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Holding Values: What We Mean by Progressive Education

reviewed by Anthony A. DeFalco - 2006

coverTitle: Holding Values: What We Mean by Progressive Education
Author(s): Brenda S. Engel and Anne C. Martin (Eds.)
Publisher: Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH
ISBN: 0325007241, Pages: 194, Year: 2005
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Holding Values is a small book that has a large agenda: it gives a brief history of the North Dakota Study Group (NDSG), the Group’s interpretation of Progressive Education, and the application of the Group’s progressive values. Holding Values has a lengthy and informative introduction written by one of the two editors, Brenda S. Engel, and is approximately the same length as one of the six parts of the book that follow it. Each of the six parts has a short one page synopsis and offers from four to six short essays on the following topics: (1) Progressive Education, (2) Education and Democracy, (3) Diversity and Antiracism, (4) Children and the Curriculum, (5) Teachers and Teacher Preparation, and (6) Research and Evaluation. The book’s essays are written by thirty individuals including students, practitioners, and thinkers who in some way or another touch on the two strands of the NDSG: child development, and proper subject matter for the education of children (21)

Brenda S. Engel’s introduction is divided into 1) the history of the North Dakota Study Group (NDSG), 2) values, and 3) the progressive tradition. She begins by stating that the NDSG was concerned with the direction public education was taking regarding evaluation and wanted to examine alternative ways of educating and evaluating children in a more progressive and “open” environment.  Some of the original seventeen members of the NDSG were reacting to the government’s narrow, dry and irreverent mode of assessment put forth in the Head Start and Follow Through programs. This group was “angered ...by the Office of Education’s explanation that the worth of the pedagogical models would be judged by standardized tests given to the children” (p. 3).

As the NSDG evolved in size and concern, its focus moved beyond assessment and evaluation into areas of “early childhood education, the small schools movement, areas of curriculum (e.g. art, science, literacy), second language speakers, John Dewey and other philosophers, Jean Piaget, Myles Horton, equity issues, educational standards, teacher education, teacher centers, racism, and cultural diversity” (p. 6).

The second part of the introduction discusses values, and in doing so explains the book’s title. Brenda Engel comments that the members of the NDSG not only needed to do something better for children in schools and attempt to change the direction that public education was moving toward, but to find support with like minded thinkers who were committed to a core of values related to schooling and the politics of democracy. However, not only did the NDSG become a support system for its members; it also realized it needed to make the public and other educators and politicians aware of these values that emanated from a political perspective of living in a democracy and of progressive practices in education. NDSG believed the way to achieve both the political and pedagogical goals was by “holding values,” the progressive values that were at the heart of NDSG (p. 21).

The Progressive Tradition is the third part of the introduction and of course is the intellectual tradition in which Holding Values is rooted. Progressive education is defined in this section as an ideology that can be traced back to the seventeenth century. John Dewey is one the thinkers mentioned, and Dewey’s ideas are extensively used throughout the various essays in the book. Of note is that the NDSG’s view of Progressive education is not for the Progressive purist. Throughout the book, the Group includes both progressive and “open” or informal classrooms under the umbrella of Progressive Education. This is not necessarily a problem as long as one realizes that the Group was among other things developing their model of Progressive Education

Each of the six parts begins with an overview of the essays and has a mix of both the theoretical and the practical. Because of the number of authors, the book is extremely appealing, giving the reader the NDSG’s views of the topics identified in each part. One should not expect the book to be a definitive thesis on any of the topics identified, and there are a few comments made that are stated in an informal way where a reference would have been of value. However, each section has a mosaic of ideas and experiences which are invaluable to the reader, and this makes the book reminiscent of John and Evelyn Dewey’s Schools of Tomorrow (Dewey and Dewey, 1962).

Part 1 discusses progressive education. Vito Perone sets the stage for the progressive agenda for NDSG, and Joseph Featherstone concludes part one with some of the challenges facing today’s progressive educators. Part 2 is devoted to education and democracy and discusses how democracy and progressive education have thrived in spite of the direction that the federal government has taken since the early sixties to the present. In this part there is very moving essay written by Francisco Giajardo that has four Mexican-American youth showing the power of story telling and how education and the right kind of school environment can make a difference in the lives of young people. Part 3 focuses on the concerns of diversity and antiracism as examples of behavior that are contrary to living in a democracy and are key concerns of the progressive agenda of the NDSG.

Part 4 deals with Children and Curriculum. The four essays in this part discuss a range of curriculum issues emphasizing that at the “...heart of the education process is the child” (p. 103). The specific issues discussed are the connection between drawing and writing, inquiry based science education in African schools, and students’ standards. Part 5, Teachers and Teacher Preparation, contains five essays. These essays do not discuss the structure of pre-service teacher education programs, but instead discuss issues such as teachers and students learning from one another, learning from experiences outside the schoolroom, and the belief that the teacher is only one of many teachers in the classroom (p. 141). Other topics discussed in part five are teachers and students learning to construct knowledge together, the value of a teacher collaborative, and a teachers’ learning cooperative.  Part Six concerns Research and Evaluation. The issue of evaluation is according to the introduction to this section, the spark that helped ignite the NDSG, and this part has four essays that demonstrate: “Progressive views of research and evaluation are closely related, both relying on close-up, qualitative methods” (p. 159). The issues discussed in the four essays of this section are: quality vs. quantity and children’s learning, the “evils” of standardized testing, assessment focus on description rather than judgment, and an overview of progressive evaluation using the writings of John Dewey.

Holding Values has much to offer pre-service teachers, and those educators working in schools where the daily pressure of testing and standardized assessment has become overbearing. The book allows practitioners to tell how they have tried to hold onto their progressive values and have been able to do so despite federal and local pressures to quantify all learning and educational experiences. The ideas shared in the book show first hand how progressive ideas in real classrooms are being implemented. The essays are unique and come from the experiences of the authors, be they classroom teachers, university faculty, or students. At a time when NCLB has consumed our focus on education, this book is refreshing in what it has to teach us and what the authors have learned. Similar to Schools of Tomorrow (Dewey and Dewey, 1962), Holding Values does not pretend to be a book that explains the Progressive movement, or a book for teacher preparation, but it is a book that mirrors the concerns of John and Evelyn Dewey: “The democracy which proclaims equality of opportunity as its ideal requires an education in which learning and social application, ideas and practice, work and recognition of the meaning of what is done, are united from the beginning and for all” (p. 226).


Dewey, J., and Dewey, E. (1962). Schools of tomorrow (A. Dutton paperback edition). New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 135-138
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12103, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 4:47:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Anthony DeFalco
    Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus
    E-mail Author
    ANTHONY DEFALCO is a Professor of Education, Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus. He has published in the area of Social foundations with a focus on John Dewey and Progressive Education. His most recent publication is "Progressive = Permissive? Not According to John Dewey…Subjects Matter!," Stephen G. Weiss, New York University Anthony A. DeFalco, Eileen M. Weiss, Long Island University/ C. W. Post Campus, in Essays in Education, Volume 14, Summer 2005, http://www.usca.edu/essays/. He is also a member of the editorial board of Education and Culture , the journal of the John Dewey Society. He is currently doing research on John Dewey’s conception of occupations.
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