Education Wars:

A Comprehensive Guide to Two Belief Systems

By Lance Joel Greenlee

June 2001


Introduction: Two Factions. 2

The Literature: Intentional Divisiveness and Exaggerated Polarization. 2

Part I: Two Philosophical Differences. 2

What is the Purpose of a School?. 2

Table 1: Purpose of School 3

Views of Knowledge. 4

Table 2: Views of Knowledge. 4

Table 3: Dividing Knowledge into Academic Fields. 5

Knowledge Conclusion. 5

Part II "Research shows that…" 6

The Appearance of Research. 6

Experimental Parameters: 6

Apples and Oranges. 6

Parallel Site and Cross-Site Experiments. 7

Part III:  Research and Standardized Testing. 7

Levels of Research. 7

Measuring the Results: Qualitative and Quantitative Research. 7

Standardized Testing. 8

Table 4: Beliefs in Standardized Testing. 8

Concluding remarks on research and testing. 9

Part IV Teaching Methods: "How should children be taught?" 10

Early Childhood Education. 10

The Project Method / The Discovery Method. 10

Direct Instruction / Whole-Class Instruction and practice. 11

Whole-Class Instruction and practice. 11

Physical Structure of Schools. 11

Tracking. 11

Conclusion. 12

Exaggerated Polarization: Example of Phonics / Whole Language. 12

Intellectual Dishonesty: Example of Rote Learning / Memorization. 12

Final Words. 13

References. 13


Introduction: Two Factions

In our country, in our time, education policy has been increasingly divided into two opposing camps.  It might seem, therefore, that one of the most important things for a school teacher to do would be to study the research, especially If the administrator has mandated that he or she employ what the teacher believes are the best researched methods, as opposed to an “experimental school” in which the teacher attempts to implement methods based on new and untried hypotheses. 

This is probably, however, not often the case.  It is probably the norm for a teacher to instead decide which camp’s philosophy sits better with his or her personal outlook in life and measure their ideas against his or her own experience.  The research has become nearly useless.  The power-struggle between these two factions has gone beyond a mere fight over tax dollar appropriations and control of a lucrative establishment into personal battles which has sullied the institution of education not just with selective use of research but with exaggeration of their differences, misrepresentation of each other, accusations, finger-pointing, and sometimes in with intellectual dishonesty. 

The Literature: Intentional Divisiveness and Exaggerated Polarization

Most of the popular literature is highly divisive and of the style commonly described as preaching to the converted.  For example, the first half of the “Progressive Camp” book The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond tradition classrooms and “tougher Standards” (1999), the author Alfie Kohn does very little to convince the reader that his theories are correct, but instead maintains an attack mode until page 114.  His strict “us vs.  them” attitude is clearly also reflected in his “Traditional Camp” counterpart Charles Sykes in his book Dumbing down our kids: Why American children feel good about themselves but can’t read, write, or add.  Those not prejudiced toward the philosophies and attitudes of these writers are unlikely to progress far in either book.  Persons who have an honest disagreement would find either of these writers not only in intellectual opposition to their positions, but insulting.  For example, in many people’s minds, the warring education factions have often been aligned with particular American political parties.  In the first few pages of his book The Schools we need and why we don’t have them (1996, p.  5-7), E.D.  Hirsch Jr.  neatly sidesteps this pitfall.  But with comments about “conservative agendas” and epithets like “right-wing” (1999, p.  18 & 12), Kohn not only blunders headlong into it, but goes on to alienate even more people with remarks about the shallowness of their religion (1999, implicit in footnote 48 and elsewhere).  With approaches like these and similar ones in Sykes, it is small wonder that little middle ground is being found in these two camps. 

Part I: Two Philosophical Differences

What is the Purpose of a School?

Text Box: Education, as a profession, not only has no consensus on how to accomplish its mission; education as a profession does not even know what its mission is.Before there can be an examination of teaching methods[1], education must answer a more basic question – defining its purpose.  Education, as a profession, not only has no consensus on how to accomplish its mission; education as a profession does not even know what its mission is.  Therefore, deciding what a school is for must be a foundational question for any individual teacher.  If a teacher doesn’t understand the goal of the profession, then methods become trivial; if a traveler doesn’t know where he’s going, the mode of transportation doesn’t matter. 

