Choosing a School


This past week, I received a long e-mail from a friend, a single professional mom in Manhattan with a 3-year-old boy. I asked her permission if I could post it on this blog (lightly edited), where I could respond to it.

There’s multiple issues she’s soliciting advice about, so I’m going to respond to it in sections.


Traditional vs. Progressive Schooling

Hey guys.

I think I may have sent you guys an email about this before, but wanted to touch base again now that the time is drawing closer.  What are your thoughts about traditional schooling vs. progressive schooling? …

I’m currently zoned for a great school. It scores well across the board on the common measures that the state uses — the students score above average for the district as well as above average for the state. Many parents are happy with it. Critiques are that it’s “traditional” schooling — as in, teacher-centered and led, behaviorist — as in, they reward behavior with sticker charts and have consequences for bad behavior — and moms are concerned that this is extrinsic motivation and can kill the intrinsic motivation for learning. They also have less recess time. 

If I move a few blocks down, I’m in a different zone with “progressive” schools. These are often labeled “student-centric” where instead of having subjects like math, science, etc., they have “units” with a topic (like “Water”) and integrate the math/science/social studies into each unit. They don’t have multiple choice tests and focus more on kids explaining their answers so they have a thought process (this is all regurgitation from what I heard on the school tour). To me this means essay tests all the time.   They do a lot of field trips and many families opt out of standardized testing. On common metrics used by the state these schools typically do not score as well — but this may be because they don’t teach to the test the way the other school would.

How much does any of this matter?  What are your opinions on these things? What kind of school would you want your kid to be in? Obviously I’m a product of traditional schooling, so something with known results like the former school feels like a safe choice, but the progressive schooling options sound enticing, especially since Drew is shy and introverted, and I fear he may get lost and overlooked at a traditional school. Is it all fluff and crunchiness? Is it worth moving a few blocks down to be in that district? Do those kids grow up to be potheads? Does it even matter at all since it’s elementary school K-5?

Let me break this up into two concerns: 1) Which is better, traditional or progressive pedagogical approaches? and 2) Does it really matter for early education?

I have taken several sharp turns in my educational approach over the course of my career. My current thinking is that while the best practices in a more traditional approach are more efficient and effective in transmitting content and curriculum, they assume a reductive understanding of human learning, motivation, and growth. Well thought-out progressive approaches are not only more humane but make more holistic sense.

If I could make an analogy, I would say that traditional approaches are akin to traditional free-market economics. They are based on the fiction of simplified individual actors whose behaviors are approximate enough to the real things that they can be the basis of several models and experiments that generate powerful findings and practices.

Progressive approaches advocate a much more complex, systemic view that, unfortunately, may sound nice but have been difficult to verify or research, especially in the past. Most progressive advocates have just taken it on faith that their approaches are as effective, if not more so, than traditional ones, even in the face of discrediting empirical results.

However, much more nuanced analyses and critiques have recently emerged, which have given more evidential oomph to specific progressive claims and approaches. One can see we’re seeing something akin to a behavioral economics movement in education which focuses on how specific human characteristics and behaviors undermine the overreach, maybe even the overall validity, of traditional approaches.

Several things trouble me about your description of the traditional school in your neighborhood: the shorter recesses, the emphases on test scores, the extrinsic motivations. These all, indeed, point to a behaviorist approach that focuses on immediate compliance to achieve measurable results at the expense of long-term consequences for more important but ineffable qualities like executive functioning, independent thinking, and love of learning.

Conversely, the progressive school seems to emphasize interdisciplinary essential questions, experiential learning, and thinking routines, all good things in my book. Given a simple A/B choice based off of your descriptions, I would choose the progressive school hands down.

Project 365 - 11/4/2013 - 308/365

Facts on the Ground

That’s not the choice you really have, however. To choose the progressive school over the traditional one means relocating and upending your life somewhat. Is it really worth it?

Many of the most amazing, innovative teachers I know are primary school teachers. Even in a school with a traditional philosophy of education, there may very well be outstanding teachers who are giving memorable learning experiences to their students. Some of these teachers may even thrive off of the order of such environments, liberating them to focus on a few elements of their pedagogy which are deeply student-centric.

There are also many, many progressive schools out there that talk a good game but actually harbor an essentially conservative approach to education. There are also progressive schools that over-emphasize their philosophy to the neglect or detriment of educational effectiveness. Just because students are given more freedom or choice doesn’t necessarily mean that learning is taking place. It is very, very difficult to integrate a true commitment to the genuine interests and engagement of children with a dedicated system of learning to mastery and sophisticated learning goals — and so it is very, very rare, especially when applied to entire schools.

