Progressive-Regressive School Programs: Breaking Free | Gregory Martin | 9 Min Read

May 26, 2022

Shiny new things are often the first noticed at a school. As well, trends grab hold of the popular narrative, and schools are forced to create programs that align with whatever way the wind is blowing to address current parents’ anxieties while marketing themselves for the future. Often, new academic and extra-curricular programs are driven by a need or perceived need, to compete with peer institutions lest they lose out on students or be seen as “behind” in the eyes of the independent school marketplace. Lost in all of this hype, fear, and marketing is the core of what schools are supposed to be focused on, education. 

In some ways, we are moving towards an era of progressive regression, in other words, we are starting to reset some of the educational values and programs in a way that is more in line with the pre-industrial model. Before the early 20th century, the very notion of education was a broad concept with different applications in different areas. No, it did not mean university for most people between the ages of 18 and 22. To the average person, many of whom still lived in rural areas or were artisans and tradesmen, education was going to be more practical and aligned with a livelihood. As we progressed into the mid-20th century, this idea began to focus more on what we would call “basic” education, where individuals of varying socioeconomic backgrounds would be taught to read and write to perform the work of the day. Even this varied from region to region and between urban and rural areas. Post World War II saw a push toward science and technology focused on defeating the Soviets in the Cold War while supplying workers for the post-war labor force. Given the limited job opportunities for women, the quality of the teaching force in the U.S. was outstanding, holding for several decades to come. By the 1980s, the industrial economy was winding down and “trade” and “vocational” schools came to be seen as unnecessary and outmoded, thus a shift to the “college for everyone” model that continues to dominate the landscape of education.

As the economy changed so too did majors and the proliferation of the belief that “college” was a requirement for entrance to the American Dream. However, a misalignment between what high schools were teaching and what colleges expected was becoming more and more apparent. As well, the detachment between college majors and skills and what today’s businesses are requiring has become critical and is having an impact on the global competitiveness of the United States. In short, we don’t understand what we are teaching at multiple levels or why we are teaching it. For example, what a college-level sophomore computer science student is learning today will be obsolete by the time they graduate. How can the focus be on skills and mindsets that are either adaptable and transferable or even “future-proof?”

With the college landscape changing yearly and businesses shifting to hiring models that favor skills over content as evidenced by multiple Fortune 500 companies dropping the requirements for college degrees, how can the grades 7-12 sector shift and update programs to be both beneficial today and relevant tomorrow? While the answers are simple, their implementation is not, given certain systemic realities that define independent schools. Traditional structures, traditional models of governance, traditional financial systems, and a traditional view toward education mean even schools that see themselves as “progressive” are very much change-resistant and risk-averse. In this sense, there is a misalignment between catering to what the consumer (parents and alumni) wants and what the educational and labor landscapes of the next two decades will look like with regard to jobs, skills, and needed competencies.

In some ways, schools need to embrace “regressive progress” in a way that reinvigorates broad-based learning in the model of the liberal arts while at the same time offering skills that are easily transferable between industries and give graduates the ability to choose paths that might look different than those of two decades in the past. Siloed subjects and hyper-specialization are no longer what most colleges or businesses want. Enlightenment thinkers were skilled in multiple fields of study ranging from religion to law to medicine to politics to the classics. Today’s thought and business leaders are similar in many ways. Science and technology are important, yet so too are the understanding of economics, communications, marketing, and cultural competency. 

Independent schools have the potential to create programs that better align with the changes occurring at the college level and prepare students for careers. At a time when colleges struggle to define their very purpose, how can 9-12 schools that embrace the notion of “college prep” be clear in what that means? With the SAT becoming less and less important with each admission year (MIT is the standout supporter of the SAT) and AP courses simply not fitting the needs of today’s students or garnering college credit as they are, in theory, supposed to do, what does college prep look like? Project-based learning, student-driven inquiry, capstone programs, and internships/co-ops have become more commonplace, with students expecting more engaging and real-world experiences. This extends to other areas of school life in the same way.

From an academic standpoint, schools must assess the what, how, and why of their departments and the courses being offered. What are the areas of siloing going on that are inconsistent with what universities are starting to do (combined majors and integrated cross-department programs) and what is occurring in the workplace? Are the departments as designed still divided along “subjects” that reinforce hyper-specialization? Some ways to shift the conversation rest in the creation of larger departments that are more reflective of the way modern work is completed. For example, engineering, math, and art all intersect under the umbrella of design, as do civics/history, science, and writing when viewing a challenge such as public health policy or environmental sustainability.

