Sunday, November 28, 2010

Progressive Education: Rest in Peace

Left Ed: Remembering What Progressive Education Stands For

by: jeffbinnc

Sun Nov 28, 2010 at 13:00

Beginning with this diary in memory of the great education research expert and commentator Gerald Bracey, I've been posting regularly about education policy on the frontpage of Open Left for a little over a year now. I'm well aware that most of these posts have been harshly critical of the policies promoted by both President Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the crowd of neo-liberal, conservative, and corporate/foundation-backed ideologues who call themselves "reformers." However, it is very important to pause now and again and remind ourselves what the progressive community is fighting for in the education debate.
So it being a holiday weekend and all, I thought a quick re-cap of what's essential to a progressive view of education was in order.
My first treatment of this topic appeared here on Open Left in a diary focusing mostly on the writings of Alfie Kohn. But progressive thought about education certainly isn't limited to him. Nevertheless, I find the short checklist I paraphrased from his writings to be a useful launching pad for advancing a progressive view about education that truly is progressive.
What follows is a brief recap of those key points with an update of where we progressives are in advancing our cause:
jeffbinnc :: Left Ed: Remembering What Progressive Education Stands For
Schools that are progressive attend to the whole child.
Everyone knows that academics alone are not what's essential to the healthy development and well-being of children. Schools must provide a curriculum that includes the arts, physical education, and life skills. And children's issues with health, nutrition, safety, and home-life have to be addressed in order for learning to happen in the classroom. This tenet of progressive education is beyond dispute even among those who call themselves "reformers." What the reformy crowd tends to dispute though is that public schools have failed to attend to the whole child and only a new structural innovation can accomplish this. They like to point to Geoffrey Canada, who was lionized in the movie "Waiting for Superman," and his Harlem Children's Zone charter school as proof positive that alternatives to traditional public schools are the only answer to educating the whole child.
But the truth is that there are many traditional public schools that do focus their programs on a whole child approach (Full disclosure: this is a client of mine.) What continues to stand in their way however, are the federal edicts to emphasize only standardized test scores in math and reading - something that reformers generally favor also. Duncan has claimed that the Obama administration is backing away from labeling schools as failed based on their "progress" as measured by these tests.
But there's very little evidence that the emphasis on tests scores in math and reading only is falling out of favor in the broader debate about education. And those of us who back a progressive view of education must continue to speak out against that.
Schools that are progressive support community.
It used to be almost a given across much of middle class white America that a public school was every child's gateway into community life. And because children learn many things so much more effectively when they learn with and from one another, an emphasis on community has always been a cornerstone of progressive education.
After Brown vs. Board of Education and the Federal Disabilities Act ushered in the era of making sure the "community" included in public school meant truly everyone in the community, traditional public schools made remarkable progress with educating the least served in our communities, while those students who were better off continued to do well academically in comparison to students in other countries. But for the last twenty years, the emphasis on education reform has been changing that.
Schools have been re-segregating at an alarming rate, and the charter schools favored by the reformy crowd are often among the most segregated. Furthermore, a wave of support and funding for delivering curriculum and instruction online - another favorite of reformists - is threatening to isolate certain communities of students, and isolate students one from another. Anyone who considers themselves progressive should resist education policies that result in re-segregation and should hold approaches that emphasize online delivery of education in deep skepticism.
Schools that are progressive encourage collaboration.
The belief that learning is something that has to be incentivized with competition and rewards and punishments is inherently damaging in the broach spectrum of education. By creating a system of winners and losers, you automatically create the condition where many children - maybe most - learn overtime that they are "losers," which is damaging to their long-term health and wellbeing.
However, funding and other education policies favored by Arne Duncan and reformists, such as high-stakes testing, teacher merit pay, and competitive grant programs like Race to the Top, seek to instill more competitiveness not only into the lives of students but into the very fabric of how schools function institutionally. Progressive must continue to speak out against these policies.
Schools that are progressive instill social justice.
Public schools should never be established purely for the sake of a community that just wants to take care of itself, its friends, its own ethnic group, or even its own country. A progressive approach to education emphasizes that when the human rights of individuals are violated somewhere, it's an infringement on human rights everywhere. And access to a quality public school is a matter of human rights. This must be the stated bedrock of any governmental policy regarding education. Few in the reform crowd seem to acknowledge or care about this. Progressives must.
Progressive school tap students' intrinsic motivation.
As Alfe Kohn writes, "when considering (or reconsidering) educational policies and practices, the first question that progressive educators are likely to ask is, 'What's the effect on students' interest in learning, their desire to continue reading, thinking, and questioning?'" That's why establishing education systems that enforce teaching to the test, which is what the trend has been in American education, is antithetical to quality education. Students will lean what they need just to pass the test, and the whole "reason" for learning is destroyed.
Reformists contend that "making the tests better" - which usually means conducting more of them under the guise of "formative assessment" - will lead to students' deepening their understandings and retaining more of what they learn. But this thinking is flawed from the get-go because it fails to acknowledge the need for learning for its own sake to remain intrinsic to the student.
Progressive schools want students to develop deep understanding of subjects.
Of course, facts and skills matter, but only in a context and for a purpose. That's why progressive education tends to be organized around problems, projects, and questions rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines.
This often leads to the pointless discussion in the reform crowd about whether education should emphasize the process of learning or the content of what is to be learned. But this is a false polarity. Any educator who cares about whether their students develop deep understanding knows they have to attend to both the process of learning and the content to be learned.
Progressive schools use active learning.
In better off communities where students are enrolled in quality daycare situations, one of the first things the children learn is how to play. This "playfulness" in the learning process shouldn't stop at the K-12 threshold. That's why in progressive schools, students should play a vital role in helping to design the curriculum and learning activities. Educators then act as gatekeepers to ensure that curriculum and learning doesn't become trivialized or misdirected, and they gradually release more of the responsibility of learning to the learners as age and developmental levels progress.
However, the approach favored by reformists, as more and more students become passive test-takers of standardized-driven curriculum, makes active learning impossible. What the reform crowd pine for are one-sized-fits-all solutions that can be scaled up to schools and students everywhere. This would lead to killing an active learning approach.
Progressive schools take kids seriously.
Rather than making children everywhere adjust to the rules and curriculum of a top-driven, standardized, mechanized school system, progressive schools, as Kohn says, "take their cue from the children" and the "differences among them."
The current approach in American education that emphasizes that all students must be at the very same level on the very same day - the day the test is given - ultimately doesn't take children seriously. And regardless of how much Arne Duncan and the reformists want to talk about how much they care about "the kids," until they take them seriously, they're demonstrating that ultimately they don't.

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