As an independent K-12 school that encourages individual, inspired learning and strong student-teacher relationships, Catlin Gabel strives towards seemingly progressive elements. The Upper School’s values reflect these ideals, as well as the importance of a strong college-preparatory education. Yet where do these two priorities conflict? Is the Upper School progressive, and, if so, does the community want it to be?
It is important to recognize the three stakeholders — parents, students, and faculty — that decide how Catlin Gabel works, each with varying levels and spheres of influence. While there are certainly members of each group that embrace the idea of a more progressive curriculum, others expect the school to provide a strictly preparatory curriculum.
Catlin Gabel is a member of the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools, a subset of the larger National Association of Independent Schools. In order to maintain membership, every school must undergo an accreditation process to confirm that the school practices what it preaches. Catlin Gabel underwent the screening last fall, and one of the main takeaways the accreditors had was that although Catlin Gabel portrays itself as progressive, it wasn’t clear how the school was furthering this part of its identity, according to math department head Jim Wysocki. Teachers have met on numerous occasions to discuss this issue, although at the moment, Wysocki believes the main concern is “defining exactly what it means to be a progressive school.”
What does it mean to be progressive? Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer who is considered a leading figure in progressive education, offers a multi-faceted definition of what it means to be progressive. In an article titled “Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find,” Kohn defines progressive education as active, collaborative, and community-based learning that attends to the whole child. Progressive education helps students become “not only good learners but also good people,” says Kohn. He emphasizes the importance of the interest of the students: that they should feel intrinsic motivation to learn and that they should have an equally important role in shaping the curriculum and classroom as the educator. Based on this definition, the Upper School does seem to have progressive elements, and lack some others.
“We are definitely not on the extreme end of the continuum in terms of being ultra-progressive,” says Upper School dean Aline Garcia-Rubio. “I think there are many things that we do that are progressive…we’re student centered, so we define academic progress individually…as opposed to [one] student in relationship to other students in the class, we don’t do ranking.”
Wysocki adds that he thinks the Upper School is “less progressive than it likes to think it is.”
Instead, in some ways Catlin Gabel is more culturally progressive than educationally progressive. “Generally speaking there is an equalizing of students and teachers in terms of learning together, [we have] the first name basis, it is a friendly place; the relationships that exist within the community,” Garcia-Rubio clarifies.
“We do tend to have hands-on learning, project-based learning, but that’s a tendency, it’s not that the entire school and every class runs it that way,” adds Garcia-Rubio. She notes that there are different levels of how much the student controls the curriculum; for example in her advanced biology class, students have a lot of input, but in science one, it’s almost none.
But if the lower-level classes were just as student-led as the upper-level ones, would students get the preparation and base they need to move on to those advanced courses? Here is where the controversy lies, between being one of the strongest college-preparatory schools in the state, and remaining true to Ruth Catlin’s and Priscilla Gabel’s progressive ideals. Can Catlin Gabel leverage this balance to form bold learners?
The verbal equivalent system of grading is a category that seems to be trying to incorporate both aspects. Equivalents attempt to de-emphasize the importance of a grade, and get the student to strive for deeper learning and not just a good mark.“We want learning to be interesting for learning’s sake,” explains Garcia-Rubio. “I do think that the Lower School is much more progressive in that there’s really truly no grades.” She adds, “there’s more free-flow of the curriculum [in the Lower School] than there is in the Upper School. The tension in the Upper School is that in the end students are taking AP exams, students are applying to college, that there’s some accountability that parents request that can only be measured in ways that are not necessarily progressive.”
“We de-emphasize grades, but ultimately we do give grades,” says Garcia-Rubio. “Many students are grade-oriented and they like that feedback.” She recalls her past experiences at Catlin Gabel, commenting “when I was a student here, there were truly no grades.”
But is it effective? Some students will convert the equivalent immediately, and not think about why they earned the mark. Freshman Nic Bergen comments, “There [are] people who actually care for the learning, but I feel like there [are] more people going for the grade.”
Based on her experience, Garcia-Rubio says, “I think there’s some of it that is effective. I think that when we have conversations with students we can use [equivalents] to have more productive conversations. If a student comes to me, and wants to go over a lab report, I have the capacity to say ‘okay let’s look through this lab report really carefully, and let’s focus on the skills that we’re trying to build’…rather than saying ‘well you got an A because you got this point off, and this point off,’ it’s an entirely different conversation.”
Wysocki practices a non-traditional teaching style, one that he says he developed over the years by testing out new methods on his classes. In his own words, “I think that to be a progressive school you have to experiment. You have to be willing to try and fail.” He draws from the discussion-based English and history courses that Catlin Gabel offers to make his own math curriculum, one that engages his students and keeps it from becoming a daily lecture.
Does the progressive appeal remain if it is slightly encumbered by striving to have a strong preparatory education as well? Why and what do parents choose Catlin Gabel for? Garcia-Rubio thinks that “parents choose this school for both … I do think that they choose Catlin Gabel over some of those other schools because of the way we go about [preparing students for college]. And the way we go about it is progressive … I think we actually do both, we prepare students for college very well, but really truly we’re preparing to go way beyond just college.”
“We definitely have a small percentage of parents that choose Catlin Gabel as a college preparatory school, and we struggle with those families. And I think there’s a small population that choose Catlin Gabel merely for the way that we go about teaching without considering college at all. I think most people fall in the middle, where the overlap exists,” she adds.
With current head of school Lark Palma stepping down next year, it is important to factor in the ideas about progressive and preparatory education that each possible new head might have, and how they would affect Catlin Gabel’s balance of the two. Wysocki, a member of the head of school search committee, says “one of the things that everybody is looking for [in a new head] is somebody who would continue to uphold Catlin Gabel’s progressive history.”
However, it is debatable whether this opinion is reflected in the greater Catlin Gabel community. “I think that people have that tendency, they lean toward progressive, but I don’t think that anybody fully embraces it,” says Garcia-Rubio.
While Catlin Gabel has been seen as a progressive school in the past, in this new age of education, centered around colleges and tests, we have lost some of those ideals. Until we as a community are able to determine our vision of progressive education, we will remain a school that provides a preparatory education with a progressive twist.