For over a century, there has been conflict among public officials, researchers, educators, and parents over whether traditional or progressive ways of teaching reading, math, science, and other subjects are best. Nowhere has this unrelenting search for the one best way of teaching a subject or skill been more obvious than in the search for “good” schools. Such debates have masked the unadorned fact that there is more than one kind of “good” school.
What follows is a verbal collage of two elementary schools I know well. School A is a quiet, orderly school where the teacher’s authority is openly honored by both students and parents. The professional staff sets high academic standards, establishes school rules that respect differences among students, and demands regular study habits from the culturally diverse population. Drill and practice are parts of each teacher’s daily lesson. Report cards with letter grades are sent home every nine weeks. A banner in the school says: “Free Monday through Friday: Knowledge–Bring Your Own Container.” These snippets describe what many would call a “traditional” school.
School B prizes freedom for students and teachers to pursue their interests. Most classrooms are multiage (6- to 9-year-olds and 7- to 11-year-olds). Every teacher encourages student-initiated projects and trusts children to make the right choices. In this school, there are no spelling bees; no accelerated reading program; no letter or numerical grades. Instead, there is a year-end narrative in which a teacher describes the personal growth of each student. Students take only those standardized tests required by the state. A banner in the classroom reads: “Children need a place to run! Explore!” This brief description describes what many would call a “progressive” school.
Both schools A and B are “good” schools. What parents, teachers, and students at each school value about knowledge, teaching, learning, and freedom differs. Yet both public schools have been in existence for 25 years. Parents have chosen to send their children to the schools. Both schools have staffs that volunteered to work there. Annual surveys of parent and student opinion have registered praise for each school; teacher turnover at each school has been virtually nil; each school has had waiting lists of parents who wish to enroll their sons and daughters.
Understanding this dichotomy, its history, and its limits as an analytical frame is essential to undertanding American schools. It should not be the end of your analysis, but it should be part of the beginning. And while the basic concepts here are familiar to most Americans, surprisingly few seem to grasp that the conflict between these points of view goes back at least a century, each side has successful schools and smart theorists on its side, and neither is ever going to completely "win," take over, or go away.
You need to keep this frame in mind to understand how people react to different ideas, and how different ideas and programs become lumped together. I don't understand why Core Knowledge people are very pro-phonics, other than that they are both "traditional." P12 gets hung up trying to pretend the argument doesn't exist, while at the same time they're attacked as a stalking horse for progressives.
We're living through a period of test-driven, business-model reform which doesn't really suit either side, but ultimately is more compatible with a traditional school model than a progressive one. But at the same time, this is presented as some kind of radical, disruptive change to the system, where all change is good, so the way we talk and think about it is fundamentally muddied.