careyWhen we speak of progressive education, we often think of thought leaders like John Dewey and his famous book, The School in Society (1899).  Progressive education leaders wrote of and acted upon their beliefs that a democratic, child-centric, experiential approach to learning was best for children as well as society (Reese, 2001).  It is important, however, to avoid becoming stuck in the dogmas of past educational philosophies and keep a critical eye toward needed improvements. If we are to truly live up to the democratic ideals of progressive education, it is perhaps most important that we examine which children were not included in early visions of this educational approach.

John Dewey published The School in Society in 1899.  Less than a decade later, 33 states would pass laws legalizing the involuntary hospitalization and sterilization of individuals with disabilities (Cohen, 2016). As the Progressive Education Association was being established in the US, the US Supreme Court was upholding states’ rights to incarcerate and sterilize disabled individuals (Cohen, 2016).  The surge of progressive education in the early decades of the twentieth century coincided with an international wave of enthusiasm for eugenics – a belief that the ills of society could be cured by removing those with undesirable traits from the gene pool. Rather than see eugenics and discrimination toward individuals with disabilities as incompatible with the progressive movement, many progressives embraced eugenics as a means for improving society (Cohen, 2016; Freeden,1979). Children with disabilities in the US would not be guaranteed access to even minimal education until 1975, over two decades after Dewey’s death.  Dewey never imagined a world in which children with physical, cognitive, or emotional disabilities would inhabit the progressive classrooms he sought to create.

Why paint this grim historical image? Because knowing that students with disabilities were not factored into the original imaginings of progressive education provides us with a path toward a greater and improved progressive philosophy and practice. We can stop reading Dewey and his progressive colleagues for hints for creating a truly inclusive school community and start looking to other child-centric models that will help us to provide a meaningful education to all.

It is time for progressive education to welcome a makeover. We must re-examine our approaches to teaching and learning and weed out unnecessary barriers so that all can participate in participatory learning.  The City Neighbors schools have embraced this re-imagining of progressive education.  A commitment to inclusive education and equity for students with disabilities has led to an examination of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an approach to instructional design that embraces student-centric learning experiences and offers access through student-led choice. It has not always been an easy path to blaze.

In order to embrace inclusive education, educators must critically examine ideas about how things “should” be done in order to creatively provide options for all students. There must be a shift in considering the barrier to learning as a within-child problem, to a barrier that is externally caused by instructional choices and the design of learning environments. Progressive educators must keep a sharp eye out for the implicit ableist biases that saturate our culture and profession. What happens when progressive educators are able to intentionally create accessible learning environments, provide meaningful options for student expression, and view student engagement as the key to a deeper relationship with learning? A greater fulfillment of the promises of progressive education; the creation of a more just, democratic, and critical thinking generation.

~Lisa Beth Carey, Assistant Director of The Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education at Kennedy Krieger Institute

Cohen, A. S. (2016). Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, american eugenics, and the sterilization of Carrie Buck. Penguin.
Freeden, M. (1979). Eugenics and progressive thought: a study in ideological affinity. The
historical journal, 22(3), 645-671.
Reese, W. J. (2001). The origins of progressive education. History of education quarterly, 41(1), 1-24.