Progressive Education Means Business

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Embattled schools in Newark, N.J., are bringing an old concept back to life.

Quitman Street School sits on high ground in Newark, N.J., a city where the renaissance that surrounds its Penn Station—modern hotels linked by a 20-minute train ride to midtown Manhattan—has yet to reach public schools. The students in this school are mainly African-American or Hispanic. Their families are classed as economically disadvantaged. But in the classrooms of this elementary school, education is taking place in ways that business and political leaders would embrace immediately, if only they could see it.

My escort leads me down the hall to a classroom for 5- and 6-year-old students. Outside, next to the door, 30 book reports are taped on the wall, surrounded with bright red paper. It is a celebration of the work of these students. The reports are only three or four sentences long. All express complete thoughts. Few middle school students write as well.

Inside, happy chatter reigns. The teacher sits, hunched over, on a little person's chair, her head nearly touching that of her student. They are concentrating on a book report. Seven other students are grouped around each of three tables. Some are talking, others are writing, and a few are reading. It's clear that they are having fun, but there is no inane foolishness. Even though the teacher is working with one student and has her back to the others, the classroom is obviously under control.

The room is divided into areas. Now working in their groups at tables with chairs, in a few minutes the children will move to a carpeted rectangle, bounded by chalkboard, shelves of books, and stacks of boxes, each labeled with the name of one of the students. Next to this area—a place obviously used for language arts—is a cubicle with cartons of blocks for teaching mathematical concepts. Underneath the window in another space, a terrarium with mosses and sticks and a dish of fresh water hosts a frog used in the exploration of science. Further to the right is the area where children make believe that they are adults, playing the roles of fireman, teacher, policeman, parent, and others in structured and unstructured play.

Each different area carries with it expectations for the students' behavior. You can see that they know what is expected when they move from their tables to the rug beneath the "word wall," where the day's vocabulary words are written and defined. They sit with jostling and shuffling, to be sure. The teacher holds up her hand and asks, "What do we need to do?"

"Listen," some of the children respond; others join in. "OK," says the teacher. "Can anyone tell me an action word, a word for something you do?" A hand rises. "Yes, Sharleen?" "Run?" offers a girl with ribboned braids. "Yes!" the teacher beams. Hands pop up. "Fly." "Skip." "Swim." "Play."

"Can anyone tell me the name for all action words?" the teacher asks. "Anyone?" A timid hand. "Verb?" "Yes! Luanne. That's right!" the teacher beams. She points to a sentence on the chalk board. "Would you read that for us?" Luanne stands and reads: "A verb is an action word."

Progressive education in action: the students had learned how to work independently and to learn from each other.

This is progressive education in action, and though I know the concepts, I am impressed with this teacher and her students.

In this, their second year in what is known as the New Beginnings project, the students I saw had learned how to work independently and to learn from each other. Their teacher seldom made a direct statement. Instead, she asked students questions that elicited the appropriate response. She never told students that they were "wrong," but instead found ways to say "yes" and then ask questions that led the student to the correct answer.

Other things were happening in her classroom as well. Students respected one another; their diversity was not at issue. They respected their spaces, too. When they finished one part of the lesson, they put away their materials and moved on to the new area. The teacher knew each one of them, and they knew she cared for them. You could see it in their eyes and the way they blossomed when they said something that made her smile.

New Beginnings is a collaborative project between the Newark public schools and the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. It was established in 1996 as an element in the restructuring of Newark's school system, which because of its inability to meet standards had been taken over by the state of New Jersey in 1995. The focus of the project is to build on the district's internal capacity, to support and sustain enhancements in curriculum and professional development.

The project began in 16 kindergartens in 16 different schools. Now, more than 150 classrooms, from prekindergarten through 3rd grade in 10 schools, benefit from the project. The focus of the project has evolved from one targeted at improvement in individual classrooms to more systemic, schoolwide reform.

Students in New Beginnings classrooms ask twice as many questions of teachers as students in traditional classrooms.

Evaluators of the program have seen many changes. Classrooms reflect a richness in materials beyond that which is traditionally encountered. Small- group, rather than whole-group, instruction is increasingly the norm. Activity- based learning centers are supplanting passive direct instruction.

