Bring Progressive Education Back to Its Roots

Last November the New York City Department of Education quietly announced a pilot program to increase socio-economic diversity in the city's schools starting this coming fall. Under the pilot, seven sought after elementary schools in some of the city's most quickly gentrifying neighborhoods will hold seats for a set percentage of low-income students, English language learners, and children in the welfare system. The primary goal of the pilot is to test a way to ensure socio-economic and racial balance in schools in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Increasing socio-economic balance is a noteworthy goal and the model being piloted is certainly worth public scrutiny. However, equally worth our attention are the types of schools selected for the pilot, which all adhere to a progressive approach to teaching children. Intentional or not, by selecting schools rooted in a progressive pedagogy the Department of Education is taking a stand that such an approach to teaching and learning is a historically grounded, feasible, and desired alternative for under-resourced students.

As "no-excuses" schooling models for low-income students continue to gain popularity, progressive education is increasingly viewed as a luxury for the well off. Despite this recent trend, progressive pedagogy has a rich history rooted in providing educational opportunity for the poor and New York is right to take cues from this history.

While progressive education is attributed to a range of figures from John Dewey to Maria Montessori, at its core this type of education is student centered and teaches curricular content through inquiry. In the context of the selected schools, progressive education is generally practiced as child centered, project based, and community focused. History shows us a number of examples where this particular type of progressive pedagogy was successfully employed to equalize the playing field for students.

One such success story can be seen by looking back to 1965 and to the early years of the federally funded early childhood, poverty alleviation program Head Start. As historian Crystal Sanders illustrates in her recent book, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) used the newly available federal Head Start funds to develop a child-centered program that saw huge success among poor black communities in Mississippi. Like other models of progressive schooling, CDGM believed that developing student's curiosity through exploration and project-based learning would be the foundation for active civic participation later in life.

CDGM engaged parents and community members of its students through employment as teachers and support staff at its centers, ensuring a strong community voice to advocate for a well-rounded education for its students. The progressive pedagogy that CDGM implemented saw wide support by such prominent national figures including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Its success, both with student outcomes and parental engagement, was in no small part due to its progressive model.

An example a little closer to home for New Yorkers can be found in East Harlem with the history of Deborah Meier's famed progressive school Central Park East. While Central Park East is not currently on the list of schools participating in the pilot (perhaps partially due to the criticism of the schools new principal), the schools history showcases the success of publicly funded progressive schools within diverse and low-income communities.

Central Park East was founded in 1974 to serve the socio-economically and racially diverse population of East Harlem. It was grounded in the belief that parents, students, community members and teachers were best suited to develop curriculum for the school. As notable education reform historian David Bensman highlights in his study of the school's early years, Central Park East's early success was demonstrated by academic outcomes well above the city average. During the years of Bensmans study, CPE enrolled approximately 20 percent more students living in poverty than the citywide average and had high school graduation rates for its black and Hispanic students over 30 percent higher than the city's average. These academic successes were coupled with overwhelmingly positive reviews from students and parents of all backgrounds. There was never a question of whether a progressive curriculum could succeed with the families at Central Park East. To the contrary, it was seen as the best curricular option for student and family success.

While many might argue that this type of child-centered curriculum becomes increasingly difficult to successfully implement in secondary school, the history of Benjamin Franklin High School serves to demonstrate otherwise. Founded in 1934 by Leonard Covello, an Italian-American scholar and educator, Benjamin Franklin High School intended to serve immigrant boys in East Harlem through a similar community-centered progressive model as Central Park East later would. As Michael Johanek and John Puckett note in their in-depth study of Covello, his goal was to develop a curriculum that would not "water-down" subjects for its students. Covello designed courses of study that were not only appealing to the student's interests, but also prepared them for success in a number of future paths ranging from college study to a number of vocations. Covello and his staff raised the expectations for students who society tended to write off. The faith Covello and his staff had in the students and community in East Harlem mirrors the trust we need to put in low-income communities today.

Particularly in the age of accountability, many criticize progressive, child-centered models as poorly aligned to the content covered by state standards and assessments. This argument stems from a belief that child and community driven models may miss potential content required by mandated academic standards.

This concern becomes particularly salient when speaking of students from impoverished backgrounds who may be coming into school academically behind their wealthier peers. This false dichotomy that students requiring remediation must focus only on the basics while those with no such requirements have the liberty to focus on child-centered work is propelled forward by the assumption that poor, minority students need a different type of education than their wealthier white peers. There is no doubt, or lack of evidence, that students from impoverished backgrounds may require additional assistance in certain elements of schooling, however it is equally clear that progressive curriculum is proven to be successful in providing this additional assistance.

If New York is serious about improving educational opportunity for the city's most vulnerable students, the choice of progressively rooted schools as the avenue for this opportunity is the right path. If successful, the pilot will showcase the capacity of these schools to educate all students and serve the diverse communities where they exist. I sincerely hope the schools participating in this pilot will represent a curricular trend that the city as a whole begins to embrace.

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