Traditional education verses progressivism: policy cycles, poor discourse, and educational extremism

Following up on yesterday’s post about the design work of the New American Schools (NAS), I noticed a critique by blogger Michael Petrilli. I was trying to find out what happened to NAS as a company and not having much luck. Instead, I encountered a classic piece of the politicization of the educational discourse authored by Petrilli.

Petrilli, criticizing federal grants to the reading programs Success for All (SFA) and Reading Recovery. What is really interesting in this piece is that Petrilli, as have many traditionalist critics before him, is how he classifies practices as “progressive” and how he seems to believe that educational progressivism is mainstream.

Petrilli cites a Jeffrey Mirel history of NAS. According to Petrilli, Mirel writes, “…nearly all the winning proposals shared similar ideas and practices rooted in the progressive education movement that has long been the dominant paradigm of American primary/secondary education.” Unfortunately, Petrilli’s link to Mirel is broken, so I cannot verify the accuracy of the quote. However, when I looked up Mirel’s work, I discovered that Petrilli’s quote about Mirel’s views is actually quite misleading.

As innumerable educational historians of varying political allegiance have demonstrated (Tyack and Cuban, 1997; Elmore, 2004; Ravitch, 2010) to the point of redundancy, the history of American education is one of policy cycles that are primarily born out of the politicized nature educational reform. While these cycles of conservative, traditional reform and progressive reform repeat in every generation, little changes in the basic operation and structure of schooling. The “grammar of schooling” (Tyack and Cuban, 1997)–tests, subject areas, detentions, and bell schedules–remain enduring and relatively untouched.

The implication that progressivism is or has been “dominant” in the educational belies the realities of the history of schooling. More importantly, Petrilli’s “liking” of traditional verses progressive models reeks of unthinking, nuance-less, educational extremism. A reading of Mirel’s later (2003) work, in fact, makes it clear that Mirel himself has a much more nuanced view of the relationship between mainstream schooling, whole-school reform efforts, and progressive ideology than Petrilli himself displays.

Mirel’s later argument is very much relevant here. Educational extremism is detrimental to the discourse and to student learning:

In other words, rather than continuing the seemingly eternal debate about whichis better – traditional or progressive approaches – educators and educational policy-makers should be asking a different series of questions: Which approach works bestin realizing different goals? With which children? At what ages and what stages of development? In which subjects and at what point in learning those subjects? By arguing that there is one and only one best approach for curriculum design,classroom organization, methods of teaching, or ways of student learning, proponents of a manichean vision of education make successful schools virtually impossible. Put simply, creating high quality education is not an either/or proposition, something good teachers have understood for a long time.

Creating schools that are structured to meaningful purposes is a challenging, complex task that should be obsessively focussed not on ideology, but on the principles of design. Petrilli also cites Alexander Russo’s blog, but Petrilli fails to include the following, “So perhaps education fashions aren’t a good guide for anything…” Point well taken.


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