Educators Blend Divergent Schools of Thought

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 9, 2006


In the first year of the YES College Preparatory School, community service was as important as reading, writing and mathematics. The public charter school's name stands for Youth Engaged in Service, and its mostly low-income students moved through city neighborhoods like young social workers, practicing their academic skills by collecting information on bus routes, health clinics and many other real-world topics.

"The kids loved it. It was great," said Chris Barbic, who was in his twenties when he started the school in 1995. "But there were huge gaps in what they knew. The kids could tell you the intricacy of transportation systems in Houston, but a lot of them didn't know who George Washington was."

Barbic then read the works of University of Virginia education and humanities professor E.D. Hirsch Jr., who recommended a Core Knowledge learning program -- full of history, literature, art and science. "That changed my life," Barbic said. "I went from what we had to content, content, content, content."

A decade later, Barbic said he has finally found the middle. He said he knows that progressives -- with their focus on real-life experiences -- and traditionalists -- with their focus on the three R's -- have been fighting for a century over how to teach reading, math and just about everything else. But he is part of a group of educators who say combining the two teaching methods is the way to produce the very best schools.

"We see lots of people blending these approaches," said Martin J. Blank, staff director of the coalition for community schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership in the District. Students become involved in community projects, and those experiences are used "to teach core subjects such as writing, math and science, and to improve reading," he said.

The James Irvine Foundation recently announced the creation of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, as part of an effort to expand work-based learning programs that integrate high-level academics.

Several new inner-city schools, such as YES, have lengthened their day to eight or nine hours and are using the extra time to incorporate progressive and traditional methods that many educators have thought to be antagonistic to each other.

At KIPP SHINE Prep, a charter elementary school here, Principal Aaron Brenner is using the traditionalist Saxon math textbooks and the progressive Everyday Math textbooks series and finds 90 percent of his kindergartners are doing first-grade work. "We are able to address the different learning styles and brain functions of our large and diverse group of students," he said.

Some educators on both sides of the old debate say they think the marriage of opposites will fail or produce schools that compromise away their best parts.

"If we want kids to be deep thinkers, then why blend an educational model that features deep thinking with one that's focused on memorizing a list of facts?" asked Alfie Kohn, an author, lecturer and leading proponent of progressive educational philosopher John Dewey. Dewey and his followers are often called constructivists because they want students to construct their knowledge and skills through exploration of their lives and their environment.

Karen Budd, a mathematician and parent activist in Fairfax County who is opposed to Dewey's views, said she shares Kohn's doubt that the two sides can be joined. "Rich content with lots of constructivism mixed in is like saying we are going to let the free markets work, but we are going to mix in collectivism," she said.

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