|In fact, for a report that is ostensibly about what education policy should do to influence student achievement, there's hardly anything about student achievement in it. No attention is paid whatsoever to the factors that research shows are the most influential determinants of student achievement. And while the report does at least acknowledge that the teacher's influence is important (actually, it the most important factor that is within the control of schools), it says shockingly little about what teachers actually DO to improve achievement and how this can be leveraged systemically.
So one has to wonder why would The Center for American Progress, an ostensibly progressive organization, have nothing to say about progressive education?
It's hard to believe that CAP's influence on the report was stifled by the two other right-wing authors, especially since the report carefully notes the disagreement that CAP had with the other two authors over school vouchers. Instead, what's far more likely is that when it comes to education policy, CAP just isn't very progressive.
What Is Progressive Education?
Finding a voice for progressive education is indeed a tough proposition, regardless of political party. Case in point: No Child Left Behind, considered by many to be the most anti-progressive education policy ever enacted, was co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy, who many consider to be the most progressive Senator in US history.
So why don't people who claim to be progressive believe in progressive education?
To answer that question, there first has to be clarity about what is indeed progressive education. And for years, virtually the only prominent spokesperson for progressive education practice has been Alfie Kohn. In his many books and articles, Kohn has become the leading figure in progressive education and has laid out very clearly what is-and what isn't-a progressive approach to education practice.
Drawing from the influences of Dewey, Piaget, and others, Kohn contends that progressive education must adhere to certain principles. In his article, "Progressive Education: Why It's Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find," Kohn contends that schools that are progressive
• Attend to the Whole Child: "Schooling isn't seen as being about just academics, nor is intellectual growth limited to verbal and mathematical proficiencies."
• Support Community: "Children learn with and from one another in a caring community."
• Encourage Collaboration: "In place of rewards for complying with the adults' expectations, or punitive consequences for failing to do so, there's more of an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving."
• Instill Social Justice: "Students are helped to locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond friends, beyond their own ethnic group, and beyond their own country."
• Tap Students' Intrinsic Motivation: "When considering (or reconsidering) educational policies and practices, the first question that progressive educators are likely to ask is, 'What's the effect on students' interest in learning, their desire to continue reading, thinking, and questioning?'"
• Develop Deep Understanding: "Facts and skills do matter, but only in a context and for a purpose. That's why progressive education tends to be organized around problems, projects, and questions - rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines."
• Use Active Learning: "In progressive schools, students play a vital role in helping to design the curriculum, formulate the questions, seek out (and create) answers, think through possibilities, and evaluate how successful they - and their teachers - have been."
• Take Kids Seriously: "In traditional schooling, as John Dewey once remarked, 'the center of gravity is outside the child': he or she is expected to adjust to the school's rules and curriculum. Progressive educators take their cue from the children-and are particularly attentive to differences among them."
Based on decades of research, Kohn asserts that, "Across domains, the results overwhelmingly favor progressive education. Regardless of one's values, in other words, this approach can be recommended purely on the basis of its effectiveness." He also readily admits that progressive schools are "rare." But he counters that by pointing out that,
"If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it's hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren't learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation's schools."
So coming back to the question, "Why don't progressives believe in progressive education?" the answer can't be found in any well constructed argument that progressive education doesn't work. Instead, what's really at the base of this disconnection between progressives and progressive values in education are four pervasive mindsets that tend to influence American beliefs across the political spectrum.
Mindset #1: The only valid outcomes are those that are quantitative and measurable.
That progressives are just as apt to believe in this mindset as anyone else in America is pretty hard to refute. Especially because this mindset is so pervasive in the analysis of just about every endeavor in our society-from business management, to military policy, to sports.
CAP's L&L report is replete with quantitative measures of all kinds, nearly 20 "indicators" in all, for all 50 states-all rolled into extremely intricate "grades" for each state. The word "data" occurs 465 times in the report. The word "teaching" not so much: 75.
But this obsession with quantitative measures is intrinsically anti-progressive when it comes to education. Within the context of an argument against teacher merit pay based on student test scores, Kohn points out:
"Despite what is widely assumed by economists and behaviorists, some things are more than the sum of their parts, and some things can't be reduced to numbers. It's an illusion to think we can specify and quantify all the components of good teaching and learning, much less establish criteria for receiving a bonus that will eliminate the perception of arbitrariness. No less an authority than the statistician-cum-quality-guru W. Edwards Deming reminded us that 'the most important things we need to manage can't be measured.' . . . [T]he problems are multiplied when the criteria are dubious, such as raising student test scores. These tests, as I and others have argued elsewhere, tend to measure what matters least. They reflect children's backgrounds more than the quality of a given teacher or school."
Mindset #2: People and organizations do the right things only when they are incented to do so.
The entire premise of No Child Left Behind and, in turn, Arne Duncan's "Race to the Top" funds is built on the belief that rewards and punishments are the best way to manipulate schools and teachers into "improvement." In the case of NCLB, schools are told that unless they make certain "performance improvements" (i.e., test scores) they won't receive Federal Title I funds meant to support the education of poor students. In the case of Duncan's "Race," states won't be eligible for billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds unless they enact specific measures such as lifting caps on charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
This stubborn insistence on a reward/punishment approach is prominent in the recommendations made in the L&L report, from "sanctioning" low-performing schools to "rewarding" teachers for test scores
It's hard to find progressive leaders who refute this mindset. But fortunately, there's Kohn. In his groundbreaking book Punished by Rewards, Kohn forever shatters the mindset that carrot/stick is an effective way to run schools and educate kids. From the backflap:
"[Kohn] shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm. Our workplaces and classrooms will continue to decline, he argues, until we begin to question our reliance on a theory of motivation derived from laboratory animals."
