Revisiting Progressivism: Then and Now (Part 1)

Since January, I have visited classrooms, schools, and districts in Silicon Valley to see exemplars of technology integration. Posts appeared regularly over the past months describing individual elementary and secondary school teachers teaching lessons that put technology in the background, that is, laptops and tablets were as mundane as paper and pencil, in order to reach the content and skill goals they have set.

I intend to complete all of my observations and interviews by early December. Then I will re-read everything I wrote, reflect on what I have seen, read about “best cases” elsewhere in the U.S., and talk to people across the country whose work intersects with mine, place all of this in a historical context, and finally begin tapping away on my keyboard.

Oh, do I wish that the process in the above paragraph were so linear. But it ain’t. I have thoughts and intuitions now that have accumulated with every visit to schools and classrooms. This blog is a place where I can try out these thoughts before getting hip-deep in my analysis of what I have observed over a year and tackle the writing of a book. So here goes.

Recently visiting the private San Francisco AltSchool and two public elementary schools in Milpitas (CA) have triggered my pausing to write down emerging thoughts. Those three schools pushed me to mentally scroll through all of the classroom lessons I have observed since  January. Those visits occasioned much thinking about John Dewey and Edward Thorndike intellectual leaders in the progressive movement that was the dominant reform between 1900-1950. I saw many parallels then and now between deepened interest and practice of student-centered learning and the persistent quest, again then and now, for efficient operations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

What I am thinking about is the periodic blossoming of yet another progressive reform surge anchored in the principles of student-centered learning and increasingly efficient schools of the earlier movement but this time fueled by new technologies and much money that make possible what has been considered impossible during recent market-oriented reforms concentrating on standards, testing, and accountability.

Since I have a blog where I can try out these intuitions and thoughts publicly, I will be writing a multi-post series  showing links that I see between past efforts of progressives to reform schools that were then thought to be “too traditional and teacher-directed” and increasing numbers of contemporary reformers operating again on progressive principles that the current “factory-model”used in public schools—need I point out these schools were a product of an earlier reform movement?–have to be replaced with child-driven, experience-laden, highly efficient schools connected to the real and ever-changing world.

So I begin with that earlier progressive school reform movement.

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 Edward Thorndike and their embrace of science as the royal road to achieving “good”schools, as defined by each wing of the movement.

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. A “good” school was an efficient one, they said.

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. Their version of a “good” school was one where the “whole child” was at the center of curriculum and instruction and learning through experience was primary. These progressives 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. The point is that while most policymakers are efficiency driven and have succeeded in dominating public school policymaking for decades, that political domination has hardly eliminated educators and parents committed to holistic, student-centered 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) within regular public schools as well as charter schools that label themselves as progressive (see here and here). The progressive impulse with its two wings lives on in 2016.

Which brings me to the private AltSchool and two public elementary ones in Milpitas (CA) that I visited recently. In subsequent posts I will take up those schools.



Filed under Reforming schools, research, Uncategorized

19 responses to “Revisiting Progressivism: Then and Now (Part 1)

  1. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    This seems to be the start of a very interesting serie of posts. Looking forward to read them!

  2. I wish you all the best in your research. It will be interesting to see if you turn up anything new in the long debate/fight over how to educate the minds of young students.

  3. Drew Hinds

    While I respect the findings from the last 120 years of instructional experimentation, I do not believe, if provided a viable and low cost choice, parents will continue to tolerate a factor model for their little “Timmy” and “Maribel”… market and parent-consumer choice will drive the national debate over the next 4-8 years.

  4. Raúl Morales

    I’m enjoying your blog posts and class reviews last month. In this “progressive” historical debate you are presenting, I’m missing some words about which are the “aims” that make the progressive education be progressive at all. Looking forward next posts on the Revisiting series.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the reminder about “aims” of progressives, Raul. The splits among progressives historically (between focus on the whole child growing and learning and becoming a civic-minded, contributing adult to his or her community vs. progressives who saw efficiently run schools contributing to society by producing graduates who can enter the labor market successfully, give back to their community, etc.) remain, in large, the splits that exist today as well.

  5. Larry Creech

    Is your web site down? Its 9:45 AM Thanksgiving Day on the east coast and I’ve been reading your posts. All of a sudden I am unable to access any.


    Larry Creech


  6. Laura H. Chapman

    I will be interested in how your reports on one AltSchool and the more general concept of altschools are framed, especially in relation to the likelhood of billions of federal dollars from Tittle I being distributed as vouchers for any kind of school.. That seems highly probably during the nexts four years, and eagerly awaited by many who have praised disruptive innovation as the panacea for our era. Will this become an era of Summerhill revisited or online, in front of the screen all the time? In any case, thanks for your blog and methodical study of issues and options in education.

  7. I think this post is based on a fundamental misconception, bizarrely common among educationalists, which sees a focus on the means of education (i.e. efficiency) as antagonistic or incompatible with a focus on the ends of education (such as concern child-centred theories). I address this false dichotomy in my “The Select Committee Conference and the Chief Inspector” ( and subsequent parts in my series on the purpose of education. What’s the good of advocating a child-centred view of the ends of education, if you are not able to deliver these ends efficiently? And what is the purpose of being efficient, if you do not know to what ends that efficiency is being directed?

