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

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 careless 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 Realistic, Pragmatic Approach” to Rejecting CCSS

“Should Teachers Resist the Common Core?” asks a blog post at Education Week, continuing the debate about CCSS among Larry Ferlazzo, Stephen Krashen, David Cohen, and me.

This posting highlights a point made by David that I want to return to (again) because I agree strongly with David’s focus: “And as for the critics I’ve cited, to my knowledge, none of them is currently a K-12 teacher. That fact does not invalidate their criticisms, but I think it colors their perceptions regarding a realistic, pragmatic approach, here and now, for those of us trying to serve our current students and schools most productively.”

I have argued repeatedly that the central flaw with the current education reform movement and its major elements—CCSS, new high-stakes testing, Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, and charter school advocacy, such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)—is that these reforms-as-solutions are not based on any clearly identified problems and that the leading advocates themselves have no (or very little) experience and expertise in education.

Let me repeat: I have almost thirty years of combined public high school teaching (18 years), college teaching, teacher education, and scholarship in education that all have occurred during the thirty-year cycle of accountability-driven education reform.

I have ample experience with state standards, state and national (SAT) high-stakes testing, teacher certification, and education accreditation. A central thread of my scholarship over those years has included the negative impact of accountability, standards, and testing on literacy instruction (notably writing) and high-poverty students and schools.

Also let me repeat my answer to the blog title above: Yes, teachers should resist CCSS.

I have already argued for our resistance as part of our teacher agency so I want here to address the obligation teachers have to resist CCSS grounded firmly in our classroom experiences.

I began teaching in the fall of 1984, the exact academic year South Carolina first introduced accountability based on state standards and high-stakes testing. Over the next thirty years, SC has revised those standards three or more times, as well as reformulating our testing at least three times—from BSAP to PACT to PASS (with part of that testing reform driven by a desire to move beyond “basic” [the "B" of BSAP] and to the glory of “challenge” [the "C" of PACT]). In education, it seems, it is all about the branding.

SC and virtually every state in the nation has had decades and multiple versions of standards and high-stakes tests implemented. What is the result? Today no one is satisfied with the outcomes, and the dominant solution is to try the exact same strategy, except at the federal level.

And here is where I wish to assert David’s point as support for my argument: Teachers across the U.S. know from their lived experiences as educators that the bureaucracy of implementing and revising standards and tests over the past thirty years has wasted a tremendous amount of time and funding as well as inhibited our ability to teach and ruined learning opportunities for students—especially in high-needs schools.

Three decades of the accountability era with its standards and high-stakes testing have not improved teaching, have not increased learning, have not closed the achievement/opportunity gap, have not solved the drop-out problem, and have not succeeded in a single claim of made by political advocates of any aspect of this movement.

Why? Because the accountability model built on standards and high-stakes testing is the wrong solution and a complete failure of acknowledging the problem. Educational problems in the U.S. are not a lack of accountability, a lack of standards, or a lack of testing. In fact, increasing all three has increased the real problems because they are distractions from facing the tremendous inequity of opportunity facing children in the U.S. both in their lives and then in their schools.

Teachers must reject CCSS, and we must do so in a collective voice of our experiences in the exact environments of accountability that we know have done more harm than good to the children we serve every day.

Nothing is more real or practical than that.

Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism

Blogging at Education Week, Larry Ferlazzo posted a series of blogs addressing ways to prepare students for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English/Language Arts. In a response post, Ferlazzo and Stephen Krashen—an outspoken scholar, along with Susan Ohanian, who steadfastly rejects implementing CCSS and the inevitable tests to follow—shared a series of exchanges.

Krashen, in part, argues that implementing flawed practice simply because CCSS requires them is inexcusable:

No. There is no evidence supporting this view. There is massive evidence for the superiority of comprehensible input/reading as by far the best way (really the only way) to develop academic vocabulary and academic writing. Just because the common core demands these competencies, doesn’t mean we should use ineffective and painful methods to try to teach them.

