We Have Failed You

Nostra culpa. I don’t know if I’ll ever really understand how it happened, but every once in a while we see new evidence of a depressing truth: We have failed you and failed America in two huge ways.


Mastery-based learning today…

Today’s reminder comes from the pages of the New York Times and the Hechinger Report. It sounds cheerful enough: some schools in New York and elsewhere are switching to a shiny new “mastery” system that abolishes grades and focuses on individual student learning goals.

The problem is that even well-informed journalists and educators talk about this as if it were something new, something novel, an exciting innovation made possible by twenty-first century technology. It’s not. Not even a little bit. The push for this sort of child-centered, goal-focused approach to education is as old as modernity itself.

And that’s how we’ve failed you.

Both educational historians and progressive educators have failed to convey the huge potential contributions of their work. Ed historians are all aware of the long history of goal-focused education. Progressive educators have fought for such things for centuries. Centuries!

And yet smart, informed people keep talking about these sorts of reform as “new,” as innovations, as solutions that ambitious reformers have finally figured out. It’s a big problem, since it robs reformers of any sense of the lessons of history. It sets up each new generation of progressive reformers to repeat the mistakes and the unnecessary conflicts of their parents, their grand-parents, and their great-great-great-great-etc.-grand-parents.

Why, oh why have we failed so miserably? I’m really stumped.

Every new teacher, for instance, has to take some sort of “foundations” class in which they are exposed to the historical outline of formal education. They all hear about the experiments and theories of Rousseau, Froebel, Pestalozzi, Montessori, Dewey, and Col. Parker. With some tweaks over time, those ideas are basically the same as the ones today’s reformers are embracing as a “new” solution.

progressive ed in pasadena

…and how it looked when it was “new” in 1929.

Why do educated educators, then, fall into the trap of overpromising and under-researching these tried-and-failed education reforms?

To be fair, the article notes the genealogy of this idea, but the author traces it back only to the work of Benjamin Bloom at Chicago in the 1960s. Neither the author nor anyone else apparently is aware of the much longer history of these reform plans. The article suggests that new computer technology will solve the problems of earlier efforts, but that’s exactly the sort of promise every new reform generation has made.

In my book The Other School Reformers, to cite just one example, I examine a similar case from Pasadena. In 1950, the new superintendent tried something almost identical. He promised that new communication technology allowed him to abolish deadly old report cards and Procrustean letter grades.

It didn’t work, and today’s reformers would surely benefit from understanding this historical context. It seems more than naïve for today’s reformers to stumble along unaware of the predictable reactions to their plans. Back then, for example, one critic excoriated the new superintendent in an open letter to the local newspaper. The idea of abolishing grades, this outraged parent noted, means

there is no incentive for the average student or the exceptionally bright student to do any better than the slower ones.  During the first six years there are no grades given out so there is no competitive spirit.  The report cards are marked only Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory, and the parent is unable to find out what the child is really capable of doing.  They acquire indolent habits, and when they arrive at Junior High School they are supposed to get down to work, but they don’t because they have been allowed to coast along for six years, doing as much or as little as they wished to.  They have not been made to feel that it is important to do the best they are capable of doing.  There were some who formerly flunked out of class and had to take the classes over, but at least they eventually learned what was given in that grade before they went on, and today they are passed, many of them without having learned it, to flounder in the next grade, when they are not ready.

Pasadena parents tended to agree with this curmudgeon. In the end, the superintendent was hounded out of town with his progressive plans thrown out after him.

There is no good reason—no good reason I can see—that school reformers like the ones described in the New York Times article shouldn’t be aware of their own checkered history. In every generation, from Rousseau’s day to our own, earnest progressive teachers have assumed that their powerful new child-centered approach would surely carry the day, sweeping outdated crusty methods before it.

It never has.

As progressive educators, we have failed to convince America as a whole how much better it will be to focus on individual learning instead of letter grades.

As educational historians, we have failed to share the story of America’s never-ending cycle of educational reform and reaction.

As a result, even the smartest and most well-meaning reformers go into every old experience as if it were new. School boards and parents are promised the world every time, only to react with predictable and preventable resentment when those laudable goals prove out of reach.

I don’t blame reformers and journalists for not doing their research. They shouldn’t have to. By this point, the long and gripping story of child-centered educational reform should be common knowledge.

So why isn’t it?

Leave a comment


  1. Has child-centered education ever worked? I thought it has basically failed every time it’s been tried. What should I read to learn differently?

    • Dr. McLeroy,
      I didn’t mean to say that child-centered education had failed! Rather, that my profession had failed in its goal of informing the American public of the general outlines of the history of education, including the long and oft-successful history of child-centered education.
      You can find child-centered education all over the place, including large private networks such as Montessori and Waldorf schools. You can also find it in nearly any elementary school you wander into. There will not likely be bolted-down desks and recitations anymore. Also, you can find it in some surprising places, such as the school of education at Bob Jones University. You can read the history of BJU’s child-centered methodology in an article I wrote a while back. I also discuss it in my upcoming book about evangelical higher education.

  2. Agellius

     /  August 11, 2017

    When you say it has always failed, do you mean it has failed to win approval, or that it has been tried and found not to work?

    • I meant that it had been tried over and over again and that reformers had failed to learn from each experiment. The overall success level of child-centered and “progressive” pedagogical methods is devilishly hard to determine. As you note below, in some ways progressive methods are astoundingly common–you can find them all over the place. On the other hand, though, we still see articles like the NYT one, in which very old ideas are still talked about as if they are “new.”

  3. Dan

     /  August 11, 2017

    I think Americans like the Prussian factory-military prison-like model. We do things at scale in massive, dehumanizing ways. Then tradition and institutional inertia becomes older people imposing what they know, what was done to them, and resenting liberalizers who want to soften things up. The implication that what we got in the past was defective or not good enough for kids today is resisted for these personal, emotional reasons. Journalists too are not historians; far from it. Few have a long view of things, and their industry rewards fast, quick, simple reactions to what is controversial right now.

    Basically it is a very conservative and reactionary culture where memory is never conserved because the market is always clearing it away in the disruptive churn of the present. A conservative without memory is simply a know-nothing reactionary.

  4. Agellius

     /  August 11, 2017

    By the way, I know a conservative Catholic parent who sends his kids to a school that not only eschews letter grades, but also grade levels and even a curriculum. Students study what they’re interested in and nothing else. It’s not a Catholic school either. At one time I would have been horrified at the idea, but he loves it and makes a persuasive case for it.


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