Steve Delapp: Reflections on Traditional and Progressive Education

Looking Both Ways

Principal Comments  September 14, 2005 Clara Barton Open School


We are living in an era of ideological extremes.  It’s most obvious in the political arena but, in reality, the either/or, right versus wrong, good versus evil characterizations that inundate us daily through the media and our public leaders are influencing policy decisions in all of our lives, educational institutions included. Schools are now evaluated by one set of tests with results simplified into a five star rating system served on a stick at the State Fair.  Minnesota had its own version of an educational extremist when Cheryl Yecke rode into town to serve as our Commissioner of Education. No matter what her qualifications were, it was ultimately her extremism at one end of the continuum that made her unfit for leadership in the state department of education.  The MN Senate clearly made the right choice in rejecting her nomination. 

I want to explore a way of thinking about opposites that might help us understand what progressive education is all about, and, maybe, be useful in trying to sort out what is happening even beyond the world of education. We have the largest student enrollment (760) in all the years I’ve been principal here (14).  We have 94 students new in grades 1-8 and over half of the kindergarten class made up from new families to the school.  It’s more important than ever that we work together to build good understandings of what progressive education is. Beyond the number of new families, I’d argue that this task is even more essential because of the political climate that surrounds us. Educational policies are increasingly more conservative and narrow in scope, the prime example being Federal legislation dictating accountability standards to institutions that historically have been the epitome of local, democratic control. We live in unusual times to say the least, especially for those of us who desire progressive democratic schools for our children. 

Developmental psychologists have been thorough in articulating the stages children go through as their thinking develops. What is obvious to parents and educators are the significant steps children make as they progress from thinking that is tied to concrete experiences, real things, to thinking that is more abstract, generalized. We see this most profoundly in the school years during the transitions 5th and 6th graders are starting to make in being able to understand more complex mathematical problems but it is reflected in the middles graders’ response to all subject matter. The more theorizing, generalizing, abstracting students can do the more complex the curriculum becomes, progressively through the high school years. What’s missing in most descriptions of thinking development is an articulation of what comes after formal, abstract thinking. Adult development that moves beyond abstract thinking incorporates this step: the ability to hold conflicting, contradictory ideas at the same time and to see these opposites as tensions or polarities that might reveal truths on each side. The writer/poet Donald Hall has said it this way, “truth is always contradiction. There can be no clear and distinct force of emotion that is not contradicted by an opposite force.  Only contradiction allows any possibility of growth and learning.” I know this all sounds a bit esoteric but bear with me.  I’m going to start with some examples that I think all of us can relate to…

The reading curriculum wars exemplify the most visible of the either/or thinking battles in education…whole language/literature based reading programs versus phonics/skilled based programs (progressives versus traditionalists). These wars are real and have influenced many state legislatures and local school boards in dictating one way or the other in regards to officially approved reading programs. But anyone who clings to one position in this tension ends up neglecting the different ways that children actually learn. The truth about how children learn to read lies in the tension between these extremes. Many kids do learn to read because of rich opportunities to engage in authentic reading and writing experiences. All children need these authentic experiences. Some children need a more sequenced skills approach before they are able to internalize the range of strategies that makes one a reader. An open school program must continually adapt instructional materials to fit the needs of children, rather than thinking children will fit into a prescribed reading program. 

The field of mathematics is engaged in its own battle of extremes, or its own version of whole language versus phonics. The names are changed to fit the discipline but the war is the same: a conceptual, applied, problem-solving approach versus a tightly sequential, skills-based, drill and memorize the rules approach. This battle is compounded by general perspectives from the public that faster and more in mathematics is better than deeper with increasingly more complex applications. But the best math teachers recognize that the truth is in the tension…there are important pulls in each direction and some kids need more or less of one than the other but all kids need teachers who see both ways.

In the late 1960’s, when open classrooms were being implemented in pockets throughout this country, there was often more understanding of what this progressive approach was against, rather than what it actually stood for. Certainly the rigidity, uniformity and lifelessness of the mainstream curriculum were worth moving away from. But without clear images of where we were going, there emerged as many sloppy practices in open education as there were irrelevant programs on the traditional side.  Things have changed dramatically since those early beginnings, and Barton, as one open school with a long history, has benefited from many years of better understandings of learning and instructional practices that have paid attention to children as unique learners. Children, no matter what the rhetoric from the No Child Left Behind legislation, just don’t seem to come off the educational assembly line looking like their neighbor. They differ in temperament, aptitude, intellect, social competence, and emotional vulnerability. And, of course, all children are alike in some ways and every child resembles certain children more than others. 

Here’s my basic premise…

A healthy, vibrant progressive school, like Barton, must ground itself in the best tenets of traditional education. And, conversely, a solid, thoughtful traditional program, like Barton’s, empowers learners when it reaches for the best tenets of progressive education. We can live in both worlds if we see a dynamic tension between them, rather than a right or wrong way of doing things. 