In its introductory statement, the 1983 document Nation at Risk stated, “Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983).  Although its “Recommendations” section largely supports the Traditional camp, Progressivist Gene Glass, a former president of American Educational Research Association, mirrors the sentiment about purpose.  He said that education today is not "like a group of engineers working on the fastest, cheapest and safest way of traveling to Chicago."  Instead, he stated that it is like "a bunch of people arguing about whether to go to Chicago or St.  Louis" (as quoted by Carnine, 1999).  That there is little consensus about goals both sides would agree; yet both sides are clear about what they believe.  In its “Recommendations” section, Nation begins by stating, “There is little mystery about what we believe must be done.”  There is also little mystery about what Romantic-Progressives would like to do; there is just little common ground between the two groups. 

Table 1: Purpose of School

Romantic-Progressive Educators

Enlightenment-Traditional Educators

One of the two most powerful groups in education began with educators like Fröbel and Pestalozzi during an intellectual and artistic movement known as Romanticism.  Today, these educators are often referred to as Progressives.  Among these Romantic-Progressives, the following items are often mentioned as priorities: develop critical thinking skills, experience self-discovery, develop a love of learning and become lifelong learners, develop spontaneity and creativity, integrate physical, emotional & spiritual well-being, build life skills, and evolve interpersonal competency.

In addition, it is an important priority for many Romantic-Progressives to instill the following values: environmental awareness & stewardship, promoting racial harmony, recognition of the intrinsic worth of the individual, teaching students to make decisions based on their own unique set of ethical values, advancing class awareness and destroying class division, promoting awareness of sexism in our society, and promoting awareness of the student’s own sexuality.  These are usually viewed as second tier goals behind those listed in the first paragraph, but not always (Whole School Consortium, 1999).  For a few Romantic-Progressive Educators, the purpose of the school is yet to be determined. 


Before the Romantic Movement existed the educators of the Enlightenment, [Kohn states they are the heirs of Descartes and Bacon, (1999, p.  75)], chiefly referred to today as the Traditional teacher.  Most Enlightenment-Traditional educators define an educated person as one that has developed mastery in the essential skills, acquired a wide knowledge base, developed well-grounded thinking habits, and is able to apply all of these toward solving problems (Beator, as quoted by Sykes, 1995, p.  219).  Enlightenment-traditional teachers have often delineated their own objectives into very specific goals sorted out into several levels, if not into each grade (Hirsch, 1991-96; Bennett, Finn, and Cribb, 2000).  Contrasting these efforts, they consider the first-tier goals of the Romantic-Progressives such as "developing critical thinking skills" to be far too vague.  Termed the “goals from Hell” by Sykes (1995, p.  247), he goes on to say, 

“given the vagueness of the jargon-laden “outcomes” it is difficult for parents to know in advance what their students will learn and equally hard to measure success after the fact.” 

In the section of his book entitled “The Myth of the Existing Curriculum”, E.  D.  Hirsch Jr.  explains that these goals seldom if ever pan out into a curriculum.  The “idea that there exists a coherent plan for teaching content within the local district, or even within the individual school, is a gravely misleading myth” (Hirsch 1996, p.  26).  The result of all this vagueness, Enlightenment-Traditional educators believe, is likely to be “a pervasive mediocrity” (Sykes 1995, p.  249). 

Enlightenment-Traditional educators usually consider the second tier (race relations, concern for the environment) to be important matters, but they infer that these concerns will not be unaddressed by society if schools neglect them.  If schools neglect the training of students in an intellectually challenging manner, however, it will not be done (Bestor, as quoted by Sykes, 1995, p.  216).  Enlightenment-Traditional educators often refer to these non-academic foci as "mission bloat".  By this they mean that as more and more requirements are included in education's mission, none of them are really done well, and non-academic “themes” dilute the time spent on demanding skills and important knowledge (Sykes 1995, p.  262-265).  Like the Romantic-Progressives, however, Enlightenment-Traditional educators have their own branch concerned with the values being taught at public schools (Kirkpatrick, 1993). 

