Traditional vs. Progressive

by Robert Pondiscio
May 26th, 2010

If you encourage students to express themselves, you’re teaching progressive English composition.  You’re teaching a traditional curriculum, says Charles Murray, if you “make them diagram sentences and mark up their papers for grammatical and spelling errors. In red ink.”  At AEI’s Enterprise Blog, Murray describes receiving an email from a teacher who wondered if he is teaching a traditional or progressive curriculum, since the terms are thrown around with little attempt to define them.  Murray, offers no defintion, but with tongue clearly in cheek offers a few examples:

Progressive science: Teach about how pollution affects the lives of all of us.
Traditional: Teach chemistry, physics, and biology.

Progressive American studies: Mention James Madison in a sentence and devote a chapter to Harriet Tubman.
Traditional: Devote a chapter to James Madison and mention Harriet Tubman in a sentence (maybe a paragraph).

Methinks he’s merely scratching the surface.  Here are some Murray neglected to list:

Traditional:  “Miss Jones”
Progressive:  “Betty”

Traditional: Rigor
Progressive: Engagement

Traditional:  Pop quiz
Progressive: Portfolio

Traditional:  State capitols
Progressive: My community

Traditional:  “You’re suspended!”
Progressive: “You need to reflect.”

Traditional: Writing assignment
Progressive: Writer’s notebook

Traditional:    a² + b² = c²
Progressive:  How tall is that tree?  Here’s a kite, some string and a yardstick. 

Traditional:  Eat your spinach.
Progressive: Who picked your spinach?

100 Years of Solipsism

by Robert Pondiscio
February 8th, 2010

There is a significant shortcoming in Susan Engel’s much-discussed and widely lauded vision of what children should do in school all day, writes Dan Willingham at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, and it’s that content is never mentioned.  “It’s all about process—reading is a skill, science is all about observing and finding patterns, and so on,” he writes.

“Skills and knowledge are actually not separable, and it’s a mistake to base a curriculum solely on skills. The response, I expect, would be that the content will come along naturally, as part of the authentic activities. But it hasn’t in the past. 

Citing Diane Ravitch’s Left Back, Willingham points out that Engel’s ideas are not fresh and new, nor are they based on “modern developmental science” as she claims.   And they’re not necessarily bad ideas.  However, they are nearly impossible to implement effectively.

Progressive curricula are characterized by “authenticity.” Authenticity means that the underlying principles that the child is supposed to learn are seldom overt. To learn about ecosystems, the child might grow tomatoes. It is simply harder to ensure that the child is thinking about ecosystems and not about tomato sandwiches, or that worms are gross, or that his shoes are muddy. It can be done, assuredly, and it’s wonderful when it is, but it presents real challenges.

“Done right, progressive methods are terrific. All the benefits — student engagement, understanding that is more closely tied to out-of-school contexts — do accrue. Done wrong, progressive methods turn in to fluff, into kids horsing around a greenhouse,” he concludes.

Over at Teacher in a Strange Land, the redoubtable Nancy Flanagan comes to Engel’s defense.  Sort of.  Flanagan shows she understands the complexity of successful project-based learning.  If Engel gets it, her piece gives no clue.  Rather she leaves the distinct impression that everything worth knowing can be arrived at by diligent inquiry, which is a tall order–especially for young children. 

Me?  I’m grateful for the Pythagorean Theorem.  And even more grateful that someone explained it to me rather than leaving it to me to discover on my own.

“How All Our Schools Should Be”

by Robert Pondiscio
February 11th, 2009

Ed reformers and charter school advocates were doing handsprings last week when President Obama visited Washington’s Capital City Public Charter School and praised “this kind of innovative school” as “an example of how all our schools should be.”

Does that mean that all schools should have “project-based learning,” “mathematics instruction based on problem-solving,” “science instruction that is hands-on and inquiry-based,” and “authentic assessment based on multiple measures, including student portfolios” just like Capital City does?

Fordham’s clever “Reform-o-meter” moved to red hot with the Obama visit, signaling the visit was a big win for ed reformers, but progressive ed blogger Tom Hoffman of Tuttle SVC saw things quite differently.

