Did Progressive Education do Too Good a Job?

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The theories abound around the Internet, especially within progressive educational circles that there are certain political and business organizations are attempting to ensure that public education as we knew it during the 60’s and 70’s is failing our students.
Is this a conspiracy theory or simply just a series of coincidences that appear to look as though this conspiracy theory is the fact?
Looking at the amount of negativity over the past 10-15 years, in the press, by politicians, venture benefactors and corporations, there seems to be severe problems within the current educational system, that need to be fixed and can only be corrected by the private sector.
Child of the 60’s & 70’s
I am a child of the 60’s and early 70’s school system that was started as a result of Russian launch of Sputnik.  There was real commitment to progressive education during this era and it resulted in that era winning the Cold War.  We were taught to be competitive, to think outside of the box, not accept that the answer in front of us was the actual answer, that there was more than one right answer to many questions, to look beyond the literal interpretation and not to accept that those in authority had all of the “right” answers or solutions to problems. But most of all to be self-reliant.
No other Country in the history of the world has had such a high standard of living, even for its poorest citizens and strangely enough much of it was built upon that progressive public education system model that incorporated those philosophies into its teaching.

America’s educational system during this time was the model that the world wanted to copy and has started to, but they are not copying the standardized testing, over-reliance on data and accountability systems, which many of them have tried and are now discarding as failures. It seems that many Countries outside the U.S. today are adopting many of the features of the U.S. progressive educational system from the 60’s and 70’s because it does work to create a workforce that can think for itself in today’s global economy.

Too Good
In education, perhaps the opposite of what is the prevailing wisdom, is the real problem. Perhaps the educational system of the 60’s and 70’s did too good a job of creating a generation of independent thinkers, who ask too many questions, don’t accept the standard answers, helped create more gender and racial equity when it wasn’t wanted by some.  I wonder did it allow the “wrong” people to climb up the ladder of success in this Country – am I one of those wrong people?  Could that be part of the problem with a progressive educational system that is properly funded – does it allows too much social movement?
Question Authority
I believe that I and others who were taught these critical thinking skills, see things differently than those who are not being taught those skills today.
In other words, we are more difficult to easily control because we do ask questions that those in authority do not always want us to ask.
 I have spoken up when it was not convenient for those in authority over me, asking for clarification or why are we doing it this way.  This way of thinking has caused me problems at times, but looking back I wouldn’t change my quests for more information or clarity on why we were doing something a certain way and in some instances have caused some small ripples on someone’s otherwise calm pond.
Is that where progressive education went wrong? Did it teach us to be too good at questioning those who are above us in the food chain, maybe that is part of the reason for all of this the push back? The attacks against an educational system that valued creative thinking, critical thinking, examining what is said in writing or spoken, and then attempting to hold those accountable for their words or deeds.

This level of critical or creative thinking is a good thing to many of us, but to others they do not want to be bothered with questions about what they are doing or how they are doing it. It is sometimes very inconvenient to have to explain actions or inactions to those below them in the natural order of things.

Regurgitation of Facts
Perhaps, that is why some of those in authority believe if they are able to reduce education for most, to a regurgitation of facts, which does depress the need for critical thinking skills and a willingness to question authority at very early ages, to one that creates an over-reliance on others for the “right answers”.  Are they doing this by mandating accountability of schools, teachers and students through standardized testing and a standards based curriculum of what will be taught.  Do these efforts create a population that will be more malleable to what those in authority want to achieve?  I hope not, but…
What Do They Want?
I do believe that those in power today do not want another generation like us, we ask too many damn questions.  We think for ourselves too much, we have been too socially mobile and we do tend to vote, which wasn’t an anticipated result of their great education experiment.  What those in power didn’t realize was that giving the G.I. Bill to the “Greatest Generation” also created a generation of children of that generation, who were raised to think and do for themselves, be very competitive and expected much more from life than 8-4, five days a week until age 65, then totter off to die.
I may be wrong and hope that I am, but there are just to many damn questions about why this education system was no longer good enough, after all the successes it did bring to our Country.
Instead of making tweaks to a successful system, glorifying our successes that were/are many and was considered the “envy” of the world.  The “powers that be” seem hell bent on tearing it down.
Most of what we get hear about today, is how bad our education system is and that it isn’t serving our students.  That the data from the test scores show that our system is failing and we have to ensure our present students pass someone’s standardized tests, that prove nothing and lack validity when interpreting student thinking skills or learning.
The standardized tests being used today as accountability tools were initially developed to be a diagnostic point in time evaluations of a student’s progress, but have now been bastardized into a data capture systems which determines whether a school is failing and if teachers are good teachers, based upon questionable (at best) validity. The mantra I hear and see today from politicians, education policy wonks, federal/state Department of Ed types and administrators is more data, more data and I say garbage in = garbage out.We need to be less data driven and ensure that we are student driven.

I know I am using all the buzzwords, but my students are individuals and they each have a name, have separate identities and have many strengths, weaknesses and yes they have needs beyond being someone’s damn data point.

The reality is
I am not a conspiracy theorist, I strongly believe in our Country and its leadership – however flawed it has been at times.  I served in its military for over 20 years and I am very biased about the good things America should stand for.  I may be a bit naive or should I say, hopeful that the leadership does have what they think is best for all Americans at heart.  But as we head further and further down this path and others we seem to be on, I can no longer tell if this is true or not?It does seem that many of the present leadership in our Country are putting the interests of the few ahead of the needs of the many.

Thank You
Thank you Mr. Ken Smith, Mr. Donn MacDonald, Ms. Christy Hamilton, Mr. Paul Whitney and all the other public education system teachers that taught this often unwilling student (yeah I admit it I wasn’t a great student, when I was in school), who pushed, challenged and pulled me through a conservatively/progressive public education system, so that I could learn to think for myself and not simply parrot what someone else wants me to say or believe.
I remember very clearly Mr. Smith, my Freshman Biology teacher yelling at me back in 1971.

“Think damn it.   Harold, don’t just sit there and accept what I say is the truth, make me prove it to you or look it up and prove me wrong”.No I wouldn’t yell at my students, but what he said did make a big impression on that 14 year old sitting there scared as hell of that one-eyed, black eye-patch wearing maniac science teacher.  It made me realize that he was admitting he could be wrong and it was okay if I questioned what he was telling me – this incident has stuck with me all this time and while I may not have the exact words, it is pretty close. This way of thinking has also gotten me in trouble more than once – Thanks Mr. Smith, you were always a rabble rouser, who all too often questioned authority,  but you were a great teacher.

Hopefully, I have taught in the tradition of those teachers before me and that I teach my students that they need to think critically, nurtured their creativity and that they have learned how to question authority.  If I have then I have done something right.

Finally, follow the money trail, I bet that has a lot of the answers, but that is just a theory on my part.

2 thoughts on “Did Progressive Education do Too Good a Job?

  1. Wonderful article, Mr Shaw. Thank you. You shed an interesting light on a question that has perplexed this old lady for quite some time and I will be sending folks your way for a good read!

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  2. I don't know if I shined or shed any light on the question, but it is a definitely a different perspective than the tired refrain our education system is not serving our children. The way that NCLB is designed, it is not to serve or educate our students it is to provide data to the bean counters to prove that education needs to be privatized and taken out of the public sector and given back to the private sector. That way only those who can afford to provide or pay for a good education, will get a good education – scary to me and I worry about the education that my grandchildren will receive as a result of these mandated standardized test that do not measure a students' progress, but focus on "accountability" of the system.Harold

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