Tag Archives: progressivism

Middle-Class Assumptions Fail Literacy Instruction

My doctoral work was anchored significantly in John Dewey—highlighted, I recall, by discovering that Dewey had claimed we need not teach children to read because reading was something that naturally developed in children (and since he could not recall being taught explicitly to read).

I was struck by such a tremendous failure in a great thinker, one that exposes the dangers of assuming “my” experiences prove a generalization, especially when “my” experiences are ones of privilege.

When I posted Encouraging Students to Read: A Reader, this odd fact about Dewey came back to me when Peter Smagorinsky called me out, appropriately, for failing to acknowledge the middle-class assumptions beneath endorsing holistic approaches to teaching reading, ones that far too often have failed students who struggle to develop literacy due to class, race, gender, and other challenges.

I have noted before that progressivism, whole language, and balanced literacy have been misunderstood by politicians, the media, and the public, but we must also confront that practitioners have misunderstood and then implemented progressive and holistic approaches to literacy instruction in ways that have been extremely harmful to the exact students most in need of formal schooling.

The Dewey Paradox

Two aspects of Dewey’s progressive education philosophy are key in that context: (i) Dewey’s progressivism is steeped in idealism, leaning precariously on the edge of naturalistic views of children and learning (one that may be true if a child lives in privilege), and thus (ii) Dewey’s progressivism has mostly been misinterpreted and implemented in ways that do not reflect Dewey’s foundational commitments or serve many students well.

Not to be an apologist for Dewey, but to help clarify what many of us who stand on Dewey’s shoulders embrace (noting that I am a critical educator, and not a progressive), I recommend Dewey’s Experience and Education as well as Alan Ryan’s biography of Dewey (specifically his Chapter Four: The Pedagogue as Prophet).

For me, Dewey provided the seed for critical pedagogy to grow out of the soil of progressivism:

It is not too much to say that an educational philosophy which professes to be based on the idea of freedom may become as dogmatic as ever was the traditional education which is reacted against. For any theory and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles. (Experience and Education, p. 22)

In the reading wars, then, dogmatic commitments to either whole language or isolated phonics instruction instead of addressing the needs of each individual student to become a reader is the great failure Dewey himself would have acknowledged.

Misreading Dewey, however, has a long tradition itself. Lou LaBrant, a fervent Dewey progressive, wrote in 1931 a scathing attack on the project method, which claimed to be in the Dewey tradition:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Ryan’s biography achieves a manageable and complex picture of Dewey—one that Dewey failed to express clearly. But in that picture, we see the idealism noted above as well as a level of sophistication (for example, seeking to honor both the individual and community, instead of bowing to either/or thinking) that made Dewey hard for a general public and often inaccessible for practitioners who want the practical and not his pragmatic [1].

However, “Dewey himself argued that it was not enough to repudiate traditional education,” Ryan explains, adding:

It was not enough for progressive teachers to throw out everything the old schools had done, to replace discipline by chaos, a rigid syllabus with no syllabus. And Dewey was inclined to think that many schools had done exactly that and had used his name to justify it. The difficulty was to give an account of the educational experience that would elicit a kind of discipline, an approach to the syllabus and to the authority of the teacher in the classroom that would grow out of experience itself. (p. 282)

And it is here that I can speak directly to the great paradox of progressive and critical commitments in education, especially in terms of teaching literacy, as expressed by Dewey himself:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

Teaching for over thirty years while attempting to avoid prescription and indoctrination, to foster joy and pleasure in learning, and to provide all students with the content they deserve and need has often lead to paralysis since those commitments are overwhelming in their contradictions. I have never settled for decoding or even comprehension in any student—always demanding we rise to include critical literacy that requires that students have the decoding and comprehension as well.

Despite Dewey’s warning, dogmatism is easier, and as Ryan warned, Dewey’s progressivism demands more of teachers than traditional approaches. And thus, when faced with the most challenging populations of students, we too often take the path of least resistance, mis-serving those students along the way.

Enter Delpit: Middle-Class Assumptions Fail Literacy Instruction

What appears to have happened in formal education throughout the U.S. is that literacy education has increased the gaps among social classes and racial subgroups because too often than not we have failed to honor the balance between fostering a love and joy for language with the necessary skills to read and write—and the students who suffer the most in that failure have been racial minorities and impoverished children.

