Progressive Education Reform in American Schooling


The most ideal system of education is an illusion. Many educational philosophers have grappled with finding an ideal system of schooling to no avail. Progressive education movement was a movement that set out to promote the philosophy of reforms in the school system. During the 20th Century, there were many educational innovators who wanted to effect change in the learning system. The major proponent of the progressive movement was John Dewey. John Dewey believed then that the education system was rigid and tended to relegate the learner into a receiver of learning processes rather than a participator in the same. Actually, the traditional schooling rendered the learners passive under a fixed environment that relied on experiences that were far remote from what the learners knew (Arthur 2003).

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Progressive education played a major role in the early 20th Century reform need. This need and desire that engulfed the American society came out of the desire for expanded democracy. This was also a period through which America was grappling with reconstructing society through education, as the society had gone through the travails of economic, social and even political turmoil. It is against this backdrop that the progressives felt that there was a great need to improve the education system so as to handle the immense challenges of societal reconstruction prevailing then. Majorly, the education reform was deemed to be the only solution towards handling the challenges of the democratic awakening that was gripping the society.

John Dewey (1859-1952), considered the father of progressive education, came out as the most active proponent of educational progressivism. He was a noted psychologist and educational reformer with a strong conviction towards educational reform. According to him, good educational theory and practice should be one that recognized the interrelationship between democracy and education (Arthur 2003).

What the educators were responding to in order to bring about progressive education was varied. First of all, most schools had rigid curricula that subjected the leaner towards receiving knowledge and not participate in it. For example, Parker Francis, one of the progressive education proponents, developed a clear approach to learning that clearly rejected rote learning. It instead emphasized children’s curiosity in the schooling program. Dewey also disliked the traditional schooling to an extent that when he went to Chicago, he enrolled his children in Parker’s school (Berube 1994).

Also, most schools in the US then promoted regimentation, something that the progressivists greatly detested. Progressive schools did quite the opposite. According to Dewey, the classroom was supposed to portray an environment that advanced on the “embryonic community” that would serve as a model for the larger community (Berube1994).

Model Schooling

Dewey had several aims in his model schooling. First, it was his wish that schools should on top of imparting knowledge and skills provide an enabling environment through which the learners must be socialized. In fact, this matter has over recent years caused a lot of debate among many educational stakeholders. First of all, this debate can be seen in three perspectives. One is that a school should be one that is responsive to the prevailing market forces. Secondly, the schools should not take the responsibility of socializing but should only major in the provision of needed basic academic skills. Finally, the school should be viewed as a model democratizing institution through which all aspects of democratic life should eventually be transferred to the larger community.

Education Roles

According to John Dewey, therefore, the major grounding for education should be one that is deeply oriented towards preparing one for participation in the democratic life in society. Thus, the school should be one that concerns itself with imparting skills such as critical thinking, a sense of commitment to compassion and even those that develop a deep desire in the learners to participate the all the prevailing aspects of democratic life such as lobbying, reading, writing, etc. (Norris 2004)

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Quite a lot was required of teachers who were required to effectively implement Dewey’s approach. The Dewey approach is one that advanced the child-centered approach as opposed to teacher-centered; an approach that was prevalent in the traditional schooling set up. Though there emerged various divergent opinions among the progressives towards learning, Dewey’s approach placed a lot of emphasis on the learner as opposed to the teacher (Norris 2004).

Practicing teachers were expected to have a wide repertoire of knowledge and skills. They would then freely share these with the experiential engagements that students already had.

For Dewey’s theory to be fully implemented, it is crucial that the teachers are well prepared to handle their roles. On top of having the requisite knowledge and skills, the schools also need to provide them with the necessary enabling environment that can enable the reflective experience.

Many progressive teachers may fail in fully achieving Dewey’s theory due to several things that also work against them. First is a bad theory. Another issue that may also work against the teacher is poor preparation. The teacher must be fully prepared for the coming learning encounter. He or she should always update themselves and effectively strike a balance between the traditional subject matter with the learner with the progressive one (Reese 2011).

These situations where parents, teachers and community members participate in joint activities enable the students to eventually see the meaningfulness of their education in daily life. If this approach is well done, it can enable the students to actively participate fully in all the aspects of society’s democratic life. Though this has been successful to an extent, there have been myriad problems that have bedeviled the progressive initiative. Some of them have included high stakes testing systems, tight school schedules, poor leadership, unsupportive school boards, as well as differences in both ideological and philosophical teachings.


In most cases, schools have received technical support from consultants outside the school system. These consultants have displayed varying levels of effectiveness as they sometimes impose on the school recommendations that are not internally generated (Reese 2011). This has caused varied problems to the progressive approach. All in all, Dewey’s approaches have faced a viability challenge. In fact, they have not been realized in practice, thanks to the forces at work in American society. schools according to Dewey would eventually lead to a prosperous democratic society.

According to Dewey, education was seen as a vehicle through progressive teachers, who would-be leaders of the advancement that was envisaged. He wanted education to be the key to social reform. However, what Dewey proposed was not in tandem with the capitalistic direction that society had taken. The modes of learning were actually at variance with what was going on in society, such as civilization (Reese 2011).

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Other outside forces worked against Dewey’s progressive model. These included poverty, which brought about rebellion. There were stark inequalities in society that greatly hampered the viability of his approach. This made all the virtues of Dewey’s model eroded.

State control also inhibited the democratic running of the schools. As such, the progressive movement could not flourish. Since the government is the one that bankrolled the teachers, it could not allow the same teachers to go against what it resolved. By this the schools were completely at the mercy of the state.

Another area that has been catered for is the issue of progressive education and students with disabilities. In this case the role of the teacher here comes in handy. The teacher is supposed to support the student so as the student may conceptualize ideas through inquiry.

John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky share so many similarities. John Dewey opposed rote like learning and suggested that learners ought to be engaged with the real world for learning to take place. He believed in the students being given a chance to think for themselves. Lev Vygotsky also reasoned along Dewey’s lines. He is the one who pioneered research in learning sciences with the insistence on students generating their own knowledge by discussing their own experiences with each other. One can see that both were against the teacher-centered type of learning that was predominant in the traditional schooling system (Rury 2005).


From the discussion, one can conclude that a proper education philosophy is not easy to conceptualize. This is due to various factors that come into play. For instance the ever-changing society, vested interests and generally the economic and social dynamics that prevail do affect the education philosophy to be put in place. It is therefore important for the country to marry several philosophies that can work towards enriching the learner with proper knowledge and skills.

Reference List

Arthur, J. (2003). Education with character: the moral economy of schooling. London: Routledge.

Berube, M. R. (1994). American school reform: progressive, equity, and excellence movements, 1883-1993. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Norris, N. D. (2004). The promise and failure of progressive education. Maryland: R&L Education.

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Reese, W. J. (2011). America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind”. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2011.

Rury, J. L. (2005). Education and social change: themes in the history of American schooling. London: Routledge.

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