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Engel, Brenda S. with Martin, Anne C. (Eds.). (2005). Holding Values: What We Mean by Progressive Education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

200 pp.
ISBN 0-325-00724-1

Reviewed by Catherine Hands
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto

August 18, 2005

This book makes a case for progressive education and evaluation that would see a child-centered focus and attention to the individual student’s educative needs and abilities replace practices such as tracking, standardized testing and teaching to tests. This goal is accomplished through twenty-six essays arranged in six sections addressing relevant issues such as the nature of progressive education, democracy, diversity and antiracism, curriculum, teacher preparation, and research and evaluation. Written and compiled by members of the North Dakota Study Group, a network of teachers, administrators, researchers and education professors, this edited volume represents a sampling of three decades of the network’s discussion, research and writing on issues of education from a progressive standpoint. A critical perspective is utilized throughout the book, with attention given to critique of current education policies and a focus on praxis to achieve equity and democracy within classrooms and schools.

As such, the book targets practitioners as its primary audience. Concrete examples and depictions of the issues addressed in the sections are outlined without a preponderance of citations, while maintaining a persuasive tone throughout the book. The contributors of each chapter were carefully chosen, with a common interpretation of progressive education and an overlap of opinions voiced from one chapter to another. At times, the content across chapters is redundant, such as the reiteration of the authors’ relations to one another through the North Dakota Study Group as well as the network’s founding and purpose in the majority of the chapters. There is little difference between the chapters in terms of writing style, giving the impression that the volume is edited with great care. Interestingly, several authors discuss an appreciation for diversity among individuals and in styles of thinking, which would seem to contradict the assimilative voice evidenced throughout the book. Nevertheless, the transitions from one chapter to the next are smooth, and the sections of the book are very clearly laid out with short explanatory introductions in which the chapters for each section are introduced and their inclusion explained to the reader.

Respect for children as learners capable of informed decision-making forms a recurrent theme that is woven through the book. As George Hein states in his chapter,

Schools need to value and to encourage individual development and to support children’s growth into independent thinkers who can question ideas and make informed decisions. At the same time, they have the responsibility to develop cooperative, socially productive practices that will allow democracy to flourish. (p. 178)

It is this tension which is explored across each section.

In the first section, entitled Progressive Education, the nature of a progressive approach to schooling is developed. Vito Perrone begins by providing an overview in his chapter, “The Progressive Agenda”, of the political climate and the ideology that gave rise to the North Dakota Study Group network in the early 1970s. In situating the network temporally and philosophically, Perrone outlines the basic tenets of a progressive agenda for education, and provides not only a context for the network, but he traces the history of educational reform since the group’s formation. His chapter is a timely piece, as the political context of which he speaks is similar to what we are experiencing now; that is, a resurgence of conservativism and the accompanying backlash against the “democratic localism” (p. 31) and social justice that form the foundation of progressive education. Yet, Perrone’s overall tone is a positive one. He notes that school reform measures have taken root despite the current political climate. He reminds us that the goal of education extends beyond the school level; in his view, it is a move toward the goal of “a more integrated, fully democratic society” (p. 34).

In Lillian Weber’s chapter, “The Roots of Open Education”, through the discussion of her familial experiences, she asserts that a focus on a child-centered educational approach needs to reflect the informal learning within the family and community in which children are located. She develops the notion that people’s personal histories provide the context for illustrating the educability of all and the human potential present in informal social settings that needs to be tapped in formal education. Weber’s words provide support and affirmation to educators who are striving to provide progressive education. Joseph Featherstone builds on these ideas and those of Perrone’s in the chapter that follows. In “Progressive, Democratic Education: A Primer”, he situates his discussion within the family, and he advocates for relationships of care and the education of the whole person, which is reminiscent of Nel Noddings’ work on the ethic of care within education. Featherstone makes a case for “education of, by, and for the people” (p. 42), which reflects Perrone’s focus on localized and democratic education. The end result of such an education, Featherstone points out, enables people to fully participate in politics, culture and life, and to become active agents regardless of their background. The last chapter in the section gives shape to the philosophy outlined in the previous chapters. In “The School in Rose Valley”, Edith Klausner provides a description of a school that embodies the components of progressive education. As the former principal of the school, she identifies several foci. Parent involvement, the practical embrace of theoretical calls for individualized programs that support each student and recognize each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and a strong school community are keys of progressive education, in Klausner’s experience.

