The Promise and Failure of Progressive Education
reviewed by Sheila L. Macrine - 2005
Early in the 20th century, an inspiring array of intellectuals launched a progressive education movement that sought change in American educational practice. For many of them, the heart of a progressive educational program emphasized flexibility and critical thinking. These progressives believed that schools should establish relationships with their communities and that curricula should confront broad social issues and provide educational opportunities for all children. Consequently, progressive education, infused with the reformist sensibilities of progressive era politics, looked to schools for the political and social regeneration of the nation.
Today, many in our profession are amazed at how it has been pushed beyond the limits of common reason and held accountable when reasonable solutions dont work. One can only imagine what Dewey might say about some of the current gross misapplications of his lifes work. As Norman Dale Norris notes in his new book, The Promise and Failure of Progressive Education, education is now under attack as a result of a set of false dichotomies that present extremes, with no room for professional judgment, as the only hope for success. Consequently, educators must be equipped with a body of literature that speaks the truth and defends the work that we do.
In his book, Norris critiques progressive theories of education and answers the question, How has progressive education become a caricature of what the founders intended? He further argues that education has become so institutionalized, standardized, and alignment crazy that none of the elements of progressive education can bear fruit.
One of the most interesting aspects of American education is the tenacity of progressive education, despite critics such as Arthur Bestor, Dianne Ratvich, E. D. Hirsch Jr., Bonnie Grossen, and John Stone. These critics believe that progressive education has a shallow instructional design. They are concerned about the perceived superficiality of curricula and the seeming destructive effects of progressive instruction. Promise and Failure doesnt jump on this bandwagon; instead, it looks at the ideals behind progressive education. In the Foreword, Martin Kozloff asks, How does a set of moral ideas and reasonable curricular guidelines become transformed . . . and then institutionalized . . . such that it is nearly impossible to change? (p. vii). Norris responds by tracing the ideas of Dewey and others. In doing so, he goes to the heart of progressive educations development and shows how it was misinterpreted and taken to extremes. As this sullied progressivism became doctrine in public schools, its truth was no longer a subject of critical examination. Norris writes that systematic indoctrination came to be the criterion that defined competence in classroom teaching and teacher training.
With the impetus in education toward reform, the phrase progressive education can elicit a number of responses from educated Americans (Semel and Sadovnik, 1999). Some consider the ideals of progressive education to be the best way to educate the youth of society (Kohn, 1999). Others consider the existence of progressive education ideas to be problematic for our schools (Grossen, 1998). Such responses are contingent upon a number of things, including ones educational background, experience, ideas, desires, wants, and expectations of what quality of life an education is to provide. In this regard, there has never been a clear consensus on exactly what schools are supposed to do (Gay, 1986; Postman & Weingartner, 1973; Wood, 1990). Everyone seems to have a best answer on how to run things (Hunter, 1985).
Over the past 100 years, most educational squabbles have been not about what works, but instead about extremes in ideology. These extremes range from the traditional or essential teacher-centered, content-driven approach to the progressive learner-centered, process-driven approach. Despite the success or failure of these ideological extremes, teachers have only done as they were asked (Norris, 2002).From both empirical and descriptive perspectives, the progressive ideology dominates all that happens in our schools, but not without having to fight for its place. From primary school to postdoctoral study, progressive ideas and varying spin-offs of them are the driving force behind contemporary American education (Carr, 1998; Cunningham, 2001). Just as the art and music of a society reflects its culture, what goes on in the realm of American education both reflects and shapes existing social political and economic relations (Weiner, 2000, p. 212).
The progressive ideology is so deeply entrenched in the American idea of schooling that no one can imagine desirable schools as offering any other philosophy (Hirsch, 1996). However, in recent years, a number of scholars have upset the status quo. They question whether progressive ideas fail to produce gains because practitioners are not doing it correctly. They also question whether the ideology is flawed and whether it can be made to work correctly. It is unfortunate that such thinking is dismissed as radical, old, uninformed, or not in the best interest of children. Those who question or fail to embrace ideals that are hailed as progressive or forward-thinking will likely find themselves considered nonconformists, non-team-players, or unwilling to grow professionally. Although I do not consider myself a reactionary, I am alarmed at how much progressive ideology flows through all efforts related to educational development or reform to the virtual exclusion of any other.
It is interesting to note that among educational leaders, professional growth is typically considered to depend upon further exploration of progressive ideas and practice. This exploration generally culminates in a think tank effort to further the cause of progressive education. Any exploration of more traditional practices, whether or not they may provide viable alternatives, is frowned upon.
One of the critics of progressive education, Hirsch, claims that schools that have tried his methods find that they work and that their reading scores have improved. This should be greeted as good news, because whenever a school performs well, children benefit. However, there is evidence that a highly standardized curriculum does not necessarily produce better long-term results. Hirsch describes Switzerland as having one of the "most detailed and demanding core curriculums in the world" Switzerland, and yet it does considerably worse than the United States on the percentage of adults that fall into the highest range of literacy while doing somewhat worse at the lower levels (Bracey, 1998). The difference that Hirsch ignores is the one between educational efficiency or how fast students can get to a certain point and educational productivity or how much knowledge, information, and skills they have acquired upon completion of formal education (Bracey, 1998).
Norris understands that progressive ideologies are the dominant force through all areas of education and that the outcomes of progressive practices are often what the public typically demands (Stone, 2000). Even so, the public is generally unclear about what it is asking of schools. In order to make sense of this, Norris explores the following five questions:
What is progressive education?
What are its origins?
What really happened to progressive education?
Why has progressive education failed?
How do we make progressive education work?
In exploring these five questions, Norris links the emergence of progressive education to a massive and unexpected growth in society. He analyzes the practices of some school systems relative to the true tenets of progressive education and notes that several influential governing agencies have skewed their ideals in a progressive direction with no consideration for any other approach.
Norris analyzes why claims regarding the superiority of progressive education have not been borne out by the actual results. He examines various societal and sociological phenomena that progressive education claims to fix. He explores the idea of schools (and progressive education) as a tool for social reform and compares the social problems of a century ago to those of today. Norris discusses what must happen if progressive education is to survive and perform as promised.
Norris adds that an ill-informed or half-educated educational leadership is dangerous to the mainstream population. He writes that his intention is to defend progressive education, but he is opposed to the ill-informed using a small piece of a bigger idea in ways that are inconsistent with the intent and ideology. Likewise, he is opposed to trying to force a match between theory and practice when a link does not exist or when the link is clearly not appropriate. He writes that in two decades of working in schools, he has observed hideous discrepancies between ideas and practice that were not mean-spirited or ill-intentioned but were the direct result of leaders and policymakers who did not know the truth.
According to Norris, although some theories may be inherently flawed, there is no such thing as a bad theory. This book is intended to discuss and defend the tenets and ideas of progressive education and assert emphatically that progressive education has not failed the people, but indeed that the reverse is true (Radest, 1983).
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Sheila L. Macrine is affiliated with St. Josephs University in Philadelphia.