Proponents of traditional education often describe themselves as a brave minority under siege, fighting an uphill battle for old-fashioned forms of teaching that have been driven out of the schools by an educational establishment united in its determination to make radical change.
Such claims represent an inversion of the truth so audacious as to be downright comical. As educational historian Larry Cuban has argued, "Basic ways of schooling children have been remarkably durable over the last hundred years." His review of an enormous body of research demonstrates "the persistent occurrence of teacher-centered practices since the turn of the century." (We used to copy facts from the World Book; today, our kids download them off the World Wide Web. So much for the educational revolution.) If the continued dominance of traditional education isn't always obvious, it may be because we rarely think about how many aspects of education could be different but aren't. What we take for granted as being necessary features of the school experience are actually reflections of one kind of schooling--the traditional kind.
Consider: Just as we once did, our kids spend most of their time in school with children their own age. Most high school instruction is still divided into 45- or 50-minute periods. Students still have very little to say about what they will do and how they will learn. Good behavior or meritorious academic performance, as determined unilaterally by adults, is still rewarded; deviations are still punished. Grades are still handed out; awards assemblies are still held. Students are still "tracked," particularly in the higher grades, so that some take honors and advanced placement courses while others get "basic" this and "remedial" that. Kids may be permitted to learn in groups periodically, but at the end of the day, eyes still must be kept on one's own paper. Indeed, even from a purely physical standpoint, schools today look much like they did decades ago.
Experimentation with alternative models of teaching wasn't all that widespread even in the 1960s and 1970s, although animated discussion about them may have left the impression that such changes were commonly being implemented. Whatever modest moves toward progressive teaching did take place have largely been rolled back. Even kindergartens are less about exploration and more about teacher-directed skills instruction, despite the nearly unanimous view among early childhood specialists that this is a terrible idea. At all age levels, "traditional mathematics teaching . . . is still the norm in our nation's schools," researcher Michael T. Battista reported earlier this year.
Taken as a whole, all this evidence of traditionalism is especially significant in light of widespread claims that our schools are failing. Because anything that might reasonably be called progressive is actually a rarity in American education, it is rather difficult to blame our problems (real or imagined) on these progressive practices. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren't learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices.