Progressive Education Has a Race Problem (Part I)

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1 | Initial Reflections on #NYPEN2015


Chris Thinnes 


For progressive education to have a significant impact on schools or education policy in the United States, we will have to acknowledge, unseat, and transcend a century’s vexing racial tensions in our field. A progressive pedagogy that fails to be responsive to the voices of students, educators, families, or communities of color is not a pedagogy that should, or will, influence the trajectory of American education policy or practice in these times. This series will explore this challenge.


There is no such thing as a neutral educational process.

Richard Shaull


Surveying the pantheon of White progressive educational pioneers of the early 20th century — Dewey, Froebel, Montessori, Parker, and more — Thomas D. Fallace notes that, in 1913, Maria Montessori “argued that the anthropological study of the history of humankind had much to teach the educator about the development of the White child” (Fallace, 2015, p. 37). Invoking excerpts from Pedagogical Anthropology, Fallace continues:

Montessori explained, “the cephalic index and the cranial volume are the two anthropological data on which the criterion of normality of children’s heads must be based.” She continued, “the dark-skinned children . . . belonging to African races and the tribes of American Indians,” belonged to the dolichocephalic racial group with the smallest cephalic index. Drawing upon contemporaneous research in physical anthropology, Montessori confirmed that people of color were not only sociologically inferior, but anatomically inferior as well. (Fallace, 2015, p. 37)

In addition to the astonishingly ethnocentric, racist assumptions and broken ‘science’ embedded in the theory of early progressive educators, correlative assumptions were embedded in its practice: witness, for example, John and Evelyn Dewey’s stewardship of the Gary Plan:

The curriculum involved a two-platoon system in which mostly immigrant students studies academic and industrial content in shifts. Progressive education, on the other hand, was exemplified most famously by the hands-on, cooperative learning of Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago…and other private and suburban school experiments… (Fallace, 2015, p. 4)

While Dewey’s personal and professional journey towards a theoretically benign but arguably provocative cultural pluralism in the 20s and 30s is a complicated story I don’t intend to narrate here, the fact of the matter is that even “when faced with white people’s resistance to African American equality, Dewey was willing to compromise his democratic principles” (Feinberg, 1975, in Margonis, 2009, p. 18) — and, thus, to compromise the ostensible anchors of his pedagogy. It is difficult, at best, to reconcile the racial biases of progressive pedagogy’s forebears with their ostensibly boundless belief in the potential of human children.

To the point of my initial foray into these ideas, progressive education has — in broad swaths of the public imagination, historically and in contemporary discourse — often been intended for certain kinds of people and not for others. This intention has long been tied to racialized notions of cultural currency and capital, and the “rightful” and “deserved” trajectories of White children and children of color in the American social and economic landscape. Progressive educators have no right to claim immunity from the virus of these ideas any more than other schools of schooling they declaim.

As Jal Mehta notes of “deeper learning,” in a provocative and brilliant interruption of contemporary education discourse from which I have shamelessly but admiringly appropriated my title, progressive education–

has historically been the province of the advantaged — those who could afford to send their children to the best private schools and to live in the most desirable school districts… To the degree that race mirrors class, these inequalities in access…are shortchanging black and Latino students. (Mehta, 2014)

Mehta notes that this dynamic extends to contemporary spaces in which deeper learning is interrogated and advanced, as well:

If you travel in deeper learning circles — go to conferences, teach classes, visit schools — you will notice that many of the faces, among both the teachers and the learners, are white. Sometimes this is directly acknowledged, and sometimes it is only implicit, but the reality is the reality — deeper learning in the U.S. is much more white than the nation as a whole. (Mehta, 2014)

I would argue (and intend to do so more thoroughly in subsequent posts) that deeper learning is — in part, but not entirely — an early 21st century permutation of progressive principles that emerged as a viable alternative and reaction to restrictive neoliberal education policies of the late 20th century. And progressive education more broadly speaking over this last century — both in tandem with and distinct from deeper learning in this last decade — is both informed by and suffers from a complicity in racialized bias and privilege it must now seek to acknowledge and repudiate, from which it must seek to heal, and to which it must purposefully respond.

