The Contemporary Small-School Movement: Lessons from the History of Progressive Education

by Susan F. Semel & Alan R. Sadovnik - 2008

Background/Context: The contemporary small-school movement traces its roots to the alternative schools of the 1960s and the development of small urban schools in the 1980s. However, the small-school movement has its roots in the progressive movement of the early twentieth century. Although there is a significant amount of research on the early progressive schools and the alternative and small-school movements of the 1960s and 1980s, there is no research that connects these movements historically, nor that compares some of their most important schools.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this article is to examine the historical roots of the small-school movement through the use of two progressive independent schools founded in the early part of the twentieth century, the Dalton School and the City and Country School, and relate them to one of the models of the contemporary small-school movement, Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, founded in the 1980s and reorganized in 2004. Within this context, we will examine the relationship between the current small-school movement and earlier progressive reforms, and examine briefly the history of Central Park East, which implemented many of the practices of the earlier progressive schools. Finally, using the histories of all three schools, we discuss lessons from the history of progressive schools with respect to curriculum and pedagogy for low-income students, leadership, and sustainability.

Research Design: Using historical analysis, ethnographic fieldwork, and interviews, this study examines the history of the three schools and provides a comparative historical analysis of the relationship between the early progressive schools and the small-school movement.

Findings/Results: Our findings suggest that the small-school movement initiated at schools such as Central Park East in the 1980s mirrored many of the practices of early-twentieth-century progressive schools such as the Dalton School and the City and Country School, albeit with more diverse student populations and a more explicit commitment to social justice. The histories of the Dalton School, the City and Country School, and Central Park East Secondary School indicate that there are important lessons to be learned from the history of education with respect to curriculum and pedagogy, leadership, and sustainability. Finally, the success of Central Park East under Deborah Meier suggests that progressive education can work with low-income students.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Our research suggests that many contemporary progressive educational reforms, especially many in the small-school movement, have their origins in the early child-centered schools, and that progressive education is sometimes made more difficult by No Child Left Behind and other standards-based reforms, particularly in the public sector. Nonetheless, we are not convinced that schools such as the old Central Park East Secondary School cannot succeed. Researchers need to examine schools such as Urban Academy and the newly created schools founded by New Visions for Public Schools to see if this is the case. Administrators and teachers at these schools should study the history of contemporary small schools like Central Park East Secondary School, as well as the histories of the early progressive schools such as Dalton and City and Country, for lessons for successful small-school reform.

“I loved your book on small schools,” said one of her doctoral students to the first author recently. That student assumed that our book1 was about the small-school movement. Although the connection is made only tangentially in the book, her comment is indicative of the need to provide a more explicit analysis of the connection between past and present. The small-school movement has become a significant part of urban school reform in the past two decades.2 Arguing that the large, impersonal bureaucratic comprehensive high school was part of the reason for low achievement and high dropout rates in urban schools, reformers like Theodore Sizer and Deborah Meier implemented small, more personal schools in the 1980s with great success.3 Meier’s school, Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), and Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools, of which CPESS was a member, became models of small-school reform. From the 1990s to the present, a number of foundations, including the Annenberg Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have given millions of dollars to break up large urban schools into small schools in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Much of the discussion of this small-school movement traces its history to the alternative and open schools in the 1960s and the development of small urban schools in the 1980s.4 However, the practices of the small-school movement have some of their roots in the progressive movement of the early twentieth century. The purpose of this article is to examine these historical roots of the small-school movement through the use of two progressive independent schools founded in the early part of the twentieth century, the Dalton School and the City and Country School, and relate them to one of the exemplars of the small-school movement, Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, founded in the 1980s and reorganized in 2004. Within this context, we will examine the relationship between the current small-school movement and earlier progressive reforms, and examine briefly the history of Central Park East and how it implemented many of the practices that existed in the earlier progressive schools. Using the histories of all three schools, we discuss lessons from the history of progressive schools with respect to curriculum and pedagogy for low-income students, leadership, and sustainability. Finally, we argue that leadership and the development of a cohesive community of administrators, teachers, and students are vital for sustaining schools, which are important lessons from the past for the contemporary small schools movement.


Historians of education distinguish between at least three different strands of progressive education in the early twentieth century. These include administrative progressivism, child-centered progressivism, and social reconstructionism.5 Administrative progressivism, sometimes referred to as social efficiency progressivism, was largely implemented in public schools. It stressed applying scientific management techniques to the administration of schools, using intelligence testing to determine student placements, reforming curriculum, and creating secondary vocational schools.6 However, in the early part of the twentieth century, many child-centered progressive educators, or what Cremin referred to as “romantics,” began to focus “on a select group of pedagogical innovative independent schools catering principally to middle class children”7 at a time when “progressive private day schools began to emerge in growing numbers.”8 These were small schools with fewer than 500 students, and often the creation of talented practitioners with particular notions about progressive education. Nevertheless, they held the common belief that “each individual has uniquely creative potentialities and that a school in which children are encouraged freely to develop their potential is the best guarantee of a larger society truly devoted to human worth and excellence.”9 Although child-centered progressive methods influenced both public and private education, they were more fully implemented within private schools.10 Unlike child-centered progressivism, social reconstructionism placed its emphasis on community and society rather than the individual and saw schools as central to creating a more just social order.11 Social reconstructionism was an important philosophical branch of progressive education but had little impact on public education or private education.12

Child-centered schools were more often than not founded by female practitioners “spurred by the revolt against ‘the harsh pedagogy’ of the existing schools and by the ferment of change and new thought of the first two decades of the twentieth century.”13 Many historians tend to group these schools together, however, each had a distinct philosophy, curriculum, and pedagogy based on the particular vision of its founder. New York City was a center for such schools. The City and Country School, founded in 1914 by Caroline Pratt, emphasized the notion of self-expression and growth through play with wooden blocks.14 The Dalton School, founded in 1918 by Helen Parkhurst, implemented Parkhurst’s Dalton Plan to balance the needs of the community and those of the individual.15 The Walden School, founded by Margaret Naumburg, who was heavily influenced by Freudian psychology, emphasized the notion of “individual transformation.” Under the leadership of Naumburg’s sister, Florence Cane, the school encouraged “children to paint exactly what they felt impelled to paint.”16 Other examples include the Bank Street School, founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell,17 and the Lincoln School, founded by Abraham Flexner, which became a laboratory school for Teachers College, Columbia University.18

Outside New York, these progressive experimental schools included the Putney School, a coeducational boarding school in Putney, Vermont, founded by Carmelita Hinton19; Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, founded by one of the early pioneers of progressive pedagogy, Colonel Francis W. Parker20; and the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.21

All these schools were heavily influenced by the writings of John Dewey.22 Dewey proposed that children learn both individually and in groups. He believed that children should start their mode of inquiry by posing questions about what they want to know. This particular pedagogical strategy was referred to as problem solving or inquiry method. Student texts were often written by teachers and students together; field trips and projects, which reconstructed some aspect of the child’s course of study, were also an integral part of learning, particularly in Dewey’s Laboratory School, founded at the University of Chicago in the 1890s.23 These methods in turn became the basis for these other progressive schools founded in the Deweyan tradition. Although over the years, many of the schools that survived became larger schools, the early progressive schools were small in size and emphasized the Deweyan conception in community.

