Progressives at War in Schools and Classrooms*

Making most teachers superb artisans in their classroom craft and individualizing instruction for 30-plus students have eluded policymakers, academics, and practitioners for well over a century. With the publication of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College and the prototype “School of One” in New York City, progressive dreams of better teaching and personalized learning once again confront the realities of public schooling in the U.S.

First, Teach Like a Champion. A former Teach for America alumnus, Lemov studied and video-taped TFAers and veteran teachers in largely poor and minority schools who were successful in managing their classes and raising students’ test scores. He distilled what he learned from hundreds of teachers he observed into 49 techniques–he is explicit about the word “techniques,” making clear that teaching is a craft that can be learned and that these tools are associated with teacher success in urban schools.

Now, “School of One.” It is a one million dollar pilot after-school math program aimed at low-income minority middle school students that individualizes learning in 6th and 7th grade math by using virtual tutors, live teachers, and 1:1 laptops. As the program description says:

“[E]ach student receives a unique daily schedule based on his or her academic strengths and needs. As a result, students within the same school or even the same classroom can receive profoundly different instruction as each student’s schedule is tailored to the skills they need and the ways they best learn. Teachers acquire data about student achievement each day and then adapt their live instructional lessons accordingly.”

Started by a former TFAer, “School of One” depends upon the power of New York City Department of Education computers to use a complex algorithm for profiling each student’s strengths and weaknesses in math, matching the appropriate lesson to each student, and sending it immediately to the student, one-to-one tutor, and teacher. The pilot will become a full-fledged middle school program in September 2010.


While progressive teacher education professors and K-3 teachers may wince at most of the teacher-directed techniques Doug Lemov champions, many new and veteran teachers in urban schools watch the videos and read the text carefully for clues to improving their daily lessons. While progressive-minded academics and teachers may shrink at the technological command-and-control that the district office’s “algorithm” has in tailoring each math lesson to a particular student or the downsized role that teachers play in such a program, certain students (and parents) relish the individual attention they receive.

What contemporary progressive-minded teachers and administrators who continue to cope with the standards-based accountability and testing movement have to remember is that the deep well from which early 20th century progressives drank not only included John Dewey but also Edward Thorndike, an early behaviorist psychologist and expert in testing.

If one wing of these early progressives were pedagogical pioneers advocating project-based learning, student-centered activities, and daily links to the world outside of the classroom, another wing of the same movement were efficiency-minded, “administrative progressives,” who admired the then corporate leaders of large organizations committed to both efficiency and effectiveness–Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, General Motors. Thorndike at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Ellwood P. Cubberley at Stanford and other academics, borrowing heavily from business leaders, counted and measured everything in schools and classrooms under the flag of “scientific management.” They wanted to make teachers efficient in delivering lessons to 40-plus students sitting behind bolted-down desks with the newest technologies of the time–testing, film, radio. They created checklists for principals to evaluate teachers and monitor their buildings; checklists for superintendents to gauge district performance including where every penny was spent.

A century ago, this efficiency-minded wing of the progressive movement overwhelmed the pedagogical progressives. Thorndike trumped Dewey. And they are back again in Teach Like a Champion and the “School of One.” This time around they wear the clothes of educational entrepreneurs. They tout scientific studies, lust for cutting minutes off tasks, and  recruit MBAs to manage districts and schools.

So there are no more culture wars between progressives and traditionalists–that is a media-hyped concoction. What exists now is a re-emergence of the efficiency-minded “administrative progressives” from a century ago who, as entrepreneurs, now challenge the educational establishment to become competitive and more market-like. If there is a “war” it is between two century-old wings of educational progressives–it is a family fight.

* I thank Arthur Evenchik for suggesting that I take another look at progressives vs. traditionalists in light of Teach Like a Champion. Of course, he is not responsible for my interpretations.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

7 responses to “Progressives at War in Schools and Classrooms*

  1. Diana Senechal

    This is a very interesting analysis. I agree with you about the resurgence of the “efficiency-minded administrative progressives” but believe that neither Lemov nor the School of One has contended yet with challenges from traditionalists (here, by traditionalists, I mean those committed to the teaching of the subject in its full excellence).

    One problem with Lemov’s techniques is that he ends where many excellent students and teachers begin. That is, there do exist students who walk into a classroom ready to pay attention, and teachers who know and love their subject and teach it without condescension. There is no need to keep the students engaged, because that is a given. In those circumstances, the teacher’s work is to introduce students to complex topics, offer insights, pose questions and challenges, demand excellence, and ultimately bring students to new levels of competence and understanding. This goes far beyond what is needed to pass the standardized tests.

    But in many schools the main challenge is to keep the lesson moving, to keep the students involved, and to bring test scores up. To Lemov’s credit, he does recognize the importance of subject matter knowledge, but many of his techniques are geared toward addressing the problem of students’ distractibility. Why do we have that problem in the first place? I would argue that it is to some degree self-perpetuating. The more teachers do to keep students “engaged” at every moment, the more students depend on that and the less they are able to sit still and focus, trusting that it will be worth their while. It is sad that students must know the purpose of what they do at all times. To study a subject deeply, you can’t always know its purpose.

