K-12 Education Through the Lens of the Progressive World-View & Values

Note: This is the third post on a discussion of progressive and conservative values and how they impact education in America. In this post we will explore the progressive world-view and its values, and try and understand why the progressive ideals ought to form the foundation for American K-12 education.

Progressive values should set the ideals of teaching, and learning in American society.  Unfortunately, the “cloud of authoritarianism looms over education, making it very difficult to design instruction around progressive values. In this post we examine education through the lens of the progressive world-view.

Progressive and conservative approaches to education have competed with each other in America for more than a century.  The conservative view has dominated American education, but we’ll also find that the progressive view has impacted American education in powerful ways at different times during this period.  We’ll examine the foundations of the progressive view and then apply our findings to the nature of education, including teaching, learning, and curriculum development.

Progressive World View

In order to understand how world-views can be used to examine education, we are using the cognitive modeling and cognitive theory of metaphor by George Lakoff.  Lakoff in his book Thinking Points:

formulated the nation-as-family metaphor as a precise mapping between the nation and the family: the homeland as home, the citizens as siblings, the government (or the head of government) as parent.  The government’s duty is to citizens as a parent’s is to children: provide security (protect us); make laws (tell us what we can and cannot do); run the economy (make sure we have enough money and supplies); provide public schools (educate us).

World view refers to the culturally-dependent, generally subconscious, fundamental organization of the mind,” according to William W. Cobern, who has done extensive research on world-view and how it impinges science teaching.  One’s world view predisposes one to feel, think and act in predictable way, according to Cobern.  World-view inclines one to a particular way of thinking.

My argument about trying to explain the current state of schooling in the U.S., will take into consideration two different political and social world-views, the conservative world-view, and the progressive world-view.  Both world-views have played significant roles in American history, including public education.  In the most recent post on this blog, we looked at the conservative world-view.You might want to read that post first, before going on with one.

In this post we’ll examine the progressive world-view and how progressivism affects schooling.

Nurturing Family & Progressive Morality

In Lakoff’s research, the nation-as-family conceptual metaphor can be used to help us understand our political worldview, and in my argument, this will also enable us to explain how progressive values differ from conservative values, and how they affect education in America.

In Lakoff’s research he has shown that this conceptual metaphor produces two very different models of families: a “strict father” family and a “nurturant parent” family.  In his view this creates two fundamentally different ideaologies about how the nation should be governed.  I am suggesting that these two views can teach us about how education in America should be organized and “governed.”

In Lakoff’s view, the progressive world-view is based on the nurturant parent family.  He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility.  Lakoff explains that nurturant parents are authoritative but with out being authoritarian.

If we apply the nurturant parent model to politics, Lakoff suggests that what we get is a “progressive moral and political philosophy.  The progressive world-view then is based on these two ideas:

  • Empathy: the capacity to connect with other people, to feel what others feel, to imagine oneself as another and hence to feel a kinship with others.
  • Responsibility: acting on that empathy—responsibility for yourself and for others.  (Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Locations 827-830). Macmillan. Kindle Edition)

In research by Carl Rogers many decades ago in his person or client centered theory, empathy was considered one of core conditions for facilitative (counseling and teaching) practice.  Realness of the teacher, and prizing, accepting, and trust were two additional core conditions. We will see later, that these core conditions will be important to consider as attributes of progressive educators.  We’ll return to Rogers, and a some other pioneers of progressivism in education later in this post.

In his book, Thinking Points, Lakoff  identifies the following as characteristics of the Nurturant Parent Family:

  • A family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one
  • The parents share household responsibilities (Egalitarian)
  • Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial
  • Protection is a form of caring, and protection from external dangers takes a significant part of the parents attention
  • The principle goal of nurturance is for children to be fulfilled and happy in their lives
  • When children are respected, nurtured, and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring for their parents.

In the progressive family, boundaries are set but in the context of building a caring environment with emphasis on building strong, open relationships.  According to Lakoff, children develop best through positive relationships with others.  Lakoff says that in this context, however, the parent (or teacher) can be authoritative but not authoritarian.

