What is a Progressive Education Policy?

This is not an easy question to answer because the foundation of American political progressivism is quite fuzzy. Progressives want a more generous welfare state, a reduction in the United States’ military role in the world, an end to unfair discrimination, highly progressive taxation, strong worker protections, strong environmental protections, and meaningful investment in the social and economic development of economically struggling countries. What is the principle underlying all of these policy preferences? Fairness and long-term human, animal, and environmental well-being? I don’t think many progressives would disagree with that!

So how does the above principle apply to education policy? Are students and education workers treated fairly? Is their long-term well-being honestly being prioritized? The answer is clearly no. While tenured unionized public school teachers have strong job security, they generally have very limited discretion over their work. Instead, they are forced to follow a fairly regimented educational program, whether they believe in it or not. How can these conditions produce fulfillment and well-being? Instead, they appear to be the conditions for dehumanization.

This regimented educational program is what public schools students are forced to follow in their schooling. They spend 13 years enveloped in this dehumanizing environment. Clearly the status quo in public education is in screaming need of revolution in the eyes of progressives! At least according to the principles underlying American political progressivism.

Thus, what American political progressivism calls for is an education system that is fair to educational workers and students and that promotes their long-term well-being. Okay! That’s hard to argue with; so what would it look like in practice for an educational system to follow these principles? What comes to my mind is consent, freedom, opportunity, and community.

So what does this mean in terms of policy?

Learning requirements are oppressive rather than progressive. They directly contradict freedom and consent in education. State education standards must be eliminated.

Community is tough to grow within large, systematized environments. Smaller schools with lower student-to-staff ratios would provide the foundation for community-building and would also allow more support for students’ individualized learning endeavors.

In order to maximize opportunity for students, educators would need to play more of a “learning facilitation” role. They would need to have in-depth conversations with their students in order to find out what their interests and goals are. After gaining that knowledge, they’d be able to use it to connect their students with opportunities to explore their interests and progress toward their goals.

Does this educational model of freedom, consent, community, and opportunity sound progressive to you? It would require revolutionary change within the public education system to come into being. But I don’t hear political progressives talking about this very often. Why the heck is that?

I’m no political analyst, but I’ve noticed that political conversations on education have been dominated by talk of school funding and charter schools. These topics are important, but in the absence of the progressive changes I’ve mentioned above, improved school funding and changes to charter school regulations will have a minimal impact on the educational experience of public school students.

If we want to achieve a truly progressive public education system, it is imperative that we deepen the political conversation on education. We need serious discussion about the principles underlying the current education system and its proposed replacements. The great hope is that through a strong focus on underlying principles, the public and our elected representatives will finally see the light.