The theme of democracy introduced in the first section is developed further in the second section of the book, Education and Democracy. In Harold Berlak’s admirable chapter, “Education Policy 1964-2004: The No Child Left Behind Act and the Assault on Progressive Education and Local Control”, he reviews and develops the progressive values of child-centered education and democracy from a strong, critical perspective. His take on education policy from the mid-60s to the current time reveals a pedagogical and political examination of progressive education in greater detail than in previous chapters and he ties trends of the 1960s and 70s with what is happening now in the United States of America.

All moves toward liberal, social democracy that would restrict corporate power were portrayed by its leaders as serious threats to corporate profitability, economic recovery, and growth. To Christian fundamentalists the cultural transformations of the sixties were a frontal assault by the godless on their cherished values and beliefs about family, sexuality, and patriotism. (p. 63).

In concluding his chapter, Berlak provides a prescription for minimizing hierarchical, centralized control of education: “Standardized testing is the key issue because it is the essential tool for centralizing control. Without standardized tests, top-down bureaucratic government control of teaching and learning cannot function (p.65).” In so doing, Berlak succinctly identifies one of the reasons why the North Dakota Study Group considers evaluation and standardized testing to be of paramount concern if progressive education is to survive.

The section ends with Connie Henry’s chapter on “Building a Coalition: Private Schools with a Public View”. Here, she focusses on the differences between public and private school administrative structures and the subsequent effect on progressive education. Toward the end of the chapter, Henry points out that private schools are autonomous entities in contrast to their public counterparts. As such, they are free to utilize innovative educational approaches. Yet, this idea is not developed. A focus on how private school structures and educators within the private system can inform policy in public schools and support progressive education would be helpful to the reader.

The Diversity and Antiracism section is a particularly strong one in terms of demonstrating progressive education in action and the lack of flexibility of standardized education and evaluation. In her discussion of a case involving a child with special needs, Kathe Jervis demonstrates the problems which ensue when only academic achievement is considered. In her chapter, “Is This Child Left Behind?”, Jervis illustrates the actual tension between standardized testing and academic requirements, and a child’s underachievement and her family’s commitment to progressing at the child’s pace. As she notes, “This is a dilemma for all schools when external demands squeeze children and their families too tightly in a standardized vise” (p. 85). The following chapter continues with a discussion of a standardized education. In “Tongue-Tied Again”, Joseph Suina illustrates a clash of values. His insightful narrative makes a case for a broadening of the narrow focus on academic achievement and the resultant preparation for the workforce supported by mainstream society. Suina advocates for a focus on the education of the whole person, citing its importance for minority group members in particular, and the need to address the spiritual, emotional and cultural components of the person.

The book again examines the tension between social justice for all, equity, inclusion, and academic standards as measured by standardized tests in Mara Sapon-Shevin’s chapter. In her strong chapter, “Teachable Moments for Social Justice”, she advocates for teachable moments as opposed to specific social justice curriculum in an already full secondary school curriculum. Geared toward teachers and administrators, this chapter, while giving the impression of a how-to guide for preparing to deal with teachable moments, it highlights the importance of classroom structures to address social justice issues. The chapter ends with a call for not only the development of classroom and school community development, but a teaching community to combat oppression in an ad hoc manner. The following chapter builds on Sapon-Shavin’s contribution. Louisa Cruz-Acosta reiterates the importance of community for students in order for them to thrive and to have a place for themselves. In her anecdotal recounting of racial discrimination in “Friendship and Social Justice in a Kindergarten Classroom”, Cruz-Acosta makes it clear that issues normally beyond the purview of teachers and schools, such as friendships, must be addressed if they affect the classroom or school community. An interesting component of this chapter is the author’s emphasis on allowing children—even small ones—to have a voice if social justice is to take place. In essence, everyone must have agency.

Part Four of the volume addresses Children and the Curriculum. Brenda Engel’s contribution, “Miriam’s Standards”, is an interesting discussion on children’s self-imposed standards. She states that acceptance of external standards should take place only when they make sense to the individual, for the acceptance of others’ standards yields a decrease in creativity and individuality. While a nice ideal, it is questionable how realistic an approach this is. Others ultimately evaluate an individual’s work, even in the case of creative work such as the visual arts discussed by Engel. As Hein in Chapter 26 notes, “Progressive educators, like all educators, struggle with the difficult task of evaluation. No educational system is complete without judgements...” (p. 176). Moreover, in terms of psychological development, peer approval takes a more prominent role in the lives of children as they approach adolescence. Nevertheless, “One step in that direction would be to allow them at least a major share in setting standards, encouraging their natural desire to become competent in the activities of the adult world they are joining” (p. 120), Engel states. She advocates the use of portfolios as assessment tools as a promising avenue for students’ assertion of their internal standards for their work.

