As educators and policymakers reimagine K–12 education in the post-pandemic era, there is a growing awareness that the harrowing events of the last two years should serve as a catalyst for radical new approaches to how we educate our children. Students have been traumatized by the sudden closure of their schools, by the illness and death all around them, by their lack of access to the internet for school, and by the constant reminders of racial injustice. Consensus seems to be forming around three important and overlapping goals supported by solid research evidence about needed changes to education policy and practice, beginning now:
First, schools need to become more student-centered and attentive to the whole child because students need academic, social, and emotional support to learn and thrive.
Second, education policies must place less emphasis on standardized testing as the primary measure of school accountability and student achievement.
Third, our educational system must become overtly anti-racist to address the on-going inequities that play out along racial, ethnic, and socio-economic lines and have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
This report picks up on these three goals and takes them even further, demonstrating their inter-connectedness and how, combined, they create an important road map for the future of our educational system and our democracy. In fact, none of these goals is new to the field of education. Rather, they are all supported by the research on child development, brain science, learning theory, pedagogy, and policy. Experienced educators know these lessons well; the very best teachers—the ones we remember into adulthood and who inspire us to reach our highest potential—focus on the whole child, enable students to learn key concepts by connecting them to their own experiences, know the role that culture and racial identity can play in a student’s educational experience, and understand that intelligence and ability can never be measured by a single test score. This is just good education—what we should want for all of our children.
Unfortunately, for the last thirty-plus years, education policy making has been dramatically disconnected from this knowledge and from what millions of Americans know to be good teaching and good schools. Due to this disconnect, the policies of the last three decades intended to hold schools accountable for student learning and foster between-school competition and privatization, and have had the following dismal results:
Failed to close the “achievement gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
Narrowed the definition of academic “achievement” to mean scores on a handful of standardized tests, the contents of which are only known by the test makers.
Increased stress and anxiety levels for students forced to prepare for these high-stakes tests, leaving less time for a focus on their social and emotional development or engaging subjects such as social studies/civics education, writing, the arts, and physical education.
Exacerbated racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation between schools and districts through winner-takes-all school choice plans and school rankings based on scores from racially biased tests.
Clearly, it’s time to abandon these outdated policies and seize the post-pandemic moment to create a new progressive and anti-racist educational reform strategy informed by the research evidence and the experiences and expertise of educators to achieve the goals stated above. This report is a call to action, therefore, for a much-needed return to more progressive, student-centered educational strategies, which could easily be integrated with multiple anti-racist education reform approaches embraced across the country at the grass-roots level, namely critical multicultural education, culturally relevant pedagogy, and ethnic studies. We argue, therefore, that demonstrating the philosophical and pedagogical links between progressive education, given its long history in the United States, and anti-racist education approaches can help build consensus around the future direction of an educational system that has been pushed too far away from its knowledge base on how students learn. Thus, we underscore how the implementation of harsh testing and accountability policies is antithetical to what we know our students and our racially divided nation need right now.
As educators and policymakers across the nation contemplate our schools’ post-pandemic future, the knowledge and experiences of our profession create a much-needed road map to a renewed education system that is student-centered, educates the whole child, and is anti-racist and culturally sustaining for all students. In fact, we argue that it is impossible for educators to be student-centered and focused on the whole child, including social and emotional needs, without also being anti-racist. This report shows the conceptual and practical connections across progressive and anti-racist educational strategies that should be central to the goals, purposes and accountability measures of a post-pandemic education system in the United States.
Looking Back to Move Forward
Throughout the history of American education, educators who identify as “progressive” emphasized the importance of hands-on, project-based learning tied to students’ experiences and focused on developing the emotional, artistic, and creative aspects of children’s personalities. According to John Dewey, one of the founders of progressive education, the central philosophy of this approach emphasizes the importance of the participation of the learner.1 He argued that there is no greater flaw in a traditional, teacher-centered form of education than its failure to secure the cooperation of the students in constructing the purposes of their study.
In the ebb and flow of American politics, progressive education has historically been repudiated during more conservative eras, such as the Cold War and the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration’s A Nation at Risk2 report created a backlash against the more student-centered educational strategies popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The post-1983 reform movement—the one we are still living with, in many respects—was focused primarily on increasing “outcomes,” mostly measured via test scores at the expense of more progressive approaches to education. Conversely, progressive education thrived during the early-twentieth-century progressive-era struggle for human rights in which it was born, and again during the 1960s Civil Rights-era struggle for racial equity. This synchronization of progressive education and eras of social change makes sense given that two essential elements of progressive education are (1) Respect for diversity by recognizing each child’s cultural identity, interests, ideas, and needs, and (2) the development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables participatory governance and a focus on the common good.
