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Why history matters

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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. In the concluding paragraph, he says that "...the fundamental issue is not of new versus old education nor of progressive against traditional education but a question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education. I am not, I hope and believe, in favor of any ends or any methods simply because the name progressive may be applied to them." A book well worth re-reading, in my view.

Even earlier, in an article in 1926, Dewey chastised those progressives who said "let us surround pupils with certain materials, tools, appliances, etc., and then let pupils respond to these things according to their own desires. Above all, let us not suggest any end or plan to the students; let us not suggest to them what they shall do, for that is an unwarranted trespass upon their sacred intellectual individuality...Now such a method is really stupid. For it attempts the impossible, which is always stupid; and it misconceives the conditions of independent thinking." His point was that experienced adults were responsible for guiding children, not leaving them to educate themselves.

Dewey knew quite well how hard it was to reign in or redirect those who claimed to be working under his banner. Despite his best efforts, all sorts of ideologues created schools where they invoked his name and violated his principles.

I mention the well-known problem that Dewey had in keeping his ideas from distortion because it brings us back to contemporary affairs. Both of us, I think, have had the experience of seeing ideas that we championed picked up by others and turned into something quite different from what we intended. I have supported testing as a means to see whether children were learning what was taught, but now see testing turned into a blunt instrument to denude the rich knowledge-based curriculum that I prize. Testing has become an end in itself and a means to punish students and teachers, rather than a diagnostic tool for improvement. You have championed small schools, but I doubt that you can be happy with recent and current efforts to turn them out in cookie-cutter fashion, with inexperienced leaders and inadequate planning.

Now we see in the past few days that two of our billionaire philanthropists—Bill Gates and Eli Broad—have created a fund of $60 million to advance their ideas about curriculum, the length of the school day, and merit pay and to make sure that the Presidential candidates in 2008 listen to them. I don't question their right to do this, but it disturbs me that their financial resources are so vast that they can set the nation's agenda. This is fundamentally anti-democratic. This really goes to the heart of another discussion that we have had, and that you in particular have stressed, about the need for democratic, public engagement in shaping the means and ends of education. How can there be a dialogue when one set of participants has such enormous sums of money and is ready to spend whatever it takes to push its program? Are these two men our nation's leading education thinkers? How do they know what is most needed to improve education?

I also noticed that Congress is now considering new legislation to "reform" the high school. This scares me because Congress doesn't have a clue about how to reform high schools. Whatever they pass will mean more mandates and regulations. This is a great flaw in NCLB. Presumably, the myriad people who wrote that legislation thought that they were doing the right thing when they wrote detailed sanctions for schools that don't make "adequate yearly progress." But none of the sanctions, to my knowledge, is based on research or experience. They represent hunches, guesswork, hopes, fears, whatever. Yet, now those sanctions have the power of law, the power to stigmatize schools and misdirect the energies of educators, and that is frightening.

I still think we would be better off with national standards and national tests, instead of fifty state tests. But I would couple such a system with a flat prohibition on any federal sanctions tied to those tests. The federal role, in my view, should be limited to supplying information; information, please, and good data, of which we don't have nearly enough. That is what was written into the first legislation enacting the U.S. Office of Education in 1867, that it should supply reliable information and research on "the condition and progress" of education in these United States. That is still, I believe, the right role for the federal government, in addition to providing additional funding to help educate specific groups of children who have unusual needs and enforcing our nation's civil rights laws. The federal government should not be in the business of telling schools how to teach or how to organize themselves. Decisions about how to help schools should belong to states and localities. That would preserve our federal system of education, and place responsibility with those who know the schools best.

Best,

Diane

11 Comments

I also find it a bit disturbing that powerful executives and politicians and (I would add) natural scientists (such as physicists) and engineers have a larger influence on educational reform than psychologists or educators or parents. A great deal of science education research funding goes to scientists and engineers with no training in how people learn or how to teach effectively.

