Marc Waxman has been an educator for 17 years, including 12 in New York City, and the last two in Denver.
I had the opportunity to meet with Diane Ravitch for about an hour a few weeks ago. (The meeting was a consequence of an electronic dialogue that started on this website). In a quick email exchange after our meeting, Dr. Ravitch stated “I could see that you are a real progressive….”
Yup, she called me the “P” word! How could she? Me? My 17-year resume as an urban educator seems to be as un-progressive as they come: Working as a Teach For America corps member, a KIPP teacher, a co-founder and co-director of a high performing charter school in Harlem. For goodness sakes – I am the founding Head of School of a charter school that will be replacing an existing public school in Montbello with the goal nothing short of having one of the highest-rated schools on DPS’s School Performance Framework. Can I actually be a progressive educator?
You better believe it!
When did “progressive” become a dirty word? In the current world of urban education reform, it’s ok to say you are “paternalistic” and it’s ok to say you ascribe to a “no excuses” philosophy. Those terms have clear, and positive, meaning in our current education and education reform dialogue. But I can’t tell you the last time I have heard the word “progressive” used in that dialogue, forget about positively used.
No – I take that back. I can recall the last time I heard the word “progressive.” It was when I was with a group of “progressive” educators a couple months ago who had been called together by a local foundation to figure out how to talk about their schools in the media, to the philanthropic community, etc., without actually using the word “progressive.”
This blog post (and the couple that will follow on the same topic) is my attempt to take the word back, to make “progressive” a word educators, and those who care about education and enter the education dialogue, can use and use positively.
When we lose our ability to collectively know what a word means, we lose our ability to communicate. There has been tons of media attention focused on “no excuses” schools and “paternalistic” schools, so if you have being paying attention to the current education reform narrative you knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned those terms above.
Unfortunately, we do not have an accessible concept for other educational approaches that can be equally, if not more, effective with the same student populations. In one of my favorite books, “1984” by George Orwell, the control of language is a key element in the control of thought, and ultimately, in the control of action.
We must ensure that the narrowing of our education dialogue does not get to the point where we can no longer think or act in certain ways because we have lost critical language. (It should be noted that George Orwell is also the author of one of my favorite quotes – “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”)
The definition of an educational concept is worthy of much more than a short blog post. But we all need to start somewhere, so the list below is my best attempt to begin to reclaim the word “progressive.” In fact, I am going to use the term “pragmatic progressive” to help differentiate it.
As a pragmatic progressive, I believe:
- Academic achievement and social and emotional growth are equally important. Neither on its own is sufficient.
- Schools are critical not only to develop individuals who can drive the engine of our economy, but to develop people that will lead socially responsible, productive lives and people that will ensure we have a robust, effective democracy.
- Great teaching starts with the student. Teachers must get to know their students, not only as learners, but as people.
- Instruction must be differentiated. Children don’t learn the same thing, the same way, at the same time.
- Assessing students consistently and continually is essential. The best assessments are the ones that are not standardized, but authentic. Great teachers meet their students where they are and move them forward regardless if they are struggling, average, or advanced. Assessment begins not with tests, but with observation.
- A corollary to the bullet above: standards are useful as benchmarks, but should not be the principal drivers of instruction. The advanced student who is ahead of standards should be supported in even more advanced work, and the struggling student who is making progress should feel success no matter how far below standards he is.
- Classrooms should be structured, rigorous and have a palpable sense of urgency. Every moment should matter and every system should be purposeful – whether it is designed to develop an academic skill or instill a core value.
- School should be fun, but serious. It should be relaxed, but intense. (These ideas are not mutually exclusive.)
- All people that work with children should have extremely high expectations – in regards to behavior and academic achievement.
- Children should develop strong character traits like grit and resiliency, but also strong values like compassion and empathy. (Again, these things are not mutually exclusive).
- Students should be taught to think critically. I don’t mean just the how-to-think-through-a-complicated-math-problem type of critical thinking. I mean the how-to-critique-the-social-order type of thinking – to look at the world and decide what is right and wrong with it.
- Children should develop independence. They do this by being giving opportunities to think and act for themselves – to make mistakes and learn from them.
- Learning is messy and nonlinear. The deeper the learning, the messier and less linear it is.
That’s what the “p” word means to me. Tell me where I got it right, where you think I am lost, what I am missing…. My next two posts will follow up on this list; one will focus on why progressive education is so important and the other will focus on specific examples from a real-life progressive classroom. So your comments and comments will be greatly appreciated as I expect they will inform my writing.
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