A Field Test for Progressive Education

I’ve spent the past few years of my life trying to figure it out.  What has it meant to be “conservative” about American education? It’s not as obvious as it might look. Similarly, it can be extremely tricky to figure out what makes something educationally “progressive.” Peter Greene offers what might be a handy field test.

A test for the tests...?

A test for the tests…?

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, my recent book argues that an identifiable tradition of “educational conservatism” emerged in the twentieth century. Speaking broadly, educational conservatives mixed free-market structures with Christian morality; they mixed traditional pedagogy with traditionalist social norms. Jesus and phonics, Friedman and fundamentalism. Time and again, conservative activists successfully asserted their right to be heard about textbooks, school rules, and classroom practices.

In recent months, I’ve been expanding my reading list to include more non-conservative arguments about education. One of my favorite progressive anti-testers has been Peter Greene at Curmudgucation.

Greene repeated his argument recently that there is an easy way to find out if any evaluation is authentic. Or, more precisely, he offers a quick way to decide if one is inauthentic:

The hallmark of inauthentic assessment is that it’s easy to cheat, because you don’t have to be good at what you’re allegedly being judged for– you just have to be good at the assessment task which, because it’s inauthentic, consists of faking proxies for the real deal anyway. What it really measures is the proxy-faking skills.

If we want a handy-dandy field guide to progressive education—a notoriously slippery concept to define—perhaps Greene’s warning might help.

We might call classroom practices “progressive” if they fundamentally make it impossible for students to cheat. Not by eagle-eyed watchfulness or elaborate security precautions, but because of the nature of the tasks themselves.

In a traditional classroom, for instance, information is transferred from teacher and textbook to student. The student is expected to incorporate this knowledge. At some point, a “test” will be administered, in which said student repeats back the knowledge. He is measured by how much and how well he repeats back the knowledge.

In a progressive classroom, in contrast, students will not have tests of that sort. Rather, they will be expected to make something, perform something, achieve something. Since the parameters are not set up in advance, it is impossible for a student to cheat.

For instance, if assessment is based on a student’s performance in a research-informed discussion, she is free to bring in as many notes as she wishes. If she is able to use that information in a coherent and convincing way, she will have done well on the project.

In a traditional classroom, methods of cheating are as traditional as the lectures themselves. Students cheat by writing facts on their arms, by copying answers from another student, or by any of an enormous corpus of tried-and-true methods.

Pssst...I find these methods of assessment inauthentic....

Pssst…I find these methods of assessment inauthentic….

Indeed, we might conclude that the overwhelming political support for traditionalist policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top results from the fact that progressive education has sunk such shallow roots in the United States. Even the most ardent fans of progressive education admit that it is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.”

By and large, progressive education—as classroom practice, not as political decision—has crashed on the reefs of testing. By and large, American parents and voters cling to the notion that “real” education means acquisition of knowledge. We cling to the idea that “real” education can be evaluated by “real” tests.

Is it true? I know SAGLRROILYBYGTH include self-styled progressives as well as self-styled conservatives. Do the “progressives” out there yearn for evaluations that simply can’t be cheated? And do conservatives agree that the heart and soul of real education can be measured with a good test?

Leave a comment


  1. Great post. I work at a school that is trying “PBL” — project-based learning. You might also call it PPBL, with an extra P for “progressive.” One reef PBL crashes on is its demand for an authentic outside audience. It’s a challenge for a teacher to come up with A-game units all year long that bring in the community — parents, business leaders, etc. — as judges and commentators and encouragers. It would be a remarkable school where every teacher was doing this in every class all year. Hard to beat but hard to find.

  2. Agellius

     /  October 23, 2015

    Self-styled conservative, you mean (are there others beside me?). Though really, I’m often just playing devil’s advocate for the conservative side. I have been a died-in-the-wool political conservative in the past, but that was before I realized that modern liberalism and conservatism are just two sides of the same coin. Both sides basically agree on what the goals are, they just disagree on how to get there. Whereas I don’t find myself agreeing with the goals of either, essentially, though obviously I find the conservative side generally friendlier to my Christianity.

    Anyway, your post presents a new way of looking at the conservative/liberal divide for me, at least as it concerns education. It may be that progressive educational methods are less susceptible of testing, but I’m skeptical that that’s really the root of the difference. When the two sides are squabbling over history textbooks, they’re not squabbling over testing.

    If the conservative side does have a stronger urge to test, I suspect it’s based on the perceived need to make sure students are actually being taught things, and not just encouraged to “express themselves” in class. Its root might be the idea that the living tradition of Western civilization, and American democracy in particular, should be passed on from generation to generation, lest we lose sight of the principles that got us where we are. Which in turn stems from the belief that “where we are” is a pretty good place.

