Authoritarian Spray: How the Spread of Standardization is Damaging Public Schools With Its Canopy of a Common Core, High-Stakes Testing and Market-Based Hooey

A picture is worth a thousand words. Please accept apologies because my title is nearly a picture. I just couldn’t pinch the title to a few words. That said…

The authoritarian spray of standardization has spread harm and inflicted damage to America’s public schools during the last two decades. The profits from standardized tests and teaching materials associated with the Common Core have overwhelmed the nature of learning in public school classrooms that one wonders if  this goliath, which has trampled on the very heart of education in a democratic society, can be brought down.

This post, and a forthcoming eBook will explore this conundrum, and point to ways that the mischief and misery of standardization might be overcome.   We’ll explore two fundamental paradigms of thinking, & learning, and family & politics that I think will shine a light on the dilemma of standardization.  Let’s get started.

The Root of This Dilemma

The conservative world-view is at the root of standardization, not only in the United States, but in most countries around the world.  This world-view has set in motion the reform of education based on a common set of standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability metrics that demoralize not only students and their families, but the educators who families regard as significant and positive others in the lives of their children.

The Gates Foundation has invested more than $3 billion into standards-test-based reform.  Did you know that since 1999, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (technically founded in 2000) has made over 4,000 grants in its US Program, one of the major categories of funding for the Gates Foundation?

The 4,000 grants were distributed among 16 categories such as College-Ready Education, Community Grants, Postsecondary Success, Global Policy & Advocacy, etc.  About 2,000 of these grants were made to carry out the Common Core State Standards, the use of student test scores to test teachers, and support technology that would increase the surveillance of students, parents and teachers to create sets of “big data” that can be mined by private companies to find behaviors and personal information of customers and clients that would fit profiles for their products.

Another way to understand the reform promoted by Gates and other billionaire people, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the National Governors Association (NGA), and conservative foundations, especially the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is to look at the work of educators and scholars such as Pasi Sahlberg.

Sahlberg emphatically states that the worst enemy of education and creativity is standardization. In his book, Finnish Lessons 2.0: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? (Library Copy), Sahlberg writes:

Curriculum development, student assessment, teacher evaluation, integration of information and communication technologies into teaching and learning, proficiency in basic competencies (i.e., reading and writing), and mathematical and scientific literacy have become common priorities in education reforms around the world. These changes in schools and classrooms are then ensured by employing management models from the business world, such as test-based accountability, merit-based pay and data-driven administration. I call this the Global Educational Reform Movement  (Sahlberg, Pasi (2011-11-01). Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (Kindle Locations 2376-2380). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition.)

Subversive Thinking

I think of standards-based education reform as a kind of “spray” analogous to how we used DDT as an agricultural insecticide.  We stayed it everywhere to stamp out disease carrying bugs.  For example, from 1940 – 1972, more than 1.3 billion pounds of DDT were released into U.S. communities indiscriminately.  This indiscriminate and relentless spray would eventually be shown to be harmful and a serious threat to the basics of ecosystems.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring (Library Copy) explained how the release of DDT into the environment caused havoc and great harm to the affected ecosystems, as well as human health.  Even though the bio-chemical industry tried to subvert Carson’s work, she was eventually vindicated of the criticisms being leveled by this industry, and the US Congress went on to pass legislation banning DDT.   Later the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established.

Carson had started the environmental movement, and many leading ecologists and environmentalists from around the world looked to her work as an inspiration.

Rachel Carson, in the word’s of Mark Hamilton, one of Carson’s biographers,  was a “gentle subversive.”

There is a vanguard of gentile (and not-so-gentile) subversives who are leading the way to uncover and expose the damage that is being done to educational ecosystems, as well as  student  health (social, emotional, intellectual) by standardized, test-centered and market-oriented reform spreading like a virus with global implications.  This vanguard is composed of educators who offer different accounts of what teaching and learning is about.  They are leading an effort to challenge the current standardized reform movement.

Please follow this link to read about some of the people identified as part of this vanguard.  There are many more, and most of them are teaching in classrooms around the world.

