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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2004 (2004) 89-112

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The Ed School's Romance with Progressivism

David F. Labaree


Progressivism became the natural ideology of education professors in the twentieth century—shaping their language and the language of American education, even though it had little impact on the practice of teacher educators and researchers or on the practice of teachers in schools. And although this ideology represents an approach to issues of teaching and learning in the public schools that is well suited to the needs of education professors, it is antithetical to the aims of the current standards-based reform movement.

The struggle for control of American education in the early twentieth century was between two factions of the movement for progressive education. The administrative progressives won, and they reconstructed the organization and curriculum of American schools in a form that has lasted to the present day. Meanwhile, the pedagogical progressives failed miserably in shaping what is done in schools, but they succeeded in shaping how to talk about schools. Professors in schools of education were caught in the middle of this dispute, and they ended up in an awkwardly compromised position. Their hands were busy, preparing teachers to work within the confines of the educational system established by the administrative progressives and carrying out research to make this system work more efficiently. [End Page 89] But their hearts were with the pedagogues. So they became the high priests of pedagogical progressivism, keeping this faith alive within the halls of the education school and teaching the words of its credo to generations of new educators.

In the lingo of American education today, progressivism means pedagogical progressivism. It means basing instruction on the needs, interests, and developmental stages of the child; teaching students the skills they need to learn any subject, instead of focusing on transmitting a particular subject; promoting discovery and self-directed learning by the student through active engagement; having students work on projects that express student purposes and that integrate the disciplines around socially relevant themes; and promoting values of community, cooperation, tolerance, justice, and democratic equality. In the shorthand of educational jargon, these traits are capsulized in phrases such as "child-centered instruction," "discovery learning," and "learning how to learn." And in the current language of American education schools, a single label captures this entire approach to education: constructivism.

As Lawrence A. Cremin has pointed out, by the 1950s this progressive approach to education had become the dominant language of American education. 1 Within the community of professional educators—that is, classroom teachers and the education professors who train them—progressivism provides the words used to talk about teaching and learning in schools. And within education schools, progressivism is the ruling ideology. It is hard to find anyone in an American education school who does not talk the talk and espouse the principles of the progressive creed.

This situation worries some educational reformers. Progressivism runs directly counter to the main thrust of educational reform efforts in the United States in the early twenty-first century. Reform is moving toward establishing rigorous academic frameworks for the school curriculum, setting performance standards for students, and using high-stakes testing to motivate students to learn the curriculum and teachers to teach it. Education schools and their progressive ideals stand in strong opposition to all of these reform efforts. In addition, reformers are seeking to reduce government regulation of access to teaching, by supporting alternative modes of teacher preparation, while ed schools strongly defend their role as the gatekeepers to the profession. To today's reformers, therefore, with their strong orientation toward standards and deregulation, ed schools look less like the solution than the problem. [End Page 90]

But these reformers should not be so worried—for two reasons. First, this form of progressivism has had an enormous impact on educational rhetoric but very little impact on educational practice. This conclusion was reached by historians of pedagogy, such as Larry Cuban and Arthur Zilversmit, and by contemporary scholars of teaching practice, such as John I. Goodlad and David K...


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pp. 89-112
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Archived 2007
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