Tugging at Tradition

By Lynn Olson — April 21, 1999 29 min read

The students’ baggy jeans and Doc Martens shoes are distinctly late-20th-century. And no one would mistake the well-worn sofas and movable tables in these classrooms for the nailed-down desks of an earlier era. But much of the philosophy behind the 300-student Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School would be sweetly familiar to its namesake.

Often referred to as the “father of progressive education,” Parker first came to prominence in 1873 as the superintendent of the Quincy, Mass., school system not far from here. At a time when public schools were dominated by recitation, memorization, and drill, Parker advocated placing the child at the center of education and building schools around their students’ motivation and interests. Under the Quincy System, as it came to be called, textbooks gave way to magazines, newspapers, and materials developed by teachers. Students learned geography by exploring the local countryside. And they studied an integrated curriculum that stressed learning by doing and expression through the arts.

The modern-day Parker School similarly aspires “to move the child to the center of the education process,” according to its mission statement. The students, age 12 and older, progress at their own pace, following personal learning plans that are jointly crafted by the students, their parents, and their teachers. Movement from one “division” to the next is based on demonstrated performance, primarily through “exhibitions” and long-term projects.

Small classes and an advisory system enable teachers here to know their students well. And the teachers design--and revise--the curriculum to reflect students’ interests and needs and to promote engagement.

“It’s kind of radical, in a sense, because it’s so different,” says Kaitlin LeMoine, a 15-year-old student, “but it’s really nice to be here. You kind of run on your own motivation.”

Her ingenuous comment nicely captures a century-old debate in American education between two schools of thought, often referred to as “progressive” vs. “traditional.” This “Great Debate,” as some have called it, has waxed and waned with bitter intensity throughout the 20th century. And it is no less heated or closer to resolution today than it was in the beginning.

At its simplest level, one could say it’s a debate between education broadly and narrowly conceived, between the primacy of the child and the primacy of subject matter, between spontaneous and formal approaches to schooling, and between education designed to transform the nation’s cultural heritage and one designed to preserve it.

Progressive education, for example, has often been associated with more active learning, cooperative planning by teachers and students, a greater recognition of individual differences, attempts to relate learning to “real life,” and efforts to broaden the school’s mission to address health, vocational, social, and community issues.

But to summarize the debate in such pat phrases is a gross oversimplification. Historically, educational progressives, as well as their conservative counterparts, have come in all shapes and sizes. And what has been viewed as “progressive” in one era has become hopelessly retrogressive in the next.

In practice, notes Larry Cuban, an education historian at Stanford University, good schools can be found on both sides of the pedagogical and philosophical divide. And most teachers employ a hybrid of instructional practices that he has dubbed “conservative progressivism.”

To Cuban and others, the debate over progressive and traditional ways of teaching is really front language for much deeper questions about why we have schools and what we believe about children and the nature of child rearing. Such questions, rooted in the nation’s changing political and social context, have been raised in this country since its inception. Our answers to them help define who we are as a nation, which explains, at least in part, the moral fervor of the argument.

“Formal education is the playing field on which society vies over values,” says Theodore R. Sizer, the writer and education reformer who is a co-principal of the Parker School and a leading proponent of modern-day progressivist thought. “And it’s deeply charged because those of us who have children care deeply.”

The debate is a fundamental one that “arises from different views of human nature,” he argues. “To put it in sort of classical, early-19th-century terms, some people believe that children are born with original sin, and you have to beat it out of them, literally or figuratively. Others think that children are Rousseauean little flowers that are going to bloom each in its own way. And, boy, those are two quite different views.”

Roots of Progressivism

As the late Lawrence A. Cremin observed in his 1961 history The Transformation of the School, progressivism in education sprang from a much larger social and political movement in the first two decades of the 20th century.

It was an era of unprecedented industrial and urban growth. In 35 years, from the Civil War’s end to the turn of the century, America remade itself from a nation of farms and small towns into an urban, industrial empire. Wealth became concentrated among a handful of corporate giants, such as the financier John Pierpont Morgan, the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, the steel king Andrew Carnegie, and the railroad baron Jay Gould. And much of that wealth was built on the backs of laborers, many of them immigrants, who were daily swarming into the cities.

The most famous voice to come out of the progressive movement in education was the philosopher and educator John Dewey, whose voluminous writings spanned more than half a century. (“Dewey: The Progressive Era’s Misunderstood Giant.”)