    Now for the School of One. It’s main drawback is that (from all I have read) it assumes that math is a progression of skills. If that were the case, then it would make great sense for students to learn skills at their own pace. But what happens when students reach the high school level? There, a geometry, calculus, or algebra proof could take up an entire lesson, and the understanding could take much longer to sink in. If students become so accustomed to individualized plans that they cannot learn together in a class, then the School of One will expand into high school, turning subjects like trigonometry into a progression of skills. This is an impossibility.

    Moreover, it is distracting for a teacher to deliver computer-generated lessons to multiple groups in the same class period. While they are supposedly free to adjust the lesson plans, they probably do not have the room or time to think them through. Nor does such a scattering of lessons allow for much focus. So in all likelihood the teacher ends up following what the computer has generated. Is this likely to attract teachers with a strong background in math? Over the long term it may drive them away. And if the School of One expands into high school, we may lose many teachers with high levels of preparation. They don’t want to teach skills to disparate groups, in formations that may change daily; they want to delve into the subject. They want focus and continuity.

    So there still is an opposition between progressives and traditionalists. The terms may have changed somewhat; neither word may be quite appropriate right now. But there are still many who do not consider it an extravagant demand to teach a subject, as richly and fully as possible, to students willing and eager to learn it. They find themselves at odds with reforms that focus mainly on student engagement and classroom control and that reduce the subject to a series of skills.

    • larrycuban

      Here is another criticism of my point that Teach Like a Champion comes out of the turn-of-the-20th-century progressive movement. Both Diana (above) and Arthur make excellent points.

      Dear Larry,

      Thanks very much for writing this. The last thing I want to do is add to the hype surrounding a concocted war. So from this point on, you will never hear me refer to Lemov and his colleagues as traditionalists.

      Let me also admit that when I read the opening chapters of Teach Like a Champion, the occasional appearance of stopwatches made me think of Taylorism. Consider this analysis of the benefits of coaching students to hand out papers efficiently:

      Assume that the average class of students passes out or back papers and materials twenty times a day and that it takes a typical class a minute and twenty seconds to do this. If McCurry’s students can accomplish this task in just twenty seconds, they will save twenty minutes a day (one minute each time). They can then allocate this time to studying the causes of the Civil War or how to add fractions with unlike denominators. Now multiply that twenty minutes per day by 190 school days, and you find that McCurry has just taught his students a routine that will net him thirty-eight hundred minutes of additional instruction over the course of a year. That’s more than sixty-three hours or almost eight additional days of instruction — time for whole units on Reconstruction or coordinate geometry!

      Because I have seen so much instructional time in urban schools consumed by the lax performance of trivial tasks, I think that Lemov’s pursuit of efficiency is more than justified. But I recognize that some readers may view this passage as evidence that he is a calculator-wielding fanatic.

      Taylorism aside, I have one qualm about your assertion that Teach Like a Champion manifests the “re-emergence of the efficiency-minded ‘administrative progressives’ from a century ago who, as entrepreneurs, now challenge the educational establishment to become competitive and more market-like.”

      To you, the point I’m about to make may seem so obvious that you saw no need to mention it. But if Lemov really were an administrative progressive, his students would not be learning about Reconstruction or coordinate geometry, and Uncommon Schools would not be celebrating its success in closing the achievement gap. I call this point “obvious” because it’s borne out by one of the books you cite in your post.

      The administrative progressives, as described by David Tyack in “The One Best System,” would have ridiculed Lemov’s ambitions for his students. They believed that the way for a society to achieve scientific efficiency was to sort children according to their intelligence and prepare the majority of them for lives of economic and social subordination. And it seemed obvious to them that most poor, immigrant, and especially African-American children would forever remain in the ranks of the dispossessed.

      You know the quotations. Cubberley argued that urban schools should “give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal” and acknowledge that social mobility had become largely impossible in an age of specialization: “success is higher up the ladder now than it was a generation ago, while the crowd about the bottom increases every year.” This was not a call to competition; it was a declaration that poor people had no chance of competing. And John Dewey, reflecting on his battle with this wing of educational progressives, saw exactly what their victory represented. He accused them of instituting

      a procedure which under the title of science sinks the individual in a numerical class; judges him with reference to capacity to fit into a limited number of vocations ranked according to present business standards; assigns him to a predestined niche and thereby does whatever education can do to perpetuate the present order.

      I realize that no historical analogy is perfect, and I know you weren’t implying that Lemov and his colleagues share the administrative progressives’ commitment to inequality. Still, it seems important to note the crucial respects in which Lemov is not a reincarnation of Ellwood P. Cubberley. And I say this precisely because, long before you started your blog, you and Tyack taught me the rest of the story.


  2. teachingbattleground

    It’s difficult for me to judge this because I haven’t yet read Lemov’s book. However, on the points you make above I am not sure he is any kind of progressive. The fact there were technocratic progressives does not make every technocrat a progressive.

    The “administrative progressives” can be considered to be progressives because they rejected the idea of an inherited academic tradition and believed that education needed to be tailored to the innate qualities of the students. They shared this view with other progressives, where they differed was that they believed they could scientifically measure these innate qualities, rather than draw them out through the child’s interests. It is this, rather than the idea of efficiency, which makes them progressives. Their modern descendents are probably those who advocate tailoring education to “learning styles” or “needs” rather than those who look at efficiency and effectiveness of teaching.

  3. Pingback: Everyone’s a Progressive These Days | Splitting Skulls

  4. miguel vargas

    Where is the research to prove any of these assertions? Anybody can string high sounding words, only researchers can attache numbers to them.

  5. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

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