Appearing before about 600 educators at a recent conference on progressive education, Deborah Meier threw away her prepared speech. In an inspired request, the MacArthur Genius Award winner and prominent advocate for progressive education asked attendees who started teaching in the 1960s to stand up. Then she called on educators who began their careers in the 1970s. She continued decade by decade to the present until a good part of the audience was standing.
Meier’s gesture made visible the long history — into the present — of progressive education in New York City’s schools. But it also raised the question: Where — in an era of high-stakes tests and number crunching — is progressive education?
Most progressive educators trace their roots to John Dewey, the early-twentieth-century philosopher who wrote extensively about the connection between education and democracy and proposed an educational model that was intellectual, pragmatic and applied. Over the past 25 years, the term has come to describe interdisciplinary instruction; alternative ways of gauging student learning, like performance-based assessment; project-based learning; advisory or guidance groups as part of the school day; small classes sizes; a full measure of art and music classes; and time set aside for teachers to plan and work together. For progressive educators, a shared vision of the purpose of education and how students should be taught unites all of these features.
At one point in the not-too-distant past, New York City was a center of progressive education. And it wasn’t just in the two schools that Meier founded and ran, the Central Park East elementary and secondary schools. From 1983 to 1997, Stephen Phillips served as the superintendent of alternative schools. Largely unknown outside of New York City education circles, Phillips oversaw 62 schools and programs that enrolled more than 120,000 students when he retired. He received a lifetime achievement award from Meier at the progressive education conference, along with the late Theodore Sizer, one of her intellectual mentors and later a colleague in the Coalition for Essential Schools, the umbrella organization for progressive schools.
Yet in the current era of standardized test-based accountability, progressive education has fallen off the radar in New York and nationally. High-stakes tests are being used to evaluate students, teachers, and schools, and charter schools — a lightly regulated alternative to traditional public schools — are seen as a panacea. Through its Race to the Top competition, the federal government is rewarding states that promote these policies with large gobs of money.
Ann Cook is the founding principal of the progressive Urban Academy High School and the head of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 28 schools whose students do not have to take Regents exams but instead demonstrate proficiency through portfolios and presentations. Cook takes no prisoners when describing the current moment in education policy.
“A lot of people who make policy provide a certain education for their children but don’t think other people’s children can benefit from it,” she said, pointing to wealthy suburban school districts and private schools such as Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., which President Obama’s daughters attend.
“They all have small classes, electives, take trips, do project-based work, try to get kids involved in a discussion, present the students with multiple perspectives — those are all hallmarks of progressive education,” Cook said. “There’s no time for these things in regular public schools. It’s all about how they do on the test.”
And yet a small contingent of educators, many who attended the conference, continues to try to apply progressive education principles in the face of mandates and constraints from the city and federal education departments.
Brady Smith is the founding principal of Validus Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, which incorporates expeditionary learning, where students are given experiences out of the classroom to help them learn and develop personally. Ninth-graders travel to Harriman State Park to explore and learn from the environment, and tenth-graders work closer to home on a long-term project planning how to use a vacant lot next to the school. They have to come up with their own vision for the use of the land, do the calculations and schematics, and make a proposal to the Port Authority, which owns the land.
“We use data quite a bit,” Smith told me. “But we have a broad definition of data. We look at student work quite a lot. My stance is — what does student performance look like? There are ways to measure it authentically … more than any one test.”
Smith says he hopes eventually to have his school accepted into the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the group Cook runs. The purpose of joining would not be just to get his students out of having to take Regents exams, Smith told me, but because the consortium offers extensive professional development to its member schools and provides a rigorous peer review process to make sure students get challenging alternate assessments.
Smith said he developed his educational philosophy while teaching in both traditional and progressive schools in Portland, Ore., and Seattle before moving to New York. For the younger teachers in his school, without the range of experiences, developing their own perspective on education can be harder, which is why Smith said he brought them to the conference.
“Many of my staff members don’t have a sense of history,” he said. “It was valuable for them to see they are part of a larger movement.”
One young teacher who attended the conference graduated from both of Meier’s Central Park East schools before beginning her teaching career. Alexis Carrero came to Lyons Community School in Brooklyn after teaching for five years at MS 37 in the Bronx, where she experienced a shift in what administrators valued.
“It all became focused on testing,” she said. “It was all about the numbers and they didn’t pay attention to the social and emotional needs of the students.”
At Lyons, Carrero and her colleagues create thematic units and focus on field studies, taking students out of the classroom, for example, to museums to learn. But they also have worked together and made changes in the school based on what they see as student needs. After some problems of aggression between boys, they rearranged the schedule and established a boys’ group and a girls’ group to talk about their own issues. (Carrero runs the girls’ group and a dean runs the boys’ group.)
“I think we’re doing great things at our school but still our test scores aren’t great,” she said. “We have to find a middle ground. We’re not teaching to the test. We’re trying to teach them skills on how to take tests. We’re still working on it. We’re a work in progress.”
Whether Carrero and her colleagues at Lyons will have a chance to figure things out remains to be seen. Although the city is encouraging principals and schools to innovate, it eschews practices that don’t center solely on improving standardized test scores.
“Good gardeners know they have to set up borders around flowerbeds in order to help them grow,” Phillips said at the conference. “If progressive education is going to be a factor in education, it has to be protected in a zone where it is safe to try things.”
Jessica Siegel, assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College, taught in the city’s public schools for 12 years. She is the subject of Small Victories by Samuel Freedman (HarperCollins, 1990).
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