or the school's surroundings or its relationship to a nearby scientific institution. A variety of students pursue research.

Although it probably has a significant community service program, the focus of the ethics or character education curriculum in a traditional school grows out of the religious or other received values embodied in the school's mission.

In addition to a significant community service program, the focus of the ethics or character education curriculum in a progressive school is likely to be developmental, i.e., related to the real-life situations or developmental milestones the students are likely to face at various stages of Middle and Upper School, peers/prejudice/sex/drugs/rock 'n' roll.


Student Support

In a traditional school, faculty advisors view themselves chiefly as academic advisors, in keeping with their traditional roles. Students and parents with concerns outside of academic areas are more likely to contact deans or other school specialists to address those concerns than to contact faculty advisors.

In a progressive school, faculty advisors view themselves as advisors to the "whole child." They frequently work together in grade-level teams and receive ongoing professional development in their expanded roles as advisors.

Academic support or learning resource teachers in traditional schools spend most of their time working one-on-one with students or with small groups of students, offering in-house tutoring to help them with course work.

Academic support or learning resource teachers in progressive schools spend a significant portion of their time working with the faculty, educating them about learning differences and advising them how they can adapt their curricula and pedagogy to meet the needs of students with a variety of learning differences.


Student-Faculty Relations

In traditional schools, relationships between students and faculty are friendly, but a certain formality prevails. However close they may be, students rarely, if ever, call faculty members by their first names. Student and faculty lounges, dining areas, and hangout spaces are usually separate from each other, and each group respects the privacy of the other group's informal spaces. The school maintains certain public spaces which students rarely enter except on official business.

Student-faculty relationships in progressive schools are less formal. Students are on a first-name basis with many faculty. Students hang out in or near faculty offices, students and faculty eat in the same areas and sometimes at the same tables, and there are few private spaces for either group. The school maintains few, if any, public spaces from which students are normally excluded.


Student Behavior

Whether or not students in traditional schools wear uniforms, there is likely to be a dress code that prohibits the wearing of several items that students normally wear outside of school. Faculty also observe a dress code. Rules and regulations are clearly spelled out, as are the processes for handling violations of both major and minor rules and regulations and the likely consequences of those violations. Although they may work with Disciplinary Committees, principals and other administrators are primarily responsible for handling alleged violations of major school rules. Those in charge of managing student behavior have discretion, but they respect and normally follow past precedents.

Both students and faculty in progressive schools frequently wear the same kinds of clothes to school that they wear every day. Major rules may be clearly spelled out, along with the process for handling their violation and the possible consequences of those violations, but minor rules and regulations may be less clearly articulated. Representative students and faculty play a significant role in handling alleged violations of major school rules. Although those in charge of managing student behavior are aware of past precedents, they exercise wide discretion in handling individual cases.


Governance and Decision-Making

Independent schools generally offer teachers a high degree of academic freedom, but in a traditional independent school this freedom comes up against the high value such schools normally place on a carefully articulated curriculum and consistency of expectations among teachers. The curriculum in a given course is likely to grow out of a consensus among the teachers of that course, but individual teachers will normally not depart from that consensus, and change in the curriculum will happen only slowly. Department chairs regularly monitor tests, paper assignments, and grading patterns to ensure that a certain measure of consistency prevails among individual teachers in the department.

Progressive schools normally give more freedom to individual teachers, even within a core or required course. There is likely to be a broad consensus about curriculum, but even within multi-section courses individual teachers will likely diverge from each other in the details of their curricula and pedagogy. Department chairs normally monitor assignments and grading patterns only in response to complaints from students and parents about inconsistencies in grading and expectations.

Governance and decision-making in traditional independent schools normally follows clearly established guidelines. The Board of Trustees concerns itself chiefly with advancement, facilities, finance, and strategic planning, leaving the academic program largely to the administration and faculty. Most communication between the Board and the school administration and faculty flows through the Head of School and perhaps one or two key administrators involved in advancement or finance. The Education Committee is not a very strong or influential committee. Although they will normally be consulted about facilities enhancements, faculty do not normally concern themselves with advancement, finance, or strategic planning.

In progressive schools, there will normally be a fair amount of regular contact between trustees and the faculty and administration, and decision-making may be more diffuse and less clearly articulated. The Education Committee may play an active role in academic policy, and faculty members may sit on a number of Board committees. In progressive schools, the faculty will also play an ongoing role in strategic planning. There will be a regular program of educating the Board about the academic program and issues facing the faculty and administration, and a similar program of educating the faculty about issues related to advancement and finance.


What Does It All Mean?

The above description suggests that traditional schools differ from progressive schools in what they teach. In their reliance on discrete departments, in the curricula and pedagogy of those departments, in their approach to student behavior and to the autonomy of the individual teacher, traditional schools place a premium on the received wisdom of their predecessors as to what is worth learning.

Progressive schools usually have a "wide tent" approach to the question of what is worth learning. A larger share of the literature, history, and languages of the world are worthy of study, and the process of learning frequently matters as much as what's learned.

Traditional teachers usually regard their school as a special place, separated from the students' everyday lives. With that separation comes certain ceremonies of dress and behavior that students are expected to learn.

Progressive teachers see the school as an extension of the students' everyday lives. There are no formal spaces and no prescribed codes of dress or behavior governing the faculty's interaction with students.

Regarding decision-making, in traditional schools jurisdictions are clearly marked out. Most decisions are made by an individual or small group closely involved with the area.

In progressive schools everybody gets to weigh in on everything. Individuals or small groups may have the responsibility or authority to make decisions, but much of their time is spent getting input from a wide array of voices.

John Love

John Love is upper school principal at Ethical Culture Fieldston School (New York).