Views of Knowledge

Table 2: Views of Knowledge

Romantic Views of Knowledge

Enlightenment-Traditional Rebuttal

The goal of Enlightenment-Traditional educators that irks Romantic-Progressives most is their belief that an educated person should acquire a wide knowledge base, and here is perhaps the most important distinction between the two sets of policy choices that the teacher faces.  A teacher who agrees with Romantic-Progressive educators is likely to believe that knowledge is trivial, transitory, and inconsequential.  They compare the learning of knowledge to memorizing trivia that will soon be out of date and never did have any bearing on students’ lives.  A genuine education, they believe, will be an opportunity for students of a discipline to do the same activities that are done by professionals of that discipline, although perhaps at a simpler level.  Professionals in the real world, they say, do not merely memorize facts.  Therefore, most Romantic-Progressives believe that content of their teaching doesn’t matter; one course is pretty much interchangeable with another.  “I don’t teach math; I teach students” is an oft-heard motto.  What matters is not what they are learning, but rather that students are learning how to learn.  Romantic-Progressives believe that if students acquire the proper intellectual tools, they will be capable of handling any knowledge, and since even professionals use reference works, students who are taught how to use such reference works are better off than those who know it.  Access knowledge is much more important, these teachers believe. 

To the Enlightenment-Traditional educator, the belief that acquiring knowledge is mere memorization is perhaps the most peculiar thing about Romantic-Progressives.  The claim that knowledge is a mere memorization of facts, they believe, is grossly untrue, and the attempt to portray it as such can only be an outsider’s view. 

Enlightenment-Traditional teachers believe that professionals base their decisions on a wide grounding of knowledge that is usually not apparent to the observer, and attempting to have students duplicate a professional’s observed behaviors without grasping the reasons behind these activities will only result in the students going through the motions.  To the Enlightenment-Traditional, an educator cannot substitute the teaching of knowledge with a mere requirement that students behave as though they had the knowledge (Sykes 1995, p.  255-6; Hirsch 1996, p.  54-58). 


Table 3: Dividing Knowledge into Academic Fields

Divisions of knowledge are arbitrary and inconsequential.  The divisions are merely holdovers from a by-gone era and produce in the students an incorrect view that knowledge is separated.  Separation of school into different fields should be ended. 

The different fields of scholarly and scientific endeavor are independent sets of intellectual tactics and thinking strategies.  Each discipline is a set of mental processes that has been developed diversely from the others.  Without knowledge, however, these differing approaches to understanding our world cannot be tackled – for example, it is impossible for a student to be trained in the peculiar mental methods of the historian if the student is ignorant of the events of history.  (See pg.  10 The Schools We Need by E.D.  Hirsch, Jr.)


Knowledge Conclusion

 Alfie Kohn admirably sums up the Romantic-Progressive position on knowledge when he says, “There is absolutely no reason to think that it provides any real cognitive benefits.  Stuffing facts into your head doesn’t help you think better; indeed, the time spent stuffing is time not spent analyzing or inventing or communicating, making distinctions or drawing connections” (1999, p.  54). 

Hirsch counters, stating, “There is a great deal of evidence, indeed a consensus in cognitive psychology, that people who are able to think independently about unfamiliar problems and who are broad-gauged problem solvers, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners are, without exception, well-informed people” (1996, p.  144). 


Part II "Research shows that…"

The Appearance of Research

Educators of both sides often begin sentences with the above phrase.  ERIC is piling up, showing that research is being done in immense amounts.  If so much research is being done, then why are there such opposing claims?  Why isn’t research, as Kohn puts it, “decisive in weighing the merits of the different models”?(1999, p.  209). 

It can be somewhat deceptive at times to even discern which methods or concepts are actually researched at all.  In neither the endnote system that reigns in popular books nor in the APA formatting used in formal papers is the meaning of reference readily apparent.  Both professional opinion and research are credited in the same manner.  What appears to the naked eye to be a well-researched concept - a paper peppered with parenthetical references - may in fact be little more than professional hobnobbing, ivory tower “ins” swapping swipes at the opposing party.  Kohn roundly criticizes Hirsch for doing so (1999, p.  209), but only after he has done so repeatedly himself, including second- and third-hand anecdotes (1999, footnotes 71 & 73, p.  20). 

