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

by Susan F. Semel & Alan R. Sadovnik

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.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 9, 2008, p. 1744-1771 ID Number: 15166, Date Accessed: 11/20/2018 3:33:03 AM

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