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Drawing distinctions & keeping biases in mind


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 the leaders of industry and early labor union leaders—including some virulent racists, xenophobics, etc. But it’s also critical to make distinctions in talking about this disparate group.

By this same measure, of course, all of western civilization—including the history of the term democracy—has to be read keeping in mind the racial and class biases embedded in their usage.

Even the progressive schools that most closely allied with Dewey’s ideas in education had very different interpretations of how best to implement them. Partly because they were fascinated by different concerns, partly because their kids and families and communities were different, the worlds around them differed, and the knowledge base about human learning didn’t stay the same. And yes! Virtually all of the schools of the pre-WWII era—including both progressive and traditional—were infected with racism and class’ism in ways that seem shocking to us today, as well as what I guess I might call, “smart’ism.” Many of those private schools weren’t then nor now open to all kids, not even all rich white kids, but only to rich white so-called academically smart ones.

I shall reread “Left Back”. I think I got so mad at some points that I began to skim it. Did you do the same with mine? But I read, as you know, with some praise and criticism, other works of yours. It’s worth also re-reading the work of those who tried to introduce progressive (in my sense) ideas into settings for poor and working-class kids—Maria Montessori, the work of Leonard Covello in East Harlem, the accounts of early freedom schools in the south, a wonderful book called “The Boys of Barbiano”.

Re Charters and Bobbitt—I was only responding to the quote you included. Their claim that if we require the young to study “academics” for 12 years we need to defend its utility seems reasonable. To be “useful” does not need to mean that it can immediately be put to use to get rich, powerful, or famous.

It is no more obvious (or realistic) to assume that all kids must be masters (proficient) at history than masters of the piano (after 8 years of study I failed to come close to mastery in the latter). I’m inclined (some days) to think playing an instrument, even at a merely beginner's level, should be expected of any educated person! Or the visual arts? Or carpentry? Choices must be made. Should it be the same choice for all—regardless of interests, talents, etc?

We probably disagree whether shoemaking—if not exclusively taught to poor and black children—might be as intellectually enlightening (see the Sizer chapter on a high school shop class) as the vast majority of academic courses. When I watch my landscape gardener introduce her interns to the field of gardening I am listening to someone with an acute appreciation of “the habits of mind” I described last Monday. I’m less concerned about exposure to a “common core” than exposure to good intellectual habits rigorously applied to all worthwhile tasks or studies.

Re Summerhill?? I intended to distinguish progressive ed from Summerhill—as far from what Dewey meant as scripted learning is—in opposite directions. My colleague Ted Chittenden, formerly at ETS, maps it out into four quadrants. The two axes represent student initiative and adult initiative. He puts traditional education in the quadrant where adults take initiative and kids don’t, Summerhill where kids do and adults don’t, scripted lessons in the quadrant where neither kids nor teachers do, and progressive education where both do.

It’s intriguing to consider that my progressive forebears were probably closer to your views on testing than mine. My disagreement is far from, as you call it, “out of hand”. I held standardized tests in high regard until I tried them out on the real kids I worked with (including my own kids)—about which I wrote at length in both Dissent (1981) and “In Schools We Trust”. My subsequent research in the field amazed me; and like many of the most distinguished testing experts alive today, I concluded that they do not measure what they are purported to measure and contain inevitable bias. If they were simply used as another piece of interesting evidence, and not prepped for, they could add to our knowledge (especially for large populations versus individuals). But for the past 35 years we’ve been misusing them to the point at which they literally mislead us.

I’d argue that no exams—even our wonderful Portfolios at CPESS (or NYU PhD exams)—are ever more than a clue, sound but inconclusive evidence. Even the driver’s road test is just a small sample of the full range of what it means to be a decent driver. This may be part of a larger personal/philosophical disagreement, Diane than a debatable one. You suggest that “it is because we disagree about progressivism—even in its most exalted form—that we disagree about other particulars”. Maybe it’s the other way around! It’s teasing these out that makes our dialogue interesting to me.

On another front, it’s thought-provoking to notice what kind of schooling issues seem to require zero “scientific proof”. Clearly NCLB is an example of an untested experiment being carried out on all of America’s public school children. And Klein’s various reorganization schemes are another grand untested experiment. The NY Times reported this week that both the Gates and Broad Foundations are pumping $60 million into politicking for their untested theories: national policy dictating longer school days, a national curriculum and teachers paid on the basis of their students’ test performance.

It would be fun if more of our readers would weigh in on these issues! There’s a space somewhere for comments: readers, use it!



Racism is a propaganda word used by pretend egalitarians to harm European people.

When you strip the propaganda away, the word racism, like the word Nazi, are simply synonyms for the word European.

People who are anti-racist, are simply anti European.

A few comments.

1. I apologize for the comment above.

2. No amount of testing on portfolioing is ever going to give us a certain measurement of who learns what, but I'd argue that portfolios, for teachers and students, offer a far more robust picture of who a child is, where she has been, where she is going, and how she is going to get there than do the tests we now employ.