Furthermore, the endnote system of popular books adds additional problems.  For example, the reader may find that Kohn’s references are only to a Newsweek article (1999, footnote 21, chapter 1), but only after finding the correct footnote under the correct chapter heading at the end of the book, and then making a second jump back to the Reference list (the endnote will only give the author’s name).  Most readers will find this disconcerting to the train of thought and will not bother.  An additional problem in the endnote system is that those little numbers that look like research may not even be quoted opinion – it may merely be an author wishing to annotate his own writing with supplementary information.  All of this is most natural for writers to want to do, but what about clarity?

Setting reference confusion aside, can a teacher competently use research?  Can he or she judge that what is researched is “true”?  

Experimental Parameters:

Apples and Oranges

The answer is no.  Research experiments are often set up so differently that it is difficult if not impossible to draw conclusions from the body of work.  For example, since the claimed benefits of tracking are that some students can advance more rapidly into higher levels, for example, math, while others are allowed to progress at their own, slower rate, one research project might choose to include all students in the same grade regardless of which math class they are tracked – most in pre-algebra, some in algebra, some in business math, etc.  Another study, believing a study cannot be accurate unless the variables are reduced, might consider only the students who take the same course and use the same text but only progress through it at different rates (Grossen, 1996).  Can these two studies be compared, and if so in what way?  What if their results are contradictory?  The answer is, of course, that if the results are contradictory, Romantic-Progressives will seize upon one and Enlightenment-Traditional educators will triumph in the other. 

Parallel Site and Cross-Site Experiments

A second example of the incompatibility of research projects can be seen in parallel and cross-site experiments.  Reviewing an experiment known as Project Follow Through, Kohn complains that

The variation in results from one location to the next of a given model of instruction was greater than the variations between one model and the next.  That means the site that kids happened to attend was a better predictor of how well they learned than was the style of teaching (1999, p.  213). 

This reveals a belief in cross-site experimentation, that if a method is truly effective, then it ought to have results significant enough to overcome other variables.  Other researchers believe that when comparing two methods of instruction, researchers should compare how the two methods worked in two similar schools, reducing the variables.  The research, they believe, will produce results of questionable value if it compares how one method performed in a school of an impoverished neighborhood against how a different method performed in a middle-class school.  They believe that only parallel sites should be compared.  This approach is doubly supported when the different classes of schools produce similar results for the same methods when compared against each other, as they did in Follow Through (Carnine 1999; Grossen, n.d.).   To do this, however, requires the research project to canvas much more ground.

Part III:  Research and Standardized Testing

Levels of Research

Two researchers have tried to categorize education research into three levels of depth.  Research projects ” may be described as dissimilarly as:

1)            theories, hypotheses and recommendations developed after observations; or

2)            detailed plans put into practice in a few classrooms, throughout an experimental school, or even a district; or

3)            projects following including disparate school districts throughout the United States through many years. 

(Ellis, A., & Fouts, J.  1994; a summary of their work is included in Grossen, n.d.). 



Measuring the Results: Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Enlightenment-Traditional Educators

Enlightenment-Traditional Educators clearly favor the research designated by Ellis and Fouts as level 2 and level 3.  Grossen states ”Those procedures that get better results across a number of teachers and across students are the ones that are worth sharing and only these belong in the shared professional-knowledge base of teaching” (Grossen, n.d.).   She is careful to give caveats to this recommendation, however:

This is not to say that theories that are only at level 1 have no merit and will never work.  It only means that new teachers should not be trained in theories with only level 1 support and that districts should not mandate practices or spend large amounts of money promoting teaching practices with only level 1 support.  These restrictions would not prevent individual teachers from reading about level 1 research and working with it to see if promising interventions can be developed from it.  Anyone using level 1 research would understand its limitations as such.

