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Opinion: Reclaiming progressive education

Denver educator Marc Waxman would appear to have impeccable education reformer credentials:

Teach for America corps member, check. Taught at a KIPP school, check. Founding principal of a charter school, check – in the bruising environs of the New York City school district no less.

And let’s not forget he’s opening a new SOAR charter school in Far Northeast Denver to replace an existing traditional public school, Oakland Elementary.

Yet in recent years, Waxman had begun to have doubts about some of the orthodoxies of the current reform movement.

Last September, he wrote a blog post for EdNews detailing some of these doubts. The post went viral and attracted national attention.

Diane Ravitch, the education researcher who herself had a very public change of heart about reform strategies, responded in writing to Waxman’s post, praising his “courage and independence.” She also met with Waxman one-on-one during a recent trip to Denver.

“In a quick email exchange after our meeting, Dr. Ravitch stated “I could see that you are a real progressive,” he said. “Yup, she called me the ‘P’ word! How could she? Me?”

In a new blog post and podcast interview, Waxman discusses how the concept of progressive education, which originated with John Dewey, has fallen into disrepute and needs to be redefined and re-energized.

Educational progressivism focuses on real-world, experiential learning and is viewed by many as a counterpoint to today’s test-driven education culture. But critics of progressive education say it is often soft and unfocused and in particular does not serve low-income children well.

Waxman urges progressive educators to rally around a new model of “pragmatic progressivism,” saying educators should combine the best aspects of progressive education and what he terms the “paternalistic” model now in vogue among reformers, including President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“Academic achievement and social and emotional growth are equally important. Neither on its own is sufficient,” Waxman writes. “Schools are critical not only to develop individuals who can drive the engine of our economy, but to develop people that will lead socially responsible, productive lives and people that will ensure we have a robust, effective democracy.”

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