So, what is this vanguard voicing opposition to?  All are questioning the lack of wisdom, profound ignorance, and inexcusable ineptness of an educational reform movement that is rooted in a very narrow purpose of schooling: teaching to the test.  According tp Sahlberg, the movement can be summarized in four words: Global Education Reform Movement GERM).

Global Educational Reform Model (GERM)

The Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) promotes and spreads the “strategies and interests” of global agencies, billionaire donors, and private consultants as if it was a live virus (Sahlberg 2013).  According to Sahlberg, three primary sources led to the spread of the GERM virus including:

  1. The need for proficiency in literacy and numeracy,
  2. A guarantee that all students will learn the same set of standards in math and language arts and reading, and value placed on competition, and
  3. Accountability by holding schools to a set of standards, and benchmarks using aligned assessments and tests.

None of the details of proficiency, standards or benchmarks are based on scientific or educational research.  They are opinions crafted by the groups mentioned before?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a good example to show how GERM works.  PISA has developed its own set of standards and tests (assessments) in math, science, reading, and language arts used to hold students in more than 60 countries accountable to PISA benchmarks.

The Guardian newspaper published a series of articles about the 2013 PISA international test results.   Sahlberg points out that creating league tables that showcase or shame countries based on their student’s performance on standardized tests is simply not a proper use of international test results, in this case PISA.   As I’ve reported many times on this blog, international test results fall prey to newspaper headlines that predict the collapse of economies, or prevent its students from competing in the ‘global market.’  The ‘sky is falling’ mantra was alive and well when the 2013 results were announced.  It always is.

Imagine reading the headlines in Helsinki after its students fell from second place to 12th in just three years.  Sahlberg reports that in Sweden, the test result for its students was considered a national disaster.  In the United States, the Secretary of Education (Arne Duncan) said the U.S. the results are “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.”

But Sahlberg suggests that the PISA results are proof that the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) is working and spreading itself around.  According to Sahlberg, GERM is a virus that has infected many nation’s schools.  In his view, GERM is characterized by

  • standardization (Common Core),
  • core subjects (math, reading, science),
  • teaching to the test,
  • corporate management style, and
  • test-based accountability.

When Duncan commented  (Guardian News, 2013) on the 2013 PISA results, he said it was clear that this “must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”  And to correct American education’s shortcomings, “we must invest in early learning, redesign high schools, raise standards and support great teachers.”

Good examples of GERM schools can be found in the US, England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden and Chile.  Here is how they fared in the PISA tests (Table 1).

PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)
Table 1. PISA Results for Nations that have adopted the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM)

These nations have adopted a model of education based on competition, standardization, and test-based accountability.  In Sahlberg’s view,

GERM has acted like a virus that “infects” education systems as it travels around the world.

Non-Global Education Reform

But Sahlberg, or any of ones of the “vanguard of subversives” that I identified here, were ever asked by Duncan how to improve American schools, none would suggest the “reforms” that Duncan has funded for the past five years.  Instead they would suggest that the standards-corporate styled reforms (GERM) are based on premises that are rejected by educators and policy makers in nations that seem to be successful.

GERM advocates should listen to Dr. Mercedes Schneider, a high school English teacher who holds a Ph.D. in Applied Statistics and Research Methods.  She is relentless in her writing about corporate reform, especially the way in which the Common Core State Standards came into being, and how they have corrupted American education.  In her recent book, (A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education) I wrote this as part of a review on Amazon of her book:

In this book we have at our fingertips answers to important questions about how such a limited number of individual’s faces crop-up in various media outlets as the experts on public schools. If you want to find how to get wealthy and have a really big office, read about Joel Klein in chapter 1. Find out how Teach for America is transforming teacher education into a temp business by reading the Wendy Kopp story in chapter 3. You’ll find important episodes about characters including Eva Moskovitz, Michelle Rhee, Erik Hanushek, Arne Duncan, David Coleman, Chester Finn, and others. You’ll also find out about organizations that fund each other in the name of reform, but in the end seek to dismantle public education. Welcome to TFA, the New Teacher Project, the National Council on Teacher Quality (not), the Aspen Institute, the Gates Foundation, and cousins Walton and Broad.  And the best is yet to come as she saves the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the nation’s bill mill for the last chapter.  The content of the book is thoroughly researched and authenticated. If you read her blog, you’ll certainly enjoy this book.

