The Long-term Impact of Progressive Education

Why Independent Schools Should Become an Educational Research Lab: One School’s Experiment

Written by Emily Jones. As originally published on the Independent School Magazine blog by NAIS.

How do schools know what makes a long-term difference in their students’ lives? Which students are their schools best suited to serve?

To find the answers to these crucial questions, The Putney School (Vermont), a progressive 9-12 grade boarding school of 230 students, embarked on a longitudinal study eight years ago. As head of school, I admit that we launched this research project under the impression that for most students, progressive education is superior to more traditional models. However, we had no hard evidence to support this assumption. As we worked, we kept in mind Howard Gardner’s challenge to schools: Avoid standardized testing and offer other evidence of efficacy.

In the study, Putney set out to find scientific correlations between a few related areas:

    • Measurable factors that students bring with them to the school / students’ success at Putney;
    • students’ particular experiences at Putney / their success as students and community members here;
  • what they bring with them, what happens at Putney / the traits and experiences that produce creative citizens of the world.

How Putney Administers the Survey

When first-year students arrive on campus, they complete an hour-and-a-half survey in which they self-report about several aspects of their experience: their socioeconomic circumstances; cultural literacies; interests and talents; health behaviors and beliefs; and personality traits, including hope, resilience, locus of control, and empathy.

Students complete the same survey at the end of each year. We collect data on many facets of students’ lives at school, including health, service, behavior, course selection, grades, dorm, and leadership positions. Parents must sign permission forms for their children to participate in the study, and a good majority of them do so.

Then, we survey alumni every five years after graduation, asking them about their career and family choices; cross-cultural experience; self-esteem; self-reported success, health, social, and political activism; and involvement in the arts and music. The faculty also take the survey annually, as they are part of the environment that the students are steeped in during boarding school.

To maintain absolute confidentiality, we employ a researcher who has no other role on campus.

The survey work does not cost much or consume much institutional time.

Early Results

Because the study is designed primarily to look at the long-term impact of progressive education, we have only preliminary data so far, and only on correlations during the years that students are still at school. Much of what we see would likely be true for most teenagers: that poor attachment style correlates with anxiety, and that self-reported low self-control correlates with self-reported substance use.

Other things may be more specific to our school: that students who describe themselves as honest, trustworthy, and reliable, and score highly on self-control are most likely to make it through their first year successfully. This fits in an environment with high expectations and no systems of force in place.

The Positive Byproduct

Putney’s school culture has benefited greatly from the study. Leaders and faculty have become far more attuned to the wide variety of factors that form a student’s personality, belief system, learning style, successes, and struggles. While we have shared some data with the faculty, we are very cautious about doing so with students in order to not influence the outcomes.

As we are able to investigate the data further, we hope to gain insight into what practices and policies may be the most effective for student learning, and what impact our curriculum and pedagogical style have on different kinds of students. And we hope to be able to respond to Howard Gardner’s challenge.

Significance of Aggregate Data

I believe more independent schools should collect these data so that we can learn about the efficacy of our school programs. Indeed, the very independence of our schools gives us the opportunity, and perhaps the responsibility, to function as a broad educational laboratory. Many of our schools are making strides in using real data in the business and admission offices. Still, too often we believe we are too small, and our students too various, to deliver data that’s meaningful. Looking at key questions in the aggregate and over the long term makes the smallness of the data set less of an impediment.

Similar work has been done in the past. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Eight Year Study sought to compare outcomes in college for students in progressive and traditional schools. The study included 30 independent and public high schools and more than 250 colleges, tracking a total of 1,475 students from high school through college. (See “Daring to Be Independent: Revisiting the Eight-Year Study” by Kelley J. D. Waldron in the Fall 2011 issue of Independent School magazine). As more traditional schools begin to embrace progressive teaching methods, it would be ideal for independent schools to take up this work again.

Impetus from Higher Education

There is new urgency in this area. Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Turning the Tide” report released in January 2016 suggests that college admission offices ought to consider more than grades and scores when admitting students. The report recognizes that significant problems in our society have resulted from the messages that colleges have been sending schools about what is necessary for admission to college and, by implication, for life after high school.

The report essentially urges colleges to ask high schools to help students “become more generous and humane in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves,” and it pushes colleges to undertake to admit these students. The report has been endorsed by many college admission officers and other stakeholders in the admission world.

It will be increasingly important for educators preparing students for college to show progress on the traits cited in the report, many of which are not so easily quantified. Although an anonymous longitudinal study does not provide fodder for an individual’s college application, it can give a school clear feedback on what is and isn’t working in its program, provide clarity for the school’s admission office, and contribute valuable research to the larger educational community.

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