The Arc of Progressivism in Schools (Part 1)

The Phi Delta Kappan poll of public attitudes toward public education published this month has 78 percent of respondents, the highest ever since 1997, voting to reform the existing system of schooling rather than seek alternatives (e.g., vouchers, charters). Among those respondents who rank their local schools highly (p. 12), the percentage wanting to improve existing system rather than replace it rose to 86. Among minority respondents, 19 percent of blacks and 34 percent of Hispanics did want to replace existing public schools.

These results showed great support for improving public schools rather than chasing reforms that replace the existing system. Such polls also remind me that even if there is strong support for  improving the existing system of public schools, the historic competing goals within tax-supported public schools persist. That is, schools should both change individuals and society while at the same time conserve and transmit core community and national values to the next generation (see here). These contradictory goals are in the DNA of tax-supported U.S. public schools. They become the basis for progressive reforms past and present to improve schooling.

That tension between fundamental values driving tax-supported public schools has been there for more than a century and will continue in perpetuity because these competing values are what the larger society expects of its public schools. Among policymakers and practitioners, the abiding tension between these rival goals can be seen in the historic struggle between educational progressives and conservatives who not only have competing views of the direction of schools but also have differing ideas about how children should learn, how teachers should teach, and what knowledge is of most worth.

I write “abiding tension” because historically, progressive efforts to improve public schools have  ebbed and flowed time and again. Between 1900-1940, progressive ideas and practices flowed across the educational landscape as they did during the 1960s and 1990s, and even now.  Yet progressives’ determined efforts to move classroom practice from traditional, teacher-centered forms of teaching and learning to student-centered approaches ebbed making few inroads into most classrooms (see here and here).  To better understand this ebb and flow of efforts to alter the organization, curriculum, and instruction of public schools toward progressive ends, I am writing this three-part series.

Progressivism in schooling

Historically, many definitions of educational “progressivism” have made it a word nearly bereft of meaning (see here). In looking at the work of Colonel Francis Parker, John Dewey, William Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg, Carleton Washburne–those academics and practitioners who sketched out varied meanings of the concept between the 1880s and 1930s–and contemporary reformers who embraced the central ideas of progressivism such as Deborah Meier, Ted Sizer, Vito Perrone, Alfie Kohn, there are common tenets and practices of progressivism that do turn up in schools then and now albeit in different incarnations. Look at tenets that the Progressive Education Association  listed in 1919:

Seven Principles of Progressive Education

  1. Freedom for children to develop naturally
  2. Interest as the motive of all work
  3. Teacher as guide, not taskmaster
  4. Change school recordkeeping to promote the scientific study of student development
  5. More attention to all that affects student physical development
  6. School and home cooperation to meet the child’s natural interests and activities
  7. Progressive school as thought leader in educational movements

The PEA closed in 1955.

Founded in 1987, Progressive Education Network (PEN) published its vision of the kind of schooling they sought:

PEN believes that the purpose of education transcends preparation for college or career. Schools nurture citizens in an increasingly diverse democracy. Within the complexities of education theory, practice, policy, and politics, we promote a vision of progressive education for the 21st century that:

  • Engages students as active participants in their learning and in society
  • Supports teachers’ voice as experienced practitioners and growth as lifelong learners
  • Builds solidarity between progressive educators in the public and private sectors
  • Advances critical dialogue on the roles of schools in a democratic society
  • Responds to contemporary issues from a progressive educational perspective
  • Welcomes families and communities as partners in children’s learning
  • Promotes diversity, equity, and justice in our schools and society
  • Encourages progressive educators to play an active role in guiding the educational vision of our society.

Some observers have tried to reduce these often cited features of educational progressivism into fewer categories that capture the essence of the progressive ideology such as:


*Community integrated;

*Democracy and social justice (see here, here,and here).

The overlap in different lists of progressive features in schools are obvious . These tenets and practices have become the defining elements and, over the years, progressive-minded reformers including teachers and principles (also headmasters of some private schools where these ideas and practices have been present for decades) have tried to infiltrate and overcome the traditional structures and practices in U.S. schools and classrooms.

But the arc progressive reforms have followed has been an uneven curve. Past and current reformers had to contend with the existing system of schooling. They had to grapple with the “grammar of schooling” that was in place since the mid-19th century.

What has happened in past and current struggles between educational progressives and conservatives is that conservatives among policymakers and practitioners have adopted particular progressive practices (e.g., small group and independent work, problem solving, project-based instruction, “personalized learning”) and proclaimed that they are progressive while the dominant structures of the age-graded school (e.g., grouping children by age, self-contained classrooms, daily schedule) have remained constant. Over the past century, the emergence of such hybrids during and after surges of progressive ideas and practices have tamped down any public fuss that might have occurred. And made the arc of progressivism in schools both bumpy and potholed.

I take up the school results of pushes for progressive ideas and practices in the U.S. and internationally in Part 2.






Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

10 responses to “The Arc of Progressivism in Schools (Part 1)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    I had the good fortune of hearing an audio recording of John Dewey speaking about education in my first year of college, before reading anything he had written. The recording was held as a memento from a professor who had a Ph.D in the Philosophy of Education, having completed studies at Ohio State with Boyd H. Bode (1873–1953). I was a guest in her home, along with several others. I gather that Bode became a convert to many of Dewey’s key ideas after resisting them and versions of progressivism tangentially related to Dewey’s thought.

  2. “Supports teachers’ voice as experienced practitioners and growth as lifelong learners…”

    Larry, a question about that. Is that plank traditionally understood to mean:

    a. teachers-as-individuals (various voices, probably often disagreeing with each other, i.e., before we decide anything on X, let’s make sure we listen to 9 experienced teachers),


    b. teachers’ voice collectively (perhaps to a school board, where someone says “the teachers believe X”)?

    • larrycuban

      My hunch is the former meaning that you offer rather than the latter. You would need to ask someone or other in PEN to get their take on the sentence and which “voice” is intended. Thanks for question.

  3. Grace M. Hoagland

    Another salient (superb) blog for all of us – wised up and novice reformers alike. THANKS Larry!!!

  4. Pingback: Progressive education’s rocky road | bloghaunter

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