Progressive Education Essay

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Progressive education refers to a philosophy of education and educational practices that began in the late 1890s and has persisted to the present. Often associated with the writings of American philosopher John Dewey, it has been the subject of intense debate throughout this period. This entry reviews the fundamental principles of progressive education, looks at its development over time in the United States, and offers a brief current perspective.


The purpose of education has been seen in a variety of ways: religious, utilitarian, civic, and social mobility. In the late nineteenth century, progressive reformers insisted that government be responsive to the welfare of its citizens rather than to the welfare of corporations. Reformers such as Horace Mann in the nineteenth century had looked to schools as a means of addressing social problems, so reformers once again looked to schools as a means of preserving and promoting democracy within the new urban and industrial social order.

While there is no one definition of progressive education, there are four dominant themes that have defined it:

  1. an expansion of the school to include a direct concern for health, occupation, and community life;
  2. the use of more caring, active, and organized teaching methods based on research in philosophy, psychology, and the social sciences;
  3. the development of teaching methods aimed at different kinds and classes of children;
  4. the use of systematic and organized methods for the administration and management of the schools.

John Dewey’s Role

John Dewey, although born and raised in Vermont, had by 1894 become thoroughly enmeshed in the problems of urbanization as a resident of Chicago and chair of the Department of Philosophy, Psychology and Pedagogy at the University of Chicago. Distressed with the abrupt dislocation of families from rural to urban environments; concerned with the loss of traditional ways of understanding the maintenance of civilization; anxious about the effects unleashed individualism and rampant materialism would have upon a democratic society, Dewey sought answers in pedagogic practice.

Dewey argued for a restructuring of schools along the lines of “embryonic communities” and for the creation of a curriculum, that would allow for the child’s interests and developmental level. Dewey believed that the end of education was growth, which was firmly posited within a democratic society.

To implement his ideas, Dewey created the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. There, children studied basic subjects in an integrated curriculum. Dewey advocated active learning, starting with the needs and interests of the child; he emphasized the role of experience in education and introduced the notion of teacher as facilitator of learning, rather than the font from which all knowledge flows. The school, according to Dewey, was a “miniature community, an embryonic society” and discipline was a tool that would develop “a spirit of social cooperation and community life.”

Dewey’s ideas about education, often referred to as “progressive,” proposed that educators start with the needs and interests of the child in the classroom and allow the child to participate in planning his/her course of study; his idea school advocated project method or group learning and depended heavily upon experiential learning.

Dewey’s progressive methodology rested upon the notion that children were active, organic beings, growing and changing, and required a course of study that would reflect their particular stage of development. He advocated both freedom and responsibility for students since those are vital components of democratic living. He believed that the school should reflect the community, in order to enable students when they graduate, to assume societal roles, and to maintain the democratic way of life. Democracy was particularly important for Dewey. And he believed that it could be more perfectly realized through education—education that would continually reconstruct and reorganize society.

Dewey’s vision of schools was rooted in the social order; he did not see ideas as separate from social conditions. He fervently believed that philosophy had a responsibility to society and that ideas required laboratory testing; hence the importance of the school as a place where ideas can be implemented, challenged, restructured, reconstructed with the goal of implementing them to improve the social order. Moreover, he believed that school should function as preparation for life in a democratic society.

In a progressive setting, the teacher is no longer the authoritarian source of all knowledge. Rather, the teacher assumes the peripheral position of facilitator. The teacher encourages, offers suggestions, questions, helps plan and implement courses of study. The teacher also writes the curriculum and must have a command of several disciplines in order to create and implement the curriculum. Dewey proposed that children learn both individually and in groups.

While few can dispute Dewey’s influence upon educational reformers, few would take issue with the notion that Dewey was often misread, misunderstood, and misinterpreted. Thus Dewey’s emphasis upon the child’s impulses, feelings, and interests led to a form of progressive education that often became synonymous with permissiveness, and his emphasis upon vocations ultimately led the way for “life adjustment” curriculum reformers.

Strands Of Progressive Education

There have been three strands of progressive education: (1) child centered, (2) social efficiency, and (3) social reconstructionist.

