Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Traditional or Progressive? Your Basic Framework for Understanding American Schools

Larry Cuban:

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.


Claus von Zastrow said...

Thanks for quoting from Larry Cuban's blog, which is a critical--and under-appreciated--resource.

Core Knowledge actually takes a very balanced view of phonics. The are certainly not among the diehards who support phonics and phonics only.

Tom Hoffman said...

Hi Claus,

There is a difference between what the actual Core Knowledge curriculum says and what the people in the larger Core Knowledge community are enthusiastic about. That is, a lot of the supporters are more knee-jerk traditionalist.

Of course, what is really in the curriculum is more important, but if you didn't understand how this relates to the larger traditional/progressive debate, it would be very confusing.

Bill Kerr said...

I've taught in a middle class school which was "traditional" and a Disadvantaged school which was "progressive". Nevertheless, it was essential in the Disadvantaged school to pay far more attention to basic skills of the students. The School Admin supported any new ideas that worked. I was free to implement progressive methods such as logo learning but the nature of the students meant that I also had to provide a lot of individual and assistance for basic skills (repetition, tracking individual progress carefully, drill). By contrast in the middle class school everyone could pretend they were good teachers because the students were so good.

This is one place where the broad brush strokes of Larry Cuban break down.

It breaks down in other ways too. A middle class family may have four children. The first 3 learn easily. The fourth struggles and is eventually diagnosed with some sort of learning difficulty. The last child requires more traditional methods expertly applied. The family would never have realised that leaning to free development didn't always work if they had stopped at 3 children.

The broad brush strokes contain some truth but there is also some omission here - of the close up nitty gritty, of social class / disadvantage and specific learning difficulties.

Tom Hoffman said...


Cuban's larger point is that we need to get beyond that dichotomy -- and we do. But on the other hand, talking about US education policy without keeping these points of view in mind is like talking about politics without knowing there are parties.

Anonymous said...

I am concerned that Traditional School and Progressive School get conflated with the political left and the political right. Did they ever match up well?