Progressivism's Impact

How successful was Progressivism in changing the traditional educational system in America? Progressivism's most dramatic impact has been limited to so-called "alternative schools." The nation contains a range of alternative schools like the University of Chicago Laboratory School, the Montessori schools, and others which are built on the foundation of Progressive ideas. These schools are notable for the quality of students they produce. They are also notable for how much they cost to run.

Although some mainstream elementary schools today embrace aspects of Progressive ideas in their earlier grades, elementary schools in their later years, secondary schools, and universities have been affected more by the form than by the substance of the movement. School features such as gym classes, so-called "industrial arts" classes, school projects in the community, and the broad range of available extracurricular activities come from the work of Progressive reformers. However, these features seem like adornments on the system--students typically do not view them as what school is really about. The core of the educational system remains largely untouched despite 100 years of attempts at Progressive reform. Classes aimed at teaching reading still often have all students reading the same book as if it were the book and not the reading that mattered. Classes aimed at teaching math still often present math as something that will only be useful at some vague point later in life, rather than as something that applies to students' immediate concerns. Classes aimed at teaching history rarely show how the lessons of the past can inform choices students face today.

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