I don't understand the transition to your final points:

"I still think we would be better off with national standards and national tests,"

(which I agree with)

but you also say:

"The federal government should not be in the business of telling schools HOW [my emphasis] to teach or how to organize themselves"

"Decisions about how to help schools should belong to states and localities....who know the schools best."

First, wouldn't it make sense to include more of the HOW in addition to the WHAT in national standards? Because wasn't that Dewey's problem? People weren't following the HOW close enough. Second, are local school boards really more qualified at making decisions about schooling? Third, by national standards & tests, do you mean for example the national standards for math and science, or do you mean like the E.D. Hirsch cultural literacy standards and tests? See more on that below.

----

Finally, I had a request. Based on the previous posts mentioning William Bagley and progressivism and educational essentialism. I was wondering if you and Deborah (forgive me for referring to you by your first names, I don't know the right title to use :) could discuss your views on the modern day analogs to Dewey/Bagley, progressivism, and essentialism. For example, to what extent do you, Diane, agree with E.D. Hirsch and the cultural literacy movement?

Your views sound like they may be similar to theirs. They want national guidelines on _what_ to teach (and _how_ to teach it is not so important). But look at E.D. Hirsch's national guide for what we should teach, it starts with the Bible: http://www.bartleby.com/59/
How much do you agree with that?

Conversely, let us look at some modern day progressive ideas and critiques of cultural literacy. Two examples are Alfie Kohn and his ideas (such as that homework, grading, etc. are bad for education): http://www.alfiekohn.org/
Another modern progressive example is recent writing and research exploring the use of videogames in education. Traditional schooling is boring, they say, and videogames can make it both more engaging and more effective.

To what extent do you, Deborah, agree with Alfie Kohn and modern-day radical progressive ideas?

Thankyou very much for sharing your discussions here.

It is misleading to tell the story of progressivism in American education as though this current of ideas among educators was responsible for the problem of inequality in our schools. The broader context is relevant. Economic forces shaped progressivism at least as much as progressivism shaped economic outcomes.

We should remember that progressivism was not something dreamed up by school people. It was a pervasive social philosophy that was used to support (among other things) the reorganization of economic and social institutions into large, hierarchical structures led by elites who claimed to wield their power for the good of all. David Tyack traces the influence of these elites in the field of education early in the 20th century in his book, The One Best System. At that time, administrative control of schools shifted toward successful businessmen armed with value-neutral science who set out to streamline production and improve outcomes in education. That sounds familiar. Are we about to enter the next stage of that revolution in American education? Is that what we want?

Both progressive and traditional ideas in education have been used to serve business interests in America. If they favored progressivism at the turn of the 20th century, they seem to favor traditionalism at the turn of the 21st. At their best, both traditional and progressive education affirm the worth of unique human beings and the value of an enlightened culture that sustains them. At their best, both envision education as a means to achieve democratically determined human ends rather than as a tool to feed the economic engine.

Neither progressive nor traditional education has always been at its best, and that should not be surprising given the unequal distribution of wealth and power in this country.

I consider the two of you to represent the best of both traditions. At this particular moment in time, what you have in common seems to be much more important than your differences.


I disagree that business interests are now supporting traditionalism. Indeed they are firmly in the progressive camp, if by progressive we mean progressive pedagogy (i.e., balanced literacy, which business interests and the Broad Foundation supported strongly in San Diego, and small schools, which the Gates Foundation has subsidized to the tune of more than $1 billion).
If by traditional education, one refers to something like Core Knowledge, then it is obvious that the business interests are absent. CK has gotten no money from the Broad Foundation or the Gates Foundation. Apparently it is too "traditional."
Diane Ravitch

Why haven't colleges taken a leadership role in revamping the high school experience?

Our current college entry requirements (grades plus the SAT) constitute a fairly low bar when compared to other countries who better prepare their students for college success.

If colleges were able to explictly outline the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to succeed in college and then test for those attributes (perhaps with end of course exams instead of the rather simple SAT), our high schools across the entire country would need to respond.

