Traditional vs Non-traditional Schools |

Early on in the process of choosing a private school for your child you need to decide whether to send her to a traditional or non-traditional school.

Thinking about sending your child off to private school? Then you will need to decide which educational philosophy and approach works best for you. What it really comes down to is whether you want to send your child to a school that uses a traditional approach to teaching or one that uses a non-traditional approach.

In the public school world a traditional school is a regular public school and a non-traditional school is a charter school. That’s not what I am discussing here with respect to private schools. The concept of a private school as an independent largely self-financing corporate entity does not change. You and I are going to focus on what is taught in the classroom and how it is taught.

Your child’s age is a major factor when it comes to choosing an educational approach. For example, if you send him to a Montessori school as a toddler, you are exposing him to a non-traditional approach to education. It is an excellent approach and highly regarded. But non-traditional nonetheless. Start your child off in a Montessori, Waldorf or Reggio Emilia school and you will lay solid foundations for learning in later life. But visit a traditional private primary school and you will see a quite different approach to early education.

Obvious differences will be the dress code. Uniforms are required at many traditional religious schools. The curricula follow traditional blocks of science, math, language arts and social studies. Add religion if the school is a faith-based private school. Class sizes will more than likely be small (10–15) in a typical non-traditional school.

The real differences take place in the classroom and in the way the teachers teach. Please understand that I am not being judgmental here. Merely highlighting differences so that you can be informed and make your school choice decisions accordingly. The non-traditional approaches claim to allow children more flexibility do work on their own and at their own pace. The traditional approaches believe that that everybody should be engaged in the same activity at the same time.

Classes in a traditional school progress from one teacher to another as they advance through the grade levels. Ms. Smith teaches Kindergarten. Ms. Jones is the 1st grade teacher and so on. In a non-traditional school your child will probably have the same teacher for two or three years.

What about educational outcomes? That depends to a large extent on you. Your partnership with the school is critical whether the school is traditional or non-traditional. You have the responsibility to fill in the missing bits. You need to put ideas and concepts into context so that your child understands them and learns how to apply them in every day life. Children learn in different ways. You know how your child learns better than anyone. That’s why you are such an important partner in his education.

So, what happens if your child attends a non-traditional high school? You know, one which does not believe in SAT preparation or Advanced Placement courses among other traditional college prep academic staples. What if he has spent his primary school years in a progressive school “where he has had to construct his own understanding of ideas and concepts”, as Alfie Kohn so succinctly puts it? Do you want your child to learn or to be taught?

Your child will do just fine with college admissions provided that you and he pay attention to the basics — does he offer what the college is looking for — and the details — applications turned in on time and complete. The savvy parent will hire an educational consultant to identify colleges with the best fit for her child. Princeton is a marvelous institution. But it might not necessarily be the best fit for your child. Since you are already thinking outside the box with respect to your child’s primary and secondary education, it makes sense to continue thinking outside the box as you look at colleges.

Don’t traditional schools do a better job of the college prep essentials such as SATs and AP courses? Some do. Some don’t. Much depends on the competence and experience of the teachers. Don’t traditional schools serve as feeder schools to the best universities and colleges? Decades ago that may have been the case. But in the 21st century diversity rules in the college admissions office just as it does in private school admissions offices. Admissions officers look for characteristics and experiences which make an applicant stand out and be able to contribute something meaningful to the makeup of their freshman classes.

Carmelita Hilton, the founder of The Putney School, Putney, Vermont, articulated some basic principles which she called Fundamental Beliefs. I quote them here verbatim and in their entirety because they express so clearly what progressive education is and how it works.

“The school’s philosophy initiated in 1935 and distilled into eight fundamental beliefs by Putney’s founder, progressive educator Carmelita Hinton, reads as follows:

  • To work not for marks, badges, honors, but to discover truth and to grow in knowledge of the universe and in the understanding of men, to treasure the hard stretching of oneself, to render service.

Ann Marie White, Academic Dean at The Putney School, answers the question “What is progressive education?”

Lots to think about, for sure. Visit both traditional and non-traditional schools. Ask questions. Compare schools. Then decide which approach works best for your child and you.

Originally published at on January 16, 2019.



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