School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture

When we talk about creating a transformative moment in a school, the goal is to move the curriculum and the culture to a new place. What is misleading about this kind of talk is that it sounds as if the place where the school lands will represent a new stationary normal when in fact the goal is to transform the school into a progress-culture, in which normal will include the ongoing ability to reflect on and respond to a changing world. If we are to help create a generation that will lead the world ethically, morally, entrepreneurially, and passionately, we must be open to reimagining the means by which we strive to accomplish that goal.

Schools are in many ways repositories for the way we used to do things in the larger culture. For instance, the academic schedules we use are by and large artifacts of the assembly line and the industrial revolution. Place the daily schedule of a student in 1910 against the one most of our sons and daughters navigated last week and you will be startled by the similarity. The goal of the schedule from the early part of the twentieth century was to deliver content. The emphasis was rarely on trying to help students become critical thinkers—the focus was centered obsessively with rote memorization. What we are trying to accomplish has changed dramatically, yet the schedule has remained, leaving us trying to get to the moon in a Singer Sewing Machine. While the world we live in has long since become post-industrial, we still strive to prepare our kids for it with an industrial model.

Our job in a transformative moment is to become a progress-culture. I have been using this language recently because I have not found terminology elsewhere that captures what I think should be our top priority. A progress-culture will:

  • Always make what is best for students the alpha and omega of the conversation.
  • Ask hard questions about why we do what we do in the context of the specific strategic vision of the school.
  • Be resolute in building in the best answers to those questions into the fabric of the school.
  • Be thoughtful in defining what progress is.  In other words, keep a keen eye on what should never change in the school.  For example, if we are “college-preparatory,” we should not take steps that would diminish our ability to do that well.  In fact, part of our motivation should be to improve the way we prepare students for college and for the college admissions process.
  • Develop a faculty community that will be strong enough to implement the best ways forward.
  • Recognize the importance of inclusive and consistent communication with all constituents.  (I wrote about this in an earlier blog entry entitled, “The Role of Communication in Establishing a Progress Culture”).  Part of our goal here is to make such a compelling case to our constituents about the need to create a progress-culture that they hold us explicitly accountable for our steps to create and maintain one.
  • Become nationally positioned to lead other educational institutions in this good work.

21 thoughts on “School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture

  1. adchempages (@adchempages) October 25, 2011 / 6:42 am

    It would be churlish, perhaps even completely wrong, to disagree with anything you have said here, and indeed I would expect all intelligent educators to concur (although I STILL think delivery of content is fundamental and crucial and must not be eschewed at the expense of ‘softer’ skills), but the ‘rubber meets the road’ in the first two sentences of bullet-point #4. The critical conversations revolve around what’s worth changing and what should never change.

    • Agnes November 1, 2011 / 10:42 pm

      Many in our faculty community are looking forward to such critical conversations so that they can “implement the best ways forward,” once the best ways forward become clear.

  2. Advancing the Teaching Profession November 6, 2011 / 11:57 am

    Reflecting on the Progress-culture and a recent post by Emily Anderson in edu180atl (, I am left wondering if any of this is possible in the hectic and fast-pace culture of independent schools. We “want to accomplish so much.” The emphasis should be on “so much.” I’m not at all confident that we have the resolve to restructure the organization to build in more reflective time, time for students and faculty to reflect on what is being taught and learned. From my seat, if that could happen it would transform schools. However, I am skeptical that could happen in a school that slios its disciplines, silos its teachers, and marches students from class to class in 50 minutes blocks. As Emily writes in her post, we have to slow things down. I would argue that is has to start with leadership, then move to the faculty and then rebuild the school culture. If not, it will continue to be a “rat race” in which we jockey for position, time, and student attention. Progress-cultures are places where people are in open, honest, and thoughtful dialogue about important ideas and not constrained by the clock.

    Bob Ryshke

    • J Ross Peters November 6, 2011 / 1:05 pm


      While there are several thoughts here that would require conversation beyond the confines of a comment thread on a blog, I will say that I do not share your lack of confidence that schools can take transformative steps as individual institutions or as independent schools generally (I was unsure in your comment when you were speaking about a specific school or about independent schools generally). I am certain that if we lack confidence that progress can occur and if we lack resolve to make it happen, we will be rewarded with schools a decade hence that have not moved beyond our current predicament. FInding answers to silos that limit us, finding real time for teachers to collaborate, and working to create a more balanced day for students will be, I believe, the beginning of transformation. I agree that the standard academic schedule is not built to do all that we need it to do. It can act as a straight jacket of sorts for students and faculty, and I look forward to the conversation in which we try to see what would serve each constituent better. Having seen a very different schedule go from the seed of an idea to execution at a school, I am confident schools can break out from the weight of the old schedule model, and that the other side of the process of developing a schedule can reduce the static in the day that places such a harsh governor on progress.

      • Advancing the Teaching Profession November 6, 2011 / 3:21 pm

        i totally agree with you Ross that this conversation needs a vehicle other than a comment on a blog post. Real work needs to be done as you suggest. After reading something from Agnes on our EE Ford Cohort Ning, a reference to your blog on Progress Culture, and having just read Emily Anderson’s post on edu180Atl, I felt the issue about student stress related to workload, progress culture, and transformative change were all converging in my mind. There is a relationship here, the slowing down. But as Peter Cobb suggests, the slowing down can’t mean lowering the bar. So if we don’t lower the bar, then I think we have to collaborate more on integrating our courses, building collaborative assignments, and focusing on depth of knowledge rather than breath. These are significant but challenging problems.

        Thanks Ross!


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