Why haven't colleges taken a leadership role in revamping the high school experience?

Our current college entry requirements (grades plus the SAT) constitute a fairly low bar when compared to other countries who better prepare their students for college success.

If colleges were able to explictly outline the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to succeed in college and then test for those attributes (perhaps with end of course exams instead of the rather simple SAT), our high schools across the entire country would need to respond.

Erin,
You raise a good question. Until the mid-1960s, most colleges required applicants to have studied a foreign language for at least 2 years. By 1970, the foreign language requirements were gone, and the study of foreign language in high school dropped to a very low point. High schools are very sensitive to college entrance requirements. If they want better prepared students, they should say what they mean by "better prepared."
Diane Ravitch

re: I disagree that business interests are now supporting traditionalism. Indeed they are firmly in the progressive camp, if by progressive we mean progressive pedagogy (i.e., balanced literacy, which business interests and the Broad Foundation supported strongly in San Diego, and small schools, which the Gates Foundation has subsidized to the tune of more than $1 billion).

Shouldn't we make a distinction between progressive pedagogy and progressive curriculum"? For example, here in NYC, while Lucy Caulkins's (sp?) process-oriented writing program is both pedagogically, and, in terms of curriculum, "progressive", it's been repackaged for mass consumption in the form of scripted lessons. This is Lucy Caulkins by the numbers. This is just an example, but if we look at NCLB and uniform/mandated curriculum in gerneral, despite the lip service paid to teachers and administartors by professional developers viz. "proces" oriented approaches to teaching the material, aren't we undemining some of the goals of "big picture" pedagogical progressivism (Tyack 1974) with high stakes tests every six weeks (beginning next year in some grades) which preserve the status quo; with mindless mantras of "accountability" "performance""standards" "high tech jobs for the workers of 21st century", etc.? And my God: the achivement gap, the achievement gap: talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy–how about focusing on strengths and potential? These men have too much money, too much time, and too little knowledge.
Peter

Peter,
You make a very important point. The Bloomberg-Klein regime in NYC has perfected the technique of triangulation. They mandate progressive pedagogy in a scripted way (your example); they are opening small schools without regard to the availability of qualified principals or even adequate space; and they impose constant testing, charters, and choice. Thus, they manage to be both progressive and conservative at the same time. The ed schools get contracts for professional development, so they are happy; the conservative think-tanks and business community is happy. Great political strategy. The constant churning and reorganization are a problem for teachers and principals and kids. But who cares about them?
Diane R

Lot of interesting responses. It's fun to read them.

It's certainly true, Diane, that there is a consensus among the major business-led foundations that testing along fairly traditional lines is the best form of accountability we can afford and that a reward/punishment, merit-pay by results approach will get the best results. But there are differences between those who represent the interests of he textbook/testing industry, those interested in going into the actual running of school business, and ideologues who simply believe that market-driven private enterprise is always he best regardless. Plus some fairly thoughtful businessmen who are open to rethinking even what's best for their own interests.

Sometimes (like the Chinese) the latter seem to be wondering if some forms of progressive pedagogy might be useful (the need for innovative thinkers) but not for all children. Thus the resurgence of interest in tracking, ability grouping and talent and gifted schools (which abound now in NYC). I think that may be the track China is on--more about that when I get back from my three-weeks in China.

The nuances are important, because on the so-called "left" I find similar disarray--or conflicting views and interests.


Deborah

Erin Johnson asks, "Why haven't colleges taken a leadership role in revamping the high school experience? ... [It's easier to get into college in America than almost anywhere else.] If colleges were able to explictly outline the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to succeed in college and then test for those attributes (perhaps with end of course exams instead of the rather simple SAT), our high schools across the entire country would need to respond.

At the risk of sounding cynical... If colleges did that, they might lose a good deal of their market. All those students who take remedial courses or who take a year or so of classes and then drop out, deciding that they really aren't cut out for college (they would have learned in high school that they weren't cut out for academics).