Within the context of education alone, the punishment and reward mentality is particularly damaging because it assumes that "people could be doing a better job but for some reason have decided to wait until it's bribed out of them. This is as insulting as it is inaccurate. Dangling a reward in front of teachers or principals-'Here's what you'll get if things somehow improve'- does nothing to address the complex, systemic factors that are actually responsible for educational deficiencies."
Mindset #3: Competitive ranking is always a justifiable frame for evaluating people and organizations.
From the proliferation of award programs, to contest-based reality TV shows, to the list of Best Places to Live-Do Business-Go to College, Retire etc., etc., just about every facet of American culture is dominated by obsessive ranking.
Sure, you can enjoy an episode of Iron Chef, but is that the same way to evaluate schools and education? It seems that CAP would have no problem with that, at least as demonstrated by the L&L report. Grading and ranking form the primary framework for the study's entire focus. There's even an interactive "report card" with colorful maps that show the practically endless variations in state rankings you can create.
But in a progressive approach to education, that emphasizes collaboration and problem solving versus competition and power grabs, competitive ranking runs counter to the goals of good education. As Kohn explains, competitive ranking of schools is a road to nowhere and antithetical to progressive values:
"'Consider the sport of ranking the U.S. against other nations on standardized tests. Once we've debunked the myth that test scores predict economic success, why would we worry about our country's standing as measured by those scores? To say that our students are first, or tenth, on a list provides no useful information about how much they know or how good our schools are. If all the countries did reasonably well in absolute terms, there would be no shame in (and, perhaps, no statistical significance to) being at the bottom. If all the countries did poorly, there would be no glory in being at the top. Exclamatory headlines about how 'our' schools are doing compared to 'theirs' suggest that we're less concerned with the quality of education than with whether we can chant, 'We're Number One!'
Sadder still, the same competitive mindset shows up as district is pitted against district, school against school, student against student. Several years ago, one superintendent in the Northeast vowed that his city's test scores would "never be last again" in his state. Like so many others, he was confusing higher scores with better learning. But this appalling statement also implied that his students didn't have to improve; as long as kids in another community fared even more poorly, he would be satisfied. Such a position is not only intellectually indefensible (because of its focus on relative performance) but morally bankrupt (because of its indifference to the welfare of children in other places)."
Mindset #4: Education is necessary, primarily, as preparation for the workplace.
This mindset that education is mostly about preparation for the workplace is extremely shortsighted but popular nonetheless, even among progressives. Warns CAP in the L&L report, "our schools consistently produce students unready for the rigors of the modern workplace." And "far too many students graduate from high school unprepared for the rigors of college and the workplace."
One of the main flaws of this mindset is that it's built on the assumption that we actually know what the workplace of the future is going to be like. But an even more persuasive reason to doubt the link between academic learning to workplace performance is that it really doesn't appear to exist. As Kohn points out:
"Various strands of evidence have converged to challenge the claim that the state of our economy is a function of how good our schools are at preparing tomorrow's workers. For individual students, school achievement is only weakly related to subsequent workplace performance. And for nations, there's little correlation between average test scores and economic vigor.
Schools make a tempting scapegoat when a company's financial results are disappointing or when the economy as a whole falters. But an employee's educational background is only one of many factors that determine his or her productivity. Worker productivity, in turn, is only one of many factors that determine corporate profitability. And corporate profitability is only one of many factors that determine the state of the economy - particularly the employment picture. Does anyone seriously believe, for example, that the main reason U.S. companies are shipping jobs by the millions to Mexico and Asia is because they believe those countries' schools are better?"
Furthermore, turning education into work preparation fundamentally misunderstands what a progressive view of learning is. Kohn explains:
"Even the most enlightened businesses, however, are still quite different from what schools are about--or ought to be about. Managers may commit themselves to continuous improvement and try to make their employees' jobs more fulfilling, but the bottom line is that they are still focused on--well, on the bottom line. The emphasis is on results, on turning out a product, on quantifying improvement on a fixed series of measures such as sales volume or return on investment. The extent to which this mentality has taken hold in discussions about education is the extent to which our schools are in trouble.
In the course of learning, students frequently produce things, such as essays and art projects and lab write-ups, whose quality can be assessed. But these artifacts are just so many byproducts of the act of making meaning. The process of learning is more important than the products that result. To use the language of "work"--or, worse, to adopt a business-style approach to school reform--is to reverse those priorities."
Progressives Need to Prepare
With the reauthorization of NCLB coming "early next year," according to Arne Duncan, progressives need to prepare to debate on what's at stake for our nation's children and how we should go forward to ensure we have a system of education that is accessible and beneficial to every student.
But if so-called leaders of the progressive community don't have a clue about what is really a progressive approach to education, how can we even enter the debate, much less be heard and be persuasive?