     Enlightenment-Traditional disagreement runs back to the fundamentally opposed views of knowledge between Romantic-Progressives and Enlightenment-Traditional Educators.  Level 2 and Level 3 research is likely to be quantitative research, a right-brained style of research that attempts to eliminate the subjective and imitate the type of research used in the harder sciences.  Good research of this type would naturally follow large numbers of students under a particular teaching method as they progress through larger periods of time and then tests their knowledge and skills against a control group.  Enlightenment-Traditional educators feel that only this kind of research can bring the profession on par with other modern disciplines.

Until education becomes the kind of profession that reveres evidence, we should not be surprised to find its experts dispensing unproven methods, endlessly flitting from one fad to another.  The greatest victims of these fads are the very students who are most at risk.  (Grossen, n.d.; see also Carnine, 1999)

Romantic-Progressive Educators

     Romantic-Progressive educators favor Level 1 research.  For example, a committee of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME) recommended that the journal not publish research that compared methods, saying, "The question, "Is Curriculum A better than Curriculum B?' is not a good research question because it is not really answerable."  They recommended instead that the journal publish only something called  "Disciplined inquiry”, which was defined as “as much an orientation as an accomplishment" (1995, p.  301, as quoted by Grossen, n.d.).   

     Romantic-Progressive disagreement arises because much of level 2 and 3 research relies on standardized testing.  Standardized testing data, if accepted, provides a massive amount of level-2 and level-3 information.  The Romantic-Progressive community, however, promotes strong resistance to standardized testing and rejects most of the Enlightenment-Traditional research because it relies on this. 

How did they measure the benefit or harm of a particular educational approach?  The vast majority of studies in the field look at how this or that intervention affects academic achievement.  Furthermore, academic achievement usually ends up being measured by (indeed defined as) standardized test scores.  If you have doubts about the validity of these tests, claims about whatever kicked up the scores must be regarded skeptically also (Kohn 1999, p.  211) 

Instead, Romantic-Progressive methods are often based on qualitative research, an interpretive, left-brained approach.  Claims for a hypothesis’s accuracy usually rely on observations and logical arguments of how specific observed behaviors could be interpreted, fitting these behaviors into patterns developed under a particular theory.  The research gains acceptance if it is convincing that these behaviors and those described by others can be explained in the way the researcher hypothesizes, and much weight is given to majority or consensus opinions within the community. 

Standardized Testing

Table 4: Beliefs in Standardized Testing

Romantic-Progressive Educators

Enlightenment-Traditional Educators

Romantic-Progressive educators believe that standardized testing can never be accurate, neither on an individual basis, nor as a measure of a group at large, and that testing is harmful to student's self-esteem and to their learning (Kohn, 1999, p.  73-92; Gibson 1999; Glasser 1998, p.  10-11).  These beliefs are so entrenched that William Glasser’s The Quality School recently became a best-seller although one of its major premises – that truly educated students will not do well on tests - was presented without any evidence or even supportive argument (1998, p.  9 and following).  Romantic-Progressives attempt to discredit, dismantle, or even sabotage national or state exams (Gibson n.d.). 

Their antagonism toward testing springs from their beliefs disparaging factual knowledge and a conviction that existing standardized tests do not attempt to measure anything more than short-term memorization skills.  It is not only the questions offered by these tests that causes the hullabaloo, but the very core of the argument often sits on the format of the test.  A true test cannot ask students to “fill in bubbles with number two pencils” (Kohn 1999, p.  199).  Their Romantic roots are anguished when faced with the thought that anyone would think that machine could grade what should be creative human endeavors:  

It is symptomatic of our present self-destructive system that students are made aware in a wide variety of coercive ways that low-quality work that can be measured by machines is the top administrative priority of almost all school systems (Glasser, 1998, p.  10)

To Enlightenment-Traditional educators, the behavior of Romantic-Progressives toward testing is sometimes described as "Test Evasion" or as "Shooting the Messenger" (both of these phrases are used as subdivision titles of Hirsch’s Schools We Need).  This chapter of The schools we need  (Hirsch, 1996) and the essay Why Testing Experts Hate Testing (Phelps, 1999) outline the basic Enlightenment-Traditional stance, which is as follows:

Test items can be banal and simplistic or intricately complex and, either way, their response format can be multiple-choice or open-ended…  Even huge, integrative tasks that require fifty minutes to classify, assemble, organize, calculate, and analyze can, in the end, present the test-taker with a multiple-choice response format.  (Phelps 1999). 