In progressive settings, the teacher assumed the role of facilitator rather than the authoritarian figure from which all knowledge flows. The teacher encouraged students through suggestions and questions, and helped plan and implement courses of study. Because the teacher also wrote and implemented the curriculum, he or she had to have a broad knowledge base.

Formal instruction was often abandoned in favor of individual or small group work; traditional blocks of time for specific discipline instruction were often done away with, and bells signifying the end of instructional periods were banished. Furniture, usually nailed to the floor, was discarded in favor of tables and chairs, which could be grouped as needed. Children could converse quietly with one another, stand up and stretch if warranted, and pursue independent study or group work. What might look chaotic to the visitor used to formal pedagogy was a carefully orchestrated classroom with children going about learning in nontraditional, yet natural, ways. Lock-step, rote memorization of traditional schools was replaced with individualized study, problem solving, and project method.

Progressive schools generally followed Dewey’s notion of a core curriculum, or an integrated curriculum. A particular subject matter under investigation by students, such as whales, would yield problems to be solved using math, science, history, reading, writing, music, art, wood- or metal-working, cooking and sewing—all the academic and vocational disciplines in an integrated, interconnected way. Progressive educators usually started with contemporary problems and worked from the known to the unknown, as in the curriculum of expanding environments in elementary social studies education today. Progressive educators were not wedded to a fixed curriculum; rather, curriculum changed as the social order changed and as children’s interests and needs changed.

There was some disagreement over Dewey’s ideas about traditional discipline-centered curriculum. Some believed that Dewey’s emphasis on the need for the curriculum to be related to the needs and interests of the child suggested that he was against traditional subject matter and in favor of a child-centered curriculum based on imagination and intuition. Others believed that Dewey proposed a balance between traditional disciplines and the needs and interests of the child. Thus, the extent to which progressive schools stressed a traditional curriculum differed from school to school, although most of the early schools had rigorous academic standards, albeit with different types of curricula.24

The pedagogic practices of the Dalton School and the City and Country School were illustrative of the types of curriculum and pedagogy practiced at these schools.25 The Dalton Plan was the progressive pedagogical model used by Helen Parkhurst. Her book, Education on the Dalton Plan, was published in 1922, and within six months of publication, it was translated into fourteen languages.26 The Plan’s principles were freedom and cooperation. Freedom meant the ability for individuals to function independently and autonomously. Cooperation meant the interaction of group life. Concerned with preparing students to live in a democracy, Parkhurst attempted to create an environment to balance cooperation and freedom.

The components of the Dalton Plan were House, Laboratory, and Assignment. House was the arrangement of students into advisory groups, which met four times per week for a total of ninety minutes with a teacher-adviser. Its purpose was to foster cooperation among students and to develop the qualities of independence and social awareness.

Blocks of time were set aside each morning from nine to twelve o’clock, called lab time, or the Laboratory. Each teacher had a “lab,” and students were expected to use the resources of their teachers to help them fulfill their assignment.

Assignment was an outline of each student’s course work for the year. Students were required to discuss their plans with their teachers. Students might discuss their plans with other students, and plans might be modified; they might even abandon their plans and start over. Students participated in planning their studies with both faculty and peers, interacting with the community in a spirit of cooperation.

Flexibility was the keystone of the Plan. During Helen Parkhurst’s time, the school exuded informality, spur-of-the-moment decision-making, enormous energy, high-level engagement, and the element of surprise. Parkhurst’s greatest contribution to education was her emphasis on process rather than product. She saw the Dalton Plan as a vehicle for teaching the curriculum. It was far from perfect. Former students complained of lack of structure. Teachers had to be reeducated in Dalton ways. Often, because of emphasis on process, they were insecure with regard to curriculum. Moreover, for the student to realize his or her potential as an individual and to be a contributing member of a community remained a problem largely unsettled.

Over the years, the Dalton Plan became a less explicit feature of the school. Nonetheless, its pedagogic practices, rooted in Parkhurst’s early emphasis on process, continued to be child centered, with student independence and autonomy essential features of classroom practice. As the school became more concerned with the college admissions process, rigorous content requirements also became the norm, but students were still encouraged to be active learners. Although the Dalton Plan today is a vestige of what it was in Parkhurst’s time, its House system has been rediscovered by the contemporary small-school movement and called advisory groups, although contemporary reformers do not acknowledge Parkhurst’s influence.

The pedagogic practices that Caroline Pratt developed at the City and Country School reflected Dewey’s idea of an embryonic community based on the needs and interests of children at various ages and emphasized inquiry and experimentation, book learning, and experience. Pratt believed that young children should initially learn experimentally and experientially from their immediate environments, and then, as they mature and their horizons expand, they should be introduced to more sophisticated tasks and materials.

Block play was the linchpin of the curriculum of the Lower School, with a particular focus at each age group. The Threes, according to Pratt, used blocks as their raw materials to help them make sense of their immediate world: the world of themselves and their families. The Fours would use blocks as a way of understanding their immediate environment, particularly as they observed such interesting activities on the streets surrounding the school.27 Clay, paint, and woodworking would augment block play. As the groups become older and their horizons expanded, block play became more sophisticated and lengthier, and more likely to reflect serious research into how processes work, integrating reading and writing skills. By the time they became Sixes, the children would actively engage in trips around the city with their block construction mirroring its actual geography and its workings. Finally, as Sevens, the children would construct the city, working together to create neighborhoods and communities with running water and electricity. The effect of this curriculum was, and continues to be, powerful: It encourages children to investigate their world, to work both independently and cooperatively, to pose questions and find answers, to solve problems, to conduct research, and to become independent learners.

As the curriculum of the school began to evolve, it became clear that after age seven, more challenging content was needed to hold the students’ attention. Particular historical periods and civilizations were introduced and used as vehicles for an integrated curriculum that reflected the interests of the students and encouraged acquisition of content and skills while immersing them in their course of study.

Because block building was the focus of the primary groups, jobs became an integral part of the curriculum for students beginning in the Eights. The practice of assigning to the different age groups specific jobs of actual service necessary to the school was so successful that the school eventually functioned as a self-sufficient community. But even more than a self-sufficient community, Pratt saw her school functioning as a democratic community. Pratt set the tone for a discernable democratic orientation present in the school from its inception through the 1970s. The school organized its jobs around the concepts of interdependence and community and used them to teach both academic and social skills. Thus, jobs could be linked to the curriculum as a natural outgrowth of student inquiry.