Dewey arrived at the University of Chicago in 1894 at the height of a great railroad strike, which ended when President Grover Cleveland dispatched federal troops to Chicago on the grounds that the strikers had interfered with the mails and interstate commerce.

By 1900, Chicago’s population had grown to nearly 1.7 million from half a million in 1880--the vast majority of that growth fueled by immigrants and their children.

How to reconcile this massive industrialization with the welfare and freedom of individuals became a topic of pressing concern. Muckraking journalists exposed corruption in education and municipal government and the plight of the urban poor. Settlement workers such as Jane Addams agitated for better working conditions, improved city services, and an expanded social mission for the schools.

Progressive politicians such as Gov. Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin sought to curb the excesses of modern capitalism by regulating industry and commerce, emphasizing concern for human over corporate welfare, and placing the scientific expertise of the university at the service of government.

It was in this heady, fractious period that reformers turned to the schools. As Cremin noted: “Proponents of virtually every progressive cause from the 1890s through World War I had their program for the school. Humanitarians of every stripe saw education at the heart of their effort toward social alleviation.”

From the outset, the movement was marked by a “pluralistic, frequently contradictory character,” Cremin wrote. “Throughout its history, progressive education meant different things to different people, and these differences were only compounded by the remarkable diversity of American education.”

Multiple Strands

Historians have identified at least three strands of progressive education that grew from a common root and that were often intertwined.

The “pedagogical progressives” included Parker, who moved from Massachusetts to Chicago in 1883--first to run the Cook County Normal School and later to head his own, independent school. They favored more informal, student-centered classrooms, more active, interdisciplinary learning, and schools of a more humane character.

Parker and many of his contemporaries had gone on pilgrimages to Europe. There, they were influenced by European Romanticism and by the ideas of such scholars as Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of the kindergarten, and Johann Pestalozzi, who advocated bringing education into harmony with the natural development of the child. These “child-centered progressives,” as they were later called, wanted schools to fit the interests and inclinations of children, not vice versa.

Leading advocates of child-centered pedagogy in the United States included G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and the author of Adolescence, a groundbreaking 1904 treatise. He promoted an image of children as creative beings to be nurtured, rather than disciplined, shaped, and controlled. Particularly in the early elementary grades, children should be encouraged to draw, paint, and sing; to engage in social activities; and to learn through experience.

In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick, a self-described “interpreter” of Dewey, wrote an influential, 18-page article titled “The Project Method.” In it, Kilpatrick, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, urged schools to abandon their traditional passivity for projects that would have a more lasting influence on children by engaging them with “wholehearted purpose.” Such projects could range from producing a newspaper, to organizing a play, to solving a geometry problem. The Teachers College Record eventually would distribute some 60,000 reprints of the monograph.

Like Dewey, Kilpatrick believed that learning took place only when students had internalized what they had gained through experience and practiced it in their own lives. He argued that the “fundamental error” of school systems was that “they began with fixed and set subject matter, when they should have begun with the student’s present interests, purposes, abilities, and needs.”

A silver-haired, charismatic speaker, Kilpatrick would teach more than 35,000 students during his 30 years at Teachers College, from 1907 to 1937. Rightly or wrongly, critics would later charge him, rather than Dewey, with stimulating some of the worst excesses of progressive education.

The ‘Reconstructionists’

While the child-centered progressives were concerned primarily with students’ inner development, the “social progressives” envisioned a larger role for schools. They believed schools in an industrial society must assume many of the functions increasingly abandoned by home and community and work to fashion a more egalitarian order.

Social progressivism came to greatest prominence during the Great Depression, when a group known as the “social reconstructionists” urged a more militant role for schools. Led by such Teachers College professors as Dewey, Kilpatrick, George S. Counts, Harold Rugg, John L. Childs, and Bruce Raup, they protested the evils of laissez-faire capitalism and dared the schools to build a new social order.

The group published its own journal, The Social Frontier. But in the late 1930s, it lost many of its members when the more radical faction urged schools to practice social indoctrination and suggested that class warfare was the only road to a better society.

Robert M. Hutchins, the chancellor of the University of Chicago and the founder of the widely used Great Books program, would later argue that the movement failed because the schools couldn’t promote a revolution with which the vast majority of Americans disagreed. “A revolution cannot be brought about through the conscious inculcation of revolutionary doctrine in the schools,” he wrote in The Conflict in Education in a Democratic Society, published in 1953.

The social reconstructionists fell out of favor in the period shortly before and after World War II, as the nation was gripped with anti-Communist fervor. But its legacy can still be seen in the provision of health and other social services through the schools and in attempts to engage schools in community issues.