  1. Stanley Hall (1844–1924) believed that children’s development reflects the stages of development of civilization. Thus schools, according to Hall, should tailor their curricula to the stages of child development. Hall argued that traditional schools stifled the child’s natural impulses, and suggested that schools individualize instruction and attend to the needs and interests of the children they educate. This strand of progressive reform became known as child centered reform.

On the flip side of child-centered reform was social efficiency reform, which encouraged educators to be “socially efficient” in the ways they went about educating students. This led to a belief that schools should be a meaningful experience for students and that schools should prepare students to earn a living and for life. This strand resulted in “life adjustment” education, the purpose of which was to have children conform to the demands of society, a far cry from Dewey’s idea that the schools should be a “lever for social reform.”

Social reconstructionist emphasized the community side of the equation, especially with regard to the development of a more just, humane, and egalitarian society. Based upon the work of Kenneth Benne and George Counts at Teachers College, Columbia University, social reconstructionist viewed schools as the key to building a new social order.

Historical Development


Before the 1920s, progressive reformers tended to concentrate their efforts in public education, applying scientific management techniques to the administration of schools, reforming curriculum, and creating secondary, vocational schools. Around the 1920s many progressive educators began to focus on private schools attended by middle-class children. These schools, often the creation of parent cooperatives or talented practitioners, stressed individual freedom and that schools help children develop their potentials.

These schools, commonly referred to by educators as “child centered” were often founded by female practitioners reacting against the strict methods of the existing public schools.

Whereas these child-centered progressive schools were almost all independent private schools, public education was dominated by the social engineering strand of progressivism. The high school was transformed from an exclusively academic institution at the turn of the century to one dominated by life-adjustment functions by the 1930s and later to social class and race-based tracking systems that separated academic and vocational education. Public progressive education from the 1930s to the 1960s often stressed life adjustment rather than intellectual functions and often helped to reproduce rather than ameliorate social class, race, and gender inequalities. However, the paradox of private child-centered schools was that they catered to an overwhelmingly affluent population, thus contradicting Dewey’s belief that progressive schools should be democratic.


During the post–World War II period, the patterns that emerged during the progressive era were continued. First, the debate about the goals of education (i.e., academic, social, or both) and whether all children should receive the same education remained an important one. Second, the demand for the expansion of educational opportunity became perhaps the most prominent feature of educational reform. Efforts were also directed at finding ways to translate these expanded opportunities into more equal educational outcomes at all levels of education. As in the first half of the twentieth century, so too, in the second half, the compatibility of expanded educational opportunity with the maintenance of educational standards would create significant problems. Thus, the tensions between equity and excellence became crucial in the debates of this period.

These debates can be best understood by examining reform cycles of the twentieth century, which revolved between progressive and traditional visions of schooling. On the one hand, traditionalists believed in knowledge-centered education, a traditional subject-centered curriculum, teacher-centered education, discipline and authority, and the defense of academic standards in the name of excellence. On the other hand, progressives believed in experiential education, a curriculum that responded to both the needs of students and the times, child-centered education, freedom and individualism, and the relativism of academic standards in the name of equity. Although these poles and educational practices rarely were in only one direction, the conflicts over educational policies and practices seemed to move back and forth between these two extremes.

From 1945 to 1955, conservative critics attacked progressive education. Critics assailed progressive education for its sacrificing of intellectual goals to social ones. They argued that the life adjustment education of the period combined with an increasingly anti-intellectual curriculum destroyed the traditional academic functions of schooling. Throughout the 1950s the debate between progressives who defended the social basis of the curriculum and critics who demanded a more academic curriculum raged on. What was often referred to as “the great debate” ended with the Soviet launching of the space satellite Sputnik. The idea that the Soviets would win the race for space resulted in a national commitment to improve educational standards in general and to increase mathematical and scientific literacy, in particular. From 1957 through the mid-1960s, the emphasis shifted to the pursuit of excellence and curriculum reformers attempted to redesign the curricula in ways that would lead to the return of academic standards.