For example, the Nines ran the school store, supplying the entire school with its supplies and materials: They were responsible for purchasing inventory and then selling it, and their curriculum was heavily influenced by economics, especially how the capitalist system works. The idea was less to make a profit than to serve the community and provide valuable learning experiences for the children. The Tens were responsible for all the hand-printed materials for the Sevens, like flash cards and reading charts. The Elevens ran the print shop and attended to all the school’s printing needs: attendance lists, library cards, stationery, and stamps. The Twelves first made toys, then weavings, until they settled on the publication of a monthly magazine called The Bookworm’s Digest, which reviewed new children’s books sent to the group by publishers and included a popular “Old Favorites” column discussing familiar books.


As the students performed their jobs, they also learned basic academic skills, although it seemed that social studies was (and still is) the core subject of the curriculum. For example, the Elevens studied the Middle Ages, which worked well with their job given the emphasis on illuminated manuscripts and the invention of the printing press. What emerged from this model was a community of independent children actively engaged in their learning, while concurrently contributing to the life of their school community. These students were, in Deweyan language, “saturated with the spirit of service, while they learned to be self-directed in the context of the school community—the best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”28


The strand of progressive education practiced at schools such as Dalton and City and Country increasingly came under attack as an elite form of education. The paradox of progressive education has been described as democratic education for the elite, often delivered autocratically as well.29 The late British sociologist Basil Bernstein argued that progressive education was the education of “the new middle class,” or the new managerial class. He pointed to such pedagogic practices as integrated curriculum and implicit child-centered pedagogy (internalized, invisible, and often coercive discipline) as evidence of the techniques required of those destined to assume decision-making positions of authority in society.30 Bernstein argued that the pedagogic practices implemented at progressive schools such as Dalton and City and Country in the early twentieth century were designed to prepare these new middle classes for their roles as professionals in the developing economic order.31 Although it is not clear that this was Parkhurst’s or Pratt’s intent, as they developed systems that they thought were best for all children, affluent families were the ones to send their children to these schools. This was in part due to the tuition but also because they supported this type of new education for their children.

This was not what John Dewey had in mind when he opened the Laboratory School in Chicago, which he wanted to be a model for democratic education for children from diverse backgrounds. In the early part of the twentieth century, as progressivism in public schools became dominated by its social efficiency and life adjustment strands, progressive, child-centered education was located mainly in small independent schools, which attracted overwhelmingly elite, affluent, and white populations.32 It is ironic that a century later, Dewey’s school and other such progressive schools founded during the Progressive Era have increasingly become institutions to educate the affluent, often in less progressive educational settings (although visitors from more traditional educational backgrounds might disagree). Dalton and City and Country exemplified this paradox.

Caroline Pratt began the City and Country School as a play school in a settlement house in New York City in 1914.33 Pratt sought to educate working-class children in the neighborhood (in her book, I Learn From Children, she described her attempts to recruit the children of working people), but they did not remain in her school. Parents expressed concern that their children would not fit into traditional schools later on, and ultimately, they withdrew them from her experimental progressive school. An influx of more affluent neighborhood children from families into Greenwich Village and surrounding neighborhoods—“the new middle class,” or struggling artists and writers interested in progressive education—quickly filled the vacuum.

The City and Country School has always maintained its “downtown,” somewhat bohemian ambience and its “downtown clientele,” who are attracted to its child-centered focus and its emphasis on the school as community. Although committed to democratic education, the school, from the 1970s on, struggled to remain open in the wake of dwindling enrollments following the death of its second powerful female head, Jean Wesson Murray. Now it accepts full-tuition-paying students almost exclusively. Thus, like so many of the independent progressive schools that depend on tuition for their existence, maintaining diversity continues to be problematic.

The Dalton School is located amid some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and from its inception, Dalton’s student population reflected its location.34 Helen Parkhurst actively recruited the rich and the not-so-rich-but-famous for her school, providing scholarships for those artists, writers, and intellectuals she thought would provide visibility for her educational experiment. Indeed, classes in the early years were composed of children of upper-class white Protestants and affluent German Jews (who, because of their religion, found rejection at traditional elite independent schools), along with people in the arts and letters. Never a social reconstructionist school, Dalton sought to mirror life through its students, whose parents reflected different occupations and different economic levels even though creative types and monied businessmen dominated the parent body. Thus, intellectuals, barely able to feed their families (and during the McCarthy era, often blacklisted as well) were offered scholarships for their children and were seated in the same classroom with the children of the nouveau riche, the old monied Protestants who were interested in progressive education, and upper-class German Jews.

Beginning in the 1960s, as Dalton became less progressive and more financially solvent, the population changed radically to include up to twenty percent scholarship students of color, along with mostly white, new-monied offspring of Wall Street parentage, and the children of highly visible entertainers.

The early progressive schools, such as Dalton and City and Country that Dewey lauded as indicative of progressive education, were innovative in their educational philosophies, curricula, and pedagogic practices. They did not, however, mirror the racial and social class diversity of New York City in their student bodies. The reasons are complex and certainly largely related to their high tuition costs. However, it seems clear that experimental progressive education often appealed to those who did not fit in, or who were excluded from, mainstream elite education, as well as proponents of the “new education.” The archives of many of these schools support the thesis that they met the needs of a number of children who today might be labeled “learning disabled” by providing individualized instruction and allowing them to progress at their own rates. At Dalton, German Jews were significantly represented in many of these schools from their beginnings through the fifties, when they begin to be eclipsed by Eastern European Jews. Interestingly, as religious quota systems in higher education came under scrutiny and disappeared, access to other independent schools (and particularly boarding schools) became easier, which may partially explain why the German Jewish presence declined significantly in progressive day schools. This decline was particularly apparent at the Dalton School. Dewey’s own school, the Laboratory School, has become an elite school for affluent, mostly white children. Significantly, these are independent schools with smaller endowments than elite boarding schools, and they depend on tuition for their survival.

Not all progressive schools catered predominantly to affluent populations. The Little Red Schoolhouse-Elisabeth Irwin, founded as a public school in Greenwich Village, not far from the City and Country School, became a private school in part because of lower test scores compared with other public schools. It subsequently managed to attract a less affluent, though predominantly intellectual, parent body. The Downtown Community School, founded in 1944 on the Lower East Side of New York City, mainly for the children of working-class families, managed to survive for almost a quarter of a century until its social reconstructionist stance alienated the child-centered faction, thus causing an unfixable rift.35 Fragile from its very beginning, the Downtown Community School could not withstand assaults from both within and without, and so it closed its doors.

Clearly, independent progressive schools are at the mercy of market forces and, more often than not, became “democratic” education for the elite. The historical evidence suggests that Bernstein was right to ascribe the success of progressive education to the new middle class. For many reasons, most related to market, independent progressive schools certainly have tended to attract this population. Despite this elitism, these schools, at least in their early years, were examples of small schools, which emphasized child-centered pedagogy and integrated curriculum, and stressed the creation of democratic community, albeit not with respect to their student populations.


