I understand that it’s necessary for progressives to play defense on so many levels right now: defending immigrants, defending black and brown people against the police, defending public education, reproductive choice, environmental regulation, science, Social Security, Obamacare, the people of the Middle East against U. S. aggression. The list goes on.
The old adage says the best defense is a good offense. One area where I think we need to go on the offensive is in the battle for the content and structure of the public schools. The curriculum of most elementary schools is stuck in the 19th century factory model, where children sit still for six hours while a teacher spouts grade-level standards at them. This model doesn’t work for the majority of students, especially students of color.
The fight for progressive education has a long and glorious history. In 1938, John Dewey articulated the principles succinctly:
- Emphasis on learning by doing—hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning,
- Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking,
- Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge,
- Collaborative and cooperative learning projects,
- Education for social responsibility and democracy,
- Emphasis on life-long learning and social skills (Dewey, 1938; Bode, 1938; Pratt, 1948; Washburne, 1952).
In 1965, the Civil Rights movement inspired the federal government to commission a study as to how children actually learn. This panel of experts came up with a program which has been shown year after year to improve outcomes for its students compared with students not in the program. They called it Head Start. The three main elements of the concept:
- Low ratios of children to adults
- Hands-on, constructivist, developmentally appropriate curriculum
- Collegial relations between parents and teachers
In the sixties and seventies, there were numerous attempts to permeate these elements up through the grades, based on the work of Pablo Freire, Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, bell hooks and many others. Many schools adopted an Open Classroom approach. The more open approaches had success in suburban schools, but schools in poor neighborhoods lacked the resources necessary to successfully implement these approaches. Along with Ronald Reagan came the “Back to Basics” folks, who have held sway in education circles ever since, regardless of which party was in power or who was president. The data-driven (off a cliff) high-stakes testing approaches have dominated the conversation, even as they have failed most students. The “reforms” of Gates, Broad, Michelle Rhee, Common Core Standards, the charteristas and now Betty DeVos do raise test scores among a narrow band of students who score between the 40th and 50th percentile, leaving over 40% behind. What do most children learn from all the testing: “I am stupid,” hardly a prescription for success.
It’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way. The beauty of such an offensive is that it can proceed school by school, organizing individual school communities to stand up for child-centered education, to insist that schools hire parents to reduce community poverty and lower the child-adult ratios, to implement the best child-centered curriculums available. My favorite is High Scope because I’ve been trained in it, but there are others like Big Picture Schools and the Project Approach.
It’s time to transform schools as instruments of oppression to vehicles of liberation. (I thought I came up with this formulation until I looked it up. It comes from Nelson Mandela).