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Scapegoating Progressive Education

I was surprised that Sol Stern, whom I respect for his insights, blamed practically all the ills afflicting public schools in New York City - and there are many -on progressive education ("The Cheating Goes On," City Journal, Aug. 11).

Stern dismisses out of hand student poverty and lack of resources, preferring instead to lay the entire blame for the cheating on tests, the practice of credit recovery and the awarding of worthless diplomas on student-centered learning that progressives advocate.

But Stern misreads John Dewey, who is most associated with progressive education. In a 1902 article "The Child and the Curriculum," he wrote that experience without concepts is superficial, but that concepts without immediate connections to experience are useless.  Dewey incorporated many of these ideas in his laboratory school at the University of Chicago from 1896 to 1903.

Classroom teachers don't have the luxury of being theoreticians.  They are practitioners who have to make countless instructional decisions every day in classes that are increasingly multicultural.  I agree with Stern that allowing students to study only those topics of immediate interest to them shortchanges them.  But so does insisting on a rigid grade-by-grade curriculum.

I believe the answer lies in a balance between the two extremes.  Students who are required to take courses they initially don't like often later change their minds in the hands of inspiring teachers. By the same token, a flexible curriculum itself is not the villain it is made out to be.  For example, Finland, which is known for the quality of its schools, has a national curriculum and administers standardized tests each year to about 100 schools selected at random. The results are used strictly for diagnostic purposes and are kept strictly confidential. Yet teachers still have freedom to design creative instruction.

Progressive education is hardly perfect, but I believe it has had some beneficial effects in reaching students who otherwise would be written off as hopeless. I think we have to be careful not to scapegoat when we are angry and frustrated.


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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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