And regardless of which school you end up choosing, you will almost certainly find that you yourself will need to supplement the education of your child, especially in elementary school. You will need to expose him to cultural events, explain abstract concepts, encourage him to read interesting books, drill him on basic math facts, coach him through tests of his character, and provoke his creativity.

A better school might give you less anxiety about his learning environment during the day, but it probably won’t lessen the amount of parenting you’ll still have to do. Kids are pretty resilient already, and they’ll find ways to stay kids, for good or ill. You might be better off if you find you can take an active role as a concerned parent within the school, fighting for reforms and resources that you think will move the school in the right direction.

That said, early experiences are often formative, and the most significant lessons that kids can learn come not from the daily schedule of instruction but from the culture and environment of the place most familiar to them. You may want to think twice if you suspect that your kid is going to a school that is oppressive, bullying, chaotic, or de-humanizing.

Standardized Test Close-Up

Testing and Tracking

[Additionally], what are your thoughts on standardized testing for 4 year olds? It sounds sort of crazy to me, but the standard track for NYC kids is to do elementary K-5, and then you take a test and apply for middle school, and then you apply again for high school. If you test into a G&T (gifted & talented) program at the age of 4, then you’re guaranteed a spot in the G&T school all the way through high school — no applications and no more additional testing at 5th grade and 8th grade. The tutoring for this is exorbitantly expensive at $150-200 an hour. FOR A FOUR YEAR OLD. 

On the whole, I think standardized testing is terrible for kids but very possibly good for education.

Research has shown that regular testing as a way of enforcing concentrated recall and synthesis of information is very good for learning. Standardized testing, however, does not serve this formative function; to the contrary, it has a purely evaluative role–to assess and rank aptitude against social norms. This does no practical good to the students being tested, but it does add to a database of data that may yield some interesting insights or inquiries for educational research or policy.

Such empirical possibilities may have once seemed sufficient to treat our children as guinea pigs, but it’s now becoming clear that a culture of testing is not neutral and the costs of such mass data collection are getting harder to justify.

In the realpolitik of our current educational environment, though, this Gifted & Talented track provides an interesting temptation. Teachers, like everyone else, have cognitive blindspots, including framing biases. That is to say, they will teach to their prejudicial expectations of students. If they think a kid is bright, they will teach and judge that student according to that label, which, you can imagine, is far preferable than some of the alternatives.

Naturally, parents might go to the extremes to capitalize on this “Ivy League” option; after all, you’re guaranteeing a spot in a cohort of privilege for the rest of public schooling. It’s also a prime example of the kind of messed-up incentive structure that’s possible with standardized testing.

If it was up to me, I’d sign up for the testing this once to see if my kid gets to win the lottery. If they do, great; we’re incredibly lucky. If not, oh well, we’ll just have to make a good impression the old-fashioned way. Regardless of the outcome, I’d opt out of any further testing.

   EENY                              MEENY

Judging Potential Schools

I’ve been touring pre-K’s and I really don’t know what criteria I should be judging these schools on. 


Here’s a list of red flags:

  • School seems singularly invested in a particular educational solution or initiative (i.e., technology)
  • Teachers seem negative or evasive about the principal/administration
  • Order is emphasized over learning
  • Students seem compliant and complacent, not actively engaged
  • You see lots of worksheets
  • You don’t see any display or celebration of student work or creativity
  • Little or no time spent outside
  • Little or no time spent in unstructured play
  • School feels like a prison or mall
  • Ask a student on a screen (smartphone, tablet, computer) what they’re doing and they can’t explain its educational purpose
  • Bullying
  • No time for naps or snacks

And some positive signs:

  • Clear learning objectives within classrooms
  • Mentorship program among teachers
  • Principal respected for educational knowledge/leadership, not just organizational acumen
  • Clear program of communication with parents emphasized
  • Robust special ed support
  • Strong evidence of teacher collaboration
  • Endorsements from parents of diverse backgrounds
  • Lots of age-appropriate learning tools (like math manipulatives)
  • Strong “electives” (art, music, foreign languages)
  • Well-stocked library and well-versed and active librarian
  • Teacher schedules include adequate or abundant preparation time
  • Evidence that the faculty and administration reflect on their practices and plan for the future
  • Your kid establishes rapport with some kids in the school; he finds the social environment comfortable or manageable

Hope this helps,

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