Can schools offer programs where they partner with local colleges and universities to deliver a targeted experience or program to students that would result in credentials, college credits, or both? In this sense, it could be a dual-enrollment scenario or a certificate program that aligns with an industry. With regard to industries, academic partnerships allow students to experience real-world applications of academic skills while building competency that is current and focused on growth and development (such as micro-schools). At the heart of this is the “traditional” schedule, where students spend the hours of 8-3 in classes, then have extra-curriculars, weekends “off”, and long summer vacations. The class day is broken into “periods” and a large chunk of time is often dedicated to athletics and fitness, even for students who may not be so inclined. 

While schools have shifted schedules a bit, in reality, there are only four or five types of schedules in use and most are simply “rearranging the deck chairs” and not really breaking old patterns and molds. That begs the question, can we reimagine the school year in a way that allows greater flexibility and engagement on the part of students and faculty? Summer institutes? The ability to graduate early? (Given the current tuition structure this would be problematic.) Modular course design? Evening and weekend classes that allow for other work during the week? All of these options are available but schools tend to avoid making substantive changes due to several deeply embedded traditions, practices, and mindsets.

The first is the notion of the seasonal nature of schools. There is a rhythm to the year and for many, this schedule works. However, when viewing the American system alongside high-performing OECD countries, I must ask the question, why do we do it this way when the outcomes are not clearly beneficial and we are an outlier? In designing schedules, programs and embedded customs generally drive the narrative. From teachers to parents, the “customers” and the “workers” have clearly defined ideas of what the year and “product” should look like, even when the outside world looks radically different. By reimaging the school year, programs can then be created that give students greater agency, more flexibility, and the possibility of engaging in more in-depth study.

What drives your programs? What is the focus? Who decides what stays, what goes, and how much support a program gets? Is change based on data-informed decisions or something else? Is resistance to change rooted in reality and information or simply fear-based on perceived notions of traditions and values? To start, schools need to focus on their mission. If the mission is deemed fitting and relevant, then all programs should support the mission. From there, decisions should be made based on the mission-aligned nature of what is on offer. Using the existing structures of academics, athletics, and student life as categories, questions can then be formed as to the efficacy of individual programs under these headings. If a school’s mission is focused on academic freedom and creativity, then the courses offered must reflect that. If a school’s mission is focused on global competency or character, then the programs offered in the categories above must support and reflect that. This all seems simple, yet it is far from simple.

Are your programs unique, consistent with the mission, and providing value in the independent school marketplace be it day or boarding? Or, is there a “sameness” present with competitors that make it difficult to discern your school from others? Try cutting and pasting school profiles, missions, and offerings from competitors and see where the overlaps are. How many of your school’s programs are redundant and copies of what other schools have? Now, this doesn’t mean they don’t have value, as parents and students expect certain items at each school, but it also doesn’t set your school apart from others in any unique way. 24 AP courses, 18 varsity athletic teams, two theater productions, 100% college acceptance, and a DEI program apply to nearly every independent school.  So what does your school do that others do not, and, is it marketable to a broad group of consumers? Immersion programs, travel opportunities, real leadership training, and selective programs in the arts, theater, academics, and athletics, are all market differentiators. 

Does your X team or program have a dollar benefit? Does a program yield high and full-pay students because of its uniqueness and value? Or, do programs exist just because everyone else has them and the X team was good in 1984? Does the program offer a positive impact on the school community? If a large chunk of your school’s operating budget goes to a program that is not unique, does not yield high and full-pay students, and might be a net revenue loss, then the time is right to discuss ending such a program and replacing it with lower-cost higher value programs.

Given the changing demographics in the U.S., the economic realities present for millennial parents, and the changing landscape of both higher education and labor, reimagining programs at independent schools should be front and center for boards of trustees and administrations. However, often the focus remains on the status quo, what worked in years past, or keeping up with the Joneses. Rethinking missions, schedules, and programs is a heavy lift, but given the changes occurring around us, schools need to be proactive in meeting the demands and realities of the coming decades. Sadly, some schools will fall by the wayside, but others will innovate and thrive if leadership can see past the short-term and toward the possibilities of what might be.

Greg Martin

Greg grew up in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, and attended the Peddie School, playing football and lacrosse. Greg graduated from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, with a BA in Political Science. He then earned his MA in European History from Western Connecticut State University and his Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy from Drexel University. Greg continues to research, write, and present on staffing models in American boarding schools. His work has been featured in the National Association of Independent Schools magazine. Greg is a regular presenter at the annual The Association of Boarding Schools Conference. Greg has also been a guest on the Enrollment Management Association's podcast several times and has contributed to The Trustees Letter on two occasions. Greg serves on the advisory board for the Independent School MA program at Mount Holyoke College. Greg currently serves as the Humanities Chair at Vermont Academy.

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