Enlightenment-Traditional Educators sometimes admit to the shortcomings of multiple-choice tests, but their stand is that even at a much greater cost, “The creative, constructive side of writing is not well sampled even in the best performance tests” (Hirsch 1996 p.  191). 



Concluding remarks on research and testing

Strangely enough, in at least some cases, the alternative assessments have become a standard test, but when they do, they are supported by Traditionalist and attacked by Progressives.  Kohn specifically names the MEAP (the Michigan state-mandated test) as one of the worst tests (1999, p.  74).  The writing portion of this test contains no multiple choice or short answer, but instead a lengthy essay with built-in writing process which is graded by a trained team – exactly what he specifies is good in the section titled “What replaces Standardized tests” (1999, p.  197-200). 

Both Traditionalist and Progressivist critics have objected to standardized tests as an introduction of a canon of official knowledge, and a have complained that the tests are too easily manipulated to provide a “Lake Woebegone Effect” – named after Nation Public Radio’s syndicated series of the fictional town where every kid is above average (Sykes 1995, p.  143-150).  For the moment, it seems that testing will continue.  Testing seems to provide the most objective and comprehensive means of assessing large numbers of educational systems, regardless of its flaws.  If not for reasons of scientific soundness, then because the

complexities of this dispute boil down simply to this: If the public were willing to buy invisible results, then it wouldn't matter… However, today the public is clearly not willing to continue to pay for invisible results” (Grossen, n.d.). 


Part IV Teaching Methods: "How should children be taught?"

Teacher’s Role, Memorization, Diverse Learning Styles, Whole-Class Teaching


The Romantic-Progressive Teacher

The Enlightenment-Traditional Teacher


Early Childhood Education

In elementary, kids should use play to discover their creative selves.  If done at all, demanding work should be postponed as long as possible – there will be time for that in high school and college. 

More demanding work should be offered in early childhood as psychological studies have shown :that enormous abilities are possessed by the brain at this stage – such as the renowned ability of early-age language learning. 


The Project Method / The Discovery Method

Discovery Method/Project Method

The teacher’s role as facilitator to students’ own discovery.  They do not believe a teacher can "teach" students anything but the most trivial facts that can be memorized.  Students have to discover things for themselves.  They say students who have "direct instruction" (see right) will not really understand, but have just "rote- learned" – that is, they have memorized certain responses the teacher desires and have become able to disgorge what they have taken in like an animal in a stimulus-response experiment.

While not against projects – an opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience - Enlightenment-Traditional educators believe that if the goal of capturing student’s interests becomes a dominant factor, we run into the following problems:

While Enlightenment-Traditional educators agree that children learn best when they are interested, this does not automatically mean that that when they are engaged they are learning anything significant.  Students immersed in projects may well be engaged in a chain of mere "fun activities" that keep them busy but are intellectually trivial. 

Just because a concept does not readily engage students does not mean that it has no worth and should not be taught.  One may ask on the one hand, “Does the study of grammar intrinsically interest a seventh grader?” and one may ask on the other,  “Will students write better if they have been taught grammar in seventh grade?” but they are inherently separate issues.  Enlightenment-Traditional educators believe that educators who are led to teach only concepts which generate high-interest or which readily apply themselves to a hands-on approach will develop inadequate curriculums.   

Finally, their major point of having a school in the first place is to provide demanding intellectual training.  If a student is not learning at a more rapid rate or at more intense level than people who do not attend school – one who merely went out into the world to learn – then there is no point in having a school. 

Enlightenment-Traditional teachers believe the answer to these problems is best answered with the method called either “direct instruction” or “whole class instruction”. 


Direct Instruction / Whole-Class Instruction and practice 

 These teachers are against too much practice in the skills the students are learning.  "Drill & kill" is an oft-repeated phrase used by these teachers to mean that requiring students to practice will destroy their love of learning and cause resentment, keeping them from becoming life-long learners. 

