Saturday, October 04, 2008


For an awful lot of people, including educators who ought to know better, the idea of progressivism in education implies a lack of standards and a lack of rigor. I'm afraid that the various "free school" movements that flourished in the last century did a great job of calling themselves "progressive," thus creating in the public mind the idea that progressive equals "permissive." At some point I started to collect examples of progressive schools as figures of fun, but I gave up--every badly behaved kid in a twentieth-century movie or novel seems to be the product of (eyebows raised archly) "a progressive school."

As John Dewey and others have made perfectly clear down the years, progressive education is hard work, and it implies high standards for student learning as well.
To create learning experiences that respond intentionally and specifically to student needs requires a rigorous attention to the nature and capacities of the students to be taught. It also requires a deep and thoughtful knowledge of subject matter and how itcan be presented to foster the desired learning.

Critical to optimal learning are the criteria against which the learning is to be measured. Sometimes these criteria are easy to identify--on a quiz on math facts, correct calculation matters. At other times, the criteria are a bit more nebulous; a persuasive essay has many elements beside the need to persuade, and so a teacher must decide what will matter and what level of performance in each evaluated area will be satisfactory and what will be excellent. We've been using rubrics for fifteen years or more to help ourselves make these decisions, and to clarify standards for ourselves and our students.

Some teachers still struggle against the use of rubrics, either because they see them as somehow confining or because making them seems like a lot of work. To the first objection, I would just say that we retain our right to be subjective, to reward excellence and creative thought when we encounter it. No rubric should prevent us from recognizing a brilliant exception that transcends our expectations, and it seems silly to imagine that a teacher-created rubric could so entrap the teacher who made it.

As far as the extra work goes, I guess I would liken the creation of rubrics and the enunciation of the specific standards they have to embody to the setting out of buoys in a harbor. Placing and dropping the markers may be hard work once in a while, but once they are in the water, everybody knows where to go.

Curiously, I think most Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers went to schools where standards were less than explicit, and yet somehow they are remembered as "high" or even rigorous. In traditional schools, an A may have been an A, and certain kids (some of whom probably became teachers because we were good at the work) figured out the standards for themselves. Many more didn't, and certainly were never told what they were, and they piled their confused and doubtless mediocre work under the center of the bell curve, right at the "C" level--it was possibly even a convenience for educators to have so many students performing at this level in order to justify their implied standards in a kind of inverse--or perverse--way, as being high precisely because so few students reached them.

To express and promote explicit high standards is hard work, but it is the kind of work that true progressive, and certainly New Progressive, educators have been doing all along. Let's keep reminding ourselves of this as we continue to raise the bar for ourselves as educators and for our students.

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