Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Is Traditionalist vs. Progressives Over?

Larry Cuban:

Cyclical battles between Traditionalists and Progressives over the best ways to teach reading (phonics vs. whole language) and math (conceptual vs. rule-driven), over which subjects should be central to a core academic curriculum—are no longer central to what is occurring in public schools now and in the immediate future.

Since the late-1970s, the center of gravity in debating what are “good” schools has shifted slowly from Traditional vs. Progressive curricula and pedagogy to where U.S. students stand internationally on academic performance. The cold-water dousing of the U.S. falling short in global economic competition in the 1980s coincided with the “Reagan Revolution” in the U.S. and the emerging belief that a results-driven system of schooling was crucial to a growing economy. That shift toward political conservatism, containing an animus to government action and a love affair with free market principles has created new structures that make the cyclical battles between Traditionalists and Progressives as quaint as a rotary dial on a phone.

In the past quarter-century, a decided shift in the primary goal of U.S. schooling has occurred: From creating the best curriculum and pedagogy to increasing student achievement. Today, what largely defines a “good” school is the level of student performance on key tests, high school graduation rates, and college admissions.

From my point of view, Cuban is overstating the case. The rhetoric has certainly changed in the era of accountability, but it isn't clear that the war hasn't simply changed to a new front -- defining what goes into the standards and assessments.

Progressives are at a disadvantage in this fight because we spend half (or more) of our time questioning whether or not the entire system of standards and assessment are appropriate at all, rather than strongly asserting what should go into them.

Traditionalists simply refuse to understand the role of standards in the educational endeavor, which does surprisingly little harm to the influence of their arguments.

The ground is also more favorable to the traditional side because traditional tests and grading yield more readily to straightforward and seemingly objective data analysis. Progressives like me who get into data systems are generally motivated by the challenge of collecting much richer and complex qualitative evidence and data about learning.

I do understand what Cuban is getting at, however. I'm leaning toward believing that we need a third archetypal style to describe American education. Perhaps we can call it "programmed," or maybe there is a more appropriate term floating around out there. The Common Core ELA standards are a good example of an approach which should be satisfying neither to traditionalists nor to progressives. It is about redefining the entire system, from goals down, to fit the needs of automated systems. Perhaps this is just a variation on Cuban's thesis.

But, all of the above mostly just reflects talk. What's happening in the ground, in my neighborhood, city and state is that progressive education is being rolled back, rapidly, systematically, and largely silently in favor of traditional approaches. Schools are being closed, curricula is reverting to traditional paradigms, veteran leaders are marginalized.

This is done at the same time as, for example, our RttT application promises an ambitious program of "project-based learning" some time in the future, guided by a new batch of outside consultants. Does this reflect confusion, the new union of traditional and progressive, or is it just a lie? I know one thing for sure, you won't hear anyone from RIDE stepping up and saying that Hope High School should retain their block schedule because they're going to need it once we all start doing project-based learning again.


Chris Lehmann said...

It's just a lie.

Anonymous said...

There is more than one pair of opposite poles in US education... and this remains one of them.

Where I pay the most attention, high school mathematics, there's mostly a cease fire, but new skirmishes do break out, skirmishes, not huge battles, and they are less likely to make headlines.

The noise happens when one side tries to push for a new textbook adoption.

Course sequence: traditional vs non-traditional (integrated towards the center, non-math topic-driven at the extreme)

Lecture vs Discovery.

Technology vs not.

Skill acq. vs understanding

Teacher autonomy vs not

I guess this still needs some work. The text book (course sequence) business gets the most attention, probably because it is so visible, but also because it influences the rest.

On other issues "progressives" have backed way off, sometimes making it hard to get them to assert anything but flexibility - this is the dishonesty of someone who does not want to admit that he is losing.

Yeah, need to play with this much more.