The ‘Administrative Progressives’

In contrast to the social progressives, the “administrative progressives” were less concerned with ameliorating society than with helping students adjust to it.

Led by such men as Edward L. Thorndike, a professor of education at Teachers College, and Ellwood P. Cubberly, a Stanford education professor, they sought to use new advances in scientific measurement and testing to bring greater efficiency to schools. That, they believed, would in turn enable schools to cope with an influx of poor and immigrant students.

Administrative progressives sought to “equalize” educational opportunity by providing each student with a curriculum best suited to his or her interests and abilities. The goal was to prepare students for their places in society.

Dewey once criticized the administrative progressives as attempting to “perpetuate the present order, with at most an elimination of waste.”

Yet it was the ideas and techniques of the administrative progressives that proved most immediately useful to schools. Such practices as more frequent use of standardized tests, a curriculum differentiated for vocational and college-bound students, and the grouping of students by levels of ability addressed the pressing need to organize education along more rational lines in the face of rapid, often overwhelming growth in enrollment.

One of the most common tools of the administrative progressives was the survey, in which a group of educational experts would study a local school system, point out its faults, and leave behind recommendations for change. During the period from 1910 to 1919, the Stanford historian David B. Tyack points out, at least 67 such surveys of city school systems were published. From 1920 to 1927, there were 114.

Indeed, while experts continue to argue about the ultimate impact of the pedagogical progressives, the influence of the administrative progressives was profound and lasting. Much of it remains in the school bureaucracies of today.

Of the varied branches of progressive education, administrative progressivism “was the one that really took,” says Tyack, “because it got built into structures.” Its ideology, he explains, “was finding the right niche for the right person, and not some broader notion of raising everybody to the same high level.”

Heyday of the Movement

By 1919, when the Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education was formed, the progressive movement was already pushing and pulling in different directions.

School districts like Gary, Ind., were rethinking their use of time and space both to save money and to engage children in a range of academic and nonacademic pursuits. (“A Blueprint for Change.”)

In Denver, Houston, and St. Louis, educators were revising their curricula along progressive lines. Meanwhile, some of the most pedagogically innovative progressives abandoned the public schools entirely to form independent schools. Those schools--such as the Dalton and Lincoln schools in New York City and the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Ala.--served a primarily white, upper-middle-class clientele, and were more concerned with nurturing individual potential than with improving society at large.

By the 1940s, the historian Diane Ravitch argues in The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980, progressive ideas were no longer referred to as new or modern, but simply as “good educational practice.”

Regional accrediting agencies and state evaluators judged schools by progressive criteria, such as whether classes were teacher- or student-dominated and whether students helped plan the curriculum. By 1938, the Association for the Advancement of Progressive Education--renamed the Progressive Education Association--had grown to 10,440 members.

From 1932 to 1940, the organization conducted its famous “Eight-Year Study,” a comparative analysis of students from 30 “progressive” high schools and their counterparts in more traditional institutions. Students from the experimental schools, which actually varied widely in their practices, received waivers to enter colleges or universities since they did not have traditional college-preparatory courses or transcripts. Each youngster was matched with a student of similar ability and background from a more traditional setting. The pairs then were followed through four years of high school and four years of higher education.

The study, under the leadership of Ralph W. Tyler of the University of Chicago, concluded that among the 1,475 matched pairs, graduates of the experimental schools earned slightly higher grade point averages, received slightly more academic honors, seemed to possess a higher degree of intellectual curiosity and drive, and participated more often in organized student groups, among other characteristics. Moreover, the graduates of the most experimental schools showed the greatest differences along those lines.

Today, proponents of progressive education still point to the study as a vindication of their ideas. But many of the schools involved in the initiative soon fell back on more traditional practices once the foundation money that had underwritten the venture dried up. Moreover, the loss of foundation support placed the PEA in a precarious financial position that contributed to the organization’s demise in 1955.

The ‘Life Adjusters’

At the time the Eight-Year Study was under way, what many saw as a much more pernicious version of curriculum reform was sweeping the country under the banner of progressive education.

Its roots could be traced to the 1918 publication of Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education by the National Education Association, which had formed in 1857 as an organization of educational leaders, most of them school administrators. (The organization did not create a separate department for classroom teachers until 1912 and did not actively begin to recruit rank-and-file teachers until after 1916.)