According to Sahlberg, a school system is “successful” if it performs above the OECD average in mathematics, reading literacy and science, and if students’ socio-economic status has a weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes. The most successful education systems in the OECD are Korea, Japan, Finland, Canada and Estonia.

Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students' learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)
Table 2. PISA test scores for nations that are above the OECD average, and students socio-economic status has weaker-than-average impact on students’ learning outcomes (Text: Sahlberg, 2013)

Beyond GERM

In order to eradicate GERM, it will be crucial to think differently about teaching, learning and the purpose of school.  We must return the locus of  control of education to local educators and their boards, and establish schooling based on the well-being of each child.  The use of standardized testing must be reduced so that the only use is to provide feedback to schools and their districts about overall goals.  Standardized tests should never be used to rate, grade, or judge students, nor should these test scores be used in any way as a measure of teacher performance.  There are oodles of ways to assess student growth that will actually help students learn.  And there are many ways to assess teachers, and provide the kind of professional growth that people in other professions receive.

Here are just a few things that should be implemented.

1. Schools should have autonomy over its curricula and how students are assessed.  Teachers should work collaboratively to design and develop curriculum, and make decisions about the nature of instruction in their own classrooms.  This is contrary to the reforms that have dominated American education for decades, especially starting with the publication, Nation at Risk, followed by the No Child Left Behind Act during the Bush Administration, and The Race to the Top during the Obama administration.  Sahlberg says:

PISA shows how success is often associated with balanced professional autonomy with a collaborative culture in schools. Evidence also shows how high performing education systems engage teachers to set their own teaching and learning targets, to craft productive learning environments, and to design multiple forms student assessments to best support student learning and school improvement.

2. Schools need to focus on equity by giving priority to early childhood (one point for Duncan), comprehensive health and special education in schools, a balanced curriculum that sees the arts, music and sports as equals to math, reading and science.

3. School choice does not improve academic performance in a nation’s schools.  In fact, the overemphasis on school choice and competition between schools leads to greater segregation of schools.

4.  Successful schools are public schools and are controlled locally, not by a state or federal governments. If we want to improve education in the US, we need to move away from the competitive, corporate-based model that is based on standardization and test accountability.  As Dr. Nel Noddings says in her book, Education and Democracy in the 21st Century (Library Copy)

Education in the 21st century must put away some 20th-century thinking. All over the world today, many educators and policymakers believe that cooperation must displace competition as a primary form of relating. Competition is not to be abandoned— some competition is healthy and necessary— but it should no longer be the defining characteristic of relationships in an era of growing globalization. If we agree with this judgment, then we must consider how to prepare students for a cooperative world, not solely for one of competition.  (Noddings, Nel (2013-01-25).

American public schools are not failing.  The premise that they are failing is based on one factor–test scores.  We need to move beyond this concept of schooling and embrace collaboration, dialogue, interdependence, and creativity (Noddings, 2013).

New eBook

As I mentioned at the head of this post, a forthcoming eBook will explore this conundrum, and point to ways that the mischief and misery of standardization might be overcome.   It’s under development, and should be published later this month, and will be available free on my blog.

 

What’s Common Here: Teacher Education, Authoritarian Reform, Poverty, & Charter Schools?

In this first blog post in nearly two months, I want to introduce you to four areas of inquiry that have been explored on this blog over the past 10 years.

Over the next month, I’ll be uploading links to landing pages, each of which is a kind of inquiry or an investigation of themes that appeared on the Art of Teaching Science Blog.