There are additional values that emerge from the nurturing parent family and these include, protection, fulfillment in life, freedom, opportunity, fairness, equality, properity, and community.

Nurturing Family World View—->Progressive Principles in Politics and Education

There is a direct connection between the nation-as-family conceptual metaphor and the nurturing family which leads to key principles that emerge from progressive values.  These will be fundamental not only in politics, but in education as well.

From Lakoff’s theory of nation-as-family conceptual metaphor, these four principles form the context for progressive morality.  Here are summarized from Lakoff, George (2006-10-03). Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Kindle Location 846). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

  • The Common Good Principle–Citizens bring together their common wealth in order to build infrastructures that benefit all, and also contributes to individual goals.
  • The Expansion of Freedom Principle–Progressives demand the expansion of fundamental forms of freedom, including voting rights, worker’s rights, public education, public health, civil rights.
  • The Human Dignity Principle–Empathy requires the recognition of basic human dignity and responsibility requires us to act to uphold it.
  • The Diversity Principle–Empathy involves identifying with and connecting socially and emotionally with all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation.  Ethic of diversity in our communities, schools, workplaces.

The progressive political view based on Lakoff’s theory in my own view is applicable to education.  Here I will make a few comments about progressivism in American education, and then explore three issues that face educators today: accountability, Atlanta Cheating Scandal, and VAM Scores & the Bad Teacher.

Progressivism in American education

The Progressive Education Movement provided an alternative approach to traditional school. It emerged at the end of the 19th Century and reached its peak in the 1930s. Influenced by the writings of John Dewey, and other theorists, progressivism promoted the idea that students should be encouraged to be creative and independent thinkers allowed to act upon their interests.  Progressive educational programs were learner-centered, and encouraged intellectual participation in all spheres of life.  Dewey suggested that the Progressive Education Movement appealed to many educators because it was more closely aligned with America’s democratic ideals. Dewey put it this way:

One may safely assume, I suppose, that one thing which has recommended the progressive movement is that it seems more in accord with the democratic ideal to which our people is committed than do the procedures of the traditional school, since the latter have so much of the autocratic about them. Another thing which has contributed to its favorable reception is that its methods are humane in comparison with the harshness so often attending the policies of the traditional school. (John Dewey. Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books, 1938). pp. 33-34.)

Dewey’s analysis highlights the difference between the progressive and the conservative views of education.

In 1896, the laboratory school of the University of Chicago opened it doors under the directorship of Professor John Dewey.  It is still open.  Dewey’s idea was to create an environment for social and pedagogical experimentation.  The school was learner-centered, and the curriculum was organized as an interdisciplinary approach to education. Teachers designed activities based on a theory of growth stages, and the activities engaged students in self-development and mutual respect. Dewey advocated the idea that thinking was an active process involving experimentation and problem solving. He also espoused the idea that the school had a political role as an instrument for social change.

Two aspects of the Progressive Education Movement that impacted all of education were the movement’s notion of the child-centered curriculum, and the project method. Both of these ideas exist today, and have been given different degrees of emphasis. For example, in the late 1960s and 1970s, the child-centered curriculum was represented in the Humanistic Education movement (sometimes known as affective education). The humanistic ideas of the present day were similar to the progressive ideals of the 1930s.

The child- or student-centered approach is a major paradigm implying beliefs about the nature of learning, the goals of education, and the organization of the curriculum. Emphasis on student-centeredness has waxed and waned historically as educators evaluated its merits relative to the “Back to Basics” and “Structure of the (subject matter) Disciplines” paradigms.

The progressive education movement represents the earliest efforts to advocate a student-interest-centered instruction. John Dewey in particular wrote extensively of his work in the Chicago school in an effort to reconcile the dualism between traditional and progressive education. (Teachers still find writings of Dewey to be relevant to current reform efforts and practical dilemmas of teaching. Among hundreds of publications by Dewey, some seminal works to consider include How We Think (1910), Democracy and Education (1916), Experience and Education (1938). In these you can find Dewey’s perspective on reflective thinking, learning as growth, and the theory of educative experience.)