Perhaps because they were private and because of their elite nature, politics and funding, historical association as “reducation,”36 and historical amnesia, the small schools founded from the 1980s onward paid little attention to the history of the early independent progressive schools. Nevertheless, despite the domination of conservative, standards-based reform in the public sector, there has been simultaneous interest in progressive education, especially as it relates to attempts to address issues of both equity and excellence. During the past two decades of standards-based educational policy—a period in which school choice, tuition vouchers, and widespread loss of faith in public education have been the foundation for No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on reducing the achievement gap and equity part of its goal—there has been a simultaneous resurgence of interest in progressive practices,37 although they are rarely labeled as such.

An examination of the small-school movement since the 1980s indicates that these reform efforts echo many of the early concerns of progressive education. For example, the statement of principles of the steering committee of the Network of Progressive Educators drafted on November 10, 1990, reflected contemporary attempts to reintroduce progressive ideas into public school reform, albeit with a more explicit agenda for equity and social justice. These principles were often incorporated into the missions of many of the new small schools in New York City and funded by the Annenberg and Gates Foundations. According to the network’s statement,

Fundamental principles and assumptions include:

Education is best accomplished where relationships are personal and teachers design programs which honor the linguistic and cultural diversity of the local community.

Teachers, as respected professionals, are crucial sources of knowledge about teaching and learning.

Curriculum balance is maintained by commitment to children’s individual interests and developmental needs, as well as a commitment to community within and beyond the school’s walls.

Schools embrace the home cultures of children and their families. Classroom practices reflect these values and bring multiple cultural perspectives to bear.

Students are active constructors of knowledge and learn through direct experience and primary sources.

All disciplines—the arts, sciences, humanities, and physical development—are valued equally in an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Decision making within schools is inclusive of children, parents, and staff.

The school is a model of democracy and humane relationships, confronting issues of racism, classism, and sexism.

Schools actively support critical inquiry into the complexities of global issues.

Children can thus assume the powerful responsibilities of world citizenship.38

In “Schools of Tomorrow” we argued that these principles were widely implemented in the early independent progressive schools, their elite natures notwithstanding. These principles were the basis for many of the small schools founded since the 1980s, as educators in the United States reemphasized the need for progressive education for children from diverse class, race, and ethnic backgrounds, as well as students from all backgrounds who did not fit well into existing schools.39 As these schools attempted to implement these progressive principles in schools educating low-income students and students of color, policy makers have debated whether there is one best curriculum or pedagogy for educating these students. Educators influenced by the Network of Progressive Educators and the Coalition of Essential Schools argued that child-centered education should not be the domain of the elite and affluent and would work successfully for low-income children and children of color. Deborah Meier was such an educator, and she implemented such practices at Central Park East. Another pioneer of the New York City small schools movement was Ann Cook, who cofounded Urban Academy.40

Critics of this type of progressive education argued that low-income students and students of color need different curriculum and pedagogic practices. Drawing in part on Bernstein’s work, Lisa Delpit argued that well-meaning progressives who advocate the child-centered practices developed at schools such as Dalton and City and Country often disadvantage low-income students and children of color, who often misunderstand the implicit codes of progressive education.41 Based on Delpit’s work, educators argued that these children need more traditional, disciplinarian, and skills-based curriculum and pedagogy. Such practices have been implemented in a number of small nonprogressive schools, such as KIPP Academy and North Star Academy Charter School in Newark. Although this debate is not addressed in this article, the question of whether low-income students need one particular type of curriculum and pedagogy is an important one.42 Because this article deals with the historical roots of the small-school movement in early-twentieth-century progressive education, the next section examines the history of Central Park East as an exemplar of the progressive small-school movement in the 1980s.


Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS),43 founded in 1985 by De­borah Meier, was a progressive public school in District 4 in East Harlem in New York City.44 Suiter, who has been studying the history of Central Park East following Meier’s departure, describes the early history of the school:

One of the most highly acclaimed and successful schools to come out of this period of school reform, Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) in East Harlem was started by Deborah Meier not so much as a reform model, but rather as an answer to a need to continue the specific progressive approaches proving so highly successful with students exiting a series of three elementary schools (Central Park East I and II, and Rivereast Elementary).

The three sister elementary schools, located in East Harlem and founded by Meier but led by three separate principals, were structured as multi-age grouped, open-classroom schools where children moved developmentally at their own pace. Teachers observed, guided, and facilitated each child’s educational journey. Parents were an integral part of their child’s progress, and the staffs worked collaboratively with their respective principals in making all decisions about governance, instruction, and curriculum.

By the time The Power of Their Ideas, Meier’s book about CPESS, was published in 1995, shortly after her Macarthur Foundation award for genius thinking, the school had data to solidify its acclaim. At a time in New York when city-wide completion of high school or its equivalence was at 50%, CPESS had a fewer than 5% drop out rate. Not only did the remaining students graduate, but also fully 90% of the graduates went directly on to college, many to highly prestigious schools (Meier, 1995). With a school population that was “roughly equivalent to a cross sampling of New York City” (p.16) the majority of the students were African-American and Latino, most were from low-income homes, and represented “a full range of academic strengths and handicaps”(p.16).45

CPESS, under Meier, was part of the Center for Collaborative Education in New York City. The center consisted of elementary, middle, and high schools and was affiliated with the Coalition for Essential Schools. The school was guided by the prin­ciples of the Coalition of Essential Schools, founded by Theodore Sizer.46 In many respects, it mirrored the pedagogic practices of some of the early independent progressive schools, such as the Dalton School and City and Country School. It had an integrated curriculum, child-centered teaching methods, an advisory system (which was called House in Parkhurst’s original Dalton Plan), and alternative assessments through portfolios and exhibitions, and attempted to integrate students into a cohesive community of learners. Unlike most of the historically progressive schools that were independent private schools, it was a public school with a predominantly low-income African American and Latino student population. The school’s success from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s suggests that the type of progressive education that had been the province of the middle and upper middle classes can work effectively with students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. CPESS subscribed to the coalition’s twelve principles of education, which are closely aligned with the principles of the Network of Progressive Educators mentioned previously: schools that are small and personalized in size; a unified course of study for all students; a focus on helping young people to use their minds well; an in-depth, intradisciplinary curriculum respectful of the diverse heritages that encompass our society; active learning with student-as-worker/student-as-citizen, and teacher-as-coach; student evaluation by performance-based assessment methods; a school tone of unanxious expectation, trust, and decency; family involvement, trust, and respect; choice; racial, ethnic, economic, and intellectual diversity; and budget allocations target­ing time for collective planning.47

These are similar to the principles of the Network of Progressive Educators listed earlier, and like them, most of coalition’s principles existed at Dalton and City and Country, with the exception of racial and ethnic diversity.