Affluent students are allowed to relish in the joy of language (reaping the advantages of their privilege, which includes a literacy growth that seems transparent to them, as it did to Dewey) in formal schooling, while struggling students (disproportionately children of color and impoverished) are sentenced to drudgery masquerading as literacy instruction, further disadvantaging them.

Middle-class norms drive a great deal of practice in formal schooling since the wider U.S. society is trapped in those middle-class norms (ones that include not only socioeconomic but also racial [read “white”] expectations) and since the teacher workforce in the U.S. is itself a middle-class profession dominated by white females.

These middle-class blinders can be observed in the misguided embracing of Ruby Payne’s stereotypes about poverty, the nearly universal acceptance of the “word gap,” and the “grit” narrative as a veneer for white privilege.

Just as Dewey’s progressivism needed a critical re-imagining from Paulo Freire and others, Freire’s critical pedagogy needed bell hooks and others to confront Freire’s paternalism.

Then, enter Lisa Delpit, who provides the confrontation of the failures of misunderstood progressivism and holistic approaches to literacy instruction—the failures that often misrepresent whole language but exist under that terminology (see Ryan’s point about Dewey’s complaints above).

Writing in 1996 about Delpit, Debora Viadero explains:

But Delpit is best-known for the bombs she has lobbed at some of contemporary education’s most sacred cows.

A decade ago, Delpit started penning a series of eloquent, plain-spoken essays in the Harvard Educational Review that questioned the validity of some popular teaching strategies for African-American students. The essays were spun off into a book, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, that was published last year by The New Press.

The problem, Delpit says in those writings, is not that whole-language reading instruction techniques or the process-writing approach to teaching writing are inherently bad. They work for some students–possibly most. They just do not work for everybody. And often the people they do not work for are children who, like Delpit herself, were born black and disenfranchised. What is more, these strategies might not work for children of any group that has strong, distinctive cultural roots and that stands on society’s perimeter peering in.

And while some continue to misrepresent Delpit in similar ways to how Dewey was/is misrepresented, Delpit offers to me the best understanding of achieving the balance Dewey sought.

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

And Monique Redeaux clarifies:

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

Like my progressive muse LaBrant, I remain convinced that reading programs—including prescriptive, systematic phonics programs—are “costume parties” that fail our students—and waste a tremendous amount of funding and instructional time, money and time better spent with authentic texts.

But when I endorse choice, independent reading, and access to books, like Delpit, I am not excusing those who idealize those commitments (through middle-class lenses) and then fail to teach reading (or writing) based on the needs of each student, some of whom will flourish with little guidance and some of whom need intensive and direct instruction.

It is no petty thing to acknowledge that a hungry or abused or frightened child will not find joy in reading when allowed choice, independent reading, and access to books because those do not address the burdens denying them that joy and learning opportunity. It is no petty thing either to note that taking struggling students and simply demanding they ignore their life’s inequities and complete phonics worksheets will not work as well.

As Dewey would stress, either/or thinking and dogmatism serve no one well when we are teaching children to read and write. Too often, that dogmatism has its roots in our middle-class privilege that, as with Dewey, blinds us to what our students need most from our teaching.

[1] As Ryan explains: “Dewey spent a great deal of his adult life explaining that ‘pragmatic’ did not mean ‘practical’ in a merely utilitarian and down-to-earth sense” (p. 225).

Progressivism and Whole Language: A Reader

If you read a criticism of progressivism or whole language, I suspect you are reading one of two things:

  1. A misrepresentation of either so that the writer can attack the misrepresentation. Sometimes this is purposeful misrepresentation, but often the misrepresentation comes from carelessness or a lack of expertise.
  2. A confusion between the genuine principles of progressivism or whole language and how either has been misapplied in the real world. Both progressivism and whole language are terms claimed by those who also misunderstand the terms and concepts behind them. [1]

Since a number of blog and Twitter discussions have addressed both progressivism and then briefly whole language, I offer a reader on both below. [2] And my goal is not necessarily to endorse either progressivism or whole language (although I embrace many aspects of both), but to establish what each represents as a context for supporting or challenging either as being effective or misguided.


Progressivism is rightly associated with John Dewey, but Deweyan progressivism never found its way into mainstream public schools in any significant way. However, distortions of Dewey’s focus on project-based learning (see William Heard Kilpatrick’s The Project Method) have a long and illuminating history.

