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?

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Whose Values Rule the Schools?

What are the dominant values in American public schools? Progressive activists tend to think schools are dominated by conservatism. But conservatives say that progressives are in charge. New poll data suggest that conservatives are wrong. When it comes to general attitudes toward children and education, conservative values seem enormously powerful.

Progressives have always hoped that schooling would soon be transformed into a progressive paradise. But they have also always acknowledged widespread public resistance. As far back as 1925, scholars Otis Caldwell and Stuart Courtis—from the progressive bulwark of Teachers College, Columbia University—argued that the “new philosophy” of progressive education could transform schools into a “childish utopia.” Unfortunately, they wrote, most Americans weren’t interested. Instead, most people “blamed teachers and schoolmen generally for ‘new-fangled methods.’”

These days, leading progressives agree. Pundits such as Alfie Kohn insist that progressive ideas are the best. As Kohn once put it, progressive education is “hard to beat, but also hard to find.” In spite of the clear superiority of progressive methods, Kohn writes, most schools only use them in dribs and drabs. Conservative, traditional schoolrooms, Kohn notes glumly, tend to be the norm.

We might think that conservative activists would celebrate their domination of American public education. But in fact we see just the opposite. Historically, conservative activists have taken progressive dominance for granted. Many conservatives have assumed without question that the progressive nostrums of philosopher John Dewey had long ago triumphed.

Writing in the wake of a tumultuous school battle in 1950s Pasadena, California, for instance, conservative activist Mary Allen explained that “traditional education” had been abandoned in the 1930s. Why? Because at that time “some of Dewey’s followers prepared to use the schools to introduce a new social order.” To Allen as to generations of conservatives, conservative values had long since been kicked out of public education.

Today’s educational conservatives voice similar frustration. For example, Peter Collier has lamented the dominance in public education of the progressive tentacles of Columbia University’s Teachers College. A pernicious leftist stew of “critical pedagogy,” Collier noted, “slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching.”

How important is "curiosity" as an educational goal?

How important is “curiosity” as an educational goal?

New poll data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press suggest that conservatives have this one wrong. When it comes to basic attitudes about children and proper education, conservative ideas tend to dominate. Those who call themselves “consistently liberal” find themselves on the outside looking in.

Who's the outlier here?

Who’s the outlier here?

To be fair, the poll also suggests that Americans of all ideologies share broad agreement about the proper way to raise children. Huge majorities of the “consistently liberal,” the “mostly liberal,” the “mixed,” the “mostly conservative,” and the “consistently conservative” agree that children must be taught responsibility.

But in a couple of other categories, those who call themselves “consistently liberal” stand out. And those differences tell us something about the values that dominate our schools and society.

For example, the “consistently liberal” place a much higher value on teaching curiosity than do any other groups, by a huge margin. Nearly a quarter of the consistently liberal place this among the three most important factors for children, and over three quarters think it is important. In contrast, none of the other groups, including the “mostly liberal,” thought that teaching curiosity was nearly as important. Only nine percent of the “mostly liberal” called curiosity one of the most important values, and only fifty-eight percent considered it important. And though fifty-seven percent of the “consistently conservative” agreed that curiosity was important, only a paltry three percent of consistent conservatives placed it at the top of their lists.

In addition, large majorities of every group except the “consistently liberal” placed a high value on teaching obedience. Even among the “mostly liberal,” sixty percent found this important. At the high end, two-thirds of the “consistently conservative” thought obedience was an important idea for children, compared to just over one-third of the “consistently liberal.”

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to define “progressive” and “conservative” ideas about education. But in general, it’s fair to say that progressives tend to value curiosity above obedience, exploration above authoritarianism. Yet those values are only shared by a small sliver of the respondents in this survey.

The good news for conservatives? They are wrong about the values that guide American public education.   Progressive notions of child-centered learning, of students freed from the dictation of authoritarian teachers and exploring the creative curiosity of youth, have not sunk the deep roots that conservatives have often assumed.

Instead, when it comes to central ideas about obedience and curiosity, this poll suggests that conservative attitudes are the norm.