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Glossary of Educational Terms to Know When Choosing a School

Progressive School: 

Based on the work of educational theorist John Dewey,  progressive schools emphasize the importance of experiential learning as opposed to passive or memorization-based learning. Many schools implement collaborative hands-on projects organized into thematic units. Through collaboration and active participation, Dewey hoped schools would better prepare students to be actively engaged citizens in democratic societies.  Progressive schools foster an intrinsic motivation to learn, therefore, many do not issue grades. One of Dewey's best know works is Experience and Education. See this article for more information:

Montessori School:

The Italian physician Maria Montessori founded an educational approach at the turn of the 20th century that focused on the following principles:

1. Observation: the guide observes the child to gain deep insight into their personality, growth, and learning. 

2. The absorbent mind: the idea that children between the ages of 0-6 absorb all that is in their environment, including language(s) and a sense of order. 

 3. The prepared environment: The Montessori didactic materials are presented on shelves that the children can access.  The order of the classroom allows children to be independent, as they know where to find everything and can choose the materials they’d like to use.  

4. Independence of the child: the Montessori method emphasizes the child’s freedom of choice to work on what interests them to create a feeling of autonomy, responsibility, and joy in the learning process.

Some of the characteristics that differentiate Montessori schools from other schools are they do not typically have grades/tests for assessments but focus on building student portfolios and having children reflect on their own learning goals with the teacher (or "guide").  Certain schools do communicate with parents through skill-based progress reports (ie showing what lessons the student has mastered and what they have not yet worked on).  The idea is to foster the child's intrinsic motivation to learn.

Another characteristic is the "Practical Life" component of the curriculum, where students learn to care for their environment through classroom clean-up jobs, as well as learning about food preparation, sewing, etc.  

Lastly, Montessori has a curriculum of "Grace and Courtesy" and "Peace Education" which is the social-emotional learning component of the curriculum.  Guides model the behavior they want to see in their students: from how to greet each other with a handshake in the morning and at departure, to how quietly to talk in the classroom.  They do community meetings with students to solve problems that arise in the classroom and role-play conflict resolution with the children.

There are 2 primary types of Montessori schools, AMI (Association Montessori Internacionale), which is a more traditional Italian model, and AMS (American Montessori Society) that may integrate complementary materials to the classroom that are not Montessori. There are also schools that are "Montessori inspired," which means that they are influenced by the Montessori philosophy and materials, but may integrate other types of philosophies in a fusion approach.  Montessori schools can serve infants through high schoolers, though middle and high schools are rare in the US.


Waldorf School:

The Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner founded the Waldorf educational approach at the end of the 19th century that integrates the arts into all the academic disciplines and focuses on experiential learning and the spiritual dimension of the education process. Students learn to do woodworking, sewing, knitting, clay work, bookbinding, storytelling, music, creative movement, theatrical productions, and create their own illustrated academic journals.  Waldorf schools do not use grades and standardized tests, but teachers do write narratives about their students' progress.  They also focus on building portfolios for the students to have a sense of ownership and joy in the learning process.  Waldorf schools do not integrate technology into their classrooms and they dissuade families from exposing their children to technology/digital media until high school.  Waldorf education begins at age 3 through high school. (  Also, see the video resources tab for a comparison between Montessori and Waldorf.

Reggio Emilia School:

An educational philosophy geared towards children from 0-6 years old, which was founded in the town of Reggio Emilia, Italy after WWII.  It is a child-centered, self-directed approach where the children are grouped by their age and work with teachers to create the curriculum.  The teachers follow the children's interests to create long-term projects.  The environments are characterized by having many natural materials, an "atelier" of art supplies for creating projects, and "provocations," which are materials laid out as an invitation for the children to explore a topic open-endedly.  For example, you might see a picture of a mandala, placed next to materials such as dried flowers, sticks, and pebbles, which invite the child to create their own.  The main tenet is the "100 Languages of Children," which states that children have multiple ways to express themselves, discover, and test hypotheses including through artistic, verbal, and movement expression. (  See the video resources tab for a comparison between Montessori and Reggio Emilia.

Charter School:

Charter schools are free-tuition, publically funded schools that are privately run independently from the state and local school districts.  They often administer standardized tests and report their academic results to the state in order to retain their funding.  Funding is secured through a written charter contract with the state.  There are many types of charter schools in the Austin area: Montessori, college-prep, classical education, project-based/outdoor education, and more.