Thus, a great start to understanding progressivism is to read Lou LaBrant’s 1931 challenge to misguided use of projects. LaBrant is also a solid example of a genuine Deweyan progressive:

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246.

Another important aspect of progressivism is examining how the term and practices are often misrepresented as well as how rare authentic progressivism is in real-world classrooms; thus, see Alfie Kohn:

Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find

I have also placed progressivism in the context of traditional and critical ideologies:

Two-Headed Dragon of Education Policy

Whole Language

Like progressivism, whole language has suffered a long history of being blamed for failure even though it has almost never been implemented in any widespread or accurate way.

Did whole language destroy literacy in California? Nope. Read Stephen Krashen:

Whole Language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An Urban Legend from California

Does whole language call for no teaching of phonics? Nope. See more by Krashen:

The Phonics Debate: 2004

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction

See Alfie Kohn:

On Teaching Reading, Spelling, and Related Subjects

See also:

The Reading Wars: Phonics versus Whole Language 

Facts: On the nature of whole language education

Progressivism and whole language, then, share some important characteristics. Both are credible perspectives built on scholarship and research, but neither has found widespread or authentic places in traditional public school practices (both likely have had much more influence and success in private settings). However, both have been repeatedly blamed for so-called failures in the exact public school systems where neither is practiced.

Nonetheless, making a case for or against either progressivism or whole language would be better served if both are accurately identified.

[1] In a recent blog, I carelessly made mistake #2 by taking aim at behaviorism without clarifying I was focusing on how behaviorism often is misused in education; as a result of being called on this, I did apologize and reframe that blog.

[2] And since this is a general blog post related to a number of other blogs and Tweets, I want to be sure this doesn’t come off as sub blogging. Directly I have interacted with Annie Murphy PaulRobert Pondiscio, and Harry Webb in one way or the other about these topics.

A Critical Truce in the War between Traditionalists and Progressives

Harry Webb has launched A War of Words: “The war is between traditionalists and progressives and it is an old war.”

Yes, this is an old war, and what is most frustrating about this battle for me is that, once again, critical perspectives are left out entirely. So let me offer here a brief critical truce to this war between traditionalists and progressives.

First, Webb’s post highlights some of the essential problems with the war itself.

Since the mid-1900s, progressive educators and progressive pedagogy have been demonized (and usually misrepresented) as key sources of educational failures, but traditional practices have historically dominated and currently dominate what happens in real classrooms daily.

We have ample anecdotal (I have been in education for 31 years) and research-based evidence that even though, as Webb notes, colleges of education and education professors disproportionately claim to be progressive, that once teachers enter the classroom, they tend to shut the door and practice relatively traditional pedagogy—often teaching as they have been taught or defaulting to traditional practices since they are more efficient and more easily managed in the challenging environments of mixed-ability and overcrowded classrooms.

I invite everyone to read Alfie Kohn’s examination of this in Progressive Education: Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find. Kohn offers not only a solid discussion of how rare progressive practices are, but also details how progressive practices are misrepresented along with what he considers to be genuine progressive pedagogy.

Another problem I have with this war, however, is that I am not a progressive and am not offering here an apology for progressivism.

I am noting that when I wear my history of education hat (I am the Council Historian for NCTE and wrote a biography for my doctoral work), I recognize a demonizing and marginalizing of progressives that is misleading. As a critical educator, I must add, I believe that progressives have failed and do fail in many ways similar to the failures I associate with traditional practices.

I will confess that it is likely we have failed progressivism, but that point is pretty academic.

Along with Kohn’s discussion of progressivism, I also invite you to examine what I believe is an accurate model of what progressivism is by exploring the work of Lou LaBrant, the focus of my educational biography. Her work disproves the stereotypes of progressives as “touchy-feely” educators who have no grounding in empirical evidence. LaBrant practiced classroom-based research and considered herself a scientific teacher throughout her career from 1906 to 1971. She also fiercely defended the progressivism of John Dewey (something, again, that almost no one represents accurately and then almost no one practices—even those education professors who claim to be progressives).

Another problem with the war is that once traditionalists have mischaracterized progressives in order to attack those mischaracterizations and progressives have mischaracterized the traditionalists in order to attack those mischaracterizations, little value comes from the war, and as is typical of wars, we have only collateral damage.

So let me pause on one comment from Webb: “Yet, their argument is weak and not supported by evidence,” he claims about progressives.

