How Traditionalist vs. Progressive Battles in School Reform Have Become Irrelevant

Here we go again. U.S. reformers anxious about how little children and youth know about opening up checking accounts, doing taxes, and figuring out mortgages—especially after the debacle of 2008—now want every student to receive instruction in sound ways to conduct one’s financial affairs as adults. But media hype and state mandates about financial literacy cannot change the fact that the ferocious battles between Progressives and Traditionalists have gone the way of Neanderthals.

First, the hype. Missouri, Utah, and Tennessee have mandated financial literacy courses as a requirement for graduation. Chicago schools’ CEO Ron Huberman praised a pilot program in the district teaching “personal finance” saying: “We want to make sure our students (86 percent come from low-income families) are armed with the financial literacy to understand any economic transaction they get into.”

Anytime lack of knowledge in the younger generation has been defined as a problem, it gets a niche in the school curriculum. Too many kids smoke, use drugs, and drink alcohol—organize a course. Too many babies born to teenage moms—organize a course. Too many auto accidents—organize a course. Too many fat children—organize a course. So here we go again. This time it is lack of knowledge about taking out credit cards, buying a car, and saving money from weekly paychecks. One 17 year-old taking a required cash-management course put the knowledge deficit crisply: “Money is so hard to make but so easy to spend.” (NEWSWEEK)

Whoa, Larry, what’s wrong with having students become financially literate, save money rather than going into debt, and write checks that don’t bounce? Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting children and youth to be financially literate. Just as there is nothing inherently wrong with policymakers, voters, and parents wanting the next generation to be math literate, science literate, civic literate, technologically literate, or all the other literacies that the young need in the 21st century. The problem is that there is far too much that Americans want their public schools to do and too little time, expertise, and resources to do everything.

Just as habitual over-eating leads to obesity and ill health, habitually wanting schools to solve national social, political, and economic problems leads to bloated curricula and new structures. Over-stuffed curricula are clear symptoms of that frequent, enervating struggle Traditional and Progressive school reformers have engaged in concerning the role public schools should play in a democracy. Financial literacy, of course, is just another skirmish in that century-long cyclical struggle. New structures, less noticeable because they are less visible, however, have trumped curricular bloat.

Cyclical battles between Traditionalists and Progressives over the best ways to teach reading (phonics vs. whole language) and math (conceptual vs. rule-driven), over which subjects should be central to a core academic curriculum—are no longer central to what is occurring in public schools now and in the immediate future.

Since the late-1970s, the center of gravity in debating what are “good” schools has shifted slowly from Traditional vs. Progressive curricula and pedagogy to where U.S. students stand internationally on academic performance. The cold-water dousing of the U.S. falling short in global economic competition in the 1980s coincided with the “Reagan Revolution” in the U.S. and the emerging belief that a results-driven system of schooling was crucial to a growing economy. That shift toward political conservatism, containing an animus to government action and a love affair with free market principles has created new structures that make the cyclical battles between Traditionalists and Progressives as quaint as a rotary dial on a phone.

In the past quarter-century, a decided shift in the primary goal of U.S. schooling has occurred: From creating the best curriculum and pedagogy to increasing student achievement. Today, what largely defines a “good” school is the level of student performance on key tests, high school graduation rates, and college admissions.

Today, the structures of high-stakes testing, state curriculum standards aligned to those tests, and measurable and publicized accountability have become visible features of U.S. schooling. National, not state, standards and tests are just around the corner. Pay-for- performance of superintendents and principals are now well established; tying teacher evaluation and salaries to student performance are being negotiated now. Moreover, expanded parental choice has become structurally built into public schools with laws that enable the spread of home schooling, online cyber schools, and charters.

These emerging structures in U.S. schooling–expanded parental choice and standards-based testing–point to a future where Traditional vs. Progressive debates—while they will still occur–will have as much effect on the newer structures that a newly-designed saddle would have on the production of horseless carriages in 1910.

Thus, any media hullabaloo over financial literacy courses is pushed to the margins of current school reform, reforms now anchored in results-driven structures, not quaint debates over new courses and what students need to thrive in the 21st century.

4 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

4 responses to “How Traditionalist vs. Progressive Battles in School Reform Have Become Irrelevant

  1. Brilliant, tragic, scary. I hope many people read this. I love your blog and books…

  2. Bob Calder

    On one hand I agree with you entirely. On the other I find the panic of financial literacy not dissimilar to the panic induced by Nation at Risk.

    Some of the forces you mention as arrayed against the traditional dichotomy are, I think, antipathetic to an international metric system.

    When we begin to measure ourselves against other nations, we must examine those systems. We find that they don’t contain some of the precious features that are highly valued among conservative reformers.

  3. Steve Davis

    Larry is a strong ally for teachers. The reason that he makes so much sense is that he is still in the trenches at schools.

    I started integrating financial literacy into my 10th and 12th grade English courses this year. It’s something that I knew my students needed to have so I provided a space and a context for them to see what they knew and to help each other expand on their knowledge-base while I directed the action. As far as pedagogy and methodology, I believe that Larry would say I was “Hugging the Middle.” We looked at the sub-prime debacle, FICO scores, APR’s, students loans, etc. It was a way to sort of address some CA state standards. I can justify throwing this in the curriculum because students are supposed to be able to comprehend and analyze structural features of informational materials (reading 2.0-2.6). I know that the state test questions will look nothing like what I am going over with the students. That’s alright. I have taught to the test and I know that it doesn’t net gains. Teachers need to build students’ background knowledge (Marzano) and engage them with relevant topics. Of course we also studied some more traditional English topics. We identified clauses, read Beowulf, talked about themes, prepared a research paper in MLA, etc.

    I agree with Larry that schools are asked to do too much. President Obama reinforced this notion that schools should and can cure societal ills when he said, “The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.” Then public schools and teachers are ridiculed when they fail to live up to unrealistic expectations, e.g., every child will be proficient in reading and math by 2014 (NCLB). U.S. schools are the only ones that try to educate the entire populace (IDEA). Comparing national statistics is apples to oranges.

    I believe that the tradionalist vs. progressive debate still has a place among teachers and educators. We can get our schools closer to where the “reformers” want to go by simply ignoring the numbers and creating the best hybrid pedagogy and curriculum that we can. Data is good. It can inform my instruction, but please don’t lambast me when I am unable to miraculously raise all boats. We know that teaching to the test doesn’t work. I strive to make my classes interdisciplinary, but I can’t truly make the switch until structures are put in place that allow true collaboration not just the facade.

  4. tim-10-ber

    Yes, schools are asked to do to much because parents are asked to do nothing and expected to do next to nothing…

    Hold kids back and I bet you get a few more parents involved.

    On financial literacy I believe there are ways to integrate it into the curriculum as early as kindergarden…please do it…

    Steve Davis thanks for bringing into your English classes…

    Bob — reading Diane Ravitch’s new book, I think ANAR made a lot of sense. If it had been implemented and not NCLB the government school might, just might be in a whole lot better shape today…

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