Education Opinion

The Tyranny and Folly of Ideological Progressivism

By Stanley Pogrow — November 12, 1997 10 min read
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Ideological-progressive forms of education have historically never worked with educationally disadvantaged students.

Progressive ideals in education resurface every 20 to 30 years, capture the policy spotlight for a time, then fade. This periodic re-emergence is usually caused by dissatisfaction with the results produced by purely traditional approaches, particularly as they relate to educationally disadvantaged students. As a progressive educator who has devoted himself to developing more complex forms of learning in educationally disadvantaged students, I should be feeling great that we have been in a progressive period for the past 10 years. To the contrary! In recent times, the periodic emergence of progressive ideals has taken the form of a movement that is well intentioned, but in my view tyrannical and misguided. I call this movement “ideological progressivism.”

Ideological progressivism is the belief that providing teachers and students with greater autonomy and encouragement will spontaneously and inevitably lead to higher and more sophisticated levels of performance and is sufficient to significantly improve education. Recent examples of this movement were the push for exclusive reliance on a whole-language approach to teaching reading and for school restructuring. The purist version of the whole-language movement was that eliminating systematic drills and exposing students to “authentic” literature (whatever that is) and encouraging them to read would spontaneously increase their reading ability. Students would learn to read much as they learned to talk--in a very natural fashion. The “discovery learning” movement of the 1960s was another example.

Unfortunately, ideological-progressive forms of education have historically never worked with educationally disadvantaged students, and they are not working now. Nor can ideological progressivism work with any consistency on a large scale. It provides no mechanisms for increasing learning other than collaboration and democratic participation. In addition, ideological progressives consistently underestimate the importance of incentives and systematization for increasing learning on a large scale, and overestimate people’s ability and desire to handle ambiguity.

Ideological progressives always assert that we know “what works” and that they are putting in place reforms to enable these things to be universally adopted. They generally promote whole-school restructuring--whatever that is. Currently, they are seeking legislation that would limit the use of all Title I funds to schoolwide or whole-school change. So we end up with an amorphous and romantic reform to implement amorphous and romantic ideals. The reality is that given the consistent failure of their initiatives, ideological progressives have shifted their emphasis away from student learning outcomes, which were the genesis of the progressive movement, to politically correct conceptions of how to organize schools, instruction, and teacher training. These process goals become ideological ends in and of themselves, supported by romantic visions of a new professionalism. They create a smoke screen for the movement’s lack of success in enhancing learning by criticizing all the existing evaluation methods. As it becomes obvious to the profession as a whole that the techniques aren’t working, pure progressives blame an absence of leadership.

In the rush to drag everyone on board the process movement, the focus on student learning and the classroom is lost. The real educational issue is not whether teachers are using whole-language techniques, but whether teachers are successfully getting kids excited about using language. There are teachers who are very successful using traditional techniques or a mix of techniques. Yet, the rhetoric of the progressive movement labels anyone who departs from its conception of idealism as obstructionists or out of touch. It is argued that you cannot develop a love of reading using phonics. Really!

The tradition of intolerant rhetoric on the part of ideological progressives was revealed once again by Theodore R. Sizer in his Commentary titled “On Lame Horses and Tortoises.” I am a great admirer of Mr. Sizer’s vision of education. I also admire the fact that he has been working with schools to put his ideas into practice. Unfortunately, to this point, he has failed to increase learning. Indeed, he and his followers have spent far more money with fewer results than any other nongovernment project in history. He seems to feel the need to compensate for his failure to date by casting stones at those of us who are using other approaches--approaches that he is totally ignorant about but which he rejects out of hand because they do not meet his test of “process correctness.”

In the rush to drag everyone on board the process movement, the focus on student learning and the classroom is lost.

Mr. Sizer’s rhetoric creates straw men to criticize the use of systematic curriculum. He chastises teachers who use so-called “fully developed” curricula. I personally have not seen any fully developed curriculum in the past 20 years. Any curriculum worth its salt provides for teacher adaptation. Yet in Mr. Sizer’s critique, teachers who use systematic curricula are labeled as “robot teachers.” He notes: “Force them to teach someone else’s prescribed plan, and you cheapen them.”

This out-of-hand rejection of systematic curricula reflects a widespread bias. Mr. Sizer’s was the second Education Week Commentary with this bias within the past year. Ideological progressives still think of systematic curricula in terms of the primitive, drill-based, teacher-proof curricula of the 1960s that were based on models of how rats behaved in a maze. They seem blind to the fact that the world has moved on. The better curricula of today are based on cognitive psychology and draw inspiration from literature, the arts, the theater, and emerging technology. They combine a high level of creativity with a consistent framework for increasing students’ ability to work with ideas. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough such curricula.

