The Arc of Progressivism (Part 2)


Is there ever a day that mattresses are not on sale?

Is there ever a conference on school reform that the word “progressive” is not uttered?

Answer is no to both questions.

At different times in the history of public schooling, progressive-inclined reformers sought to change curricular and instructional practices from traditional (or teacher-centered) to progressive (or student-centered). At these times–the 1890s-1940s, the 1960s, the 1990s, and currently–the language used, the articles and books written, and arrays of conferences held for policymakers and practitioners contained selected items chosen from a menu of progressivism’s tenets and practices (see Part 1).

After the hullabaloo of the these reforms quieted and researchers looked at the results of progressive reforms, they found that curricula had changed becoming far more connected to the lives of children and youth (e.g., social studies replaced history in many schools)–see here and here. Moreover, large-scale experiments and evaluations had been launched (e.g., the Eight Year Study and Follow Through Project), and staff development for practitioners to use progressive practices in their classrooms (e.g. Denver Curriculum experiment, Activity Program in New York City elementary schools).

But when it came to changes in classroom practice, that is, actual shifting instruction and learning from teacher- to student-centered, only marginal modifications had occurred (see here and here). Yes, separate progressive schools, mostly private, had come into existence (e.g., Little Red School House, University of Chicago Lab School, Montessori schools) but within public schools, the arc of progressivism was peripheral to most classrooms. What did occur  often was a mixing of progressive and traditional practices in lesson activities, grouping practices, and managing of students, overall there was no significant shift in practitioner behavior (see here and here).

How come?

The short answer is the age-graded school. The long answer is the “grammar of instruction,” the organizational structures and processes within schools that influence how teachers teach and have taught.

As David Tyack and William Tobin described it:

The basic “grammar” of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. By the “grammar” of schooling we mean the regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction. Here we have in mind, for example, standardized organizational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students and allocating themto classrooms, and splintering knowledge into “subjects.”

In 1902 John Dewey argued that it was easy to dismiss the way schools are organized “as something comparatively external and indifferent to educational purposes and ideals,” but in fact “the manner in which the machinery of instruction bears upon the child. . .really controls the whole system….

Practices like graded classrooms structure schools in a manner analogous to the way grammar organizes meaning in language. Neither the grammar of schooling nor the grammar of speech needs to be consciously understood to operate smoothly. Indeed, much of the grammar of schooling has become so well established that it is typically taken for granted as just the way schools are. It is the departure from customary practice in schooling or speaking that attracts attention.

People are accustomed, for example, to elementary schools that are divided into grades in whose self-contained and coeducational classrooms pupils are taught several basic subjects by a single teacher.

High schools are organized somewhat differently. Students move every period of about 55 minutes, collecting Carnegie units of academic credit along the way. In each separate class they encounter a different teacher who is a member of a specialized department and who instructs about 150 pupils a day—in five classes of perhaps thirty each—in a particular subject. In secondary schools, but generally not in elementary, students have some degree of choice of what to study….

Why the remarkable stability of a “grammar of schooling” in U.S. schools?

Americans believe (and have believed for over a century) that the organization of the age-graded school with its daily schedule, self-contained classrooms, textbooks, homework, and tests is what a “real school” is. Departures from this organizational form such as non-graded schools, open space schools anchored in team teaching, students spending a significant portion of the doing online lessons, or alternatives that substantially alter or depart from this model are often rejected. If the “real school” is not working well, even failing as determined by test scores, then improve it, not dump it. In short, the age-graded school and the “grammar of schooling” that is embodies is sustained by most Americans’ social beliefs in its efficacy. This durable model of schooling is now embedded in the culture of the nation.

And that is a major reason why the “grammar of schooling” persists making it very difficult for progressive-oriented reforms aimed at altering teaching practices have had a tough time shifting teacher-centered to student-centered instruction.*

But mattresses continue to be on sale every day and the word “progressive”spills forth at conferences convened to push school reforms.


*Note, however, that the explanation I offer holds not only for the U.S. but also for international efforts to shift traditional teaching practices to progressive ones. Part 3 elaborates on what has occurred globally in reforming the “grammar of schooling.”






Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

10 responses to “The Arc of Progressivism (Part 2)

  1. bowneps

    This interests me, because as someone not involved with K-12 schooling, ‘progressive’ has a primarily political meaning for me. Could that be a factor limiting its ability to influence public schools?

    • larrycuban

      “Progressivism” was a political and social movement in early 20th century that included education. Since then, “educational progressives” with a distinct student-centered perspective lived through the PEA (died in 1955) and latter-day organizations. Thanks for comment.

  2. Excellent.

    To what extent is “typical teacher experience with small moves towards progressivism” a driver of this continued grammar of schooling?

    From Boston to Nairobi, I often see:

    a. Teacher tries a single “more progressive” lesson (or perhaps a project over several days)
    b. Kids get confused, frustrated (not used to the autonomy or the rigor)
    c. Teacher sees low ROI (particularly since usually it takes more teacher effort)
    d. Tomorrow or next week, teacher reverts to the old way

    This pattern seems to both block any gradual move towards progressive. Also perhaps creates scar tissue, resistance to future such efforts.

    • larrycuban

      I find it hard to make a generalization in response to your observation, Mike. Top-down mandates or urgings for teachers to embrace “progressive” classroom practices need to be accompanied by sustained professional development with teachers. Without such support and capacity building, the incrementalism that you observe is less of a driver and more of partial, isolated response. Thanks for comment.

  3. I think another reason the age-graded, traditional school model continues is because it is an pragmatic way to manage staff, students and resources. If we had good empirical evidence that strategies from the progressive playbook were more successful overall than quality whole class explicit instruction then it would be worth pursuing. However, I feel a case can be made that the student centered model has undermined student achievement.

    • larrycuban

      I agree with you, Derek, that the age-graded school has proved to be a most efficient way of moving millions of students through public schools for over a century and a half. While there are scatteredstudies on “progressive” ways of teaching and learning that do show academic achievement–usually test scores– and college performance to be at least equal to “traditional” ways (I am thinking of the Eight Year Study in the late-1930s and the Follow Through Project in the late-1960s), the evidence is underwhelming. That “progressive” classroom practices has “undermined student achievement, well, I know of no such studies. Thanks for comment.

  4. Pingback: Arc of Progressivism and “Grammar of Schooling” (Part 3) by Larry Cuban | International Education News

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

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