Obama didn’t go to a KIPP school, he didn’t go to one of Michelle Rhee’s schools, he didn’t go to TJ; he and his wife and his Secretary of Education went to a small, progressive, community-governed urban public school, exactly the kind of school I love and advocate for; he planted his feet and said ‘This kind of innovative school…is an example of how all our schools should be.’ I couldn’t ask for a more clear statement.

“Could we make a little hay over this please?” Hoffman wrote, calling out progressive ed bloggers. ”Cause you know if he went to a KIPP school first we’d never hear the end of it.”

Man’s got a point.

Guest Blogger Fred Strine: 1984 Now

by Guest Blogger
December 21st, 2008

by Fred Strine

Imagine the widespread panic if doctors nationwide abandoned genuine medical expertise labeling it old-fashioned, out of touch, and insufficient for treating patients. Suppose medical schools focused on patient psychology and beside manner instead of anatomy, diagnosis and prescription therapy. What if your family M.D. suddenly morphed into a wellness facilitator (W.F.) encouraging you to “discover” your own path to better health?  Would you passively accept the change? Would you buy such blithe explanations as, “ We treat the patient, not the disease,” or “Our holistic approach to medicine more thoroughly meets the needs of 21st century patients”?

Before you dismiss the above as demented lunacy, please recognize this is no updated 1984 scenario. In reality we’re not talking about the medical profession of the future. We are talking about the education profession in America NOW. The parallels are frightening but all too true.

Most teachers certified in the last decade or so are teaching subjects they never majored in. Your children are in their classes. Parents expect subject mastery and expertise from today’s educators, but both are sadly missing. It’s outright deception on a massive scale.  Education professors and their required courses brainwash future teachers into believing anyone schooled in child psychology and progressive education doctrine can facilitate learning anything in any discipline.  This notion is recycled rubbish, fermented and fomented in the compost heap of American ed. philosophy. It’s been with us since before the turn of the 20th century, but it’s news to American parents.

The teaching profession in 2009 is populated with young teachers too inexperienced to know anything different, established teachers too in debt to risk job security, and endangered traditional teachers too rare and too ostracized to be taken seriously. Administrators and union officials entrenched in John Dewey progressive dogma salivate over anticipated government grants using your tax money. Meanwhile parents and traditionalists within the system are ignored and castigated.

Ideologues thoroughly proficient in “edu-speak” euphemisms run American public schools today. They’re public relations experts keeping parents happy but out of touch. I’d call their obfuscation a national swindle. “Child-centered” certainly passes a hoodwinked public’s apple-pie test. “Outcome-based” assures everyone of attainable goals. “Pathways” pacify parents concerned about directionless kids. “Constructivist” no doubt betokens a solid “back to basics” foundation.

But wait. These sound-good sound bites represent updates of a progressive ed. philosophy in high fashion way back in the late 1800s. Thoroughly discredited ever since, progressive ed. has reinvented itself every generation with new “edu-speak” jargon.  Just ask any veteran teacher old enough to have survived the cycles.

These specious catch phrases reflect the views of well-intentioned but wrong-headed utopians who invariably thought socialism would save the world. Their adherents still reside in ivory-tower academia, bad mouthing America and willfully ignoring the horrific lessons of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Cuba. Worst of all, these education Ph.D.’s are teaching our teachers and have been since the ‘60s.

The shocking truth is today’s public schools don’t even attempt to provide a solid academic foundation for ALL students. It’s what parents expect and what parents thought they were getting. Only students who opt for college prep courses get a shot at solid academics, and practically speaking even these classes have been systematically dumbed down during the 37 years since I began teaching.

Schools don’t promote independent thinking anymore. Even math problem solving routinely becomes a group project. Ninth graders, supposedly algebra ready, still cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide on paper. At 58, I managed simple math in my head before my students figured out which calculator keys to push. They thought I was a math whiz. The difference is 45 years ago I learned my times tables. Memorizing anything nowadays “ist verboten!” in progressive ed. America—has been for decades.

Today’s facilitators (edu-speak for teacher) think their job is merely helping kids learn on their own during group “discovery” sessions. In English, my chosen field, I was the only teacher in my department who failed to embrace the facilitator approach. Today’s facilitators have no clue about the expertise a traditional English teacher was expected to display “back in the day.”  (Aside: Good thing my current M.D. memorized the location of my appendix. Glad he didn’t have to operate by the “discovery” method.)