I must call a foul here. Education has a century of research, a research base that has been ignored by policymakers and often discredited by those with narrow definitions of what counts a research (action research by teachers doesn’t count, they say, effectively silencing teachers and indirectly the voices of women in their own profession). Thus when Webb proclaims, “There is an imbalance of power here,” there is an unintended irony since that imbalance is exactly what I am highlighting.

Just as one example, Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde have offered for many years an examination of just what the body of evidence shows regarding effective pedagogy. This work calls into question two claims by Webb: first, it shows there is a robust research base, and second, the practices that are likely most effective are fairly characterized as progressive (the sorts of practices that reflect an accurate use of the term).

However, what is most important to note about Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde’s work is that what we know about best practice includes that no pedagogy is rejected and no pedagogy is demanded; in other words, best practice is implementing the instructional practices that best meet the needs of the students and match the learning goals.

For example, the evidence on teaching writing since at least the 1930s and 1940s has shown that isolated grammar instruction does not transfer to original student compositions; in the mid-1990s, George Hillocks showed that isolated grammar instruction actually inhibits writing quality. So the most effective way to teach students to write, including the most effective way for students to learn standard grammar, is through actual writing—something most people would call a progressive perspective.

However, that same research base shows that evidence-based (the evidence being found in actual writing samples from students) direct instruction (what many would call a traditional practice) is vital, and that some students (although a minority) can benefit from targeted isolated grammar instruction.

In other words, the research base emphasizes both the effectiveness of pedagogy most would call progressive, but it certainly doesn’t discount that ultimately what works best is what each student needs. As Webb noted, lecturing can be highly effective, and it can be abysmal—but that has more to do with its delivery and appropriateness than to some default judgment on the practice itself.

When traditionalists say that all students must learn standard English, they likely have a point, but their goal often falls apart when they insist on instructional practices that the evidence has shown are ineffective. “I shall prove my pedagogy is king!” is a shallow thing against seeking ways to teach each student effectively and with  compassion and patience.

When progressives say that student must be engaged in authentic activities, they also have a point (although as Webb notes, and I agree, the jargon of education offers no proof that what is claimed is what is taking place), but that goal often falls apart when they fail to recognize that having students participating in a workshop demands a teacher who also provides a great deal of structure and manages purposeful direct instruction as student work reveals the need.

In my experience, traditionalists and progressives tend to become trapped in their pedagogy and fail to see their students or the evidence of their own ineffectiveness.

If you demand all children read The Scarlet Letter, lecture on it brilliantly for two weeks, prepare a detailed study guide, and then have a class score wonderfully on the test at the end of the unit, what have you gained if most of those students never actually read the book and the entire experience taught them to hate reading?

If you invite your students to participate in writing workshop, offer no structure, fail to provide expert feedback, have no process for students to revise and improve their essays, and then bundle a portfolio of all that work with a nice decorated folder cover, what have you gained if that workshop involved more time meandering and decorating, resulting in students writing no better at the end than the beginning? (See LaBrant’s brilliant critique of failed efforts at the project method in ELA classes, a sharp unmasking of failed progressive claims.)

So, where’s the truce? Because a reasonable person could read this so far and say that I have embedded in the discussion a sneaky endorsement of progressivism (do I associate more with progressives than traditionalists? Sure. But I find they fail just as often as traditionalists, and thus, my disappointment with progressives is much more intense).

Here’s my truce.

I bet that someone as thoughtful and purposeful as Harry Webb appears in his blogs is a stellar and effective teacher, despite our differences about pedagogy.

I have seen brilliant traditionalists teachers and lousy self-proclaimed progressives. More than anything, I have seen too many teachers bound to their practices, ignoring their students and the evidence of their ineffectiveness.

Thus, my truce is that the key (the olive branch?) to this war is whether or not a teacher has a critical lens.

Let me end with a couple invitations:

I have posted before a chart that I use to introduce students to the traditionalist v. progressive divide juxtaposed with the often ignored critical alternative; please see it here.

Also consider a longer post in which I explore this dynamic in detail, Education Done To, For, or With Students?

Maybe, as Webb suggests, there is no hope for ending this war, but I would prefer a different approach, one that requires that we all step away from our commitments (as Webb critiques well, our words, labels, and jargon), take an honest assessment of the impact our commitments have on students (because the only real things that matters are if students learn and that we never sacrifice their dignity and humanity in the process), and then begin again, determined to do better the next time.