Today, as we look forward to the post-pandemic future and toward another potentially progressive era in U.S. politics in general and in the field of education more specifically, a return to more student-centered progressive education strategies that are updated and anti-racist should be the natural progression.3 We already see very powerful, grassroots efforts emerging all over the country to push our schools in this direction—from parent- and activist-led liberation schools like the Liberation School in New York City to school districts in Washington State committed to providing anti-racist and student-centered professional development for all of its teachers. Building on this grassroots momentum to affect broader changes to the educational system is what is needed now.
The central point of this report, therefore, is to issue a call to action amid the prospect of a much-needed return to more progressive education policy and practice, which could, if done inclusively, connect to multiple anti-racist education reforms taking place across the country to address deep-seated issues of race and culture with our schools’ curricula and teaching. The three anti-racist educational approaches we focus on and connect to progressive education through their historic roots and present-day applications are critical multicultural education, culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining pedagogy, and ethnic studies. As we will explain below, each of these approaches have different origins and histories, but they overlap and reinforce each other at the school and classroom level, and they all include aspects of a progressive education approach. Furthermore, each of them also relates to the three COVID19-era goals noted above and can assist progressive educators in bringing their strategies into the twenty-first century.
Strength in Unity: Bringing Together America’s Rich Traditions of Education for Social Justice
As conservative critiques of educators who are teaching their students about the history of racial oppression in the United States mount, the growing number of educators, parents, and students who believe such a critical analysis should be an important aspect of our schools’ curriculum need to come together to show a united front in favor of a more anti-racist education.4 By mapping the lineages of progressive education in connection to various anti-racist education strategies, we seek to further support today’s anti-racist education movement by demonstrating the underlying relationships between these different but overlapping approaches. Although progressive education has, in recent years, been pushed out of the public schools by the test-based accountability movement and thus, is thriving mostly in private, independent schools, the evidence of its positive impact on students and their ability to learn can and should impact future reforms in public education.5
Interestingly enough, given the origins and philosophy of progressive education, this would not be the first time that progressive educators have had a racial justice mission. Still, in the more recent shift of progressive education into the private school sector, where it serves a more affluent and predominantly white student population, some of its history of addressing racism has been lost.6 Interestingly enough, as these more privileged, private schools have attempted to implement more anti-racist teaching of late, they have faced opposition from some of the parents who can afford these expensive private schools.7 But the potential return to a more student-centered, progressive education approach in public schools cannot and should not happen without progressive educators and policymakers building a bridge to those developing the most successful anti-racist teaching approaches. If connected and combined, progressive and anti-racist educators, policymakers, and activists pushing for the post-pandemic goals stated above can create a movement for education reform that cannot be ignored.
Furthermore, each approach to education will become stronger in unity with the others. Progressive educators, for instance, can learn how to expand the “whole child” model in a way that pays adequate attention to the racial and cultural identities of students from educators who teach under the frameworks of critical multicultural education, culturally relevant/responsive/sustaining education, and ethnic studies. Amidst the continued fight against anti-Black violence and the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black and Latinx communities, addressing racism and racial oppression in our society through how and what we teach students is as urgent as ever.
We argue, therefore, that demonstrating the historic links between progressive education and anti-racist education approaches can help build consensus around the future direction of an educational system that has been pushed too far away from its knowledge base. As noted above, harsh testing and accountability policies are antithetical to what we know our students and our racially divided nation need, and there are many powerful models of school accountability and student assessments of learning that are more authentic to the diverse understandings and interpretations of knowledge that students develop through their own experiences. Furthermore, there are plenty of examples of students—of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds—who learn and excel without being subjected to high-stakes standardized tests. For instance, the New York Performance Standards Consortium consists of thirty-eight schools in New York City, Rochester, and Ithaca that are all exempt from the state exams, boasting the motto of “Teaching over Testing,” and demonstrating high standards, rigorous curricula, and high levels of student engagement learning. 8Another powerful example of a consortium of schools and districts trying to expand their definitions of student learning and success beyond test scores is the Massachusetts Consortium of Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), which also stresses performance assessment, such as portfolios.
Thus, we have the professional knowledge, models of possibility, and growing political awareness needed to address systemic racism in our schools. This report helps us take the next step toward fair, just, and meaningful education policies to meet the post-pandemic educational goal.
Source: The Century Foundation