Maybe a more helpful metaphor for us, rather than tensions, contradictions or opposites, is to remind ourselves that, when educating our children, we need to look both ways. It’s good basic advice when it comes to crossing streets. I think it’s one of the more helpful ways to talk about a progressive school program like Barton’s. We’ll just say to others who want to know what were doing, “we’re looking both ways.” 

Here are some examples from an article in the Kappan (with the subtitle “Tapping the Best of Traditional and Progressive Education”) with a little elaboration on my part…

Traditional tenet: Uphold standards of excellence in evaluating student work. I have no trouble with this tenet although I’m regularly troubled by the narrow way we measure learning through standardized tests but that’s another issue.

Progressive tenet: Do not try to make one standard fit all learners. The performance standard for what can reasonably be expected of a particular learner at a particular time, in any given domain, may differ from that which is reasonable to expect of another learner, even one of the same age group.

Traditional tenet: Provide firm foundations for children in the intellectual development of reading, writing and mathematics.

Progressive tenet: Recognize that the social, physical and emotional life of the child needs to be as much a priority as the measured academic achievement—perhaps even a greater priority. Just because we don’t have the measurement tools for things like cooperation, responsibility, self-control, honesty, courtesy, empathy should never allow us to undervalue these qualities in a school environment. 

Traditional tenet: Discipline-based knowledge is the firm foundation on which interdisciplinary/thematic learning takes place. Subject area perspectives provide critical perspectives, essential knowledge and tools of inquiry.

Progressive tenet: Recognize that learners search for holistic knowledge. Discipline based learning is necessary but it is not sufficient for helping students developing a harmonious and coherent set of lenses on the world. Students desire and schools need to assist them in developing understandings that reflect real knowledge integration.  

Traditional tenet: Not all topics and questions are of equal worth.Teach that which is of deepest value for students. With tactful insistence, hold students to clear, critical thinking that is rooted in powerful ideas.

Progressive tenet: Do not treat the mind of the child as if it were a receptacle. Mindful learning requires an engaged learner. Learners interpret new information in terms of what they already believe to be true. Honor what children bring to the text.

Even within progressive education tenets, there’s a need to look both ways…

Create opportunities for individual choice and self direction in learning, as well as, create opportunities for cooperative group work that demands intellectual and social give and take for learners.  

Give students opportunities to make decisions about what is studied and how something will be studied, as well as, give teachers opportunities to make decisions about what is studied and how something is studied. Both ways should tap into passions of the learner, teachers too.  

Give students a balanced experienced with the arts, the humanities and the sciences, looking several ways here. Our preoccupation with standardized testing is driving the curriculum to extremes in many schools where there is no time for science, no time for the arts; we have to practice for the reading and math tests…

Our Leadership Council is committed to providing several opportunities this year for Barton parents to explore the educational tenets that make for a healthy progressive school. For lack of a better term we have casually referred to these sessions as Barton 101. A first one will be scheduled for Thursday, October 27, with additional details to follow in our school newsletter.  We hope that many of

you will be willing to participate in these beginning community discussions of what is open education and how can we best meet the needs of our children?

Let me review the basic premise I’ve tried to highlight tonight…

A healthy, vibrant progressive school, like Barton, must ground itself in the best tenets of traditional education. And, conversely, a solid, thoughtful traditional program, like Barton’s, empowers learners when it reaches for the best tenets of progressive education. We can live in both worlds if we see a dynamic tension between them, rather than a right or wrong way of doing things. Looking both ways is what’s best for our children and it’s ultimately what’s best for parents and teachers who share the responsibility for creating the conditions that nurture all children as learners. Thank you.

—Steven R. DeLapp, Principal

Steve DeLapp: Reflections on NCLB and AYP

No Triathlete Left Behind

Principal Comments, September 9, 2004 Clara Barton Open School


The No Child Left Behind legislation has certainly created quite a stir with policy makers and educators. Although the law is flawed in many ways, one cannot and should not argue with the belief that all our children must succeed in school, not just a privileged few. The law’s accountability perspectives are narrow and misleading. The tests themselves are often instructionally insensitive and too much of a one-time event to capture the real learning that is taking place for children. But, if we strip away the conflicting politics behind the law, underlying its best intentions is the recognition that we can no longer use students living in poverty, students learning English for the first time, or students who come to school with learning disabilities as excuses for children not learning. All of these must be seen as important conditions that influence a learner’s starting point in school but never as excuses for why we can’t teach them.  And, no matter what the starting point for our students, beginning way ahead of the curve or way behind, we must believe, and act on the belief, that all children will learn with enough time and resources, and good teaching geared to the unique needs of the individual child.  That belief is the very heart of our open school mission.

It’s the accountability perspectives and the negative labeling of schools that irks me the most about the NCLB law and the AYP list. I want to illustrate what’s problematic with this system through a personal example and then come back to the work we have to do this year as a school community. 