Cooperative School:

Co-ops are schools that involve parents in leading classroom activities alongside teachers, completing administrative duties, or handling operations at the school.  Due to this parent involvement, tuition can be lower than in other schools.

Project-Based School: 

These schools are based on the concepts of progressive education (see definition above) and seek to do long-term, in-depth projects in units of study with real-world impact.  For example, students might do a letter-writing campaign to local city officials to solicit a concrete change in their community.  Another example would be proposing and launching a small entrepreneurial venture.  For more information, visit:

Lab School:

A school associated with a university's college of education or a teacher training program.

Acton Academy:

The Acton Academy school model was founded in Austin, TX, and there are several locations here in town.  These are learner-led micro-schools that focus on having children find their calling, which they call the "hero's journey."  They spend 1 1/2 hours in the morning working independently and at their own pace on "core skills" like math, reading, grammar, second languages, etc.  They use online platforms like Khan Academy for math, Lexia Core 5 Reading, Typing Club, and Duo Lingo, among others. (  In the afternoons they clean up/care for their classroom and campus, then do project-based collaborative learning.  They integrate Socratic meetings where the students take turns leading the discussion and running the daily schedule.  They focus on skillset attainment through a badge system reminiscent of those used in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. (


There are several groups here in Austin that support homeschooling by gathering for field trips and conducting projects together, or that have part-time programs; such as Austin Home Based Community School, the Austin Rising School, 4Points Academy, Nature's Schoolhouse, and Moonbridge Academy.


Unschooling is a movement founded by former teacher John Holt in the late 1970s after he became disillusioned with schools as places that imposed adult standards of knowledge and behavioral expectations on children.  He became an advocate of homeschooling and later unschooling, referring to the idea that children do not need to be coerced to learn, but rather are innately curious, inventive, and creative problem solvers.  He believed that children should be given the freedom and resources to follow their own interests in their pursuit of understanding the world.  Two of his most well-known works are How Children Fail and How Children Learn.

Green School

Green schools can earn this designation from the US Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program by meeting the following requirements:

  1. "reduce environmental impact and costs;

  2. improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; and

  3. provide effective environmental and sustainability education"                        (

Parochial School/Religious School:

Parochial schools are private schools that are funded or associated with a religious entity.  There are many in the Austin area that are associated with a variety of Christian churches, and they have varying degrees of time allotted to religious instruction.  There are also Muslim and Jewish schools in Austin.

Democratic School/Sudbury School

Democratic schools typically serve children ages 5 through high school in mixed-age groups.  Sudbury (democratic) schools are student-centered direct democratic entities, where the school staff and students have equal votes in how the school is run.  They do this through weekly meetings where school rules, staff hiring and firing, and school operations are all discussed and voted upon by students and staff.  Adults and children are treated equally.  They believe in freedom and responsibility, and that learning is self-motivated and an inherent part of human activity and play.  Any course content that is offered is optional, and students choose what activities they do throughout the day.  There is no predetermined curriculum or standardized instruction.  The name "Sudbury" comes from the Sudbury Valley School that was founded in 1968 in Massachusetts that has served as the inspiration for other Sudbury schools to be created around the world. ( (

Nature Literacy:

Nature literacy seeks to connect children with their local environment, giving them a familiarity and knowledge of local flora and fauna through outdoor learning.  For example, see Earth Native Wilderness School in S. Austin and Bastrop, TX at:  Also, the Inside Outside School: (

Sustainability Education:

Sustainability education is the study of things like energy usage and renewables, waste reduction, water usage, transportation, air quality, biomimicry, green building, environmental justice, civic engagement, design thinking, and more.  See the organization EcoRise Youth Innovations for examples of how this is implemented in K-12 education:

Language Immersion:

Language immersion programs are used to attain a greater degree of exposure to a second language by having 100% of instructional time in the second language.  This is best for children when they start very young, as they are simultaneously learning their native language, and are able to absorb the second language with ease.

Dual Language

In the Austin Independent School District (AISD), there are 2 dual language tracks for second language learners. 