In the final chapter of the section, Deborah Meier decries the vanishing opportunities for learning through play and observation of adults engaged in activities. While this is the type of informal learning is outlined in previous chapters, in her chapter, “Racing Through Childhood”, Meier makes an interesting observation that the trend of information acquisition at the expense of informal learning does the greatest harm to underprivileged children for whom there is the greatest mismatch between home and school activities. She warns the reader that ignoring these avenues of learning is dangerous “if a central purpose of education is conceived as preparing the young for full membership in a community of equals” (p. 128).

Teachers and Teacher Preparation is the theme for the fifth section of the book. In Helen Featherstone’s chapter, “Learning Progressive Teacher Education”, she notes that if teacher educators want pre-service teachers to adopt progressive ideas, they must model a progressive learning environment when teaching them. The reader is aware that many of the contributors have similarly had first hand knowledge of progressive education, through their own schooling or through observations of classrooms and schools. Likewise, several important points are gleaned from Featherstone’s recounting of taking prospective teachers into classrooms that provide forms of progressive education. Prospective teachers are supportive of progressive educational approaches once they have had experience with them, and networks of similarly minded educators are necessary to propagate the discussion, reflection and the questioning necessary to engage in progressive education methods. Alexander’s chapter, “Time, Trust, and Reflective Thinking in a Teacher Collaborative”, serves to support Featherstone’s claims.

In the final section, Research and Evaluation is addressed. Edward Chittenden provides a researcher’s perspective of classroom activities, and he sets the stage for a different way of looking at evaluation in his contribution, “What is Taught, What is Learned.” He cites the teacher-centeredness of even child-centered educational programs, and he points to the disconnect between what teachers expect or think they are teaching, and what the students actually learn. He astutely notes that the “teachers” are often the hands-on experiences with phenomena. This is not a novel notion; rather, Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education is based on such a premise. Nevertheless, it is implied that new evaluative methods are necessary to address the discrepancy between what is taught and what is learned.

In Susan Harman’s chapter, “Confessions of a Test-Resister,” she develops this notion further. There is some redundancy in the chapter, in that she voices the view that standardized teaching programs and tests assume each child is the same (see the Martin chapter, for example). However, the contribution’s value lies in Harman’s presentation of the Learning Record as an evaluative tool based on Carini’s Descriptive Review of the Child (see the Kenevsky, Strieb, and Wice chapter for details). Here, the evaluative method that includes interviews, observations and work samples for example, is presented as an alternative to what she considers society’s “toxic obsession” (p. 168) with testing. In his excellent concluding chapter, George Hein makes a case for the consideration of context and the changing environment in evaluation. This underscores the inappropriateness of standardized testing, as it does not take into consideration contextual issues. In addition to recapitulating several of the themes woven throughout the book, Hein notes the need for evaluation to reflect students’ independent thinking and democratic practices. In so doing, he sums up the assertions of the entire book and the case for progressive education in his persuasive essay.

This book is based on the views of a network of educators responding to the state of education in the 70s through the turn of the 21st century. Overall, Holding Values: What We Mean by Progressive Education does not contribute much new knowledge. Many progressive ideas build upon or incorporate those of educators such as Dewey, Montessori and Nel Noddings, for instance. Nevertheless, the volume is a useful and engaging resource. Added elements of interest include the informal style of writing, and the invitation into the authors’ personal lives extended to the reader. In terms of content, the book provides a comprehensive interpretation of progressive education as defined by the North Dakota Study Group, for it goes beyond a focus of evaluation -- the initial main purpose of the network’s discussions. The observations of American society’s educational trends over three decades of the network’s meetings and discussions are of interest, as the same educational issues are raising their heads over time with policies such as No Child Left Behind. This highlights the timeliness of this volume.

Finally, the recurrent theme of the importance of context woven throughout the book, such as family and community involvement in education, underscores the context-specific nature of learning, teaching and evaluating. As such, a shift in ideology from standardized programming and testing to a more progressive approach can be seen to be accomplished one classroom and one school at a time. Although not a quick solution, the network offers a positive approach to the widespread and perhaps overwhelming educational issue of standardization that provides hope for the cultivation of a respectful, equitable, democratic society one step at a time.

About the Reviewer

Catherine Hands obtained her Ph.D. in the Educational Administration program at The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. She has been an elementary teacher within the Montessori school system, a college lecturer, and has worked as an educational consultant with school administration and teachers in the areas of curriculum and policy. She has organized national conferences for teachers’ organizations, as well as professional development for teachers. Her research interests include school-community relations, schools as communities, parent involvement in schooling, values and ethics in educational leadership, and education reform.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

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