I will frame this story for you as No Triathlete Left Behind.  Here are the details… Through the experience of watching my youngest son compete in a triathlon four years ago, and then, the next year, entering a triathlon as a member of a relay team with my wife swimming, me biking and my oldest son running (we were still beat by my youngest son doing the course on his own), I decided I really wanted to do a triathlon myself. The problem was I couldn’t swim. I not only couldn’t swim. I was afraid of the water and found it very difficult to put my head under water. With the help of our sons’ high school cross country coach, Ben Zhao, I began a training program to learn to swim. During that first season, Zhao emphasized having fun in the water and simply learning to relax. Now I want you to know that “water fun” was an oxymoron as far as I was concerned but I persevered. In my impatient style, I eventually learned a sidestroke that enabled me to cover some distance slowly with my head out of water. When I put on a wet suit, the newly discovered buoyancy gave me great confidence. I felt I was ready for a triathlon.

As it turned out, the swimming component in my first triathlon was cancelled because of thunderstorms and lightening on the morning of the race. It’s not good form to send a thousand triathletes into a lake when a storm is overhead. The race was changed to a duathlon -- run, bike, run, and I finished in the middle of my age group.  Not too bad for an old man; clearly age and grade level proficient.

Zhao kept coaching me the following year. Through weekly workouts, I made the gradual change over from the sidestroke to real free style swimming, the head-in-the-water kind. I even passed on the need for a wet suit and figured out I really could complete a quarter mile swim on my own power. I can’t say I was ever having much fun in the water but I knew I wasn’t panicking because of the fear of drowning anymore.

This past summer’s triathlon was the real thing for me. I swam, incredibly slow, but I swam. I was passed before the turn around point by most of the swimmers in the wave that started three minutes behind our wave. My oldest son stayed with me, out of the family’s concern that maybe I wouldn’t make it after all. He yelled directions at me occasionally when I got off course and made feeble attempts to lift my head out of the water to see where I was going. Training in the YMCA pool had not prepared me well for the need to look up occasionally in the lake.  

I felt great coming out of the water realizing I had actually completed the swim. The bike and run portions were accomplished in a similar pace to the previous year’s race.  And, although I had expected to finish in the middle of my age group again, I was a little surprised and somewhat disappointed when I discovered that I had finished almost last in my age group this year. Well, the swim time was really slow…

In applying the No Triathlete Left Behind/AYP age level proficiency standards to my performance (and here I’m borrowing headlines from the Star Tribune articles about the AYP school list), I was under performing, lagging, failing and, as one article put it this fall, ailing. I didn’t feel like I was ailing or failing but if adequate yearly progress was measured by a rigid grade level proficiency, and I was almost last in my age group, then clearly I was an under performer and not making adequate yearly progress. 

The flaw in the accountability system is clear. If we really want to measure progress with our learners, then accounting for starting points for individuals is essential.   In most cases the schools on the AYP list have groups of children who need more time, more resources, and definitely good teaching and coaching to continue to make progress reaching a proficiency standard. But the label itself tells us nothing about the progress these students have made because where they have started from is discounted in the measurement system, whether it’s in the challenge of learning English as a second language, overcoming a learning disability or in overcoming one’s fear of the water in learning to swim. 

What’s wrong with Steve that he finished so low in his age group in the triathlon this year?  What’s wrong with Barton now that we are listed as a school that is not making adequate yearly progress for one of its cohorts of students in reading? 

The answer in both cases is that there’s nothing wrong. Both situations involve learners who started quite a ways below the proficiency standard, students new to the game so to speak, and both situations involve learners who need more time and practice, and targeted coaching and teaching to help assure ongoing progress. 

No matter what labels are attached to us from the outside because of this federal legislation, Barton School must continue to act on the strong belief that all our students can and will learn to their fullest potential. As we welcome growing numbers of children new to our school who need more time to learn what’s tested in reading and mathematics, because they are simultaneously engaged in learning to speak English as a second or even third language, we must renew our commitment and school mission to meet all learners at the levels they come to us.  

I am grateful that we have a Leadership Council that has dedicated school fundraising resources this year to support our ELL program. I am grateful that we have open school teachers who are driven professionally to know children as individuals and to tailor curriculum and instruction to meet their unique needs. And I am grateful that we have involved parents in this school who want what’s best for all our children, not simply their own.  

The AYP label is not an indictment against the school but the simple realization that we now, more than ever before, have groups of kids with different starting places as learners. Amidst an external political climate that is negative and cynical about public education and urban schools in particular, let all of us reaffirm that the greatest gift we can offer our children in school are educational opportunities that match personalized teaching to the full range of learning needs that children bring to us. If I can learn to swim, I know we can accomplish anything at Barton Open School.

--Steven R. DeLapp, Principal