 Hirsch quotes physiologist D. Geary’s Children’s Mathematical Development, which states that drills result in:

the automatic execution of a procedure without having to think about the rules governing the use of that procedure.  One of the benefits of rule automation is a reduction in the working-memory demands associated with using the procedure.  The freeing of working-memory resources makes the processing of other features of the problem easier and less error-prone…

In other words, if the students has memorized the multiplication tables, then the students mind is freed up to tackle more difficult procedures which involve multiplication as a component. 


Whole-Class Instruction and practice 



Links to Direct Instruction Sites


Physical Structure of Schools

The arrangement of chairs and the length of class periods may seem a trivial matter to outsiders, but this has become an important battleground to some. 


Here are one enlightenment-Traditional Educator's beliefs about Block Scheduling, an attempt to break up the traditional time periods classes have usually taken. 



To track or not to track - that is the question.  Is it better to endure the wrack of mixed ability kids, to be forced to choose between boring those who should be advancing at a rapid pace or losing those who cannot keep up, or shall we permanently brand FAILURE onto those that we separate into lower-track classes? Is the solution to reduce those who should be advancing into tutors for those who really don't care about making it to college? Or Ah -the many problems of Tracking


Romantic-Progressive Educators believe that tracking is NOT the way to go in a democracy.  Read the article How should we group to achieve excellence with equity?


The irony here is that Romantic-Progressive Educators are the ones who are most adamant about individual learning styles and…


Education research is in bad need of reform.  As it stands today, a teacher cannot reasonably use research as guide to policy decisions.  The research is artificially polarized and ideological.  Two final examples will close this paper, that of whole language vs. phonics, and that of rote memorization. 

Exaggerated Polarization: Example of Phonics / Whole Language

But are the differences as great as they seem?  Probably no teaching methods have drawn as much attention in recent years as those regarding early childhood reading.  The proponents of the methodologies of “Phonics” and “Whole Language” have stopped short of a shooting war, but that is all that can be said.  Yet, Alfie Kohn says, “’It’s not that kids shouldn’t learn phonics” (1999, p.  53); and Hirsch encourages his readers to pay more attention to  “researchers like Jeanne Chall and Marily Jager Adams, who found that a middle-of-the-road approach which includes both phonics and whole-language approach is the most effective teaching method” (1996, p.  67).  So what is the underlying nature of the rift?  Is the difference truly as profound as the combatants would like their readers to believe? 

Intellectual Dishonesty: Example of Rote Learning / Memorization

 “The best research on this subject shows that neither fact-filled memorization nor large conceptual generalizations are effective modes of education for higher-order thinking about the complexities of the modern world.” 

Reading this quote, one might think it is Glasser, Gardner, or Kohn.  In fact, it is Hirsch (1996, p.  156).  While trying to remain objective, it is hard not to see this “problem” in education as anything other than Romantic-Progressives creating a great deal of fuss against a position that no one really holds.  This is worth quoting Hirsch in some depth:

 “All of these objections to rote learning have validity.  It is better to encourage the integrated understanding of knowledge over the merely verbal repetition of separate facts.  It is better for students to think for themselves than merely to repeat what they have been told.  For all of these reasons, rote learning is inferior to learning that is internalized and can be expressed in the student’s own words” (1996, p.  266). 

Other Enlightenment-Traditional Educators hold similar positions. 

Why, then, do Romantic-Progressives continue to rail against them for holding the exact opposite position?  Why, especially, do Romantic-Progressives such as Kohn in The schools our children deserve repeatedly storm against practices that almost any observer would be hard-pressed to find in any American school: “compulsory recitations”, classes that “chant answers in unison”, and performing “formal recitations”? (1999, p.  61, 10, and 6 respectively)  

Hirsch has a fair answer to this.  “Among the several criticisms of Cultural Literacy,” he states, “the most dull-minded was that it advised educators to teach disconnected, rote-memorized words and facts.  That interpretation made the book’s argument seem at once impractical and stupid, which may have been the polemical intent of those who so interpreted it” (1996, p.  145).  While trying to maintain objectivity in this paper, it is difficult not to come to a conclusion on this issue: In continuing to ascribe this claim to Enlightenment-Traditional Educators, Romantic-Progressives are engaging in intellectual dishonesty. 

