Progressive Education

Progressive education was a far-flung array of ideas and practices designed to enliven teaching and learning. As with other amorphous constructs, the meaning of Progressivism varied from person to person, place to place, and era to era. At its most diffuse, the word was synonymous with "new" or "good" education. Even so, there were several core ideas in this heterogeneous and influential movement that took shape in the late nineteenth century, spread rapidly and widely in the early twentieth century, and receded by the 1950s.

Progressive versus Traditional Education

Nearly all Progressives knew what they opposed and thus identified themselves by what they were not. Traditional education was the enemy. Students were required to memorize endless facts and formulas from a dreary academic curriculum remote from their own youthful interests. Most teachers defined good pedagogy as drill and practice; their job was to hear recitations, not lead discussions. Classroom life was austere. Teachers established unilaterally the rules and regulations, and they punished misconduct harshly. Administrators deferred to school boards often enmeshed in factionalism and political patronage.

In contrast to that unflattering sketch of traditional education, Progressives juxtaposed their vision of a more pleasant and practical education. They often said that education should be "child centered" rather than grounded on the authority of a ponderous textbook or a stern teacher. Children were not willful, obstreperous creatures that had to be tamed; they were by nature curious and creative, with a wide range of worthwhile interests. A broader curriculum and a humane pedagogy would honor those interests.

Education of the "whole child" steadily expanded the scope of the school curriculum during the first half of the twentieth century. For the very young, opportunities multiplied for music, art, drama, and recreation. For the early adolescent, there were JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOLS for the unique needs of that stage of life. For older teens, the HIGH SCHOOL offered more "tracks," or programs of study such as vocational, commercial, academic, and general. At all levels of schooling there was growth in extracurricular activities as clubs and teams proliferated. Another area of rapid expansion was health care and social services for the physical and emotional needs of the whole child.

Instructional methods and materials also changed. Progressives envisioned teachers as facilitators who should encourage student participation and activity through discussions and group projects. Learning could be fun: games, field trips, and films blurred the lines between work and PLAY. Teachers should be kind and patient, not strict and aloof. The good classroom would be a democratic community where rules were fair, everyone had a say, and all felt comfortable and successful. As a result, fewer students would fail or drop out, an important consideration in light of soaring school enrollments throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century. The enlarged and diverse student body would get more from education and like it better, the Progressives believed.

Aside from burgeoning enrollments, why did those ideas and practices take hold in the very late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Progressive educators addressed three of the most important developments in American life. First, a broader curriculum could match the shifting needs of employers in an age when the demand for semiskilled and clerical labor surged. With more students in new vocational and commercial tracks, the fit between graduates' preparation and the needs of the labor market improved. Second, the massive and unprecedented immigration from Europe filled urban schools with students who seemed to need nonacademic training more than Shakespeare or trigonometry in order to become loyal, virtuous, and productive citizens. Third, Progressive education drew strength from more expansive notions of the scope of governmental intervention, which included fostering the well-being of children. Heightened concern for the vulnerabilities of youth spurred successful crusades for CHILD LABOR laws, JUVENILE COURTS, public playgrounds, mothers' pensions, and other methods to rescue youth from the perils of life in a rapidly changing society. The Progressives' advocacy of a kinder and broader schooling matched the spirit and scale of child-saving interventions elsewhere in America.

Most Progressives also saw themselves as scientific. In the 1880s and 1890s they deplored the haphazard management of many urban schools. Elected officials often based decisions on partisan considerations; many policies were either wasteful or corrupt. Progressives urged the appointment of well-trained managers to oversee the rapidly expanding schools. Expertise, rationality, standardization, and predictability were the traits valued in a good administrator. Not every school system by the early twentieth century was a sleek bureaucracy, but that was the ideal within the profession, notwithstanding the preference of many for local control and freedom from state regulations.

A similar quest for certainty marked the Progressives' support of INTELLIGENCE TESTING. Measuring the innate mental abilities of youngsters seemed a rigorous and fair way to assign students to particular courses and tracks. Grouping children by ability seemed more democratic to the Progressives than holding all children to the same standards. Within a decade of the first large-scale use of IQ tests in World War I, school districts throughout the nation used them. Not every Progressive championed IQ tests, to be sure, but even the skeptics favored "child study," detailed and continuous scrutiny of the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of the young.