The progressive education movement sparked the development of a number of experimental schools, which embodied the philosophy of the progressive educators. Teaching in the progressive schools was an opportunity to involve students directly with nature, hands-on experiences with real phenomena, and to relate learning to not only the emotional and physical well being of the child, but to the curriculum as a whole. There is rich literature on this movement describing innovative child-centered programs such as Dewey’s Schools of To-Morrow, the Gary (Indiana) plan, and The Parker School (Cremin, The Transformation of the School).

The Progressive Teacher

The progressive teacher is an educator that Lakoff would describe as having an educational philosophy similar to progressive political world-view.  The progressive teacher is seen as the authority in the classroom, but does not act on authoritarian principles.  In a classroom led by a progressive teacher, the teacher is seen as a nurturant parent.  Students in the progressive classroom are analogous to children in a nurturant family, and they would be respected, nurtured, and encouraged to communicate with peers and the teacher from day one.  The classroom would be viewed as a community of learners, as the family is seen as a community.

The progressive teacher’s beliefs about teaching are formulated by many factors, but two that stand out are empathy and responsibility.

The progressive teacher would be a highly qualified and certified professional who not only has a strong background in content and pedagogy, but has a range of experiences with youth enabling them to understand students and treat people through the eyes of progressive morality.

Progressive educators would be research oriented.  That is, they would tend to experiment with new approaches to teaching and would also do action research in their own classrooms to improve the teaching/learning environment.

Progressive educators would ask lots of questions.

  • Why is our state and district willing to accept a top-down authoritarian set of standards that weren’t developed with our students’ interests or aspirations in mind?
  • Do you know what the research tells us about the ineffectiveness of using high-stakes tests on students achievement?
  • Why does the state department of education have so much authoritative power over the inner workings of every school district in the state?
  • Why aren’t educators involved in the development of curriculum that is based on the lived experiences of students, and the interests that students might have for getting involved in real work?

Issues Seen Through Progressive Educator Lens

How would progressive teachers approach the following issues that were discussed in the last post, but from a conservative point of view?


Progressive teachers are accountable to themselves, their students and parents, and school officials.  However, progressive teachers reject the high-stakes model of accountability, and suggest that the research actually supports assessment methods that are truer to the real work that students do in school.  Progressive teachers know intrinsically that a two hour test in April simply does not tell us much, if anything, about what individual students learned.
The progressive teacher would deal with accountability from the moral values of empathy and responsibility.  The progressive teacher behaves in such a way that students know that he/she tries to understand each student in such a way that they build trust not only for the teacher, but because of the teacher’s commitment to community, students build a trust for other students.  And this is not an easy task.
The progressive teachers would work earnestly to move their school in a direction that is away from single high-stakes testing and toward a more realistic approach that would involve a range of assessment methods including the use of diagnostic tools to find out what ideas students already have, to using formative assessment (which has been shown to actually influence student achievement, if that is of interest to you), and summative methods.  These methods can entail interviews, questioning, paper and pencil tests, projects, artifact presentations, portfolios, journals or notebooks, lab reports, final exams, and on and on.
Accountability in the progressive world-view does derive from the authority of the district, but the actual carrying out of accountability measures is in the hands of professional teachers, who are board certified, and qualified, just as my doctors are responsible to evaluate, diagnose and prescribe a path to better health for my family.  Teachers have comparable attitudes as doctors, which include empathetic and and an  ethic  of caring.
This is the kind of accountability that is student-centered, because above all else, our goals ought to be in the service of students and their parents.