Cardinal Principles was as much a creature of the administrative progressives’ search for social efficiency as it was of new concepts in pedagogic practice. The study argued that schools should take their cues from the needs of society and from adult activities, rather than from the traditional academic disciplines. It urged schools to focus on “fundamental processes” such as worthy home membership, vocation, and use of leisure time. And in keeping with the administrative progressives, it advocated separate curricular tracks for students of different interests and abilities.

In 1944, that utilitarian view of education was reiterated in the NEA’s publication Education for All American Youth, which continued to downplay the role of subject matter.

The low point came in 1945, with the birth of the “life adjustment movement,” a virtual parody of Dewey’s notion of preparing students to address society’s ills. Led by Charles A. Prosser, a veteran vocational educator, it was based on the notion that only 20 percent of students were capable of doing college-preparatory work and 20 percent of doing vocational work. The remaining 60 percent, according to the theory, needed school training of a more practical character to prepare them for the problems of daily life. In 1947, U.S. Commissioner of Education John W. Studebaker appointed a National Commission on Life Adjustment Education for Youth to spread the gospel. The result was a proliferation of nonacademic and often pedestrian high school courses.

The Backlash

The life-adjustment courses of the late 1940s and early 1950s added fuel to the criticism of progressive education that had been building since its inception.

Even Dewey had criticized his colleagues and disciples, though often in such polite and muted tones that they failed to notice. In 1938, in his last book, Experience and Education, Dewey denounced the excesses of child-centered pedagogy for proceeding simply on the basis of “rejection, of sheer opposition” to what had gone before.

“I am sure you will appreciate what is meant when I say that many of the newer schools tend to make little or nothing of organized subject matter of study,” he wrote, “to proceed as if any form of direction and guidance by adults were an invasion of individual freedom, and as if the idea that education should be concerned with the present and future meant that acquaintance with the past has little or no role to play in education.”

But Dewey’s critiques were nothing compared to those mounting from outside, especially during the height of the life-adjustment fad.

Foremost among the attackers were laymen Mortimer Smith and Albert Lynd, two former school board members; the historian Arthur Bestor of the University of Illinois; Chancellor Hutchins of the University of Chicago; and a Navy vice admiral, Hyman G. Rickover. These critics lambasted the schools for denigrating academics and for trying to address society’s ills at the expense of an intellectual focus.

In all too many cases, Smith contended, the child-centered school had become the “child-dominated school,” without goals and aims and which turned out students who lacked a sound moral compass. While “neopedagogues palaver more and more about the ‘real needs’ of youngsters,” chided Lynd, “the pupils are learning less and less.”

Ironically, given the egalitarian foundation of the progressive movement, these critics also attacked the life adjusters for maintaining social stratification. By failing to give youngsters from less advantaged backgrounds access to a common academic curriculum, they charged, schools helped perpetuate the status quo.

“Progressive education became regressive education,” argued Bestor, a graduate of the progressive Lincoln School in New York City, “because instead of advancing, it began to undermine the great traditions of liberal education and substitute for them lesser aims, confused aims, or no aims at all.”

“The West was not settled by men and women who had taken courses in ‘How to be a pioneer,’ ” he wrote in 1953 in Educational Wastelands. “I for one do not believe that the American people have lost all common sense and native wit so that now they have to be taught in school to blow their noses and button their pants.”

Such criticism came amid the Korean War and the anti-Communist sentiment fueled by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. By January 1949, China had fallen to the Communists, and in September 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb.

“In the McCarthy era, there was an indiscriminate charge of communism for anyone who was associated with progressive causes,” says Herbert Kohl, a senior fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York City. “What happened was that the progressives were basically either driven underground or fired or, very often, those who survived were driven out to the suburbs, where progressive ideas fit much more with the creative ideas of parents who wanted their kids to be upwardly mobile.”

By the time the Soviets launched sputnik, the first man-made earth satellite, in the fall of 1957, the progressive movement was in deep trouble. The nation quickly embraced a call for more mathematics, science, and foreign-language instruction and tighter discipline in the schools. Admiral Rickover, in particular, praised the European systems of education and urged Americans to pay more attention to their gifted and talented students.

Even without sputnik, Cremin believed, progressivism would have died of its own weight, battered down by factions, distortions, loss of popular support and understanding, and an inability to change with the times. “The surprising thing about the progressive response to the assault of the ‘50s is not that the movement collapsed,” he wrote, “but that it collapsed so readily.”

Both critics and proponents credit the movement with two lasting effects. On the positive side, schools had become much more humane and informal places by midcentury than they had been in 1900. But the increased expectations that the progressives placed on schools to solve societal problems also made them vulnerable to criticism and charges of failure.