Inquiries

The first four areas of inquiry are up on the blog website, and they are:

  • Assault on Teacher Education:  The assault on teacher education is being led by neoliberal and conservative ideologues who want to de-professionalize teaching, and one of the places to do this is by attacking the nation’s colleges and universities that prepare teachers.
  • Authoritarian Reform: In this inquiry, I am going to explore another movement that has historically played a role to oppose corporate, authoritarian, un-democratic, and right-wing policies and beliefs, and that is the work and wish of progressives, who have played a role in American history, starting with the American revolution.
  • Effect of Poverty on Learning:  There are bloggers and researchers who understand the nature of poverty and its effects, and why journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, corporate executives, and the billionaire boys club reformers either whitewash or simply avoid the problem. In fact, we have entered a period of “no excuses education,” which is held up as the option of “choice,” especially for families living in poor communities.
  • Charter Schools: In Whose Interest?:  Charter schools are seen as a cure-all to raise test scores of American students. It kind of like a philosopher’s stone, or a 19th century elixir, to serve as an antidote for the ills of traditional public schools. Many policymakers are motivated by the delusion that choice and competition are the answers to solving problems facing our schools.  In this inquiry, we’ll explore the underlying rationale for charter schools (the rationale has moved from one of true curriculum development by teachers, to a cash cow for charter management companies). When you look carefully at charter schools, they do not offer the kind of choice they claim in press releases and other public statements.

Future inquiries include:

  • High Stakes Testing and Teacher Evaluation
  • The National Council on Teacher Quality & the Art fox Ineptness
  • Politics and Influence Peddling
  • Progressive Pedagogy
  • Questioning Standards-Based Education
  • Stealth Appearances of Intelligent Design

Welcome back to the Art of Teaching Science blog.

Countering the Authoritarian Reform Agenda

I am going to argue in this post that progressive values should set the ideals of teaching and learning in American society.  These values are rooted in democratic ideals and citizen action.  Unfortunately the cloud of authoritarianism looms over education, making it difficult to design curriculum and instruction around progressive values.

This post is a counter to the  conservative world-view has taken hold of education in the U.S. and a continuation of the last post on this blog in which the nature of the conservative view was explored and used to explain the testing scandal that appears to extend beyond Atlanta.

elephantsAs Kendrick Smith states in his new book, Who Stole the American Dream?, there has been a rebellion in this country and it has been led by corporations, Washington lobbyists (who outnumber the members of the House and Senate by 130 – 1!), rightist “think tanks” and organization such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  According to Smith, this movement had its origins in the Carter Administration.  It was under Carter’s administration that power shifted in favor of pro-business.  Smith explains that in 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and member of the boards of 11 corporations, wrote a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memorandum was dated August 23, 1971, two months prior to Powell’s nomination by President Nixon to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Smith writes about this about Powell’s memo (referred to now as Powell’s Manifesto).

In a tone of exasperation, he chided America’s corporate leaders for bowing to mainstream middle-of-the-road policies and for adopting a strategy of “appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem.” The time has come, he insisted, for Corporate America to adopt “a more aggressive attitude” and to change Washington’s policies through “confrontation politics.”  (Smith, Hedrick (2012-09-11). Who Stole the American Dream? (Kindle Locations 375-378). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

Powell’s memo, according to Smith, set in motion a momentous shift in the political balance of power in Washington in favor of business and conservative views.  One of the major recommendations in the Powell Manifesto was to counter what he viewed as a university campus assault on the “enterprise” system, and to do that he suggested that the Chamber of Commerce should assemble a staff of highly skilled scholars in the social sciences who “believe in the system,” and have the reputation to confront the likes of Ralph Nader, William Kunstler, and Charles Reich.

Shock and Awe

Bill Moyers referred to the Powell Memo as a Call to Arms for Corporations. Moyers explained that Powell’s message was:

to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

In Moyers terms, the counterattack that grew out of the Powell memo was a “domestic version of Shock and Awe.

Hendrick Smith states that the memo influenced or inspired the creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Accuracy in Academe, and other powerful organizations. According to Smith, “their long-term focus began paying off handsomely in the 1980s, in coordination with the Reagan Administration’s “hands-off business” philosophy.”

