The Tortuous Triumph of Progressive Education

It’s hard to know whether to cheer or cry. For people like me who want progressive schools and progressive politics, it hurts to see progressive classrooms converted into tools of the rich. But see it we do: More evidence today from Wichita that progressive education has triumphed over its conservative bête noirs, only to be turned into a tool of traditionalism.

wichita wonder koch school

The progressive vision for Wichita. Rich people only, please.

Here’s what we know: The conservative bajillionaire Koch brothers have long been interested in educational issues. Now they have funded a fancy-pants progressive school in Wichita. Second-generation Chase and Annie Koch are opening the Wonder school in Wichita. Their plans could have come straight out of a 1930s progressive-ed playbook.

Their vision? No age-graded classrooms, no report cards, no judgment. Focus on student-directed activity, guided by adult “coaches,” not teachers. As one planner put it,

We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now. . . . We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.

So far, so good. Such dreams have been around for a century now, pushed by progressive-ed leaders such as George Counts, William Heard Kilpatrick, and of course, John Dewey.

In the middle of the twentieth century, as I recount in my book about educational conservatism, traditionalists pushed back hard against such notions. These days, at least in Kansas, some of the hardest-core educational conservatives have embraced the obvious superiority of progressive classroom methods.

So we should celebrate, right? Not so fast. Those same progressive-ed-loving conservatives tend to take a very different approach when it comes to schools for the rest of us.

Yes, the Koch’s own kids get to go to schools with fabulously progressive pedagogy. But Koch money pushes a very different sort of classroom elsewhere. In Tennessee, for example, Koch funding promoted charter schools for low-income families. At some of those schools, most famously the KIPP network, students are rigidly controlled. KIPP’s “no excuses” model and “SLANT” rules (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer questions, Nod and Track the teacher) can feel oppressive.

At some charter schools—especially urban schools with high proportions of low-income non-white students—students are compelled to sit silently at lunch, march silently and exactly through hallways, respond rapidly and exactly to teacher prompts, and hold their heads rigidly at all times.

What a contrast to the free-wheeling, mind-expanding Koch-funded school soon to be offered to affluent kids in Wichita. Of course, for only $10,000 per year, anyone is welcome at the Wichita Wonder school. Unless, of course, a student has any sort of disability.

What are we supposed to think? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but it’s hard not to see the obvious: Some conservatives have recognized the huge benefits of progressive classroom practices, but they only want them for their own children. Or, to be more charitable, conservatives are only willing to foot the bill for progressive classrooms for their own kids.

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  1. Agellius

     /  February 6, 2018

    I’m ignorant and can only assess this situation from the facts you’ve presented here. But I wonder if the same “progressive” model can work for upper-income kids and low-income kids.

    I’ve heard of that type of model, having a friend who sends his kids to a private school with no grade levels and no set curriculum. While I first reacted with horror, he has convinced me of its merits.

    But, he’s well educated and reasonably well off. Maybe kids whose parents are well educated and successful can thrive in the free-wheeling classroom model, whereas that might be a disaster for low-income kids from unstable households, of whatever skin color.

    • You fail to understand this sort of thing has been done for a long time in many places, and guess what? The lower classes can handle it. Sheesh!

      @Adam – Trump is president. The Russians hacked the election. Kleptocracy and reactionary right wing movements are rising worldwide. Every sector on the US government and economy is controlled by oligarchs. Their united self interest is a “conspiracy” in the literal sense of “breathing together.” They may not like each other and work for all the same ends, but in the main they agree that the little people don’t for much beyond their exploitation value. You really don’t need to preface your meek suggestion that the Kochs don’t care about us with the concern that you will sound like a conspiracy theorist, or worse, a wild eyed leftist.

      • Agellius

         /  February 9, 2018

        I said “maybe.” Sheesh! : )

      • So you’re starting to have some doubts about your default fear and loathing of poor people. You are truly a Great Soul.

      • Agellius

         /  February 10, 2018

        Well after all, I’m a former Poor Person myself.

  2. IIRC, it was Maria Montessori who came up with the techniques of the *successful* school for poor (in her day, Italian and Polish) children. Dewey, and friends, despised her. Dewey and friends managed to get their system installed in the American public school system, and we’ve see what mixed success that had. So, why not just model those charter schools on the Montessori method and see how well they work out?

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