In the aftermath of Meier’s departure from CPESS in the mid-1990s to found Mission Hill School in Boston, the school began to change in climate and student outcomes. Partially because of changes in leadership and partly because of its responses to the high-stakes testing required by New York State and NCLB, CPESS no longer exists as the successful urban progressive school it was in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2004, after a number of years of decline following the departures of both Meier and her codirector Paul Schwartz in the mid to late 1990s, the New York Department of Education reorganized CPESS into two separate schools, Central Park East Middle School and Central Park East High School, with little connection between the two, and no connection to the Central Park East Secondary School founded by Meier. Suiter’s research indicates that from the late 1990s until its reorganization, CPESS was no longer what it was under Meier and had changed significantly. She analyzed the profound changes at CPESS after Meier’s departure in the mid-1990s.48 Although Meier handpicked her immediate successor, Paul Schwartz, by making him codirector, Schwartz left after a few years for a university position. Although Meier and Schwartz picked his successor, the new director was less successful in challenging the state and city mandates for reform through high-stakes testing.

In 1995, New York commissioner of education Richard Mills and the Board of Regents mandated that all students pass five high-stakes Regents examinations to graduate from high school. This eliminated the state’s 30-year multiple graduation policy, which allowed for local (rather than Regents) diplomas for students who did not take or did not pass five Regents examinations. Mills argued that this dual policy allowed low-income districts to offer a watered-down, nonacademic curriculum to low-income students, mostly students of color, and that only a universal, one-size-fits-all examination policy would ensure educational equity and excellence. Meier and other heads of alternative schools, led by Ann Cook of Urban Academy, challenged the edict arguing that with over 90% graduation and college attendance rates, far above the norm for urban schools, schools like CPESS and Urban Academy should have been permitted to continue to use their portfolios and exhibitions as graduation requirements. Mills granted a temporary exemption for all but the English and mathematics examinations until 2005, when students at the alternative schools would have to take and pass the five Regents examinations to graduate. In June 2005, a bill was introduced to the New York State Legislature to extend the exemption. Despite a column by New York Times education writer Michael Winerip asking why Mills would fix schools that are not broken, the Times editorial board strongly supported Mills, arguing that to exempt the alternative schools would compromise the state’s strong commitment to ensuring that all children, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, are held to the same high academic standards.49 These high-stakes testing requirements were part of the state and federal initiatives that gave rise to NCLB. In 2005, Mills reached an agreement to extend the exemptions in some areas, but not in English and mathematics. However, by this time, the newly reorganized Central Park East High School had dropped out of the coalition seeking the exemptions and was requiring the Regents examinations.

Suiter describes CPESS as a school that, by 2002, had become a vestige of its former self. There was high teacher turnover, a traditional curriculum to prepare students for the Regents and other high-stakes tests, the introduction of textbooks rather than a teacher-developed curriculum, and a tense and disorderly climate. Suiter attributes these changes in no small part to the imposition, by the New York City Department of Education, of an additional 100 students to accommodate the closing of large comprehensive high schools. For the first time, students whose families did not apply to CPESS were placed there, making it no longer exclusively a school of choice. By 2002, Suiter argued that CPESS had become more like the traditional comprehensives that the city was closing than the alternative small schools it was now championing with $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Ironically, to pursue this small-school initiative, the Department of Education was making one of the original jewels of the small-school movement too large to succeed.50

According to Bennett Lieberman, the current principal of Central Park High School, over the six years leading up to 2004, CPESS had “[fallen] into disrepair in regards to instruction, achievement—and became a school in crisis.” The current high school has little connection to the middle school and has not retained a connection to the CPESS of the past. Lieberman eliminated the CPESS portfolio assessment system, its integrated, thematic curriculum, and its block scheduling, saying that they were incompatible with the state Regents exams and other standardized tests required by NCLB.51

Mr. Lieberman stated that he is now trying implement a curriculum that will better prepare ninth graders for the Regents examinations and to increase graduation rates. When asked to compare current achievement with achievement at CPESS in the 1980s and 1990s, he indicated that comparisons are not possible because students were exempt from the Regents exams at that time and that CPESS had far more autonomy in graduation decisions prior to high-stakes testing partly because of NCLB. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence from Meier and Bensman indicates far higher graduation rates in the past. Nevertheless, recent scores certainly support Lieberman’s contention that the school he inherited was in crisis, at least in terms of traditional measures of student achievement.

Our discussions with Meier indicate that she is profoundly disappointed about what happened to her school.52 She feels that a combination of processes and events led to its decline, none of them inevitable. She places some of the blame on herself for not ensuring long-term leadership that could have successfully resisted the high-stakes movement and the over-enrollment of the school. She states that a Board of Trustees, similar to those at independent schools such as Dalton and City and Country, might have helped her successors more effectively resist Department of Education policies. Her recent writings on high-stakes testing and NCLB argue that such forms of assessment are incompatible with the type of progressive education that occurred at CPESS under her leadership.53 She passionately rejects the one-size-fits-all assessment that has dominated educational reform since the 1990s.

Most important, although the external demands of high-stakes testing and Department of Education increases in school size were important factors in CPESS’s decline, with stronger leadership after Meier and Schwartz and perhaps with greater ability to retain veteran teachers who may have been more committed to the school’s original philosophy, CPESS may have been able to survive in its original form or to have adapted more successfully.

Meier continues to believe that the type of progressive practices supported by the Network of Progressive Educators, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the Center for Collaborative Education are appropriate for low-income students and students of color. During the Meier years, CPESS demonstrated that progressive urban schools such as CPESS can succeed for low-income children of color, if one defines success in terms of graduation rates, college attendance, and engagement in learning. It remains to be seen if CPESS can recapture its former glory or if other progressive urban schools, such as Urban Academy, can avoid similar fates. Although a number of studies praise schools like CPESS and Urban Academy, most rely on anecdotal evidence and lack longitudinal evidence on the success of graduates in college and in life.54 Such evidence is crucial for arguing that the types of alternative assessments used at CPESS should replace high-stakes testing for schools with high graduation and attendance rates. Without such evidence, it may be difficult to argue against the Times’s warning that to compromise on high standards for some schools runs the risk of going back to a time when low-income students were routinely denied access to a rigorous high school curriculum.


A number of themes cut across the histories of City and Country, Dalton, and Central Park East.


Balancing the original intentions of progressive founders with historical changes and demands has been the challenge that some of the schools have met successfully, and others have not. As the school choice movement creates the demand for charter schools and other market-based approaches to educational reform, the histories of the early progressive schools provide important lessons. The Dalton School and the City and Country School have enjoyed strong and enduring leaders, well-articulated philosophies and accompanying pedagogic practice, and a neighborhood to supply their clientele. Moreover, both have weathered the vicissitudes of educational reform movements hostile to progressive education. City and Country, however, has remained closer to its early origins than has Dalton.

City and Country has managed to remain faithful (some argue this point) to Caroline Pratt’s child-centered practices. It has done so in part because of its small size and because it is a K–8 school, so college-conscious parents who are feeling the pressures of college admissions have four years following City and Country to equip their children with Ivy League credentials. It also attracts parents who consciously favor a progressive school and who are often alumni. In addition, City and Country selects faculty members interested in progressive education or graduates of progressive institutions. Significantly, a highly respected core of dedicated longtime faculty members serve to initiate new colleagues into the ways of the school. When progressive education fell into disfavor, the school faced dwindling enrollments; however, neighborhood and “New Age” parents may have been as influential in preserving the school as stable leadership, retrenchment, loyal alumni, and the choice real estate that helped to provide financial solvency. Finally, City and Country is proud of its heritage, and its leadership is respectful of, and continues both to articulate and implement, the philosophy of Caroline Pratt.

