Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Progressive vs. Traditional: Reframing an Old Debate

By James H. Nehring — January 31, 2006 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Brian Taylor

BRIC ARCHIVE

I’ve spent many years working in progressive schools, the chief characteristic of which is that they are not traditional.

Or so we say. In fact, the schools I have worked in and admire are mislabeled. And so, too, are the “traditional” schools with which they are unceasingly compared. It’s time to set the record straight: So-called progressive schools are the legacy of a long and proud tradition of thoughtful school practice stretching back for centuries, while so-called traditional schools are the mostly unintended consequence of decades of politically driven and often misguided school reforms that have accumulated like layers of wallpaper on old plaster.

The schools we call progressive are nothing new. They have appeared again and again in the history of American schooling. What is ironic is that each time they emerge, they are termed (sometimes, and unfortunately, by their advocates) as innovative, experimental, break-the-mold, or, well, progressive—and are frequently dismissed on those grounds. But if we extend our historical memory far enough back, what emerges is the unavoidable conclusion that the institutions we commonly call “progressive” are actually schools steeped in tradition. The features of schools that share this tradition are widely known: a curriculum driven by questions, respect for the mind and imagination of the student, a focus on intellectual skills and habits, and the driving conviction that students are not merely empty vessels into which knowledge is poured (the test-prep vision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act), but powerful thinkers whose abilities are best nurtured through artful teaching and thoughtful assessment.

What we call progressive is actually a very traditional education, and what we call traditional is largely the result of outdated policy changes that have calcified into conventions.

Consider just a few examples that happen to be from the Boston area, where I live. In 1834, Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May, the author of Little Women) launched the Temple School, on Tremont Street in downtown Boston. Alcott’s school did not stand “for the inculcation of knowledge, but for the development of Genius—the creative attribute of spirit,” wrote Elizabeth Peabody, an early advocate of Alcott’s work. The children kept reflective journals and were encouraged to express their opinions. Unfortunately, such encouragement of original thought proved too much even for the Boston Unitarians who ruled the city’s intellectual life. Alcott was increasingly criticized by William Ellery Channing, the great Boston preacher, for encouraging “too much analysis” among his pupils. The critics grew louder, pupils withdrew, and soon the Temple School was no more, a casualty of “innovation.”

A generation later, in nearby Quincy, Mass., a Civil War veteran and New Hampshire schoolmaster named Francis W. Parker was hired as the superintendent. Shortly, Parker won over the town and the school committee with his child-centered approach to education. School committee Chairman Charles Adams wrote in a widely distributed article in 1879: “In place of the old lymphatic, listless ‘school marm,’ pressing into the minds of tired and listless children the mystic significance of certain hieroglyphics, … young women full of life and nervous energy found themselves surrounded at the blackboard with groups of little ones who were learning how to read almost without knowing it.” Parker’s notoriety grew, and his work in Quincy was soon described as “newfangled,” an innovative “method.” Parker vocally and wisely resisted such characterizations, insisting that what his teachers were doing in Quincy was simply common sense. But critics managed to sway public opinion through fear of “experimentation,” Parker left Quincy, and the schools eventually returned to a sad normality.

A third example, one generation hence, is the Beaver Country Day School, founded by activist mothers in the Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill. The prospectus of the school from 1923 reads like a manifesto of progressive ideals: “The teacher will guide and use the interests and impulses of childhood rather than repress them. Much of the work will be founded on the pupils’ real or imaginary participation in each situation, rather than on an assignment of rote lessons to be subsequently heard in formal recitations.” The school flourished under the control of wealthy and influential Boston families, and by finding allies among prominent educators and within universities. But it fell on hard times during World War II, as anything perceived as experimental gave way to more conservative demands for rote learning. The school survived by moderating its approach. A Time magazine article of 1945 called the school “not quite so ‘progressive’ as it once was.” Another casualty, it said, of “innovation.” (Admirably, in modern times, the school has reasserted its original mission.)

This is just a sampling of schools in one part of the country. There are many others elsewhere, as well as influential movements past and present that advance the same core convictions: Montessori; the kindergarten movement; Waldorf Schools; the Progressive Education Association of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s; and contemporary beacons of hope such as the Coalition of Essential Schools. Examples abound; the tradition is long. The impulse for thoughtful schooling goes back at least to the Enlightenment (consider Rousseau’s Emile) and, fundamentally, to the marketplace of Athens, where Socrates led his pupils by asking them provocative questions.

In contrast, consider the so-called traditional schools of the contemporary mainstream. The bell schedules that drive them are a holdover from the industrial era. The standardized tests by which they grade and sort students are an innovation of the U.S. Army, intended for recruits during World War I. The graded classroom is a Prussian invention introduced to America by Horace Mann in the 1840s. The Carnegie unit came from a desperate effort by college presidents a hundred years ago to standardize high school education. And the sad isolation under which so many talented teachers labor is the consequence of endeavors to make schools more like assembly lines, where workers fasten on their one bolt a thousand times each day and dare not talk to the laborer on either side.

Far from traditional, such schools represent the almost random accumulation of practices intended for industry, Army procedures, educational “innovations” of the early 1800s, and political maneuvering by elites a century ago.

Of course, schools are not simply one or the other. There are mainstream schools infused with pockets of thoughtful practice. Many teachers and school administrators labor to realize so-called progressive ideals within such places and are continually thwarted by the system. At the same time, many, if not most, so-called progressive schools are forced to contend with layers of distracting convention in the form of regulation, testing mandates, college-admission requirements, and more.

So why do we persist in calling schools that have a long tradition “progressive”? Partly, it’s because Americans love the idea of innovation. But it is due, also, to the fact that anything experimental or innovative is by definition not mainstream, and thus is doomed to occupy the fringe of society. Perennially labeling such schools experimental is the dominant culture’s way of marginalizing the tradition of thoughtful education. And it works, as is clear to see in all three of the examples above.

It is time to reframe the debate. No longer should we inaccurately compare schools as “progressive” or “traditional,” when what we call progressive is actually a very traditional education, and what we call traditional is largely the result of outdated policy changes that have calcified into conventions. I suggest that we speak in terms of traditional practices and conventional practices. Traditional practices are grounded in the wisdom of thoughtful educators with a long history of serving children well. Conventional practice? Well, I would first want to explore its origin and purpose, as well as the evidence of the convention’s value, before I risked my child in any such experiment.

Choosing the right words matters, and the ideas behind those words matter even more for the rising generation. That is why, after many years of toiling happily in traditional schools (rightly defined), I am leaving for a university job in which I will teach and write about them to help set the record straight.

Related Tags:

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned
When I felt myself slipping into a springtime slump, this simple activity reminded me of my “why” as an educator.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
4 min read
052024 OPINION Khoshaba PRINCIPAL end the year with positivity
E+/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks
Missouri lawmakers want to encourage large districts to maintain five-day weeks—even as four-day weeks grow more popular.
7 min read
Calendar 4 day week
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Schools Successfully Fighting Chronic Absenteeism Have This in Common
A White House summit homed in on chronic absenteeism and strategies to reduce it.
6 min read
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. Nationwide, students have been absent at record rates since schools reopened after COVID-forced closures. More than a quarter of students missed at least 10% of the 2021-22 school year.
An empty elementary school classroom is seen on Aug. 17, 2021 in the Bronx borough of New York. A White House summit on May 15, 2024, brought attention to elevated chronic absenteeism and strategies districts have used to fight it.
Brittainy Newman/AP