I’m trying to say “it,” rather than “we” — as often as I can, and at the risk of tortured prose — for two reasons, each of which is profoundly as important as it may seem initially to be pithy. The first reason is that none of what I’ve stated or suggested can possibly come as a surprise, revelation, or relief to people of color. The second reason, related to the first, is that the heart of the matter — and, inevitably, the core of the work ahead — is to acknowledge the antecedent of the pronoun “we” that White progressive educators like myself have been tempted so often, and so thoughtlessly, to deploy.

Declaring that “progressive education has a race problem” may therefore seem entirely obvious or unnecessarily provocative, depending on your identity and positionality. What should not be questioned, however, is whether progressive educational principles hold a latent or potential promise for the future of American schools. Review, to be specific, those progressive educational principles outlined by the Progressive Education Network

  • Education must prepare students for active participation in a democratic society.
  • Education must focus on students’ social, emotional, academic, cognitive and physical development.
  • Education must nurture and support students’ natural curiosity and innate desire to learn.
  • Education must foster internal motivation in students.
  • Education must be responsive to the developmental needs of students.
  • Education must foster respectful relationships between teachers and students.
  • Education must encourage the active participation of students in their learning, which arises from previous experience.
  • Progressive educators must play an active role in guiding the educational vision of our society. (PEN, 2009)

We might recognize that these principles might stand as a bulwark against the rising tide of neoliberal policies that have debased and devalued teaching and learning across the American educational landscape. However, we must concede that these principles, in and of themselves, will have no transformative impact until we acknowledge the complicity of progressive education in White supremacy and prioritize a greater responsiveness to, and solidarity with, the students, teachers, families, and communities of color who are specifically, disproportionately, and emphatically impacted by the damage wrought not only by neoliberal reforms, but also by the rampant systemic inequities that long preceded those particular policies in both public and private schools — including those inequities that have been propagated by progressive educators and embedded by progressive schools. Imagine, if you will, instead, the infusion or remixing of those principles progressive educators have always espoused with the guiding principles of the #EduColor collective.

It became possible, for me at least, to imagine just such a fusion — not just being responsive to, but taking our lead from, the voices of students, educators, and parents of color — at the Progressive Education Network’s national conference in Brooklyn last week, to which more than 800 progressive educators from public and private schools came to engage with the conference themes of “Access, Equity & Activism: Teaching the Possible.” This series is borne as much of the answers that seemed to become visible at this gathering, as of questions that have long circulated in certain purposeful and righteous sectors of the edusphere.

Questions about the cultural responsiveness and social justice commitments of progressive educators were raised, no doubt, organically by the exigencies of our times — but artfully facilitated and skillfully pushed by the purposefulness of the program’s design and leadership. Curtis Acosta’s keynote sharing indigenous epistemology and pedagogy in the defense of the legality and centrality of ethnic studies in Tucson; an “Educators as Activists” panel examining the moral, ethical, and political imperatives of our practice; Fania Davis’ keynote on the implementation and impact of restorative justice protocols in Oakland; and an “Authors as Activists and the Importance of Diverse Books” panel are just a few examples of programming that was certain to create a space inviting urgent dialogue about race, privilege, and power in the progressive educational sphere. But for the radical possibilities to emerge required — as PEN President Theresa Collins implored us from the outset — to lean into a collective willingness, among progressive educators of all stripes and hues, to recognize this gathering not only as a celebration of surface solidarity as progressive educators, but as a deeper and more urgent call to critical dialogue as a network of critical friends.