It may even be more than that. Nowadays, everyone knows that a high school diploma doesn't say much, not in terms of reading or writing or mathematical ability, or critical thinking. So employers require college degrees for many, many jobs. If the high school diploma meant a high level of competence, employers could drop their college requirments.

If you worked for a college, would you want that?

The Hidden Curriculum, or is it The Hidden Agenda? I am appalled at the conservatives approach to SATS. SATS allow a fair and even entry system into private and grammar school education regardless of class or ethnicity. The conservatives historically, have shown that they are against the fair and even education of all children. The conservatives have always promoted a higher standard of education for the fortunately well off, their hidden adenda or should I say their hidden curricullum clearly shows this! Mary Neary et al (2002) has identified two theoretical approaches on the
‘hidden curriculum’. The approaches identified by Neary (2002) are, the
functionalist and the neo - Marxist. The functionalist is concerned with the
“consensual understanding of both society itself and of the schools role in relationship to it. The neo - Marxist school of thought suggest that educational establishments propagate “the existing social relations of capitalist society by reproducing the consciousness necessary for such relations”. A prime example of the latter can be read in Jean Anyon’s (1980) essay Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work. Anyon writes about a case study conducted in America where five schools were inspected. The schools vary within a social hierarchy. Students that attended each school within this hierarchy were offered a curriculum that wouldprepare them for specific roles (or employment) in social life. What is most shocking about this piece of writing is not that each school had diverse teaching
methods. It is the fact that the teachers, who were observed during the study, had very different qualitative teaching skills. In the school attended by working class students, teachers were unresponsive to students, gave the students negative, or no feedback at all. Students were not allowed to think for themselves, restricting the cognitive processes, which students need to develop. The parents of the students that attended this school were mostly in unskilled employment and are in a lower income bracket.
In the four types of schools that were observed, ranging from working
class, middle class and upper middle class the teaching methods and the
curriculum (hidden or otherwise) gradually got better. In the final school, (which was upper class) that Anyon wrote about, the standard of education students received was very good. The parents of these students were very wealthy and often in powerful social positions. Teachers nurtured students and helped them to develop analytical skills by giving valuable extrinsic feedback. A key focal point in Anyon’s writing is the fact that “knowledge and skills leading to social power and regard are made available to the advantaged social groups but are withheld from the working classes to whom a more practical [or substandard {my emphasis}] curriculum is offered”. Who would suspect that this 19th century ‘colonialism’ style of education would be prevalent in the latter part of the 20th century? Similarly, during the seventies, in the United Kingdom this mode of thought was made manifest in the ‘Black Papers’. The right wing authors of these highly influential papers thought that education of pupils from the lower classes was in principle to serve the nation, to create subservient workers and treat or use them as “a commodity form”. As for pupils who were from upper classes, the ‘Black Papers’ saw these as the future leaders of industry in both the public and private sector. These ideological views were legitimated (at the time) by the conservative party. Dewey (1966) et al, points to progressive education as being one of the key components which will help put right the inequities that exist within education. These class distinctions, varying levels and standards of teaching within education occur on a global scale and seem to be a tautological phenomenon. In France, Pierre Bordieu (1996) has written extensively on the class distinctions of academia. His book, ‘Homo Academicus’ is an extensive survey of the social structure within higher education in France. Bordieu states that through systems of classification, teachers of equal standing are “promised academic careers very closely related proportionate to their social origins”. Bordieu shows that
statistically, working class intellectuals do not reach the same heights academically (or professionally) as do their peers from upper class social backgrounds, “we must be aware of establishing a mechanical causal relation
between social origins and academic success”. In the United Kingdom, the
divide between social class and entry into higher education has increased. In the academic year 91/92, the difference between working class and upper class
entrants into higher education was 49%. In 97/98, even though working class
entry into higher education had doubled, upper class entry was 66% higher than for working class. Smith and Webster (1997) agree that this situation is steadily getting worse by the year.

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