    For people who are not so convinced that we’re in a good place, there is less concern that our civilizational principles be preserved and passed on. And therefore more openness to the idea of letting kids “be who they are” naturally, rather than instilling existing values in them. Thereby the culture is encouraged to change from generation to generation, and “change”, of course, is always good, since change is always progress. : )

    As I understand the classical model of education (not that I experienced it myself), it has as its goal not instilling knowledge per se, but developing the child’s mind in stages. The first stage (elementary) is indeed pouring facts into their heads, that is, memorizing, since facts are the building blocks of knowledge and reasoning. The second stage (middle school) is making arguments about facts, stating not merely what is true, but why it is true, or not true. The third stage (high school) is rhetoric, that is, communicating arguments to others and being persuasive. The first stage would be susceptible of simple yes or no, black or white testing. But the second and third stages focus not so much on whether students are right or wrong, but on how well they support what they assert. Obviously in math and the physical sciences the answers do tend to be black or white, but grading is also based on “showing your work”, so that it’s insufficient just to have the answer written on your arm.

    • I agree that these questions of classroom practice are not the sole difference between “progressivism” and “conservatism” when it comes to education. When people fight about the content of textbooks, it is a whole different sort of battle. To be even more complicated, lots of conservatives out there favor extremely progressive methods of teaching and learning. Among conservative religious homeschoolers, for example, progressive child-centered teaching has a large following.

      • Agellius

         /  October 23, 2015

        Yeah, in fact I know a conservative Catholic father who sends his kids to a school with no set curriculum, the idea being that the kids should study whatever strikes their fancy and ignore what doesn’t. I was shocked when I first heard about it, but he has persuaded me at least that it’s no worse than the one-size-fits-all approach of the public schools (and many Catholic schools) in terms of outcomes, and better in terms of being less of a prolonged psychological agony for the kids.

    • @Agellius — You’ve been misled. That’s not what “classical education” is/was. That is what the non-expert Dorothy Sayers made up in an eccentric speech/essay that tried to equate the medieval trivium and quadrivium with some 1940s-ish views of childhood cognitive development. Partly because of her connection to C.S. Lewis’s circle and his popularization as the only safe (or only known) “Christian intellectual” among Protestant Evangelicals c. 1970-1980 Sayers’ idea was seized upon by homeschoolers, especially Catholic ones. There are now several (mostly Catholic) commercial versions of a “classical home school” curriculum and probably some private “classical schools” that based their system on Sayers. These may be decent programs, but they are not really “classical,” and the kinds of claims sometimes made for them via Sayers are mostly bunk. It is really more of a “great books” program. Andrew Seeley and Elisabeth Ryan Sullivan wrote favorably of this once in First Things, and there’s been a post here about Sayers’ impact on home schooling: https://iloveyoubutyouregoingtohell.org/2013/10/16/what-you-need-to-know-about-dorothy-l-sayers/

  3. Agellius

     /  October 29, 2015


    I didn’t think that what is currently referred to as “classical curriculum” literally dated from classical times. I think of it as a shorthand term for what a lot of tradition-minded Christian schools are doing nowadays, which in any case do place a lot of emphasis on studying classical and medieval philosophy and basically learning to philosophize themselves, so as to have an intellectual basis for their beliefs, and to know how to formulate one’s own arguments for those beliefs rather than simply parroting the catechism. That’s the idea anyway.

    • They’d do a better job of it if they taught Greek, Latin, and Hebrew with grammar, rhetoric, and logic. But that would require homeschooling not to be the blind leading the blind. I think the Montessori and Waldorf approaches are better suited to the adult teacher’s limitations and assume a more realistic and humane, personalistic view of the adult-child relationship. Look up Gianna Goibbi and Sofia Cavaletti to see what I mean — these were students of Montessori who developed a more explicitly Catholic pedagogy that they and others translated into a way to do catechism.

  4. Agellius

     /  October 29, 2015

    Most of the Catholic ones, at least, do teach Latin.

    I did look up Goibbi and Cavaletti, briefly. Very interesting, although they apparently do catechesis specifically as opposed to general education.

    “assume a more realistic and humane, personalistic view of the adult-child relationship”

    I didn’t find anything unrealistic or inhumane in my kids’ “classical” education. : )

    • You could say it’s more inductive than deductive and more fideistic than rationalistic. More Augustinian then Thomistic. The learning by listening to children approach (or “child-led learning”) is a good basis for any kind of pedagogy that isn’t focused on filling empty vessels with educational content.


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