Education Opinion

Drawing distinctions & keeping biases in mind

By Deborah Meier — April 27, 2007 5 min read

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!


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.