Ferlazzo takes a different view, one committed to implementing CCSS as well as possible since their adoption is a done deal, he believes:

I can think of no realistic political scenario that would stop Common Core from being implemented for at least ninety percent of millions of teachers and students in the United States. I have also not heard anyone else share one, though I am all ears….

Given that political reality on the ground, I think the political capital of teachers, students and their families is better spent on other issues that also affect the working and learning conditions in our schools and the living conditions in our communities — teacher evaluation procedures, adequate funding for schools, class size, parent engagement — just to name a few. In my political judgment, teachers and their allies are much more likely to be able to influence those issues.

While I think it’s useful to debate which instructional strategies might be most engaging and effective for our students and also enable teachers to say they are implementing Common Core, I just [think] it’s less useful to fight a battle that has already been lost.

Given the tremendous political, professional, and commercial momentum behind CCSS, Ferlazzo appears to have a solid point. But this exchange raises an important question about fatalism and teacher professionalism that is much larger than just debating CCSS

Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism

The debate between Ferlazzo and Krashen mirrors a similar debate within the National Council of Teachers of English, one in which Krashen, Ohanian, and I have had little success as we have argued for teacher professionalism and autonomy instead of implementing CCSS and preparing students for the tests with commercial materials focusing on those standards and the new tests.

Concurrent with the debate at EdWeek, as well, has been faculty at Garfield High School refusing to implement MAP testing. Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield, explains:

America faces incredible challenges: endless war, climate change and worldwide economic implosion. Our kids will need both traditional academic abilities and innovative critical-thinking skills to solve these real problems. If we inundate our students with standardized testing year-round, these larger lessons are lost.

Garfield’s teachers are preparing students for the real-life tests they will face, and reject the computer multiple-choice rituals that fail to measure grade-level content — not to mention character, commitment, courage or talent.

Since this act of professional conscience by Garfield teachers, a group of educators has issued a statement of support, rejecting the misuse and abuse associated with high-stakes standardized tests.

If implementing CCSS is inevitable as Ferlazzo claims and if school, district, state, or federal mandates will continue to support those standards and the related high-stakes tests, teaching is reduced to an act of fatalism, and in effect, teachers are de-professionalized and students are similarly reduced to passive recipients of state-mandated knowledge, what Paulo Freire (1998) labeled as “the bureaucratizing of the mind” (p. 102).

Fatalism about inevitable education reform or current policy and practices benefits neither students nor teachers—and ultimately devalues education in a free society.

For students, Freire challenges the prescriptive nature of standards and high-stakes testing stemming from a neoliberal ideology:

If I am a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination, I have no responsibility for my own action in the world and, therefore, it is not possible for me to speak of ethics….It means that we know ourselves to be conditioned but not determined. It means recognizing that History is time filled with possibility and not inexorably determined—that the future is problematic and not already decided, fatalistically….The most dominant contemporary version of such fatalism is neoliberalism….From the standpoint of such an ideology, only one road is open as far as educative practice is concerned: adapt the student to what is inevitable, to what cannot be changed. In this view, what is essential is technical training, so that the student can adapt and, therefore, survive. This book…is a decisive NO to an ideology that humiliates and denies our humanity. (pp. 26-27)

If teachers, then, see CCSS implementation or fulfilling ploicies to implement MAP testing as requirements of their role as compliant workers, they have succumbed to “conformity in the face of situations considered to be irreversible because of destiny,” Freire explains (1998, p.102). Then, “To that degree, there is no room for choice. There is only room for well-behaved submission to fate. Today. Tomorrow. Always,” Freire believes, adding, “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing” (pp. 102-103).

And here is where I must side with Krashen.

To see CCSS or MAP testing as inevitable, to see our roles as educators being reduced to technicians working to implement CCSS or MAP testing as well as possible, to allow students to be reduced to “a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination” is to render both teachers and students fatalistic—both as tools of others’ determinations and as products of those who create the inevitable system.

The financial, cultural, and human costs of fatalism are simply too high.