Thus began the recruitment of scholars and ex-politicians in the social science and law who “believed in the system.”

In the 1990s and through the first decade of the 21st century, the middle class began to shrink, and the wealth gap increased to the extent that Smith characterized the new economy as “the economy of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.   Even beginning in the mid-sixties, Smith documents the rise of the radical right, and how extremism took over the Republican Party.  The drive to attack Social Security, Medicare, and constant insistence of lower taxes (especially for the rich).

In the introduction to his book, Smith talks about the “gross inequality of income and wealth in America, and suggests that it the “gravest challenge in our society.  As Smith acknowledges, if the extremes (of wealth and education) become too great, then equal opportunity is undermined, and our economy is at risk.

Although Smith does not talk about it directly, education has been subjected to the radical right’s dream to privatize public education by using public monies to fund national charter organizations to run local schools under the false banner of choice.  For decades, the right has pushed the idea of vouchers as another “choice” parents can make to educate their children.  It’s really not choice, because the idea is to channel kids into private schools, or charters.

One of the organizations that has underwritten much of the legislation that has been cropping up in state legislatures around the country is our old friend, ALEC.  ALEC has been exposed as  a right-wing “bill-mill” that writes legislation at the their headquarters in D.C., invites Republican state legislators to a lavish multi-day conference at which ALEC dispenses actions in the form of “model legislation or bills” that can be easily converted into local and state legislatures.

If you take a look at these model bills, it is clear that ALEC is in the business privatizing schools, and undermining teachers. As I wrote in an earlier post, there is a clear attempt to commercialize education and exploit children and schooling further undoing the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy.

Pushing Back:  Progressivism as Activism

In this post, I am going to explore another movement that has historically played a role to oppose corporate, authoritarian, un-democratic, and right-wing policies and beliefs, and that is the work and desire of progressives, who have played a role in American history, starting with the American revolution.

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.

In an earlier post I used the theory developed by George Lakoff to explain the nature of the conservative world-view.  In this post I’ll use the theory to explain progressive education.

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 ideologies 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 nurturing parent family. He suggests that nurturing has two key aspects: empathy and responsibility. Lakoff explains that nurturing parents are authoritative but without being authoritarian.

If we apply the nurturing 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 on person or client centered theory by Carl Rogers many decades ago, he explained that empathy was 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.

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 added values that emerge from the nurturing parent family and these include, protection, fulfillment in life, freedom, opportunity, fairness, equality, prosperity, 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 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 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 affected 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 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 classical 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).

Progressive Teachers Today

Progressivism is an important aspect of the present education scene.

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 a nurturing parent. Students in the progressive classroom are analogous to children in a nurturing 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 based on the lived experiences of students, and the interests that students might have for getting involved in real work?

Progressive teachers would strike, as the teachers in Chicago did last year;  they would refuse to administer a high-stakes test that they believe is not relevant to their work or their student’s learning; and they would raise questions about the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Progressive teachers would look at accountability, the testing scandals, and teacher evaluation in very different ways.

Issues Seen Through Progressive Educator Lens

Conservatives has created an authoritarian system of accountability, including the use of high-stakes tests to measure student learning and to test teachers and schools.  Progressive educators would look at this issue in a very different way.

Accountability

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 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 does 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 real carrying out of accountability measures in the hands of professional teachers, who are board certified, and qualified, just as my doctors are responsible to test, diagnose and prescribe a path to better health for my family. Teachers have comparable attitudes as doctors, which include empathetic 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.  Thirty-five Atlanta Public School educators were accused by a grand jury of racketeering, false statements and writings, false swearing, theft by taking and influencing witnesses.
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 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 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. John Merrow has recently reported on Frontline  that there probably was widespread cheating or test erasures under Michelle Rhee’s tenure.  No doubt a failed policy existed in Washington under Rhee’s administration.  Authority for education can stay at the department of education, BUT they have to change the policies that hold 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, in the form of letter to Secretary Duncan, 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 determine the value she adds to her class. She asked how they can look at 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 called “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 progressive 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?