Students in New Beginnings classrooms ask twice as many questions of teachers as students in traditional classrooms. Their questions and comments are much more likely to be about what they are learning, rather than tattling on peers or asking permission to use classroom materials. Students in these classrooms tend to be self-sufficient and to take great responsibility for the day-to-day learning in the classroom.

Overall, about 2,300 students participate in the project. They demonstrate results that are not unlike those found in Bank Street's collaboration with the Pittsburgh public schools (Vision 21, from 1994 through 1996). Students in both exhibit higher degrees of language and literacy skills. They are more self-confident. Their parents report being impressed with the children's knowledge and questions. They know their children are learning, and, increasingly, have become more involved in the children's education.

In the 2nd grade, Newark students take a battery of tests: the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition. Students who have participated in the project since enrolling in prekindergarten have shown significant gains in reading and mathematics. Mean reading scores for three-year participants were more than 25 percent higher than for similar students not enrolled (55.8 percent vs. 44.0 percent). The numbers for math tell a comparable story: Participating students scored 59.2 percent; other students, 46.8 percent. Students in the program consistently outpaced their peers in word-study skills, reading vocabulary, and reading comprehension and, in math, excelled in problem-solving and math procedures.

There is no doubt in my mind that if the New Beginnings model were projected throughout the total pre-K through 12th grade public school experience, these students could achieve at a rate equal to any students anywhere. Their progress thus far is all the more amazing because it costs no more to operate classrooms using this process than it does using more traditional passive, direct-instruction models.

These are tangible results of progressive education, championed by Bank Street College since its founding in 1916. Progressive education has two key components. Proponents believe that the values of democracy, self-reliance, and responsibility can best be advanced by encouraging students and their teachers to demonstrate them in the classroom. And they believe that education should be child- centered, that strategies to enhance learning should be developed, implemented, and evaluated for each child in a class, as opposed to the entire class overall.

Education reform leaders have long understood that learning is continuous, that individuals learn best in small groups, and that students learn best when actively engaged.

Progressive education flourished from the early 1900s into the 1930s, faded in the 1940s, and blossomed again briefly in the 1950s, until it was submerged by the rage for standardization. Yet leaders of educational reform since the days of John Dewey have understood that learning is continuous, that individuals learn best in small groups, and that learners best acquire knowledge and understanding, when they are actively, rather than passively, engaged.

Today, few educators argue with the physiology, psychology, and sociology that underlie progressive education. That individuals mature physically and mentally at different rates is accepted. And even politicians, in their calls for smaller classes, show that they recognize what progressive educators have always known: that small-group teaching maximizes learning.

But educators, in their quest to create a shorthand that describes the process, have chosen phrases like "learning from children," "child-centered," or "children leading the curriculum" and thus have hampered adoption of progressive education. Such language generates perceptions of a lack of focus on politically important outcomes and too little control by adults. Nothing is further from the truth.

In schools that employ progressive education, teachers, administrators, school boards, parents, and other members of the larger community come together to determine the desired learning outcomes. Often, as in Newark, these outcomes strongly support the state's core- curriculum content standards.

If the business leaders who drive the push for stardards understood how progressive education prepares students to excel in the workplace, they would embrace it.

Another set of outcomes, however, relates to the development of social skills. Students learn to work in teams as well as independently. They learn to listen and to care. They learn to lead and to take initiative. They take responsibility: Everybody has a job in a progressive classroom, and jobs are rotated. When they come into their classrooms, they read the message boards, and often meet to discuss the activities for the day.

Around the rooms are signs that remind them of their learning goals. And the parallels with mission and vision statements posted in workplaces are obvious. Many of the strategies used in progressive education classrooms are the same as those employed in business to heighten productivity and customer service.

If the leaders in business and industry who drive the political push for uniform standards understood how this customer-based, learning-focused process functions, and how it prepares individuals to excel in the workplace, they would embrace it.

Progressive education is education for the future. No other combination of philosophy and pedagogy better prepares students for their various futures as members of communities, families, and the workforce. And no other educational process offers more to ready our nation for its future.

Daniel L. Black is a managing director of the Bank of New York and a member of the board of trustees of Bank Street College of Education in New York City. He spent many years as a resident of Newark, N.J., and surrounding communities.

Vol. 20, Issue 13, Pages 36, 39

Published in Print: November 29, 2000, as Progressive Education Means Business
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