I take particular offense at Mr. Sizer’s remarks because I am the developer of a nationally used program that provides “prescribed plans.” The Higher Order Thinking Skills, or HOTS, program has been used in 3,000 schools with Title I and learning-disabled students in grades 4-8. It is a modern, systematic, and creative learning environment that has consistently produced high levels of progressive learning outcomes on a large scale. Our teachers are performers, not robots. They are trained to interact Socratically with students and to supplement the preset curriculum with their own improvised follow-up questions and ideas. The result is a dynamic and individualized learning environment. Our systemization of Socratic teaching has produced tremendous improvements in teaching. Most importantly, we have generated progressive learning effects consistently on a large scale and have demonstrated that the thinking skills acquired by our students transfer to a wide range of intellectual endeavors.

If Mr. Sizer and his colleagues were truly focused on helping students, rather than on criticizing such efforts, they would be expressing joy at our success. Others have also developed successful modern curricula. Stop portraying us as simpleton control freaks who demean teachers.

What is more relevant, however, is that the tyranny and misrepresentations of ideological progressives have had devastating effects on education. First, these attitudes inhibit the development of new, more powerful interventions. If nothing that is systematic can be expected to work, and if teacher-developed materials are better, why fund the development of new systems? I have never seen a more hostile environment in Washington and the foundation world to the idea of investing in new program development. The federal Title I program for disadvantaged students, for example, spends more than $7 billion a year and yet not a penny of that is spent on program development. What other area of human endeavor would appropriate that much money without investing in new product development?

The absence of a state-of-the-art development effort means that there is a shortage of powerful interventions schools can adopt and that large numbers of educationally disadvantaged students never get access to the types of interventions they need. The vast majority of educationally disadvantaged students have tremendous intellectual potential. Tapping that potential is not an easy process, or one that occurs from simply having good intentions or the right ideals. There are key points in the educational process where specific types of interactions need to be provided in a consistent fashion and sustained for an extended number of years for part of the school day. Some of those interactions are basic in nature, and others are more sophisticated and progressive. Systematic curricula are needed to help teachers maintain the necessary focus over time.

We all have to stop pretending that we have the answer and start learning from each other.

Unfortunately, current conceptions of leadership that stress school autonomy, and progressive rhetoric that makes teachers feel like second-class citizens whenever they are not creating their own interventions, make it almost impossible to implement and sustain the systematic experiences needed for a sufficient period of time. The consequences are that the ideological-progressive movement fails to enhance learning and that better interventions are not developed.

The absence of a flow of more-powerful interventions also inhibits the development of new knowledge. Most scientific advances come from the availability of better tools to measure and produce phenomena. I have been able to see aspects of student learning that other researchers have not, for example, because of my use of the HOTS program. Researchers will never find important systematic effects without the use of more powerful interventions or engaging in large-scale research. In the absence of more powerful programs, the research community is highly biased in favor of progressive ideals and makes increasingly sophisticated arguments about how systematic learning effects do not exist--which then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So we are left with ideological progressives talking only about professional development as an individualistic process with teachers and students spontaneously making the right decisions, while the competition, ideological conservatives, talk only about drill, vouchers, and school prayer. There is no basis for a dialogue. While the two ideologies compete for their moment in the limelight, education practice vacillates between periods where drill rules and periods where total fuzziness rules. The extremes on both ends of the spectrum suck up the available funding and use government policy and foundation support to control the public agenda and debate. As a result, education stagnates.

Those of us who are trying to strike a balance and develop more advanced types of systems that generate progressive learning outcomes are left out in the cold. We do not meet the tests of political correctness--from either side.

Progressive education has been hurt by the fact that those controlling the agenda place a premium on ideology and care more about process than outcome. Unfortunately, if my research is correct and history is a guide, the more ideologically progressive you are, the less likely it is that you will be able to produce progressive learning outcomes with educationally disadvantaged students. The recent failure of ideological progressives to produce learning is now leading once again to a resurgence of overreliance on drill and simplistic approaches.

We all have to stop pretending that we have the answer and start learning from each other. As someone who sees the use of systematic, validated curriculum as critical, I also recognize the need for the types of teacher-inspired and improvised forms of instruction Mr. Sizer advocates. Why can’t we have both, with each coexisting for part of the school day? As someone focused on producing progressive outcomes, I also respect the need for drill and direct-content instructional approaches at key developmental points. Rather than promoting a single ideological view, we need research that looks for synergies from combining the best of the different perspectives, and funding to produce and disseminate even better validated models and programs.

It is now clearly possible to create interventions that simultaneously enhance basic skills and progressive learning outcomes--and that allow for teacher creativity. Let’s put our personal ideologies and hangups aside and move forward together to help kids.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 1997 edition of Education Week as The Tyranny and Folly of Ideological Progressivism


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