3. There is so little science behind NCLB and yet its defenders shroud themselves in cloaks of absolutism. The Bush administration spent 14 million dollars on a PR campaign for the law. Why? Because it was so good? If you have a great product, do you have to force it down people's throats?

4. Bill Gates certainly thinks so. We should all be troubled by the circumventing of democracy...

5. Thank you for making your debate public. When I finish building my 25 hour clock, I'll stop by more often.

NCLB is part of the cult that says all the races are the same and goes through comical/pathetic attempts to pound square pegs into round holes.

As whites in America are displaced largely by people who belong to racial families that have average IQs under 90 -- a larger and larger percentage of our schools will become low performing.

As our schools degrade, our ability to produce wealth degrades, and so our ability to fund our social safety nets.

As this happens, resource competition will increase, poverty will increase. And given the predatory nature of our species, this increase in poverty will bring out the predatory nature of our species, even more, increasing the instablity, discord and division in our society.

That's the real world.

Nice job in demystifying progressivism Deb. As for the $60 million reform of the Billionaires, isn't it funny that they call merit pay, national stardards, and more testing a "radical reform" and then appoint a Bush campaign manager to run it? If these are the "radicals" why do they sound so much like the status quo?

While there should be space for comments, I am repulsed that your dialogue with Diane is posted on the same page as the rants of this white supremacist. Can't you be somewhat more discriminating?

"...the same page as the rants of this white supremacist...." --- Mike

The use of emotion filled, comic book terms like supremacist, Nazi, hate, racist is the hallmark of those who embrace cult beliefs.

Supremacist: noun used to define those who accept the real world reality that the races are different, usually used by those in a cult called egalitarianism.

It is also used by those who like to slander whites for black underachievement. Today, all black societies are Third World, all Negro societies historically have been backward, just about all black schools in America today are poor performing, yet the reason that blacks in America have lived largely in poverty is because ... bad Europeans.

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Deb wrote "Clearly NCLB is an example of an untested experiment being carried out on all of America’s public school children." That might be the only part of the diary with which I quibble. NCLB was based on a model of Texas that we know had about as much connection with the truth as did the claims of Saddam being connected with Al Qaeda. The books were cooked in Texas in order to achieve goals. Students were held back in 9th grade (Texas tested in the 10th), when they dropped out after being held back multiple times they were listed as leaving for GEDs and not as dropping out. Houston claimed graduation rates in excess of 90% when less than 40% of 7th graders graduated with their cohorts. And the supposed improvements on scores on Texas tests were not matched by improvements on independent measures such as SAT or NAEP. I would argue that much of NCLB had been tested and we are exactly reproducing the results of the original model.

Sorry, I felt I had to say that. Peace.


Can I get the historiographical bit out first? I think it was Peter Filene who wrote the 1970 article, "An Obituary for 'The Progressive Movement'"—speaking about the period label he thought was problematic, as I think most historians would acknowledge now, even if they wouldn't go as far as Filene. Historians of education sometimes disagree so much on the nature of progressivism, beyond focusing on individual fragments/segments, that I don't think Herb Kliebard mentions either the term progressivism or Larry Cremin in his book on curriculum history. Even Tyack's contrast between pedagogical and administrative progressives is problematic, because there are plenty of administrative progressives who wanted to eliminate academics (in any sense of the word), and you could call them pedagogical progressives in some sense (though far from Dewey). One thing I agree with Diane on is the good sense of William Bagley, but I'd add Boyd Bode as well.

The two-axis construct of Ted Chittenden makes a great deal of sense, though perhaps that's because I want to distinguish Summerhill and unschooling from your work and Ted Sizer's. I have a sneaky suspicion that there are other, equally legitimate ways of thinking about this. For example, the level of initiative doesn't say much about the amount of structure involved in events. A discussion seminar can require the initiative of both parties, but the structure can be fluid or at least underemphasized. On the other hand, an undergraduate class session I have every semester that focuses on family history is highly structured but also requires initiative, because I require student engagement and commitment to factual claims every few minutes. (It's wonderful to make students guess how many women aged 20-24 had ever been married, when enumerated in the 1890 census. Most classes consistently guess 75%, 80%, 90%. Then when I reveal that the actual figure is around 50%, we have a conversation about where that perception of early marriage came from, etc.) Then what about the instruction that appears to have little structure minute-to-minute but where the teachers either have a subtle but firm grasp on the direction of the discussion or where the teachers have the skills to move with the students, in the context of a broader set of class goals? One example of the latter is Robert and Ellen Kaplan's Math Circle (at least by their description), and I only wish I had those skills in my area. On occasion, I can manage the first. But I think the mix of structure is something we don't usually talk about as part of the craft of teaching, and I think that's left out by Crittenden's two axes.

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