Opinion
Education Opinion

Drawing distinctions & keeping biases in mind

By Deborah Meier — April 27, 2007 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Diane,

I’m reminded that for 50 years the USSR claimed to be a democracy (and its rulers socialists), and so did England (for some of that time), Sweden, and … Dewey. In other words, studying the common roots of progressivism historically is valuable, yet it leads us only so far—it risks lumping together disparate meanings and movements. That does not negate the value of books (like yours) that try to track their common and uncommon histories. It’s well to remember that Progressive was a word used by Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, the inventors of standardized testing, populists, both the leaders of industry and early labor union leaders—including some virulent racists, xenophobics, etc. But it’s also critical to make distinctions in talking about this disparate group.

By this same measure, of course, all of western civilization—including the history of the term democracy—has to be read keeping in mind the racial and class biases embedded in their usage.

Even the progressive schools that most closely allied with Dewey’s ideas in education had very different interpretations of how best to implement them. Partly because they were fascinated by different concerns, partly because their kids and families and communities were different, the worlds around them differed, and the knowledge base about human learning didn’t stay the same. And yes! Virtually all of the schools of the pre-WWII era—including both progressive and traditional—were infected with racism and class’ism in ways that seem shocking to us today, as well as what I guess I might call, “smart’ism.” Many of those private schools weren’t then nor now open to all kids, not even all rich white kids, but only to rich white so-called academically smart ones.

I shall reread “Left Back”. I think I got so mad at some points that I began to skim it. Did you do the same with mine? But I read, as you know, with some praise and criticism, other works of yours. It’s worth also re-reading the work of those who tried to introduce progressive (in my sense) ideas into settings for poor and working-class kids—Maria Montessori, the work of Leonard Covello in East Harlem, the accounts of early freedom schools in the south, a wonderful book called “The Boys of Barbiano”.

Re Charters and Bobbitt—I was only responding to the quote you included. Their claim that if we require the young to study “academics” for 12 years we need to defend its utility seems reasonable. To be “useful” does not need to mean that it can immediately be put to use to get rich, powerful, or famous.

It is no more obvious (or realistic) to assume that all kids must be masters (proficient) at history than masters of the piano (after 8 years of study I failed to come close to mastery in the latter). I’m inclined (some days) to think playing an instrument, even at a merely beginner’s level, should be expected of any educated person! Or the visual arts? Or carpentry? Choices must be made. Should it be the same choice for all—regardless of interests, talents, etc?

We probably disagree whether shoemaking—if not exclusively taught to poor and black children—might be as intellectually enlightening (see the Sizer chapter on a high school shop class) as the vast majority of academic courses. When I watch my landscape gardener introduce her interns to the field of gardening I am listening to someone with an acute appreciation of “the habits of mind” I described last Monday. I’m less concerned about exposure to a “common core” than exposure to good intellectual habits rigorously applied to all worthwhile tasks or studies.

Re Summerhill?? I intended to distinguish progressive ed from Summerhill—as far from what Dewey meant as scripted learning is—in opposite directions. My colleague Ted Chittenden, formerly at ETS, maps it out into four quadrants. The two axes represent student initiative and adult initiative. He puts traditional education in the quadrant where adults take initiative and kids don’t, Summerhill where kids do and adults don’t, scripted lessons in the quadrant where neither kids nor teachers do, and progressive education where both do.

It’s intriguing to consider that my progressive forebears were probably closer to your views on testing than mine. My disagreement is far from, as you call it, “out of hand”. I held standardized tests in high regard until I tried them out on the real kids I worked with (including my own kids)—about which I wrote at length in both Dissent (1981) and “In Schools We Trust”. My subsequent research in the field amazed me; and like many of the most distinguished testing experts alive today, I concluded that they do not measure what they are purported to measure and contain inevitable bias. If they were simply used as another piece of interesting evidence, and not prepped for, they could add to our knowledge (especially for large populations versus individuals). But for the past 35 years we’ve been misusing them to the point at which they literally mislead us.

I’d argue that no exams—even our wonderful Portfolios at CPESS (or NYU PhD exams)—are ever more than a clue, sound but inconclusive evidence. Even the driver’s road test is just a small sample of the full range of what it means to be a decent driver. This may be part of a larger personal/philosophical disagreement, Diane than a debatable one. You suggest that “it is because we disagree about progressivism—even in its most exalted form—that we disagree about other particulars”. Maybe it’s the other way around! It’s teasing these out that makes our dialogue interesting to me.

On another front, it’s thought-provoking to notice what kind of schooling issues seem to require zero “scientific proof”. Clearly NCLB is an example of an untested experiment being carried out on all of America’s public school children. And Klein’s various reorganization schemes are another grand untested experiment. The NY Times reported this week that both the Gates and Broad Foundations are pumping $60 million into politicking for their untested theories: national policy dictating longer school days, a national curriculum and teachers paid on the basis of their students’ test performance.

It would be fun if more of our readers would weigh in on these issues! There’s a space somewhere for comments: readers, use it!

Deborah

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP