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Pragmatic Progressivism: Bridging the Gap for Equitable Education

Updated: Dec 22, 2023



By: Dr. Angela Dye


Gloria Ladson-Billings, by the research and framing of culturally relevant teaching (CRT), offers educators a rigorous (and reasonable) construct for “good teaching”.  In short, good teaching is about academic achievement, cultural competencies, and critical consciousness.  It is this construct that comes to mind when I think about the current equity movement espoused by school districts across the nation. Seeking to offer care, provide rigorous instruction, and disrupt structural inequities, it seems as though these schools are simply trying to offer “good teaching.”


Unfortunately, something is wrong. Whether an equity agenda is purported or not, students (particularly, those at the margins), are not achieving academically, are not developing critical consciousness and, as if it needs to be stated, are not developing cultural competencies. Likened to research that talks about the challenges associated with effectively implementing culturally responsive education for all students, there seems to be a gap between the espoused values of the education community and the values that they are in fact applying.


In my dissertation, I explored this gap as one relating to “independence, influence, and control” (The Phenomenon of Student Achievement as Student Powerlessness, 2014). This study led me to conclude that social power is the key barrier to implementing what students and families are sincerely seeking.  Ironically, Ladson-Billings hints at this barrier when she argues for a particular treatment of power in her research. Framing good teaching as a pedagogy of opposition, it appears she understood power as a critical ingredient to successful learning and schooling.


While my book, Pragmatic Progressivism, is not specifically about a pedagogy of opposition, it is about the philosophical, political, and theoretical needs for such a practice. Specifically written for progressive educators, with an agenda for expanding the work beyond the confines of progressivism, Pragmatic Progressivism explores core elements of teaching and learning that, in a generation of good teaching, still are not accessible.


Before saying more about pragmatic progressivism, let us first explore its predecessor.


Progressivism demands that we engage the learner as fully whole and dignified. It grounds knowing as local and within context and positions students (and teachers) as constructors of such knowledge …as opposed to repositories of knowledge. When we reduce teaching and learning to bite size (albeit measurable) points of learning, position students within culturally sterile (and culturally controlling) learning environments, and restrict instruction within the social paradigms of the ruling class (even when taught by racial minorities), then we make it impossible for learners to enter in as knowers (let alone as makers of knowing).


Not only does progressivism ground knowing as local and contextual, thereby positioning students (and their teachers) as constructors of knowing, it also grounds knowing within higher levels of thinking. Celebrating the tenets of Bloom’s Taxonomy, learners consistently (if not primarily) engage in complex operations such as synthesizing, evaluating, and creating. Behaviorists, also discussed in the book as traditionalists, limit thinking to memorization, recall, and, on a good day, analysis. Yet, a vocation of being human (according to Paulo Freire) is to engage in one’s subjectivity, to transform one’s world, and to pursue one’s access (at greater levels) to their own humanity. Lower level cognition does not allow for such a vocation. It is hard to imagine a culturally responsive environment, one that pursues good teaching, in the absence of these progressive funds of learning.


Finally, progressivism prepares students to successfully engage in a democratic society. Such engagement requires an ability to interact with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and access points. It requires empathy, tolerance, civility, advocacy (for self and others) as well as the ability to exercise voice, agency, and dominion. Schooling that promotes compliance, consumption, hierarchies, and enforcement does not promote democratic readiness. It promotes exclusion and margins, making it difficult for people with lower degrees of power to be positively and productively engaged in the social contract of shared living.


With these features of progressivism already available to us, why then was it necessary to create a new framing? There are two related but separate answers to this question. First, progressivism is not an available practice in America’s urban schools. With schools being asynchronously staffed, under resourced, and deeply, deeply committed to childism (believing that adult comfort [i.e. power] supersedes that of children), there is disconnect (and disengagement) with the learner -- making common concerns such as order, achievement and data more the focus than wholeness, wellness, learning, growth and development.


As discussed in the book, current movements in schools attempt to implement principles of progressivism but such practices are done as in-addition-to traditionalism. Just as you can add traditional practices to progressivism and maintain the spirit of progressivism, adding progressive practices to traditionalism will only maintain the spirit of traditionalism.


Ultimately, this fidelity to traditionalism (and its outcomes) is what pragmatic progressivism aims to disrupt but it does so by arguing for modifications to the progressive approach. Using insights and experiences of Lisa Delpit, Marva Collins, and Gloria Ladson-Billings -- three great educators (all black and all female), the book makes an argument for making some critical additions to the practices of progressivism (while still maintaining its aims) so that students who have been historically disenfranchised can have access to quality education.


In some ways, Pragmatic Progressivism could be considered a love letter to these three women as they not only inspired this philosophy and set of practices but also inspired my life’s work of pursuing instructional leadership as a way of doing social change. I ended the book by talking about this commitment to change which frankly complements the ways in which I started it.


On a more personal level, the book’s opening was about my story of being an “at risk” student when I was attending K12 schools. From this experience, I entered the profession of teaching with a charge to serve students who were like me. Interestingly, my teacher training did not prepare me to take on this specific mission. While I believe I received superior learning on the foundations of good instruction, applying these foundations to learners at the margins is where Collins, Delpit, and Ladson-Billings made a world of difference. From their scholarship, practice, and leadership as black women, I am who I am—a pragmatic progressive—in spirit and in truth. And for this, I am extremely thankful.


For anyone making their way to the book, please know that it is a short text that is built on some assumptions about the reader: a) the reader already understands the value of progressive education; b) the reader understands the need for justice; and c) the reader already has foundational knowledge about equity. For readers who do not possess these foundations, the text could feel incomplete. While the text addresses foundations of education (such as learning theory, the history of education, etc.), it does so with the belief that the reader needs to be reminded…not introduced.


In short, pragmatic progressivism is a philosophy that builds upon existing progressive foundations. It attempts to bridge current gaps so that all students can access “good teaching” and not just those that align themselves with the values of the ruling class.


It is a text of love… a love for teaching and learning… and a love for students and the communities that house them. I aim to empower people who share this commitment (to teach as a practice of love) with the theory and language needed to enhance what they do and why they do it. I hope, through this text, we can bring pragmatic progressivism to the children who need it the most!


 

About the Author


By: Dr. Angela Dye

Twitter: @ejuc8or


Dr. Angela Dye is the developer of the Empowerment Starts Here brand. There, she brings together the social sciences and education to promote social change and resistance for disadvantaged communities. Through her brand, she is an executive coach for school leaders, creator of student empowerment pedagogies, and developer of K12 curriculum. She is also an author, podcaster and speaker and the former Executive Director of two charter schools (one in which she designed and founded). Dr. Dye holds a bachelor's degree in social science and education, a master's degree in school and instructional leadership, and a PhD in education where she studied power as related to low-income African American learners. Be sure to check out her podcast-Empowerment Starts Here- where she talks about power, social change and disrupting margins.


Find her new book, Pragmatic Progressivism: An Applied Teaching Philosophy that Promotes Justice and Change here on Amazon.

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