Education Opinion

Progressivism’s Hidden Failure

By Louisa C. Spencer — February 28, 2001 9 min read
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For the past four years, I have been a volunteer tutor in grades 1-4 of a K-5 public elementary school in New York City’s Community School District 2. As in countless other urban schools nationwide, more than 70 percent of this school’s children receive free lunches, more than 50 percent are Hispanic, and 30 percent are African-American.

The progressive educational practices embraced by District 2 are not suited to the elementary education of underprivileged children.

District 2, located in Manhattan, is nationally celebrated for its dramatic improvement in reading and math scores since 1987. My school is one of the district’s greatest successes. Among the worst schools in New York City until the mid-'90s, it rose by last year to 170th out of 677 city elementary schools on the state 4th grade reading test.

Yet even at this ranking, 45 percent of the school’s students did not meet the minimum state standard; what is more, only 10 percent exceeded it. Four District 2 schools with poorer demographics did much worse, ranking 300th, 340th, 402nd, and 512th in the city.

In other words, most of District 2' s deprived children cannot read fluently enough to face comfortably the rest of their schooling. Instead, all too many approach middle and high school susceptible to frustration, boredom, and passivity, crippling to their futures.

Why this failure? It is not lack of care and effort. The trouble is the districtwide use of “progressive” educational practices, well-known, according to a consensus of rigorous experimental research, to be destructive to the elementary education of underprivileged children.

Startlingly, it would appear that the revered progressive educator Howard Gardner agrees: “Progressive education works best,” he writes, “with children who come from richly endowed homes. ... It is optimistic ... to expect success with children who come from impoverished backgrounds, who lack the knowledge ... to explore an environment and learn from their own activities. ... A large and possibly growing number of students need the kind of help, support, modeling, and/or scaffolding that has often been seen as antithetical to the unstructured atmosphere of progressive education.”

And on content, referring to E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s Core Knowledge curriculum, Mr. Gardner declares that “for those disadvantaged children who do not acquire literacy in the dominant culture at home, such a prescribed curriculum helps to provide a level playing field and to ensure that future citizens enjoy a common knowledge base.” On these topics, mainstream experimental research consistently supports Mr. Gardner’s judgment.

But District 2 does not agree. Deeply committed to progressive methods, district leadership requires them in all schools, including schools like mine. I see them in action daily.

Classrooms are attractive and colorful. Desks are in clusters of five or six, the children facing inward toward one another. This design serves both the grouping of children by reading level and the progressive method called “cooperative learning.” Group work takes up much of the morning, a teacher visiting each group, guiding joint reading, while the rest of the children guide each other or read to themselves. All classrooms have a cleared area covered with a rug, and the children sit on it for whole-class activities.

This all sounds benign, but the results are not.

During group work, many unsupervised children daydream or fool around. If a teacher must say something to the whole class, half the children must crane their necks to see her. When the whole class is on the rug, an easel supports a large book or art pad to write on. The teacher stands or sits beside it, rather uncomfortably, and children close to her on the floor must often strain to see her face or what’s on the easel. Sitting in the lotus-like “best learning position” is not easy, especially juggling workbooks or notebooks. Resulting handwriting is horrendous. When chairs are available around the perimeter of the rug, children compete to sit in them.

Yet the rug is compulsory. Its main role is to convey an informal, campfire-like image of schooling, rather than a presumed oppressive rigidity. A rug in each classroom is a hallmark of progressive education.

A progressive classroom also requires that an entire class of small children must often move around all at once, from desks to rug or vice versa, carrying book or papers. Without a countervailing authority figure, overseeing them from a fixed point visible to all, the result too often is a rising tide of noise and disorder.

The upshot is the most fearful waste of precious time in the school day. Perhaps middle-class children can benefit from the leisurely use of time required by progressive methods. But the children I tutor cannot afford this luxury. A major cause of the notorious socioethnic achievement gap stands revealed before our eyes.

District 2’s very success masks this situation. Starting in 1987, extremely effective top-down districtwide administrative reforms replaced comparative chaos. Strong leadership replaced weak principals with strong ones, who fired poor teachers and hired better ones. Communication, coordination, and oversight at all levels, supplemented by ample, required professional development, galvanized staff energies and morale, inevitably improving performance in all schools.

But the educational policies adopted were something else again, and have tragically limited the progress of District 2’s poor children during this same period, compared to what it could have been.

A self-commissioned study of District 2 unintentionally bears out these statements.

Perhaps middle-class children can benefit from the leisurely use of time required by progressive methods. But the children I tutor cannot afford this luxury.