    • larrycuban

      In the U.S., Crispin Weston, historically there have been multiple goals for tax-supported public schooling: make children literate in order to become citizens of the state with sufficient knowledge and skills to contribute to democratic governance, build moral character, and prepare youth for the workplace. These goals tilt strongly to education to achieve the purposes of the state. Thus, schools are, in the words of early 20th century progressives, “socially efficient,” that is, serve the needs of the state. That is one view of efficiency that I see missing in your comment and report you provided a link for.

      Moreover, public schools have become in the minds of parents an escalator for their sons’ and daughters’ social mobility–children rising in status beyond their parents. This belief in the school helping individual students attain higher personal success is especially strong now. This notion of schools being “efficient” in bumping children higher on the economic ladder is, like the above “social efficiency” another notion missing from your description.

      The other view is the one you mention of operating schools and classroom efficiently. Progressives, then and now, who espouse the “whole child,” “learning by doing” believe that those overall goals can be efficiently and effectively reached by student-centered approaches.

      • Thanks for your reply, Larry, which to my mind illustrates my original point, rather than refuting it.

        What you are objecting to is not the prioritization-or-not of efficiency. As you say, “whole child” approaches aim to be efficient, just as much as so-called “efficient” approaches. You are objecting to the selection of what you regard as the wrong ends, either by the state or by over-ambitious, middle-class parents. But you express this point in misleading language, as illustrated in your two sentences which say “these *goals* tilt strongly to… [the] ‘socially efficient’, that is, serve the needs of the state”. Efficiency has nothing to do with the selection of the right ends or who sets the ends; it is all to do with the effectiveness with which your ends (whatever they are) are attained.

        You may or may not be right that we are chasing the wrong goals, though I would question what I regard as another false dichotomy that I think you imply in your characterisation of this debate: the view that the interests of the individual and the “purposes of the state” are so fundamentally opposed. Isn’t it also in the interests of the child to be economically successful, good democratic citizens, to have good moral character etc? I suspect that the argument about objectives, when it is perceived clearly, will become much more consensual that is often assumed, more characterised by “and” than by “or”.

        But wherever we find the middle way in setting our objectives, what is for sure that it is not the job of the teacher to set the ultimate objectives of education. The teacher is a service provider and for any service (bar what is offered by a priesthood) it is the consumer that determines the ultimate purpose, not the provider. You might ask “who is the consumer in education?” and the answer will be a complex one – but one thing is again for sure: it is not the provider. The damage of conflating ends and means is that this division of responsibility is blurred, damaging to the accountability of teachers and their ability to organise the service they offer on an efficient basis because different parts of the service are chasing different and poorly described objectives.

        I do not say that there is not a problem. I am arguing (particularly in the series of posts to which my previous link pointed to the first part) that the problem is different one. It lies in our failure to describe our educational objectives clearly. The consequence of this failure is that simplistic objectives are imposed on education providers by formulaic examinations, backed up by the authority of clunky, bureaucratic controls (which never evaluate themselves in objective terms). This is linked to the perceived failure of criterion referencing. Instead of walking away from our past failures in this area (in the UK, our “levels”, which are equivalent to US “standards” have just been abolished), if we could address and fix them, we could provide the “currency” or “language” in which a wider conversation could occur throughout society, providing a better account of the range and diversity of our educational objectives. This would provide greater legitimacy to our education service and allow teachers to focus on their real job, which should be the attaininment of ends that are widely recognised throughout society, responding as appropriate to the diversity of ends that a pluralist society will produce. Teachers must stop trying to make up their objectives as they go along, or impose their own value systems on the children of those they disagree with. Those who want to challenge the aspirations of pushy middle-class parents should become politicians or preachers, not teachers.

      • larrycuban

        For the life of me, after re-reading what I wrote in reply to your comment, I cannot find any sentence, much less word, that supports your statement: “You (meaning me) are objecting to the selection of what you regard as the wrong ends, either by the state or by over-ambitious, middle-class parents.”
        Nor can I find any word or sentence in my reply that says I favor one set of goals over another—“You may or may not be right that we are chasing the wrong goals,….” Perhaps you are responding to another reply than mine.

      • Well, I understood your previous reply to present three sets of objectives: the first set was tilted “to achieve the purposes of the state”, the second reflected what was “in the minds of parents…[who wanted their children to] attain higher personal success”, and the third was that of progressives, who espouse the importance of the “whole child”. In suggesting that the first was in the interest of the state, the second was in the interest of ambitious parents and only the third is primarily in the interests of the child, it seems to me fairly clear where your preferences lie.

        I accept that you are not clear as to whether the third of these is classified as an end of education or a means. You seem to suggest that it provides not a new set of ends but the means to achieve “those [previously mentioned] overall goals…efficiently and effectively”. But this a very unusual way to talk about progressive, whole-child education, which is for most people to do with prioritizing *different* objectives, not just achieving the same objectives more efficiently. And you implicitly recognise this point when you introduce this third viewpoint as “the other view”, suggesting that it is an alternative to the first two views and not the best way to fulfil the previous objectives. Your description of the whole child approach is confused and self-contradictory.

        As far as I am concerned, this illustrates my original point, which is that you are not making the appropriate distinction between ends and means and are therefore guilty of a category error. This is evident, mainly in the way that you describe a particular set of objectives as “efficient”. “Efficient” is word that is properly applied to means, not to ends.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for taking the time to comment, Crispin.

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