The Dalton School, by contrast, is a large and very successful K–12 school that has deemphasized its progressive roots since the 1960s. It continues to voice the rhetoric of Helen Parkhurst but not her practices. Its leadership from the 1960s has been hostile to progressive education, although its most recent head, an alumna, is more supportive. Its parent body has increasingly included fewer alumni and more people new to the school. The Dalton School draws its students from affluent neighborhoods, and particularly from its surroundings, and it is mindful of the link between college admissions and a large student body, as well as the importance of parents and alumni, who generously support fund drives. Few faculty members now remember the school as progressive; most have retired. In essence, Dalton has survived as a market-sensitive institution that delivers—in its case, college admissions and a first-rate education that would pass muster with E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation.

Both City and Country and Dalton, as independent schools, had to deal with the vicissitudes of the market. They both, however, attempted to institutionalize their practices so that each new head did not have to start at the beginning. They also attempted to socialize each new generation of teachers and students to the philosophies and rituals of the past in a way that provided the flexibility to change with the times, while retaining a sense of the past.

CPESS as a public school, although less directly affected by market forces, increasingly faced competition due to choice and NCLB sanctions on low-performing public schools. It was affected far more directly by federal and state educational policy, including NCLB and other standards-based reforms. Because of its progressive curriculum and alternative assessments, CPESS was vulnerable to external federal, state, and city mandates, which in the end were at least partially responsible for its decline and reorganization. However, this was not inevitable; schools such as Urban Academy continue to be truer to their alternative forms of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment.

What is clear from CPESS is that, like City and Country and Dalton, leadership by a charismatic founding head was vital to initial success. Despite her attempts to have Paul Schwartz continue this legacy, Meier was unable to create institutionalized sustainability that would transcend her or Schwartz’s leadership abilities and protect the school from external educational policies incompatible with its philosophy and structure.

In each of the schools, the ability to sustain strong leadership over time was central to stability, success, and maintaining the school’s philosophy. At Dalton, Charlotte Durham, who stabilized the Dalton Plan while making the school less dependent on the charisma of its founder, followed Parkhurst. She was followed by a number of school heads, all of whom took the school further from its original philosophy and transformed it into an elite college preparatory school. Although the school changed dramatically, strong leadership by its head remained a key feature of its history, with some exceptions.55 At City and Country, Jean Wesson Murray—who, like Durham at Dalton, institutionalized Pratt’s philosophy and practices—succeeded Pratt. After her long period of stable leadership, the school was operated for a time by a teachers cooperative, which resulted in instability and decline. Only after appointing a new head and a Board of Trustees to oversee the school did stability return. Unlike Dalton, however, all its heads remained committed to the school’s early philosophy.56 At CPESS, after the departures of Meier and then Schwartz, the school was unable to maintain its philosophy and practices, in part because of the external demands of standards-based reform. However, both Dalton and City and Country had to deal with difficult external demands over their histories, and strong leadership was central to their ability to adapt and survive. Although there were crucial differences between independent and public schools, especially with respect to the autonomy from state mandates, strong leadership remains central to school adaptation and sustainability over time. In addition, both Parkhurst and Pratt were able to forge alliances within and outside their schools to help institute change or resist external demands. Under Meier, membership in the Center for Collaborative Education helped to resist standards-based testing.

Our research supports recent findings that capacity building is central to long-term sustainability.57 Schools organized as learning organizations and professional communities58 are more likely to be able to sustain themselves over time.59 However, given the challenges posed by external and internal conditions, including high-stakes testing and standards-based reform, even schools with the internal conditions for stability face significant challenges.60 This has been true for independent schools, especially in relation to external market demands and even more so for small alternative public schools such as Central Park East, which proved unable to respond effectively to external demands for accountability and conformity.


What is clear from Central Park East is that, like Dalton and City and Country, it developed small, caring communities where teachers and students worked closely together. They all had a climate of respect, in which students felt that they were cared for. Central Park East was like City and Country and Dalton in its progressive curriculum and pedagogic practices, with an integrated thematic curriculum and student-centered pedagogic practices. Its Advisory system was similar to Dalton’s House system. Its portfolio assessments were similar to Dalton’s Assignments. Its community service requirement was similar to the community service program at Dalton and the jobs program at City and Country. In its heyday, it provided evidence that the type of progressive pedagogy that Delpit argued often does not work for low-income children of color can indeed work for this population. However, recent claims about the success—at least in terms of standardized test scores of more traditional and disciplinarian schools for low-income children of color, such as the KIPP Academies and North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, New Jersey—suggest that less progressive methods can also be successful.61

What seems clear from an examination of CPESS under Meier is that it provided students with a caring and respectful community in which achievement was stressed, albeit not in the traditional terms of standardized tests. CPESS under Meier used its smallness to create an effective learning community. The demise of CPESS, however, demonstrates how fragile this success may be.


The histories of small progressive schools point to the importance of looking to the past to formulate educational reforms. Many of the practices used at innovative alternative schools like Central Park East Secondary School originated in the early schools. As contemporary educators such as Deborah Meier have demonstrated, progressive pedagogic practices may work for all children, not just the children of the affluent.62 Therefore, educational reformers should study the child-centered progressive schools for models of what worked, what failed, and why. For example, all the schools were small enough to create personal communities, and the current small-school reforms might have been implemented years ago if reformers had only looked to history. The majority of contemporary progressive curriculum and pedagogic reforms, including whole-language, authentic assessment, integrated curriculum, and multicultural education (called intercultural in the early progressive schools) appear in some form in almost all the early progressive schools in the early part of the twentieth century. However, standards-based assessment, high-stakes testing, and No Child Left Behind may pose significant challenges to the maintenance of these practices, as they did at CPESS and other schools.63

We can also learn from the “success” of Dalton, and the struggles of City and Country to remain fiscally healthy. Each teaches us significant lessons about school leadership, sustainability, shared decision-making, a sense of community, and the forces that effect school change. In short, they provide models for us to emulate, modify, or avoid.

For example, in informal, familial organizations, as many of the early progressive schools once were (and some still are), leadership was not shared, although faculty opinion received respect, and the leaders made systematic and sustained attempts to involve parents in, or inform them about, school philosophy and practices. In fact, one of the greatest paradoxes that one notices in these schools is that they supported a democratic education often delivered autocratically. Several had dynamic female founders focused, even fixated, on particular forms of curricula and pedagogic practices. Revered as visionaries, they attracted loyal followings of teachers and parents who heard them lecture, read their educational tracts, and duly enrolled children in their schools. They also had wealthy benefactors and benefactresses to underwrite their visions. In some instances—including Dalton and City and Country, and perhaps CPESS—strong leadership made it difficult for less charismatic successors to function effectively.

