Friday, October 2, 2009


I have been corresponding with Howard Katzoff, who has a website called He reprinted there an article that was published in Newsday in April of 2008, about the exciting middle school that he taught in in the 1970's, Why did Shoreham Wading River and many successful schools like it die while others, such as the one I taught in, remained?
Standford emeritus professor Larry Cuban views what happened as “yet another skirmish in the ideological wars that have split educators and the public since the first tax-supported schools opened their doors in the early 1800s.” I think there is a lot of truth to that. School Boards reflecting political agendas probably closed down many of the progressive experiments. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they did it in concert with the huge educational publishing business, which would not have been making nearly as much money if schools had stopped buying all those tedious textbooks. Perhaps the testing mania started as a new income source? One that would “prove” that we needed to go back to textbooks?? I hate to be so cynical, yet there can be no doubt that corporations have benefited from this particular skirmish!
In my internet perambulations I have located around 50 public schools whose websites describe programs that sound like our Open Classroom. I have developed a bit of communication with about a dozen of these public schools going against the current. A great majority started in the 70’s, although there is a mini resurgence, usually calling themselves ‘constructivist’.
In our case I think there are some clear reasons why we still exist. First of all, we are located in a very liberal area, and our school board continues to support us. From the beginning there was a decision to create school programs that reflected what parents wanted. So there was not just an open classroom, there was also a back to basics program. Conventional self- contained classrooms were also offered. As time went by, the back to basics model melded with the self contained classrooms, and called itself Academics and Enrichment. Then along came a group of parents who wanted Montessori. They drummed up support, paid for the first year of training a teacher, and convinced the board they had many parents who wanted that.
Eventually A&E dwindled, but the open program continued to draw nearly half of the new enrollees, with the rest going to the Montessori program. A few years after A& E disappeared, at a moment when total school enrollment was down and there were empty classrooms, along came a group of parents who wanted a Waldorf inspired approach. They also raised money, and lobbied hard…and now this tiny community with a total school population of a bit more than 300, has 3 elementary school programs, all of which are unconventional, plus a middle school that all three programs feed into.
Second of all, our staff had longevity, and continued to put in the energy needed to support this approach. The founding teachers stayed a very long time, did not all retire at once, and even after retirement have stayed involved in the school, mentoring and volunteering–even attending school board meetings.
Third of all, the community model, including an emphasis on parent participation, worked in our favor. I notice that is a part of several of the schools that have survived. The teachers did not get isolated once the founding parents moved on. The use of consensus for decision making may not always be pretty, but it keeps people invested.
It may also help that we are an elementary school. I notice it is harder to build community in middle school. There are too few years, the parents tend not to be as involved. The schools I’ve found that go further than 6th grade usually go all the way through high school, and that may be why the middle school has survived: the threat that somehow you have to toughen kids up with lots of tests in middle school to prepare them for high school is not there.
Interestingly, in the private school sector some version of progressive education has always had wide acceptance. Several versions are experiencing rapid growth right now, probably pushed by how regimented public schools have become. Alfie Kohn contends that there never was much of a progressive movement in the public schools. It was so small, given such a limited time to prove itself, that it never got off the ground. but I would add that many of the good ideas did drift into more conventional classrooms, and are only now being stamped out by the testing machine.
How do we turn the tide? Maybe the severity of what has happened via NCLB will do it for us. We’ll have to get more people speaking up if that is to be so!

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