A Temporary Resurgence

The political and social winds in the United States shifted once again in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And a new generation of activists discovered--or, more often than not, reinvented--progressive thought and practices.

In the mid-1960s, a succession of angry young educators wrote best-selling memoirs about their teaching experiences, primarily in highly segregated, inner-city classrooms. James Herndon, John Holt, Herbert Kohl, and Jonathan Kozol railed against the imposition of subject matter without any attempt to relate it to students’ experiences or to the upheavals in society.

They derided the meaningless routines, dehumanizing discipline, and lock step schedules of many schools; denounced unbridled authoritarianism and the schools’ role in perpetuating social inequities; and waxed eloquent over their own attempts at innovation.

Those books and the political and social ferment of the times helped revive educational practices that echoed those of the first quarter of the century, including project-based learning, narrative report cards, individual and small-group instruction, student involvement in choosing activities, a more flexible use of space, and integrated curricula. “Open education,” a relaxed style of elementary schooling that incorporated many of those practices, was popular from the late 1960s to about 1975. (See related story, Page 32.)

Some leaders of this neoprogressive movement, such as Vito Perrone, who was then the dean of the University of North Dakota’s New School of Behavioral Studies in Education, were well-versed in progressive history.

But in general, lamented Cremin and others, the new progressives were “notoriously atheoretical and ahistorical ... with the result that boundless energy has been spent in countless classrooms reinventing the pedagogical wheel.”

Looking back, Kohl, whose book 36 Children chronicled his early teaching experiences in New York City, agrees.

“I did not read John Dewey until after I’d formed most of my educational ideas,” he says. “We had to reinvent progressivism, but without either an historical perspective or knowing that a lot of the materials and things that we felt we were creating for the first time were already there.”

Unlike the earlier progressive movement, this temporary resurgence soon ran up against the back-to-basics movement of the late 1970s and the imposition by many states of minimum-competency tests to ensure that high school graduates had achieved mastery of basic reading, writing, and math skills. The new progressivism had little uniformity in either definition or practice, asserts Cuban, who compares its meteoric rise and fall to a “streak across the sky.”

In Retreat?

Since the 1970s, the political and educational climate in the United States has generally been chilly for progressive thought and practice. Increases in course requirements, a reliance on standardized tests, and the rise of the academic-standards movement have often made it difficult to pursue innovations along the lines of Dewey, Kilpatrick, and others.

But that does not mean that progressive theories and practices have disappeared. Far from it. The voluntary national standards for mathematics, proposed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, reflect many progressivist ideas. They draw heavily on “constructivist” psychology, which holds that students must construct meaning from experience, an idea with clear echoes of Dewey.

In 1984, Sizer formed the Coalition of Essential Schools--a group of high schools dedicated to reforming themselves along largely progressive lines. And in the late 1980s, it appeared that progressive ideas would even influence policy from the bottom up. Through a project known as Re:Learning, Sizer worked with the Education Commission of the States to craft state-level policies that would be supportive of better practice in the schoolhouse.

Hundreds of schools continue their adherence to progressive approaches. And a new generation of schools serving substantial proportions of poor and minority students--such as the Urban Academy, Central Park East, and El Puente in New York City--have revived the idea of marrying progressive pedagogy with issues of social justice.

But today, many progressives like Sizer are operating at the margins of the education system: in charter schools, alternative schools, and schools of choice that have some freedom from the dominant, central-office-driven culture.

“I think, at the moment, we’re deeply ambivalent toward progressive education,” says Patricia Albjerg Graham, the president of the Spencer Foundation, which underwrites educational research.

Debating the Legacy

Today, educators and historians still quarrel about the legacy of the progressive movement. Many of the ideas that teachers now take for granted--movable furniture, working with students in small groups, the provision of social and medical services in schools, and integrated curricula--can be traced directly back to progressive roots.

“I think the best thing that one can attribute to progressive education is usually the methodology,” says Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University who has written books critical of progressive education. “I think the emphasis on projects and activities is almost universal in American schools, and those are progressive innovations.”

But Cuban, the author of How Teachers Taught, a 1993 history of instructional practice, argues that while such changes have been significant, they hardly represent the sweeping reorganization of classrooms and pedagogy that progressives envisioned. Even at the height of the progressive movement, he asserts, most teachers embraced a hybrid form of “teacher-centered progressivism,” in which lectures and “teacher talk” still predominated.

