Is progressive education dead in state schools?

To answer the question, we need to define what we mean by progressive education. Steve Nelson writes in First Do No Harm that, “A fundamental concept of progressive education is the idea of children being agents or architects of their own learning.” For me, this is the fundamental concept. Children negotiate with the teacher over what, when and how to study, learning to take and justify decisions independently.

Using this definition, it is obvious that progressive education in the state sector has largely been extinguished. National Curricula dictate what to teach and when to teach it; official decrees prescribe how to teach. In England, the 1988 Education Act set the curriculum and the National Strategies sought to impose the teaching model (a role since taken on by the current Schools Minister). Not only is the state sector devoid of student agency, there is also very little space for teacher agency. These developments have been compounded by the accountability measures on schools, which have become more draconian, and the budget cuts that see class sizes increase. It is very difficult to promote self-directed learning in my year 9 ‘bottom’ set, which now contains 30 students, while covering a packed compulsory curriculum.

As progressive education has been wiped out in state schools, progressive teachers have found it difficult to stay in the classroom. Those that leave and wish to continue in education have taken one of two paths. Either they have moved into academic careers where they become increasingly out of touch, marginalised and irrelevant. Or they become consultants. Those in this category are generally middle-class liberals who disown their progressive roots for fear of offending prospective employers. They deny there is a dichotomy between progressive and traditional models and claim there is ‘no right way’ to teach. They adopt ‘reasonable’ and ‘balanced’ positions in a self-serving attempt to remain marketable to as many headteachers as possible.

These people survive selling their expertise because, while progressive education has all but disappeared in state schools, it remains widespread in the independent sector. Two 0429_dalton-school_400x400of the most expensive schools in New York, for example, are progressive: the Dalton School (annual fees: $46 000) and Calhoun (annual fees: $38 000). Even President Obama (who, with heavy irony, named his education act Every Student Succeeds) sent his daughters to the progressive University of Chicago Laboratory School (annual fees: $34 000) set up by John Dewey. At a more modest level, international schools using the IB’s inquiry-based programmes attract business from local elites and foreigners working for multi-nationals. It is always amusing to hear traditionalists calling for ‘disadvantaged’ children to be taught like their peers from wealthy families who attend independent schools. Of course, they never add that a good proportion of those independent schools use progressive methods.

Notwithstanding the bleak picture in the state sector, some progressives do stay and attempt to subvert the reactionary system. These individuals endeavour to develop students as agents and architects of learning within the constraints they face. They take inspiration from the very few contemporary progressive state schools serving areas of high deprivation, such the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Steadfast in their belief that all children deserve the opportunity to experience the progressive education that, at the moment, is only available to the children of the wealthy, these teachers are laying the foundations for a better and brighter future. 

A time of reaction (in state schools)

study of PISA 2012 data found that “state school pupils report more traditional teaching than in private schools.” This should come as little surprise. The elite do not pay for their children to be treated like those in the local state school who are herded into large classes and taught by rote. Not for them the dependency and passivity of the children of the poor; no, they want their own children to be independent and curious. And for this, they pay private and international schools for critical thinking and inquiry-based learning.

In a time of limited budgets, traditionalists not only justify this division, but also make a virtue of it.

Traditionalists argue that an authoritarian approach is necessary so that poor and working class children acquire ‘knowledge capital’. Without it, they claim, the ‘disadvantaged’ are doomed to perpetuate their cycle of deprivation. This highly paternalistic (and insulting) approach sees  young people forced to comply with petty rules and revere authority or face being criminalised. The regimented classrooms remind the observer of a Pavlovian experiment in which children play the part of the conditioned dog; the corridors remind you of a military parade ground. In fact, authoritarianism leads to unpleasant character traits (such as, being a good liar) and ‘zero tolerance’ leads to the suspension of a disproportionately high number of black and disabled students.

Of course, support for authoritarianism is exactly what cash-strapped governments want to hear in recessionary times. Standardise teaching and assessment, and thereby achieve economies of scale, by inviting big business to impose its sterile blueprint for education regardless of the local context. Turn teaching into a few nasty acronyms (such as, Lemov’s STAR), which teachers can learn by rote, rather than train teachers to be creative and reflective. In this way, state schools become places of regimented students, limited curricula and uncritical teachers.

All three are cheaper than the alternative: regimented students take up fewer resources than caring institutions use for the well-being of vulnerable individuals; limited curricula take less time to implement than those responsive  to the students’ needs and interests; and uncritical teachers are easier to control when the state reduces salaries and cuts back opportunities for professional learning.

The duty of progressive teachers is to promote in state schools the teaching methods that the elite can afford to pay for. As Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, “It is the aim of progressive education to take part in correcting unfair privilege and unfair deprivation.”