Atlanta Cheating Scandal

In the Atlanta test erasure scandal, nearly 200 teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools were investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and many of these teachers lost their jobs, were fired, or forced to resign.
Would cheating have occurred if the progressive world-view of education dominated the Georgia Department of Education and the Atlanta Public Schools?  I have no idea.  Perhaps.  Maybe not.
But here is the deal.  According to the Georgia Governor’s  three-volume report, the Atlanta cheating scandal was caused by “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation that spread throughout the (Atlanta) district.”  That culture of fear was directly related to the pressure put on administrators, teachers, and students to make sure students scored high on the end-of-year tests at any costs.
According to the investigative report of the Governor of Georgia, bubble sheets were changed, perhaps as the Governor suggested, the culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation led to this scandal.
It is possible that none of this would have happened is schools were organized using the nurturing parent family model.  Why do I think this might be so?
In the present conservative model of education, all of the power for curriculum (standards) and high-stakes testing rests in the hands of state education officials.  This decision was not made by teachers, or administrators in their district.  Instead, the conservative agenda of placing all of the emphasis on improving student test scores has become the major goal of education.  I have shown on this blog that this is a misguided decision, and that no matter what we do, student scores will not be influenced by new standards, or more rigorous tests.
The Atlanta Test Erasure debacle, which has been repeated in many other cities, was the direct result of the failed policy of organizing learning around authoritarian standards and high-stakes tests.  Authority for education can remain at the department of education, BUT they have to change the policies that holding classroom teachers and school principals from fulfilling their professional abilities.  The authoritarianism that makes schools beholden to conservative policies needs to change.

Teacher Evaluation

The evaluation of a teacher’s performance is an important aspect of the progressive world-view.  The teacher is the responsible adult in the classroom, and this implies that their work as a teacher must be evaluated.

The question is what kind of evaluation should be used to assess teacher performance?

There is a powerful force of government policy makers including governors and legislative representatives that have put into place policies that hold teachers accountable for changes in student test scores.  The idea is to use the test scores of students to predict the value that a teacher adds to his or her students’ performance.  This idea is called Value Added Modeling (VAM).  Not  only does VAM not have the support of researchers at major universities, but using such a system will destroy the central character of teaching from a progressive world-view, and that is empathy and responsibility.  Even the National Academy of Science informed the U.S. Department of Education (ED) that VAM data should not be used to make high-stake decisions about teachers.  This advice was totally ignored by ED, and indeed, all states that received Race to the Top funding are instituting VAM as part of teacher evaluation, and in some cases VAM scores will represent 60% of the teacher’s evaluation.

In my own view, evaluating teachers using Value-Added Modeling is shameful and degrading, not only because VAM is unscientific and a fraud, but because it does an enormous disservice to professional teachers and their students.

Donna McKenna, an ESL teacher wrote a post that questioned how officials in her state could possibly determine the value she adds to her class.  She asked how they can examine her skills and talents and attribute worth to them without knowing her, her class, or her curriculum.

Then she added, “tell me how and I will tell you:

  • How all of my students come from different countries, different levels of prior education and literacy, and how there is no “research-based” elementary curriculum created to support schools or teachers to specifically meet their needs.
  • How the year for which you have data was the year my fifth graders first learned about gangs, the Internet, and their sexual identities.
  • How the year for which you have data was the year that two of my students were so wracked by fear of deportation, depression and sleep deprivation from nightmares, that they could barely sit still and often fought with other students. How they became best of friends by year end. How one of them still visits me every September.
  • How that year most of my students worked harder than ever, (despite often being referred to as “the low class” or “lower level” within earshot of them), inspiring me and the teachers around us, despite the fact that many of these same students believed they could never go to college because of their immigration status.

Please follow this link to Donna McKenna’s blog, No Sleep ’til Summer to read the full post her view of the value added idea.

Progressive teachers, such as Donna McKenna, offer all us a view of teaching that is inspiring.

Next Steps

The progressive world-view has had a long history in American education, and progrssive educators continue to question the current conservative world-view that is shaping schooling in America.

Do you think the progressive world-view of teaching can make inroads into the conservative world-view of authoritative standards and high-stakes testing?  

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