Controversies and Influence

Not everyone admired and adopted Progressive practices. The changes were greatest in elementary schools, in PRIVATE SCHOOLS, and in wealthier communities. In those enclaves the Progressive notions of the care and training of the young matched parents' views of how to rear their children. Elsewhere the impact was modest, with educators taking bits and pieces in addition to, not in place of, their old routines. Progressive education could easily exhaust teachers who took its tenets seriously. For instance, the constraints of teaching 150 students in a high school without plentiful supplemental materials made it hard to be a facilitator of projects suited to the individual needs and interests of each student.

The ultimate purpose of the broader curriculum, gentler pedagogy, and scientific outlook was a point of dispute among Progressives. One prominent faction boldly called for the "reconstruction" of American society to empower the disenfranchised, strengthen government, and regulate corporations. On the political left, the reconstructionists embraced the New Deal reforms of the 1930s, and some leaders even admired socialist and communist regimes. In contrast, a larger faction rallied under the banners of "efficiency" and "adjustment." The goal of education was to equip youth to fit, not challenge, society as it was. A useful education prepared a graduate to earn a living, vote intelligently, shop wisely, and in other ways conform to the demands of adult life. What both factions shared was the conviction that schooling mattered enormously and that educators held the future of the race in their hands.

In addition to internal schisms, Progressives encountered stinging criticisms of their ideas. Whenever their praise of the goodness of children sounded too rapturous, they were mocked as sentimental and soft, willing to coddle rather than discipline the young. If their political preferences drifted too far to the left, they were condemned as subversive and anti-American. Should their innovations require higher tax rates, frugal voters might spurn Progressive education as superfluous "fads and frills." Above all, critics doubted if Progressive schools were academically rigorous. Students who enjoyed school and felt good about themselves might never learn chemistry and calculus, many parents feared. Those anxieties intensified as college enrollment became, after World War II, not just a wish but an expectation for middle-class youth.

Progressivism might be appropriate in elementary schools, but there were enduring doubts that it would prepare a talented teenager for admission to and success in a first-rate college.

The most influential theorist of Progressivism, the philosopher JOHN DEWEY, regretted the anti-intellectual misinterpretations of his ideas. He never doubted the importance of a challenging academic curriculum. Dewey envisioned Progressive pedagogy as a means to, not an avoidance of, intellectual exertion. The curiosity of children and the flexibility of teachers should enhance, not diminish, the life of the mind. But Dewey's prose was frequently so convoluted that his admirers misconstrued his ideas. The most egregious misrepresentations downplayed the wit and will of averageability students. Pseudo-Progressives claimed that most students either could not, would not, or need not undertake serious academic work.

In the late 1940s, the most prominent educational reform, called "Life Adjustment," displayed the dangers of misreading Dewey. The Adjusters believed that the majority of high school graduates acquired neither the know-how nor the social skills they would later use far more than French or algebra. What every teenager needed, they argued, were lessons in practical matters such as FRIENDSHIPS, hobbies, and family life. Instead of urging more students to attend college or acquire vocational skills, the adjusters envisioned a curriculum full of practical pointers on how to get along with others.

As a formal movement, Life Adjustment disappeared by the mid-1950s. Articulate critics lampooned it as pretentious, pernicious, and vapid. In their opinion, it was ridiculous and dangerous to give the mundane aspects of life a place, let alone center stage, in a school's curriculum. Furthermore, most parents were unwilling to let teachers and students disengage from academic work for the purpose of discussing social and personal concerns. Those topics belonged at the family dinner table, not in the classroom.

The underlying ideas of Progressivism outlived the Life Adjustment debacle. Many parents and teachers remained loyal to its vision of more practical and pleasant education. School curricular and extracurricular offerings, as well as social services, continued to expand in the 1960s and 1970s. Groups previously ill-served, especially racial minorities and SPECIAL EDUCATION students, had more opportunities. Teaching methods never reverted to the old rigidities of the nineteenth century. Administrators were still wedded to the norm of dispassionate expertise. Whenever the central ideas of the Progressives were put forth cautiously and presented without overselling, the odds of success were good.

See also: Child Saving; Education, United States; Vocational Education, Industrial Education, and Trade Schools.


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