Progressives vs. Traditionalists: More Policy Talk than Actual Practice

Selma Wassermann’s guest blog (October 11, 2009) told us that the innovation “Readers Workshop” was a reincarnation of “Individualized Reading,” a Progressive teaching practice from the 1960s emphasizing student choice. Her reminder jogged my memory about how featured innovations and verbal hullabaloo over the best way to teach reading, social studies, math, and science show up again and again. These rhetorical struggles—often mirroring larger conservative vs. liberal (or traditional vs. progressive) ideological battles over religion in schools, ending poverty, and child-rearing practices have cycled through our lives, at least those of us old enough to remember earlier verbal skirmishes.

These so-called “culture wars” boiled over in newspapers, books, educational conferences, and scholarly journals well over a century ago, and have reappeared every few decades. Since the 1970s, occasional outbreaks of these media-amplified fistfights—again reflecting the ideological divide between political conservatives and progressives–have spilled over into state legislatures and the Oval Office. So in 2005, President George W. Bush entered the battle over whether Darwinian evolution should be taught in U.S. classrooms by saying that “both sides, ” evolution and other theories such as “intelligent design” that question it, should be taught. A few months later, the Kansas State Board of Education approved that very position and expected students to study both Darwinian evolution and doubts about its scientific accuracy; that position has changed again.

In 2003, New York City Chancellor of schools Joel Klein mandated “Balanced Literacy”—a progressive approach (in which “Readers Workshop” is one component)–as the way to teach children reading in nearly 750 elementary schools rather than a phonics-based approach. Advocates of teaching children phonics, waving research studies that they said proved their way works better than “balanced literacy,” vigorously engaged the enemy in the latest skirmish over which pedagogy is best.

And in the unrelenting “math wars” between progressives and conservatives, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) issued a report in 2006 urging that math teaching in elementary and middle school concentrate on knowing multiplication tables, how to do division and manage decimals. Their earlier report in 1989 called for engaging students in learning concepts thoroughly and applying them to real world situations rather than memorizing rules for adding, subtracting, and dividing numbers.

So fierce fights over the best way of teaching reading, math, and academic subjects—and, yes, teaching thinking skills also–are alive and well at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. In each instance, however, the sharp divide in words between progressives and traditionalists gets fuzzy when it comes to published curriculum standards, textbooks, and, most important, classroom practices.

In the past quarter-century, state curriculum standards in math in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Georgia include both traditional and progressive language to describe teaching. Current math textbooks in math (e.g., University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, 2003) tilt toward constructivism but do blend traditional practices (e.g., whole class drill on math facts) with progressive ones (e.g., students working in small groups, writing in journals). Phonics and stress on decoding text mixes with Readers Workshop where students read books of their choosing.

For those who relish the exchange of rhetorical jabs, distinguishing between heated policy talk and actual classroom practice is irrelevant. For others, however, who want to know what actually occurs in classrooms, a few researchers have documented the mix of both progressive and traditional practices that characterize so many classrooms where reading, math, science, and social studies get taught daily. Teachers are essentially pragmatists driven by what they see they can do to increase student learning and do it efficiently. These hybrid ways of teaching are common but go too often unnoticed by those who peddle the sharp words and love the jousting.

Yet it is in these classrooms where teachers translate policies into action. They manage the inevitable dilemmas arising from the drive to meet academic standards by drawing from both progressive and traditional practices including Readers Workshop and phonics. They work toward having their students do well on state tests while insuring that these very same students can think for themselves and contribute to their communities after leaving school. That is what matters–their pragmatism in classrooms–not the futile battle of words between self-styled progressives and traditionalists over which ways of teaching are best.

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