My record in predictions is, at best, half-wrong and half-right. I have no special powers in looking around the corner. My record in figuring out what is cresting, what will take hold and spread and what will disappear is unenviable.
Not an encouraging way to entice readers to continue, I admit. Nonetheless, let me tell you what signs I see of a possible progressive coalition emerging. This is impressionistic, to be sure, filled with guesses, occasional fumbles, and error. But there might just be something brewing politically across the country that is emerging as a counter to the three-decade long concentration on top-down federal, state, and foundation-funded curriculum standards, testing, and accountability.
What do I mean by “progressive?’ In the decades between the 1890s and 1940s, “progressive education” in the U.S. was the reigning political ideology of schooling. There were two main ideas, anchored in what was then emerging as a “science of education” that spurred and divided U.S. progressives in those years. First, student-centered instruction and learning (adherents were sometimes called “pedagogical progressives“) and, second, advocates of “scientific management” (sometimes called “administrative progressives” who sought to prepare children and youth to fit into work and society far more efficiently than the traditional schooling of the day. Both wings of the progressive movement cited John Dewey and his embrace of science as their source.
Educators, including many academics, administrators and researchers of the day glommed on to “scientific management.” Proud to be called “educational engineers” during these years, these progressives created lists of behaviors that principals would use to evaluate teachers, designed protocols to follow to make a school building efficient, and measured anything that was nailed down.
Academics, school boards, and superintendents–then called “administrative progressives” –adopted scientific ways of determining educational efficiency. These reformers were kissing cousins of “pedagogical progressives.” The latter wanted to uproot traditional teaching and learning and plant child-centered learning in schools. They made a small dent in U.S. schools but the efficiency-minded progressives triumphed politically in shaping schools in the early 20th century.
That efficiency-driven progressive crusade for meaningful information to inform policy decisions about district and school efficiency and effectiveness has continued in subsequent decades. The current donor and business-led resurgence of a “cult of efficiency,” the application of scientific management to schooling, appears in the current romance with Big Data, evidence-based instruction, and the onslaught of models that use assumption-loaded algorithms to grade how well schools and individual teachers are doing, and customizing online lessons for students.
Even though the efficiency wing of early 20th century progressives has politically trumped the wing of the movement focused on the whole child and student-centered pedagogy, it is well to keep in mind that cycles of rhetoric–wars of words–and policy action on efficiency-driven and student-centered progressivism have spun back-and-forth for decades regardless of which wing won in which decade. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public schooling for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic schooling.
Even now at the current height of efficiency-driven, top-down standards and testing, schools committed to educating the whole child have persisted (see here and here). Also consider those charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see here, here, and here)
And on occasion, both wings of the progressive movement, contemporary “educational engineers” committed to scientific management-cum-accountability and those interested in student-centered instruction, have surprisingly merged. One example is the differentiation of high school curriculum offerings (vocational, academic, commercial) in the 1920s and the frequent efforts to differentiate (or individualize) instruction since the early 20th century (see here and differentiated curriculum). That marriage of efficiency-minded reformers and student-centered advocates occurred then and occurs now.
I see that convergence of the two historically progressive wings in online instruction touted highly today as “personalized learning” in places like The School of One, Rocketship schools, and K-12 corporate schools. See, for example, the current glossary of personalized learning.
This convergence of efficiency driven instruction and passion for student-centeredness has had it critics, but does represent one instance of a bottom-up push to combine student productivity and individual instruction. Is it a vanguard of a new cycle of Progressivism? Perhaps.
Part 2 will look at the political interest groups (e.g., left-of-center progressives, tea party advocates, home schooling champions, corporate leaders, teacher unions, parents, and students) that have grown in their opposition to current top-down standardization of curriculum (e.g., Common Core and national testing). I also look at the do-it-yourself or maker movement, boosters of career academies, and long-time pedagogical progressives who have continued their support of student-centered instruction and curriculum. Whether these vastly different groups can form and sustain a political coalition to alter the current standards, testing, and accountability movement, I consider in Part 2.