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School Choice & Charters Opinion

The New Progressivism Is Here

By Peter Gow — April 29, 2008 6 min read
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In February, I joined nearly 7,000 other educators at a revolutionary gathering in New York City. Probably few in attendance would have characterized the meeting as such, but the discourse, from main themes to individual workshops, was radically different from most mainstream American conversations about education. It promoted educational ideals that combined conventional practice with innovation from the leading edge of educational theory.

Yes, this year’s annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools—an organization many readers may envision as a bastion of elitism and hidebound pedagogy—felt like a countercultural force.

Ever since President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education proclaimed the country A Nation at Risk, 25 years ago this month, the United States has been in the grip of educational forces that are equal parts zealotry and hypocrisy. The zealots have decried “progressive” ideas as the root of all educational evil, from the “collapse” of standards to the enfeebling of character-formation by moral relativism and “multiculturalism.” The hypocrites, meanwhile, have determined that the education systems that produced them could never mass-produce “common” citizens. In compromise, the two sides both have embraced a test-driven, three-R’s-focused, teacher-loathing model of schooling, most succinctly represented by the doublespeak of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Over the same period of time, educational thinkers and a host of individual teachers have developed a body of practice that, when properly executed, addresses the concerns of both zealots and hypocrites. These are approaches to teaching and learning that I call the New Progressivism. Untrammeled by state regulation and the need for instant political accountability, independent schools have become the test bed for the New Progressivism. If the NAIS conference was “about” any single thing, it was a quiet celebration of this New Progressivism.

If the NAIS conference was 'about' any single thing, it was a quiet celebration of this New Progressivism.

As represented in the practice of many independent schools, the New Progressivism has features that combine proven instructional techniques with efforts to prepare students for a globalized, diverse, and complex world. The essential characteristics are these:

Assessment against high standards. Along with their strong emphasis on basic skills, these schools have always been known for high standards, which are hallmarks of the New Progressivist curriculum. Drawing on the ideas of scholars and experts such as Howard Gardner, Grant Wiggins, and Robert Sternberg, New Progressives design crafted, purposeful classroom experiences and assessments using those standards as benchmarks of excellence. Examples include “planning backwards,” varied assessment strategies, project- and problem-based learning, and envisioning textbooks and teachers as resources, rather than as the curriculum itself or general founts of all knowledge.

Professional development. New Progressives believe in mission-driven professional development and a collaborative professional culture. Thoughtful induction and mentoring programs bring new teachers into communities of professional practice, while goals-based evaluation programs build teacher capacity. While it is true that independent schools’ overwhelmingly nonunionized teaching staffs may be more easily brought into line with institutional expectations, all schools can learn from their recruiting and training programs, which build committed faculties with a common set of skills, ideals, and approaches.

Real-world connections. Using their own communities as resources, or having students explore the wider world through projects, research, or even travel, New Progressives are committed to having students build understandings beyond the boundaries of their own world. The independent-school dean Nadine Nelson, a diversity expert, speaks of the “all-terrain kid,” a student prepared to engage with new issues and challenges and quick to understand and accommodate to new situations and cultural norms.

Multiculturalism as a process, not a program. New Progressives believe in creating communities whose members can connect, in every aspect of their education, across differences in race, culture, religion, ability, and way of being. “Multicultural” understandings and a commitment to human rights and social justice do not grow out of reactive or didactic teaching, but flow naturally through the curriculum and through all interactions within the learning community.

Character and creativity. Like the Deweyite Progressives who spoke of “the whole child,” New Progressivism inspires and rewards personal integrity, empathy, hard work, optimism, collaboration, and access to the creative self, along with the ability to reflect on experience and analyze one’s own ways of learning and knowing. Character lessons associated with winning and losing—plus the virtues of competition, teamwork, supreme effort, and physical fitness—have long been part of the independent school tradition of mandatory athletics. Whether secular or faith-based, New Progressivist schools, rather than teaching moral relativism, help students discover and strengthen deep and abiding personal values.

Likewise, progressives have always valued the aesthetic sense as well as the ability to think and feel originally and purposefully. In New Progressive schools, the arts are accorded respect, resources, and recognition of their value. Their students are also encouraged to exercise and develop creativity in other areas, from playing fields to research projects.

Civic engagement. John Dewey believed that education must prepare students to become informed and effective participants in democratic society. New Progressives find ways for students to discover the power of individual agency through service, advocacy, and leadership. Most independent schools are explicitly values-based, and their students are expected to discover ways to put these values to work for the common good.

Technology as tool. New Progressives have been both early adopters of emerging technologies and early skeptics about technology’s promise. They understand that technology is only a tool, albeit an often potent one, to enhance learning by freeing the mind for more interesting and worthy challenges.

Each of the several thousand independent schools represented at the conference had its own mission, culture, and history, but in February we found ourselves united by a sense of a collective mission. Historically, our schools have considered themselves aspiring utopias, intentional communities with the highest academic and personal standards that are also highly desirable places to learn or teach. Although some have been cautious in embracing the New Progressivism (and many still shy away from the “P” word and its residue of ’60s-era associations), the buzz at the conference was all about what one participant described as “the message that business as usual isn’t going to be good enough any more.”

With educators filling Radio City Musical Hall to hear messages of radical change from Sir Ken Robinson and Daniel Pink, and the conference program knee-deep in sessions focused on sustainability, service, global education, diversity, and emerging technologies, it was clear that the ideals of the New Progressivism have taken root.

One does not have to believe that his or her students are “the leaders of tomorrow” to buy in to a philosophy of education that prepares them to enter higher education, the workforce, and civil society as innovative, flexible, and resourceful citizens and thinkers. Nor are independent schools the only places where such thinking prevails—many public schools and public school teachers are achieving extraordinary things with these same techniques. Together, these institutions’ successes should convince educational and political leaders to consider what the New Progressivism might mean for all schools, and all children.

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