Final Words

Some of the objections to acceptance of research are well noted in the opening segments of Kohn’s “Appendix A” (1999, p.  209-211), yet as soon as these objections are noted, he dismisses them with the wave of his hand.  It is understandable to see why it is the norm for a teacher not to rely on such researchers but to instead decide a course between each camp’s philosophy, a course that sits best with his or her experience and which “feels” right. 

The divisiveness of this literature continually hammers away at the reader in the form of loaded language, accusations, and twisted rhetoric[2].  Both tend to offer inflexible, ideologically driven mandates to teachers and public alike.  Both have attitudes that allow little individuality in teachers or in policy setting by the district.  There is an inferred belief that the only acceptable criterion for administrative policy being “correct” would be the wholehearted acceptance of all their theories implemented in an undiluted manner, and both imply that any disagreement shows a lack of caring about education and kids.  If their concepts cannot be sold without these sorts of tactics, perhaps they are weak concepts.  Both should devote less writing space to ridiculing and mockery and more to logical argument. 



Bennet, William, Chester E., Jr.  Finn, and John T.  E., Jr.  Cribb.  (2000).  The educated child: A parent's guide from preschool through eighth grade.  New York: Touchstone Books. 

Carnine, Douglas.  (1999).  “Why education experts resist effective practices and what it would take to make education more like medicine”.  Thomas B.  Fordham Foundation.  Retrieved April, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Dewey, John.  (1916).  Democracy and education.  Retrieved April, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Gibson, R.  (n d).  “Don’t like the MEAP?”  Retrieved April, 2001, from the World Wide Web:  

Gibson, Rich.  (Spring 99).  “The impact of testing in Michigan”.  FairTest Examiner Retrieved April, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Glasser, William.  (1998).  The quality school: Managing students without coercion.  Revised Ed.  New York: HarperPerennial. 

Grossen, Bonnie.  (n d.)[3].  What does it mean to be a research-based profession? Retrieved May, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Grossen, Bonnie.  (July, 1996).  How should we group to achieve excellence with equity?  Retrieved April, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Hirsch, E.D., Jr., ed.  (1991-6).  The Core Knowledge Series.  New York: Delta.  

(1991).  What your first grader needs to know. 

(1992).  What your second grader needs to know. 

(1992).  What your third grader needs to know. 

(1992).  What your fourth grader needs to know. 

(1993).  What your fifth grader needs to know. 

(1993).  What your sixth grader needs to know. 

(1996).  What your kindergartener needs to know. 

Hirsch, E.  D., Jr.  (1996).  The schools we need and why we don’t have them.  New York: Doubleday.  

Kirkpatrick, William.  (1993).  Why Johnny doesn’t know right from wrong: And what we can do about it.  New York: Touchstone Books. 

Kohn, Alfie.  (1999).  The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and “tougher standards”.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 

Lindsay, Jeff.  (2001).  “Research and Direct Instruction”.  Retrieved May, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

National Commission on Excellence in Education.  (April 1983).  A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.  A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education.  Retrieved April, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Phelps, Richard P.  (n d).  “Why Testing Experts Hate Testing”.  Thomas B.  Fordham Foundation.  Retrieved April, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

Sykes, Charles J.  (1995).  Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write or Add.  New York: St.  Martin’s Press. 

Webster, Noah.  Jean L.  McKechnie, ed.  “Bribery”.  Webster’s new twentieth century dictionary of the English Language, unabridged.  Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1965

Whole Schooling Consortium.  (April 1999).  Retrieved April, 2001, from the World Wide Web: See also “Philosophy of Education”.  Rich Gibson’s Home Page.  from the World Wide Web:

[1] developmentally appropriate practices, project / discovery method, direct instruction, practice / drills, rote learning, reinforcement vs.  intrinsic reward, multiple intelligence approaches, etc.

[2] Kohn’s continuous misuse of the word “bribery” for “incentive”, for example.  Webster’s unabridged defines bribery as “the act or practice of giving or taking rewards for corrupt practices; the act of paying or receiving a reward for false judgment or testimony, or for the performance of that which is known to be illegal or unjust   (1965; emphasis mine).   

[3] 1996 or later, as inferred from the reference list