April 2007 Archives

Dear Deb, It is valuable to reconsider the history of progressive education not just as an arcane matter, but to see how good ideas go astray. You identify with the Deweyan tradition, but it is informative to see how much trouble Dewey had trying to keep his followers from distorting his ideas. One of the things that we learn from history is how easily the best of ideas gets distorted, hijacked, misinterpreted. This is one reason that my favorite book of Dewey's is "Experience and Education," where he tries to correct the misunderstandings of his writings, especially among his disciples. ...


Dear Diane, I’m reminded that for 50 years the USSR claimed to be a democracy (and its rulers socialists), and so did England (for some of that time), Sweden, and … Dewey. In other words, studying the common roots of progressivism historically is valuable, yet it leads us only so far—it risks lumping together disparate meanings and movements. That does not negate the value of books (like yours) that try to track their common and uncommon histories. It’s well to remember that Progressive was a word used by Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, the inventors of standardized testing, populists, both...


Dear Deborah, You choose to set aside the "complex idea of nomenclature," but I don't. Not out of orneriness, but because I wrote a book about the varieties of progressivism, as did Lawrence Cremin ("The Transformation of the School"). Educators who saw themselves in the mainstream of progressivism, and who at the time were acknowledged as such, were responsible for the advent and mass production of standardized testing and intelligence testing; for tracking of students into academic and vocational education; and for such extremes as "life adjustment education," where the intellectual stuff was withheld from all but about 20 percent ...


Dear Diane, Amen. Right on target. And well said, to boot. So, let's leave Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg for a while, although it's hard to do. The amazing thing is—as you note—the complete lack of accountability behind their schemes. Like many a revolutionary the object seems to be to ensure that the past is smashed and cannot be put together again, in the hopes that something new and glorious will emerge out of the ashes. The only hint we have about the "new" is that it should be market driven, "competitive", and rest largely on test scores—or...


Dear Deb, I hope you won't hold my Texas origins against me. I have lived in NYC since 1960—save for a 3-year detour to Washington, D.C.—and my first book was a history of the New York City public schools. I have been writing about these schools for about half my life, so, yes, I have a strong and continuing interest in what happens here. We don't usually say, "As New York goes, so goes the nation," but this is one of those instances where it might be appropriate to do so. As you know, and our readers...


Dear Diane, I wrote the following after reading the NY Times piece you sent me last week. Meanwhile my earlier effort to lay out our differences has led to a lively response from you on progressive education and the rationale for standardized national tests. I'm already preparing my counter-arguments. But before I blast back on either one of these subjects where we appear in great disagreement, I thought it interesting to talk a moment about where we are intellectually and viscerally on such common ground—on the educational system in NYC. I find that interesting—since one naturally imagines...


Dear Deborah, Well, that was a useful car ride if you were able not only to produce this list but to remember it when you reached your destination. Sometimes I have great ideas in the middle of the night, but I never have great ideas while driving! You are right that we disagree about the role and meaning of progressive education. You refer to only one variety of progressivism, however, the one that you like, the Deweyan strand, the one that you believe produced greater concern for equity and democracy in education. I would argue that there were many varieties, ...


Dear Diane, As I was driving along making lists, I made one on our agreements and disagreements. I wonder if you would agree with me—or if you might put it a bit differently. Here's a try: 1. We disagree about the role and meaning of progressive education—both historically and today. You see it as having had a significant and negative impact on the schooling of America's kids, and I see it as having been largely ignored, but as representing important and useful ideas for what democracy and equity in education might look like. 2. We disagree about the...


Dear Deborah, Were the olden days better or worse? In some ways, they were better, in some ways worse. The answer to every question, I find, is: It depends. Certainly the schools were not the punching bag that they are now. Certainly as we both agree (I think) there was a reverence for the idea of the public school that seems to have seriously eroded. And, for better or worse, both principals and teachers were respected by parents and the general community more than they are today. In this last respect, education may be the victim of its success; half ...


Dear Diane, Time to disagree! First. Of course consistency is not always a virtue, still I am unclear about whether you think that the olden days were better or worse. In your 3rd paragraph you refer to being less nostalgic than I am about the "good old days." In your last paragraph you refer to the hope that we will "once again have a public school system to be proud of." Which? While I am older than you, it seems to me that for both of us "the old days" were the '30s through the '50s. A time before strong ...


Dear Deborah, You know, I am sure, the old saw about how I knew all the answers when I was 21, and now that I am older, the answers are not so clear. I recall the days when educators lamented that no one paid much attention to the schools. Those days are gone forever. Now every politician, every corporate leader, every college junior, is supposed to have a plan to reform public education in their breast pocket (to paraphrase a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson about a very different reform era). Now we look to the CEO of GE or ...


Dear Diane, You might have been wrong, but then even I am allowed to be wrong . For example, I thought small schools was one reform no one could do harm with. I still am hoping I was 51 percent right. I'm always inclined in favor of steps that increase conversations around common aspirations. It's what makes me a democrat even though democratic institutions are hardly guaranteed to lead where I'm hoping they do. We both imagined charters, like small schools. Places where folks would have to sit down and talk about purposes. I saw them as representing new ideas and ...


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