1960s to the Present

By the mid-1960s, however, the shift in educational priorities moved again toward the progressive side. This occurred in two distinct but overlapping ways. First, the civil rights movement led to an emphasis on equity issues. Thus, federal legislation, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, emphasized the education of disadvantaged children. Second, in the context of the antiwar movement of the times, the general criticism of American society, and the persistent failure of the schools to ameliorate problems of poverty and of racial minorities, a “new progressivism” developed that linked the failure of the schools to the problems in society. Ushered in by the publication of A. S. Neill’s Summerhill in 1960, a book about an English boarding school with few, if any, rules and which was dedicated to the happiness of the child, the new progressivism provided an intellectual and pedagogical assault on the putative sins of traditional education, its authoritarianism, its racism, its misplaced values of intellectualism, and its failure to meet the emotional and psychological needs of children.

U.S. progressive educators studied British progressive or open education, which resulted in significant experimentation in some American schools. Emphasis on individualism and relevant education, along with the challenge to the unquestioned authority of the teacher, resulted in “alternative,” “free,” or “open” education: schooling that once again shifted attention away from content to process. There is little evidence to suggest that the open classroom was a national phenomena. Nonetheless, progressive education during this period challenged traditional schooling and attempted to provide educational opportunity for the disadvantaged.

By the late 1970s, conservative critics began to react to the progressive reforms of the 1960s to 1970s. They argued that liberal reforms in pedagogy and curriculum and in the arena of educational opportunity had resulted in the decline of authority and standards. Furthermore, the critics argued that the preoccupation with using the schools to ameliorate social problems, however well intended, not only failed to do this, but was part of an overall process that resulted in mass mediocrity.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence issued A Nation at Risk. This report provided an indictment of American education, citing high rates of adult illiteracy, declining SAT scores, and low scores on international comparisons of knowledge by American students as examples of the decline of literacy and standards. From 1983 to the present, attention has been given to the improvement of curriculum, the tightening of standards, and a move toward the setting of academic goals and their assessment. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was the culmination of these efforts. NCLB also stressed equity, as its goal is to eliminate the achievement gap between groups by 2014.

Contemporary Progressive Reforms

Although this conservative standards movement dominated U.S. education from 1983 to the present, from the 1990s there has been an increased interest in progressive education, especially as it relates to attempts to balance individualism and community. Progressive reforms echo many of the earlier concerns of progressive education. They stress diversity, child-centeredness, small school size, active learning, integrated curricula, and democracy.

In the early part of the twenty-first century, progressive reformers stressed school size as vital to urban school reform. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given hundreds of millions of dollars to break up large urban schools into smaller, more progressive schools. In New York City, New Visions for Public Schools has founded over 100 small schools with philosophies similar to that of the Center for Collaborative Education. Although preliminary data on the achievement of children from low-income families seems promising, it is too early to draw conclusions.

Despite continual criticism, progressive education remains an important part of U.S. education. Even one of its severe critics, historian Diane Ravitch, acknowledges the wonderful education her children received in a New York City progressive private school. She argues that all children should have the opportunity for such an education, which combines academic rigor with child-centered process. It remains to be seen if the contemporary progressive public schools will fulfill her wish.


  1. Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school. New York: Vintage Books.
  2. Dewey, J. (1959). The child and the curriculum. In
  3. S. Dworkin (Ed.), Dewey on education (pp. 91–111). New York: Teachers College Press. (Original work published 1902)
  4. Dewey, J. (1959). My pedagogic creed. In M. S. Dworkin (Ed.), Dewey on education (pp. 19–32). New York: Teachers College Press. (Original work published 1897)
  5. Dewey, J. (1959). The school and society. In M. S. Dworkin (Ed.), Dewey on education (pp. 33–90). New York: Teachers College Press. (Original work published 1899)
  6. Graham, P. A. (1967). Progressive education: From Arcady to academe. New York: Teachers College Press.
  7. Neill, A. S. (1960). Summerhill. Oxford, UK: Hart. Neumann, R. (2003). Sixties legacy: A history of the public alternative schools movement, 1967–2001. New York: Peter Lang.
  8. Ravitch, D. (2000). Left back: A century of battles over school reform. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  9. Semel, S. F., & Sadovnik, A. R. (Eds.). (1999). “Schools of tomorrow,” schools of today: What happened to progressive education. New York: Peter Lang.

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