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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