"One-Way Dual Language is a Spanish dual language program that includes instruction in both English and Spanish to help students excel academically while becoming bilingual, bi-literate, and bicultural. A one-way program is intended for native Spanish speakers. 

Two-Way Dual Language is a Spanish dual language program that includes instruction in both English and Spanish to help students excel academically while becoming bilingual, bi-literate, and bicultural. A two-way program is intended for both native Spanish speakers and native English speakers." (

A typical breakdown of instructional time in a dual language Spanish-English program might be 80% Spanish/20% English in kindergarten-1st Grade, then 70%/30% in 2nd and 3rd grade, diminishing to 50%/50% by 5th grade.


English as a second language (ESL) is an instructional method for non-English speakers to attain English proficiency.  Students in the classroom might be speakers of multiple different languages.  It differs from dual language instruction since it is only oriented towards English acquisition, and the teacher only speaks in English. 


"A certified academic language therapist (CALT) is a person who is certified by the Academic Language Therapy Association (ALTA)." CALTs are trained to work with dyslexia, in particular. All AISD campuses have CALTs available to work with students in need.



SPED is the acronym for special education.  Both AISD and charter schools are required to have specialists on staff to meet individual students' needs throughout the day.  These might include physical or instructional supports for students.  Also, if your child is homeschooled or attends a private school, they are still eligible to receive evaluation and special education supports from the AISD school they are slated to.  For more information go to: (

Speech Pathologist/Therapist:

Speech pathologists and therapists work with people who have trouble understanding others or communicating their thoughts and feelings verbally.  AISD has special education available on all campuses, and if the home campus of the student does not have speech therapy:

"The team on your child’s home campus will work to determine how Austin ISD can most closely match services to the most recent recommendations from your last school. If a specialized classroom is required, but not available on the home campus, the home campus will coordinate with parents to identify the closest available classroom and transportation will be available."  (  If your child is enrolled in a private school, they are still eligible to receive speech therapy services from AISD.

Differentiated Instruction

In any given classroom children have a variety of learning styles and skill levels that can vary dramatically, particularly in the early elementary years.  Children often have leaps in their abilities, as opposed to steady, gradual growth.  Differentiated instruction is a technique of giving individual and small group instruction to meet the needs of each child in order to make sure they are engaged and challenged.  It also can include diversifying the activities and content of a lesson and adding multi-sensory materials to reach different types of learners. To read more, visit: (
Note: This is an important question to ask on school tours.  For differentiated (individualized) instruction, teachers often need the support of a second adult or teacher aide to assist the rest of the class while small group lessons are going on.  

Structured Literacy:

Structured Literacy is systematic and cumulative, explicit, and diagnostic in its approach to teaching phonemic awareness (the sound parts in words), phonics (sound/symbol correspondence), fluency, and reading comprehension. Additionally, it helps students learn patterns in words to improve their spelling.  Teachers start with assessments to determine what each student knows about phonics and they determine what the child has yet to understand.  The structured approach to literacy is systematic because it teaches the most common and basic sounds in the English language, followed by more advanced concepts in sequential order.  It is often recommended for students with dyslexia, although it is beneficial to all students.  Some examples of programs are the Wilson Reading System, Orton-Gillingham, and the Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing Program.  Structured literacy teaches lessons explicitly, meaning students are not expected to infer how to read a word by incidental exposure through a group read-aloud or by looking at a book independently.  Instead, children are given phonics (sound/symbol) instruction in parts so they can learn how to sound out words step-by-step.  They are not asked to guess at words they can't yet sound out.  Structured literacy is done through a high degree of differentiated (small group/individual) student-teacher instruction.  It is considered a research-based approach to teaching reading. 

Notes: As you tour schools, be sure to ask about what literacy system each school uses.

For more information, see:

Balanced Literacy

Balanced literacy is a varied teaching method that should include whole and small group lessons, and 1:1 lessons on phonics, reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  However, critics say that it is not systematic in its teaching of phonics, and assumes that children will learn to read by mere exposure to reading. 

 About 20% of children have some degree of dyslexia (,of%20all%20neuro%2Dcognitive%20disorders.)

and if the approach does not break down the phonemes contained in words explicitly enough, many children experience trouble "decoding" (sounding out a word) and may be asked to guess the word by looking at the first letter of the word, or the picture on the page.

