Which School is Better? Traditional or Progressive

For over a century, there has been conflict among public officials, researchers, educators, and parents over whether traditional or progressive ways of teaching reading, math, science, and other subjects are best. Nowhere has this unrelenting search for the one best way of teaching a subject or skill been more obvious than in the search for “good” schools. Such debates have masked the unadorned fact that there is more than one kind of “good” school.
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What follows is a verbal collage of two elementary schools I know well. School A is a quiet, orderly school where the teacher’s authority is openly honored by both students and parents. The professional staff sets high academic standards, establishes school rules that respect differences among students, and demands regular study habits from the culturally diverse population. Drill and practice are parts of each teacher’s daily lesson. Report cards with letter grades are sent home every nine weeks. A banner in the school says: “Free Monday through Friday: Knowledge–Bring Your Own Container.” These snippets describe what many would call a “traditional” school.

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School B prizes freedom for students and teachers to pursue their interests. Most classrooms are multiage (6- to 9-year-olds and 7- to 11-year-olds). Every teacher encourages student-initiated projects and trusts children to make the right choices. In this school, there are no spelling bees; no accelerated reading program; no letter or numerical grades. Instead, there is a year-end narrative in which a teacher describes the personal growth of each student. Students take only those standardized tests required by the state. A banner in the classroom reads: “Children need a place to run! Explore!” This brief description describes what many would call a “progressive” school.

Both schools A and B are “good” schools. What parents, teachers, and students at each school value about knowledge, teaching, learning, and freedom differs. Yet both public schools have been in existence for 25 years. Parents have chosen to send their children to the schools. Both schools have staffs that volunteered to work there. Annual surveys of parent and student opinion have registered praise for each school; teacher turnover at each school has been virtually nil; each school has had waiting lists of parents who wish to enroll their sons and daughters.

Moreover, both schools have compiled enviable records in academic achievement, measured by standardized tests. School A was in the top 10 schools in the entire state. School B was in the upper quartile of the state’s schools.

Both of these “good” schools differ dramatically from one another in how teachers organize their classrooms, view learning, and teach the curriculum. One is clearly traditional in transmitting to children the best knowledge, skills, and values in society. The other is progressive in its focus on students’ personal and social development. Each serves different goals; each honors different values. Yet–and this is the important point–these seemingly different goals are not inconsistent. They derive from a deeply embedded, but seldom noted, common framework of what parents and taxpayers want their public schools to achieve.

This common framework is the core duty of tax-supported public schools to pass on to the next generation democratic attitudes, values, and behaviors. Too often taxpayers and parents take for granted this linkage between public schools and civic life. A few examples elaborate what I mean by democratic attitudes, values, and behaviors:

* Open-mindedness to different opinions and a willingness to listen to such opinions.

* Respect for values that differ from one’s own.

* Treating individuals decently and fairly, regardless of background.

* Commitments to talk through problems, deliberate, and struggle toward compromises.

Current talk about national goals, standards, and No Child Left Behind is about being first in the world in science and math achievement; it is about preparing students to use technology to get better jobs. Except when public officials hand out diplomas, very little is said about democratic values and behaviors as a primary purpose of schooling.

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Why is it so hard to get past the idea that there is only one kind of “good” school? The deeply buried but persistent impulse in the United States to create a “one best system” has kept progressives and traditionalists contesting which innovations are best for children, while ignoring that there are more ways than one to get “goodness” in schools.

Until Americans shed the view of a one best school for all, the squabbles over whether a traditional schooling is better than a progressive one will continue. Such a futile war of words ignores a fundamental purpose of public schooling to revitalize democratic virtues in each generation and, most sadly, avoids the many “good” schools that already exist.

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