While a core of progressive teaching practices won a foothold in elementary classrooms between the two World Wars, it never reached anywhere near a majority of teachers and had only a minimal influence on the high schools.

“What progressive education showed us was that with gifted teachers and students from families and communities committed to education, you could provide a fabulous education,” Graham says. “What it also showed us is that with less gifted teachers and with children from families and communities that were not supportive of education, it could be terrible.

“At its best, it was very, very good. And at its worst, it was awful.”

A ‘Difficult Affair’

Why has progressive pedagogy’s impact been modest at best?

Historians offer several reasons. First, the structure of the schools, set in stone by the administrative progressives, is resistant to progressive pedagogy. Fifty-minute classes, 180 students a day at the high school level, teacher isolation, and college-admission decisions driven by test scores and course requirements all work against interdisciplinary, hands-on, individualized instruction.

Second, a web of social beliefs about what constitutes “school,” based on teachers’ own experiences, tends to discourage innovations in practice. Nancy Sizer, Theodore Sizer’s wife and the other co-principal of the Parker School, sees that every day. “What makes Parker less than perfectly progressive is just the same old problem,” she says. “Scratch a well-meaning teacher, and you will find someone who feels nervous if his or her kids don’t ‘know enough.’ And that means enough calculus and enough biology and enough Spanish. So we’re always pulled the other way.”

Finally, as Dewey himself admitted, “a system of education based upon living experiences [is] a more difficult affair to conduct successfully than it is to follow the patterns of traditional education.”

Teachers in progressive schools, observes Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford, need extensive knowledge and skill to teach both students and subjects well. They need to have a firm grasp of their disciplines, understand child development, and know how to mesh the two.

Theodore Sizer agrees. “It is much easier to run a highly controlled school--tell students what to do all the time, don’t give them any running room, and teach to the test,” he says. “It’s much harder to say that the purpose of school is for each kid to know her own running room. And it’s much harder to say we care how kids operate when we’re not looking.”

The strongest criticisms of progressive education continue to focus less on its pedagogy--which even such critics as E.D. Hirsch Jr. concede may be effective in some instances--than on the diminution of subject matter. Hirsch, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, has proposed a common core of knowledge that all students should learn to function in a democracy. He has been particularly critical of what he sees as the denigration of knowledge.

“Political liberals really ought to oppose progressive educational ideas because they had led to practical failure and greater social inequity,” he wrote in 1996 in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. Instead, he laments, “the anti-subject-matter principles of progressivism have demonstrably triumphed in American schools.”

‘These Things Cycle’

Yet Sizer--like Dewey before him--argues that students need both process and content. Even when students are learning thinking skills, they have to be thinking about something. The question is, in part, one of balance--an eternally elusive goal.

Visit a Parker classroom, and you’ll find students debating philosophical essays on freedom vs. determinism in preparation for studying about World War II. Visit one of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge schools, and you are likely to see students working in cooperative groups and creating dioramas or plays about the ancient Greeks or Egyptians.

“At its best, the progressive movement had this notion that all children can learn if only the situation was sufficiently flexible and creative and open and interesting,” Kohl says. “Now, there’s a real contradiction that emerges: Does that sacrifice content?”

He argues that it does not. “But I do believe that there is a process part of the progressive movement as it emerged in the ‘60s,” he adds, “in which process and feeling overrode content, really to the detriment of kids.”

As for himself, Kohl says he has “moved much more to the point of saying it’s necessary for kids to know the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.”

Many of the elements of the current movement for higher academic standards, he believes, can be adopted by progressives: “I think the real difference is saying, look, once we decide on the kinds of things that kids really need to know to survive, we don’t believe they can be coerced to know them. We also don’t believe there’s one way to learn it.”

Kohl’s comments underscore how hard it often is to divide educators neatly into progressivist vs. traditionalist camps. “Our traditional approach, in order to increase the population in school, has been to change the curriculum and hold the pedagogy constant,” says Graham of the Spencer Foundation. “Now we are trying to reverse that by holding the curriculum constant, but marrying conservative content to progressive pedagogy.”

But despite the search for a middle ground, few believe the century-long debate between progressives and traditionalists is over. “I actually think it’s a pretty good debate to have,” says Graham. “It’s about diversified pedagogy and the civic purposes of education and the value of traditional knowledge.”

Meanwhile, progressives with a long historical view, like Sizer, say they won’t give up the fight. “These things cycle, and you just have to hang on,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to hang on when you get pounded all the time, but that’s the nice thing about having been trained in history.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1999 edition of Education Week as Tugging at Tradition


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