Of my 28 colleagues in the English dept. only one other geezer and I know what a direct object is. My grammar diagnostic test routinely given to 7th graders in the 70s proved way too tough for my current high school TEACHER colleagues. Our Language Arts department has no Standard English textbooks. The facilitators wouldn’t use them anyway. “Besides, nobody cares about stuff like subject-verb agreement anymore,” I’ve been told. Meanwhile glaring errors such as, “Her and me feel the same,” pass muster with both students AND their facilitators.

With group work practically universal, cheating is rampant and registers little social stigma among students. Street-wise “players” within groups dump responsibility on the smart ones, hoping to slide by with the least effort possible. No longer does a high school diploma guarantee even basic subject expertise. Students are, however, well rehearsed in co-operative activities with their peers, and they do feel good about themselves.

If schools and young teachers committed to groupthink activities were truly honest, they’d start granting one group diploma on graduation day. That practice would certainly shorten ceremonies, but would Emily Spitzer, Group Diploma Recipient #247 who plans to become a neuro-surgeon, qualify for a 21st century med. school? Hope she finds some smart lab partners!

Wise up, America. By default public education has declared the earth flat again and fallen off the edge. Somebody please re-discover Pythagoras, and let’s get back to a truly well-rounded, grounded education for all.

Fred Strine recently retired after teaching for 36 years in the Seattle area.

Eich bin ein Reformer II

by Robert Pondiscio
December 12th, 2008

“Beware school reformers,” Alfie Kohn warns darkly in The Nation.  In the world according to Mr. Kohn there are “educational progressives,” and then there are reformers who are ”disconcertingly allied with conservatives.”  To be a school reformer, Kohn writes with no apparent fear of contradiction, is to support:

  • a heavy reliance on fill-in-the-bubble standardized tests to evaluate students and schools, generally in place of more authentic forms of assessment;
  • the imposition of prescriptive, top-down teaching standards and curriculum mandates;
  • a disproportionate emphasis on rote learning–memorizing facts and practicing skills–particularly for poor kids;
  • a behaviorist model of motivation in which rewards (notably money) and punishments are used on teachers and students to compel compliance or raise test scores;
  • a corporate sensibility and an economic rationale for schooling, the point being to prepare children to “compete” as future employees; and
  • charter schools, many run by for-profit companies.

“Notice that these features are already pervasive, writes Kohn, which means “reform” actually signals more of the same.”

(Deep, cleansing breath)  It’s hard to know how to begin unwinding all that is argumentative, tendentious and just plain wrong about this uniquely unhelpful little screed, insisting as Kohn does, that there is a political litmus test for favoring certain ideas in education.  E.D. Hirsch could write a book about the inability of educators to differentiate progressive ends from progressive means (Wait. He’s already written at least three such books) and Kohn falls right into the same old pattern.

All but the most diehard accountability hawks seem to have accepted the idea that there’s more to student achievement than can be demonstrated by merely bubbling in a reading test once a year.  By my count, about 4% of the nation’s 100,000 public schools are charters.  That’s Kohn’s defintion of “pervasive?”  And prescriptive, top-down teaching standards?  Where, pray tell?  Mostly we have a collection of empty “performance” (not content) standards that are so loose and impressionistic that virtually any lesson on any subject can be said to meet some standard. 

And then there’s that most dogeared of pages in the familiar Alfie Kohn hymnal: ”disproportionate emphasis on rote learning–memorizing facts and practicing skills.”  It’s charge he habitually and dishonestly throws at Core Knowledge schools.  In what dark satanic mill is all this rote memorization happening?  Show me.  Given how “pervasive” it is, it shouldn’t be hard. 

Matthew Ygelsias also goes after Mr. Kohn, calling the case for national standards pretty clear:

It’s silly for the federal government to invest a significant amount of money in something without articulating any kind of uniform national goals the money is supposed to be supporting. Beyond that, it’s incredibly harmful to children that when they move — a circumstance that disproportionately impacts poor children — there’s no curricular alignment between what they were learning previously and what they’re being taught now.

Update:  The wise and wonderful Nancy Flanagan, while not commenting on Kohn’s piece, says it all over at Teacher in a Strange Land.  “The worst possible way to approach any productive reform is to set up adversarial camps, and pit them against each other,” she observes. ”Win or lose. Leaving the winner with a constituency that’s half triumphant and half averse.”