Pluralism and Progressivism in America’s Schools

Is American public education progressive?  Do most teachers and administrators hope to use schools to instill a sense of individuality, of self-expression, in America’s youth?  Do public schools emphasize the individual construction of knowledge over the traditional emphasis on transmitting knowledge?  In general, I don’t think so, but many informed, intelligent people still assume that they do.

For instance, in this month’s First Things Ashley Rogers Berner makes a smart argument for more pluralism in American public education.  In her essay, she assumes that the ideological training of America’s public school teachers includes a decisive dollop of progressivism.

The primary reason for the stultification of American public education, Berner argues, is the system’s lack of real pluralism.  If we Americans could get over our irrational attachment to a model of public education in which only publicly run schools could receive significant public funding, then we could enjoy the fruits of a truly diverse system.

Her article is worth reading in its entirety, but in short, in her words,

“Lasting, structural change requires reframing ‘public education’ to mean publicly funded or publicly supported, not exclusively publicly delivered, education. This in turn requires a different political philosophy, a turn to a model of education based on civil society rather than state control.”   

In today’s educational culture wars, the first response to Berner’s argument is usually that such pluralism will essentially abandon those students who most need publicly run schools.  By leaching funding away to a universe of school options, those students and families who are last to scuttle away from the sinking ship of publicly administered schools will be left with even fewer resources to scratch together a decent education.

Berner and other advocates of greater diversity in public-funded schooling blame teachers’ unions for clinging to control at the expense of educational quality.  Defenders of our current funding model of public education respond (with varying levels of coherence) that the union model ought to be understood in a different way: Only if all families and teachers stick together, the argument goes, can public education be saved for all.  In this sense, advocates argue, it is a union-like argument.  With unity comes strength; privately run schools that accept public money amount to labor “scabs” that betray the cause of quality education for all.

I won’t make that argument here.  Instead, I’ll challenge Berner’s argument in a different way.  Berner insists that one killing flaw of the current public system is that it falsely purports to be ideologically neutral, while promoting a “progressive” worldview.  Berner calls this “schooling that is supposedly ideologically neutral but in fact reflects a progressive tradition strongly committed to beliefs and to an educational philosophy rejected by many Americans.”  To be fair, Berner notes that public schooling reflects a struggle between several visions of proper education, traditional vs. progressive as well as secular vs. religious.  She notes that two visions contend for ideological control of public education.  In her words,

“Today’s educators have often been trained in progressive pedagogies, but state legislatures are now asking them to teach a more prescribed curriculum and to participate in high-stakes academic assessments. This has caused a struggle in nearly every state.”

But she proceeds with an assumption that public schooling today has been captured by a progressive ideology.  As she puts it,

“American institutions, including public schooling, tend to reinforce individual autonomy and to discourage the habit of commitment. . . . An educational philosophy whose aim is self-expression is ill-equipped to foster attachment to liberal democracy.”

Her assumption that progressivism has maintained a powerful influence in public education in America is widely shared.

But as anyone who has spent any time in public schools can agree, traditional schooling practices and ideology dominate most public schools.  The notion that schools are primarily geared toward engendering a sense of “self-expression” among students does not hold.

This is more than an anecdotal observation, though I’d welcome responses from parents, teachers, and administrators who might agree or disagree.  More systematic research confirms it.  Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argue in their book Ten Thousand Democracies that American school districts display a wide variety of ideological commitment.  And they conclude in Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms that teacher beliefs often fit those of their surrounding community.  Conservative, traditionalist communities hire conservative, traditionalist teachers.

My own historical research confirms that the level of dominance of progressive ideology in America’s public schools is generally not as high as is often assumed.  To cite one illustrative example, consider the deeply and self-consciously progressive vision of one educational leader from the first half of the twentieth century.

Harold Rugg taught at the bastion of progressive education: Teachers College, Columbia University.  As a charter member of the “Frontier Thinkers,” Rugg helped lead the charge for a “reconstruction” of American public education along progressive lines.  After a conservative, traditionalist campaign eliminated most of Rugg’s textbooks from America’s public schools, Rugg retained his belief that progressivism would conquer.  In his 1941 That Men May Understand, Rugg argued that his progressivism

 “has already begun to shake the old and inadequate out of our educational system and to lead to the building of a new school to implement democracy.  Nothing save a major cultural catastrophe can now stop its progressive advance. It was utterly inevitable that workers in education would find the vast library of documented data produced on the other frontiers and use it in the systematic reconstruction of the schools” (pg. 293).

Rugg’s predicted transformation of public schooling never took place.  His progressive vision may have changed some outlines of public schooling, but by and large public schools remain dedicated to a deeply traditional model of education, one that views the goal of education as transmission of information to young people in order to prepare them to take their place in America’s hierarchical economy.

The closest observers of public education and progressivism have noted the tendency away from the promised land of progressivism.

Near the end of his singularly influential career in American education and thought, John Dewey concluded glumly that “repressive and reactionary forces . . . increasing in strength” had managed to maintain “the fundamental authoritarianism of the old education.”[1]  A generation later, historian Michael Katz asserted that public education had always been “conservative, racist, and bureaucratic.”[2]  Arthur Zilversmit, in his history of the successes and failures of Progressive education, agreed that most Americans held a “strange, emotional attachment to traditional schooling patterns.”[3] More recently, Michael Apple has argued that conservatives have mounted “a powerful, yet odd, combination of forces” that has won the central battle to define cultural and educational “common sense.”[4]

None of this has much impact on Berner’s central argument for greater pluralism in public funding for schools.  But the notion that progressivism has achieved the sort of domination its advocates hoped for misunderstands both American educational history and the current state of American public education.

[1] John Dewey, “Introduction,” in Elsie Ripley Clapp, The Uses of Resources in Education (New York: Harper and Bros., 1952); reprinted in Dewey on Education: Selections with an Introduction and Notes, Martin S. Dworkin, ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1959), 129, 130, 131-132.

[2] Michael Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 3.

[3] Arthur Zilversmit, Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 169.

[4] Michael W. Apple, Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality, 2nd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2006), 4, 31, 53, 57.