Note: Again, when touring, be sure to ask what kind of literacy system schools use.  If balanced literacy includes assessments of student knowledge and systematic instruction of phonics as in structured literacy, then that will suggest that the program is high quality.  There is a polemic around whether to teach structured or balanced literacy, but structured literacy is considered the more systematic and research-based approach.  Here is an article for parents written by a teacher that compares structured and balanced literacy:

Social Justice and Multicultural Education

Multicultural education emphasizes inclusivity by teaching the histories, cultures, contributions, and perspectives of diverse groups of people.  It emphasizes social justice, civic engagement, and self-reflection on creating a more equitable society.  Here is the Amazon multicultural children's books bestseller's list:

Whole Child Approach

The whole child approach acknowledges that the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional health of the child impacts their ability to engage in learning.  This approach shifts the focus of schooling from a singular academic focus to include explicit teaching of social-emotional skills (SEL), ensuring children have plenty of time for physical movement and outside time, offering healthy lunch options and teaching nutrition, and teaching the arts.  It also emphasizes the importance of school, family life, and community on the child's development and educational process.

SEL (Social Emotional Learning)

Social-emotional learning is an approach that acknowledges that the child's self-esteem, identity, and ability to connect to others is an important part of their development and should be included in a school's curriculum.  It might include lessons on self-awareness, mindfulness/meditation/breathwork, empathy, perspective-taking, identity, conflict resolution, and how to manage your emotions.  Students might have a whole class meeting where they discuss problems in their classroom and come up with solutions that work for everyone.  Teachers or students might role-play scenarios they have seen and ask students to come up with solutions.  Also, teachers might give lessons with language and tools for how to solve a problem one-on-one with a friend.  There might be an area of the classroom used for calming down or for having a conflict resolution conversation with a friend.  Some examples of SEL curriculum and training providers are Positive Discipline, Conscious Discipline, Second Step, MindUP, The Compassion Project, and many more.

Learning Difference/Twice Exceptional:

Twice-exceptional (often abbreviated to 2e) learners have simultaneous giftedness (either intellectual, sensory, or motor) and learning or neurodevelopmental differences.  These could include dyslexia, dysgraphia, sensory processing differences, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.

STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math)

After the 1990's tech boom, the term STEM became popular in education to promote critical thinking, problem-solving, and cross-disciplinary education in science, technology, engineering, design, and math.  Many schools that have STEM at the center of their curriculum have robotics, coding, or tinkering offered in their courses, as well as science labs or "maker spaces" that allow students to use computers, 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other equipment.


Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.  This is the Texas Education Agency's curriculum standards by grade level that dictate what students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate from high school.  Some alternative schools do not use these, and some have curricula that are TEKS aligned, so you can see how the skills students are learning pairs with Texas grade levels (


The State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness is administered yearly to students in public and many charter schools to assess the students in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills.  Depending on the grade level, they may cover reading, writing, math, science, or social studies.  These tests start in the 3rd grade and go through high school.  Typically, teachers spend instructional time preparing their students for the tests.


MAP Test:

The Measures of Academic Progress adaptive assessments (MAP) is an adaptive test that changes as the child is taking it.  If a child gets a question wrong, the following question gets easier, and likewise, it increases in difficulty if the child answers correctly.  These are used to measure a child's growth across grade levels in reading, writing, math, and science.  It is compared to scores across the nation by other MAP-takers. (See MAP explanation here:


"The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) is a group-administered achievement test for grades K-12 which measures a student’s knowledge in subject areas that students have learned in school – reading, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies."   (,mathematics%2C%20science%20and%20social%20studies.)

Some independent schools use this standardized test but may not spend instructional time preparing for it.


The Educational Records Board (ERB) is an organization that creates standardized tests used in some private schools to assess student progress in listening, verbal reasoning, mathematics, quantitative reasoning, reading comprehension, word analysis, and writing mechanics. The CTP is an Educational Records Board test (see below).

CTP Test:

"The Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP) is a rigorous assessment for students in Grades 1-11 covering reading, listening, vocabulary, writing, mathematics, and science. Verbal and quantitative reasoning subtests are part of the CTP beginning in Grade 3. The CTP helps educators assess content specific, curriculum-based performance alongside reasoning ability and conceptual knowledge." (

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