The lesson here is the importance of strong, dynamic leadership both in founding and in maintaining schools with practices at variance with traditional approaches. Additionally, providing for smooth transitions for the people destined to follow strong leaders is imperative. Moreover, the freedom that these founders enjoyed in selecting likeminded faculty members bears attention. A common feature in independent schools, this freedom sometimes appears in alternative public schools or charter schools, but it is still a rarity. Nevertheless, a faculty that shares the vision or mission of the school is likelier to sustain its implementation.

All the early progressive schools created a sense of community, as did Central Park East. Thus, current small-school reformers interested in building school communities can usefully look to these schools for models. Again, one can hardly overemphasize the model presented here of small school size, a philosophy and pedagogy that create common experiences, and common traditions or rituals for all in the school community—for example, Arch Day, an end-of-year festival at Dalton, in which each grade walks through a flower covered arch.

Moreover, our research suggests the complexity of school change, especially when changes are propelled by forces that many of these schools could not control. Neighborhood location, for example, helped shape the destinies of many of the early progressive schools, particularly Dalton and City and Country. The politics of education is another strong influence on school change. The history of American education in the twentieth century chronicles both the rise and decline of enthusiasm for progressive education, and this shifting attitude definitely helped shape the destinies of the independent progressive schools. Because most depended on tuition, they have accommodated–some more, some less—the demands of the changing market in education in an attempt to maintain a healthy enrollment and to balance the budget. The marketplace too often controls the destinies of schools that depend on tuition for their existence. For public schools, the effects of state and federal policies have significant impact. With NCLB sanctions on low-performing schools, including reconstitution or conversion to a charter school, public schools now must deal with competitive market forces as well.

Our research suggests that many contemporary progressive educational reforms, especially many in the small-school movement, have their origins in the early child-centered schools and that progressive education is sometimes made more difficult by NCLB and other standards-based reforms, particularly in the public sector. Nonetheless, we are not convinced that schools such as the old CPESS cannot succeed. Researchers need to examine schools such as Urban Academy and the newly created schools founded by New Visions for Public Schools to see if this is the case. Administrators and teachers at these schools should study the history of contemporary small schools like CPESS, as well as the histories of the early progressive schools such as Dalton and City and Country, for lessons for successful small-school reform.


1. S. F. Semel and A. R. Sadovnik, “Schools of Tomorrow,” Schools of Today: What Happened to Progressive Education (New York: Peter Lang, 1999). Sections of this article are excerpted or adapted from this book.

2. E. Clinchy, Creating New Schools: How Small Schools Are Changing American Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).

3. The term “success” is highly subjective and has been the subject of considerable debate, especially in the last two decades of standards-based reform. Although we do not believe that high student achievement on standardized tests should be used as the sole measure of school success, it is certainly part of success. For schools that serve low-income children, success should also be measured by graduation rates and postsecondary college attendance or employment. A comprehensive definition of success also requires a philosophical examination of educational goals, which should include the social, emotional, and cognitive dimensions of education, including citizenship, health, and critical thinking. This article, however, does not provide such an examination.


4. See Richard Neumann, Sixties Legacy: A History of the Public Alternative Schools Movement, 1967–2001 (New York: Peter Lang, 2003).

5. L. A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education (New York: Vintage Books, 1961); D. Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974); Semel and Sadovnik, “Schools of Tomorrow.”

6. Cremin, The Transformation of the School; Tyack, The One Best System; D. Tyack and E. Hansot, Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America 1820–1890 (New York: Basic Books, 1982).

7. L. A. Cremin, American Education: The Metropolitan Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 29.

8. O. F. Kraushaar, America’s Non-Public Schools: Patterns of Diversity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 81.

9. Cremin, The Transformation of the School, 202.

10. An important exception to this was the Gary Plan in Gary, Indiana and P.S. 45 headed by progressive educator Angelo Patri in the Bronx in New York City from 1913 to 1945, which adapted the Gary Plan in a child-centered manner. See J. M. Wallace, The Promise of Progressivism: Angelo Patri & Urban Education (New York: Peter Lang, 2006); R. Cohen and R. Mohl, The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling (Port Washington, NY: Kennidat Press, 1979); Tyack, The One Best System, 250 chronicles working class opposition to progressive education due to their concern that it “would condemn youth to blue-collar occupations and prevent upward mobility” (250)..


11. G. Counts. Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order? (New York: John Day, 1932).

12. Semel and Sadovnik, “Schools of Tomorrow,” 10–11.

13. Kraushaar, America’s Non-Public Schools, 81; A.R. Sadovnik and S.F. Semel, Founding Mothers and Others: Women Educational Leaders During the Progressive Era. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

14. C. Pratt, I Learn from Children: An Adventure in Progressive Education (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948).

15. H. Parkhurst, Education on the Dalton Plan (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1927).

16. Cremin, The Transformation of the School, 213

17. J. Antler, Lucy Sprague Mitchell: The Making of a Modern Women (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

18. Cremin, The Transformation of the School, 280–286.

19. S. Lloyd, The Putney School: A Progressive Experiment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

20. M. K. Stone, The Progressive Legacy: Chicago’s Francis W. Parker School (1901–2001) (New York: Peter Lang, 2001).

21. E. Yoemans, The Shady Hill School: The First Fifty Years (Cambridge, MA: Windflower Press, 1979).

22. M.S. Dworkin, ed., Dewey on Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1959).

23. L. Tanner, Dewey’s Laboratory School: Lessons for Today (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997).

24. See W. Wraga, “Left Out: The Villainization of Progressive Education in the United States” [Essay review of Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms by Diane Ravitch]. Educational Researcher 30, no. 7 (2001): 34–39.

25. For a detailed discussion of the pedagogic practices at the Dalton School, see S. F. Semel, The Dalton School: The Transformation of a Progressive School (New York: Peter Lang, 1992); and  “The Dalton School: The Transformation of a Progressive School” in Semel and Sadovnik, “Schools of Tomorrow,” 171–212. For a detailed discussion of philosophy and practice at City and Country, see M. Hauser, Learning from Children: The Life and Legacy of Caroline Pratt (New York: Peter Lang, 2006).

26. E. Dewey. The Dalton Laboratory Plan (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1922); H. Parkhurst, Education on the Dalton Plan (London: G. Bell and Sons,1927).

27. C. Pratt, The City and Country School. n.d., Brochure, City and Country School Archives, New York City, n. pag.

28. Dworkin, Dewey on Education, 49.


29.. S. F. Semel, “Female Founders and the Progressive Paradox,” in Social Reconstruction through Education: The Philosophy, History, and Curricula of a Radical Ideal, ed. M. James (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1995), 89–108.