The High Performance Learning Communities, or HPLC, project, a five-year Harvard University-University of Pittsburgh study still in progress, has two purposes: first, to analyze the success of District 2 since 1987, and, second, to “assist ... District 2 as it moves to the next stage of its improvement strategy.”

The reports already available totally satisfy the first purpose. District 2’s administrative triumph is ably described and provides a blueprint that many a school district should emulate.

But the HPLC’s second assignment is wholly unfulfilled. Educational policy and how it might be improved is shockingly neglected.

For example, on the crucial subject of teaching reading, the reports tell how the district’s centerpiece Balanced Literacy program was based at its outset solely on writings associated with progressively oriented whole-language reading methodology. Unmentioned is any experimental reading research then available, by such eminent investigators as Jeanne Chall, Keith Stanovich, and others, supporting early explicit phonics instruction as important to all children, but essential to the deprived.

Nor is any intention shown to consider such research now. This is especially hard to justify, for much more is available than in 1987, and the latest is difficult to ignore. The 1997 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development report on its 30-year, $200 million study and the April 2000 National Reading Panel report are examples.

The American Federation of Teachers’ 1999 report, “Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science: What Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able To Do,” also ignored, summarizes much that is missing: “The first step is to apply the consistent findings of hundreds of research studies ... [finding] that all children must master ... phonemic awareness ... [and] phonics ... [because while] 50 percent to 60 percent of students are able to master the first two subskills with relative ease—though systematic, explicit instruction can make them even better readers—the remaining 40 to 50 percent—especially those without a language-rich home environment ... may experience very real problems ... likely to place them at a permanent educational disadvantage.” (The emphasis added is mine.)

District 2’s Balanced Reading program reflects no such comprehensive scholarship or the methodical, sequenced procedures experimental science recommends. The children I tutor recognizably suffer.

As to curriculum, District 2 equally ignores the research. Making no distinction between deprived and middle- class students, one HPLC report states that District 2’s Balanced Literacy program does not specify content-to-be-learned because its “outline, structure, or boundaries” cannot be defined, nor “correct” choices made. Instead, “teachers need to make their own choices about which topics to cover and when.”

Such lack of defined substance is well-known to harm poor children. Studies show that vocabulary best reflects a child’s level of knowledge, and that when children start school, the biggest academic gap between socioethnic groups is in vocabulary. Knowledge growth feeds vocabulary growth, in turn, raising reading comprehension and more knowledge growth, and so on, and on. In countries that teach substantive, sequenced curricula, the vocabulary/knowledge gap narrows by the end of schooling. But in the United States, it actually grows. As Howard Gardner says, the only way to level the playing field is to provide to poor children, as efficiently as possible, a strong knowledge-based curriculum in elementary school.

District 2’s Balanced Reading program reflects neither comprehensive scholarship nor the methodical, sequenced procedures experimental science recommends.

For all these reasons, many distinguished figures concerned about the education of poor children totally dissent from the curricular policies followed by District 2.

Sandra Feldman, the successor to Albert Shanker as president of the American Federation of Teachers, serves as he did on the board of the Core Knowledge Foundation, provider of the Core Knowledge curriculum, now in successful use in schools nationwide of all socioeconomic levels. Harvard University’s distinguished professor of African-American studies, Henry Louis Gates, helped formulate the Core Knowledge curriculum, and his Harvard colleague Orlando Patterson endorses E. D. Hirsch’s thinking. Like Mr. Gates and Mr. Patterson, other minority leaders, intent upon closing the socioethnic education gap, support substantive, prescribed curricula and efficient teaching methods.

The African-American educator Lisa Delpit makes her reasons bitterly clear. While urging preservation of African-American culture, she insists that black children must also learn the majority language and culture of power. As a teacher, she painfully discovered that progressive methods don’t accomplish this. Middle-class parents daily provide their children with information on those subjects, she writes, and “the kids go into a ‘language rich’ environment and appear to achieve without any kind of explicit instruction.” Knowing their children’s deprivations, many black teachers and parents see the message of white progressive teachers that teaching facts and skills inhibits understanding and creativity as “just another racist ploy to keep African-Americans down.”

District 2’s hidden failure is all too widely replicated nationwide. Deeply indoctrinated administrators, teachers, and their like-minded academic allies are so committed to progressivism that they will not even explore, outside that box, how schools could do better by deprived children. What an irony that “progressives,” once seen as liberating, democratizing influences in education, have become the “establishment,” stubbornly dogmatic and self-protective, at the expense of our neediest children.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Progressivism’s Hidden Failure


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