That dialogue emerged immediately, and deepened through the subsequent sessions — naming vital tensions and posing driving questions for progressive educators I’ll try to explore in subsequent posts:

  • Curtis Acosta brought us both examples and experiences of the pedagogy of love and radical hope emerging from his reliance and insistence on indigenous epistemologies and pedagogies in Tucson;
  • Deborah Meier acknowledged the abhorrent views about race embraced by certain leaders of progressive educators in private schools, the “responsiveness” of some of those school communities exclusively to White racialized norms, and the misconceptions often harbored in those spaces about the potential of students of color in progressive public and private schools;
  • Ann Cook of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, and Michelle Fine from CUNY, repeatedly implored private progressive school educators who enjoy their freedom from the restrictions of high-stakes public education policies to raise their voices in solidarity with and activism for those students, families, and communities of color disproportionately impacted by those policies;
  • Jeannine King from the Bronx Community Charter School painted the personal and professional tensions of maintaining progressive pedagogical commitments to a diverse community of learners, while having to answer to the high-stakes measures of a system by which the school’s “effectiveness” is judged; and
  • Jesse Hagopian made no mystery, in his account of the Seattle Teachers’ Strike and its central commitments both to progressive ideals and to cultural responsiveness, of the fact that high stakes testing is an instrument of oppression that deepens, rather than mediates, the propagation of White supremacy in our society.

Those are simply a few examples of the rich and urgent tensions of our time that deserve further exploration and mitigation, by all of us who claim an affinity for progressive education, for the public commons, and for a just society. There were others, too, which I hope to explore in the weeks and months to come:

  • For example, which progressive schools do you happen to hear about most often in the emerging dialogue about best practice? Do you hear about Mission Hill or Science Leadership Academy — public schools serving diverse communities through an emphatically culturally responsive and progressive pedagogy — as much as you should, and as you will?
  • Is the network of progressive educators responsive to the challenges and needs of thousands of progressive educators of color, struggling to implement child-centered and culturally responsive classroom in the context of oppressive schools and systems?
  • Do you hear, and what do you hear, about larger organizations — call them ‘chains,’ if you must — like Envision Schools, Big Picture Learning, or Expeditionary Learning, which are situated primarily in urban communities of color and are deeply rooted in progressive principles, but are developed on a charter model that in many circles is construed exclusively as antagonistic to the interests of public education?

Imagine the possibilities of this conversation to complicate, to unsettle, and perhaps to blur the boundaries between the factions in the conventional, and increasingly stale, debate about education reform in the United States. Imagine the possibilities of a progressive educational practice truly founded on the equitable foundations of indigenous beliefs, such as those shared from ancient Mayan philosophy at the conference’s outset by Dr. Acosta, from a poem by Luis Valdez:

Tú eres mi otro yo
Si te hago daño a ti
Me hago daño a mí mismo
Sí te amo y respeto
Me amo y respeto yo.
You are my other me.
If I do harm to you,
I do harm to myself;
If I love and respect you,
I love and respect myself.

Imagine the possibilities of a progressive pedagogy, and a progressive education policy, that was rooted in responsiveness to equity across difference; that invited all of us to bring the fullness of ourselves to our work and to our schools; that reinvested the pronoun “we” with the richness of the society we wish to heal, the educators we represent, and the students, families, and communities we stand to serve and from whom we ought to take our lead.

I know that I will try to imagine those possibilities — and I hope you’ll join me, support me, challenge me, and teach me in the months to come.

Isang Bagsak…


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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes

  • S. Gibson

    Raised coffee mug to you, Mr.Thinnes. Your observations and correlations speak right into the cavern of an increasingly amorphous set of ideals, behaviors, and attitudes often heavily touted as liberal, progressive, inclusive, and/or equitable. While those terms are repeatedly trumpeted and amplified, the shifts necessary to heal wholly, truly transform, and decolonize become harder to both say and hear. This piece is an invitation into those transformative spaces where healing, movement, and ISANG BAGSAK can only flourish when the whole truth is told.

  • Rebekah Yasmine

    Excellent points.

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  • Ciedie Aech

    Thank you for helping me clarify my understanding of how the “progressives” in my life keep messing up education in their endless attempts at fixing ME, the teacher actually willing to interact with, and do my best to creatively educate, non-dominant-culture, non-standardized children. It often feels as if their only goal is to stop me in my tracks.

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