30. B. Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control, Volume 3 (London: Routledge, 1977); B. Bernstein, The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse, Volume 4 of Class, Codes and Control (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1990); A. R. Sadovnik, “Basil Bernstein’s Theory of Pedagogic Practice: A Structuralist Approach,” Sociology of Education 48, no. 1 (1991): 48–64; A. R. Sadovnik, Knowl­edge and Pedagogy: The Sociology of Basil Bernstein (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1995).

31. B. Bernstein, “A Response,” in Knowledge and Pedagogy, 418–420.

32. Cremin, The Transformation of the School; Tyack, The One Best System.

33. Hauser, Learning from Children.

34. Semel, The Dalton School: The Transformation of a Progressive School; Semel, “The Dalton School: The Transformation of a Progressive School” in “Schools of Tomorrow,” Schools of Today, 171–212.

35. For a discussion of the Downtown Community School, see S. F. Semel and A. R. Sadovnik, “Lessons from the Past: Individualism and Community in Three Progressive Schools,” Peabody Journal of Education (Summer 1995): 56–84.

36. See Semel and Sadovnik, “Schools of Tomorrow,” Schools of Today, chapter 1 for a discussion of the association of schools such as Dalton, City and Country, and Little Red as communist during the McCarthy Era. For a discussion of the use of the term “reducation” in the removal of Pasadena school superintendent Willard Goslin in the 1950s, see M. James, The Conspiracy of the Good: School Desegregation in Pasadena and Charlottesville, 1870–2000 (New York: Peter Lang, 2005).

37. Semel and Sadovnik, “Lessons from the Past.”

38. Network of Progressive Educators, “Statement of Principles,” Pathways 7, no. 2 (1991): 3.

39. Ibid.

40. See M. A. Raywid, “A School That Really Works: Urban Academy,” in Schools of Tomorrow,” Schools of Today, 289–312.

41. L. Delpit, Other People’s Children (New York: New Press, 1995).

42. For a discussion of KIPP Academy and North Star Academy as they relate to this debate, see A. R. Sadovnik, "Schools, Social Class and Youth: A Bernsteinian Analysis," in The Way Class Works: Readings on School, Family, and the Economy, ed. L. Weis (New York: Routledge, 2008), 315–328.

43. For the remainder of this article, we refer to Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) from its founding by Deborah Meier in the 1980s until it was reorganized into Central Park East Middle School and Central Park High School in 2004.


44. For a discussion of Central Park East Secondary School, see D. Meier, The Power of Their Ideas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995). For this discussion of the decline of CPESS, we have used D. Suiter, “Sustaining Change: One School’s Struggle to Maintain Its Identity” unpublished paper, 2004.

45. Suiter, “Sustaining Change.”

46. For a discussion of the Coalition of Essential Schools, see T. Sizer, Horace’s School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994).

47. These are the original principles as developed by Theodore Sizer. See A. R. Sadovnik, P. W. Cookson, and S. F. Semel, Exploring Education: An Introduction to the Foundations of Education, 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2006), 486–487; these twelve principles have been reduced to the following ten: (1) Learning to use one’s mind well; (2) Less is more, depth over coverage; (3) Goals apply to all students; (4) Personalization; (5) Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach; (6) Demonstration of mastery; (7)  A tone of decency and trust; (8) Commitment to the entire school; (9) Resources dedicated to teaching and learning; and (10) Democracy and equity. Interestingly, the original principle one, that schools are small and personalized in size, has been eliminated.


48. Suiter, “Sustaining Change.”

49. M. Winerip, “Holdouts against Standard Tests Are under Attack in New York,” New York Times, June 15, 2005.

50. Suiter, “Sustaining Change.”

51. Interview with B. Lieberman, conducted by S. F. Semel, April 2006.

52. Conversations with D. Meier and authors, Hillsdale, New York, 2005–2006.


53. D. Meier, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003); D. Meier and G. Wood, Many Children Left Behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).

54. J. Ancess and S. Wichterle Ort, How the Coalition Campus Schools Have Re-imagined High School: Seven Years Later (New York: The National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1999); J. Ancess and L. Darling Hammond, Beating the Odds: High Schools as Communities of Commitment (New York: Teachers College Press, 2003); D. Bensman, Central Park East and Its Graduates: Learning by Heart (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).

55. See S. F. Semel, The Dalton School: The Transformation of a Progressive School, for a discussion of these changes in leadership.


56. For a history of leadership at City and Country, see S. F. Semel, “The City and Country School: A Progressive Paradigm,” in “Schools of Tomorrow,” Schools of Today, 121–140. See Hauser, Learning from Children, for a history of leadership under Pratt.

57. K. Leithwood, L. Leonard, and L. Sharratt, “Conditions Fostering Organizational Learning in Schools,” Educational Administration Quarterly 34, no. 2 (1998): 243–276; H. M. Marks, K. S. Louis, and S. M. Printy, “The Capacity for Organizational Learning: Implications for Pedagogical Quality and Student Achievement,” in Understanding Schools as Intelligent Systems, ed. K. Leithwood and K. S. Louis (Greenwood, CT: JAI, 2000); C. Mitchell and L. Sackney, Profound School Improvement: Building Capacity for a Learning Community (Downington, PA: Swets and Zeitlinger, 2000).

58. K. S. Louis and S. D. Kruse, Professionalism and Community: Perspectives on Reforming Urban Schools (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 1995); M. McLaughlin and J. E. Talbert, Building School-based Teacher Learning Communities: Professional Strategies to Improve Student Achievement. New York: Teachers College Press, 2006.  

59. K. Leithwood and K. S. Louis, eds., Organizational Learning in Schools (Downington, PA: Swets and Zeitlinger, 1998); H. M. Marks and K. S. Louis, “Teacher Empowerment and the Capacity for Organizational Learning,” Educational Administration Quarterly 35, Suppl. (1999): 707–750; Leithwood, Leonard, and Sharratt, “Conditions Fostering Organizational Learning.”

60. C. Giles and A. Hargreaves, “The Sustainability of Innovative Schools as Learning Organizations and Professional Learning Communities during Standardized Reform,” special issue, Education Administration Quarterly 42, no. 1 (2006): 124–156; A. Hargreaves and I. Goodson, “Educational Change over Time? The Sustainability and Nonsustainability of Three Decades of Secondary School Change and Continuity,” Educational Administration Quarterly 42, no. 1 (2006): 3–41.

61. See A. Thernstrom and S. Thernstrom, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003); P. Tough, “What It Takes to Make a Student,” New York Times Magazine, November 26, 2006.

62. Deborah Meier, The Power of Their Ideas (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1995).

63. Giles and Hargreaves, “The Sustainability of Innovative Schools”; A. R. Sadovnik, “Towards a Sociology of Educational Change: An Application of Bernstein to the U.S. ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act.” pp. 196-210 in R. Moore, M. Arnot, J. Beck & H. Daniels (eds.)  Knowledge, Power and Educational Reform: Applying the Sociology of Basil Bernstein.  London: Routledge, 2006.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 1744-1771 ID Number: 15166, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:40:28 PM

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