Tom Little joined Oakland, California’s Park Day School in 1976 as a volunteer; he became a teacher, then the school’s principal, ultimately dedicating 37 years to one community-minded school. When its founders began, Park Day simply wanted to expand what citizens believed schools could accomplish. Then Little discovered the history of Progressive Education, a movement that became highly influential after World War I. Little discovered that he existed within a century-old continuum of educational aspiration.
Progressive Education, like its rough contemporaries Waldorf and Montessori schools, arose in the early Twentieth Century, from broadening awareness of deep psychology and dissatisfaction with rote memorization. Its foremost proponent, the philosopher John Dewey, popularized an educational model based on activity, cooperation, and social justice. It won international acclaim, and influenced Finland’s much-lauded national education system. But it fell on domestic disfavor in its American homeland during McCarthyism, when the word “Progressive” became political poison.
Despite criticism and mockery, Progressive Education remained viable, continuing as the dominant philosophy in several private and public schools, scrappy bootstrap educational startups, and even occasional entire school districts. Armed with Lawrence Cremin’s The Transformation of the School and zeal for education, Little helped reestablish Progressive schools’ nationwide support network, and became downright evangelical for his newly rediscovered theory. His book mixes memoir, history, and educational theory for a diverse introduction for educators and parents.
This theory will initially attract diverse adherents from across the political spectrum for one simple reason: it openly rejects standardized tests. Park Day doesn’t have any standardized testing in lower grades, permitting it only among high school students. Some are even stricter. As Americans balance declining STEM scores with revulsion for “teaching to the test,” Progressive Education actively resists reducing educational principles to Scantron sheets. It emphasizes students as developing human beings, not future workers.
|The late Tom Little|
This means complex, intensive curricula starting early. Students study art and music, not because these topics are nice, but because they develop well-rounded citizens who’ll embrace science and public policy without sullen resistance. When teachers voluntarily relinquish authoritarian control, permitting students latitude to experiment and discover (with guidance), they enjoy learning. Little notes that, when many Progressive school graduates enter college and the workforce, they struggle to understand why conventionally educated peers resent taking initiative.
Though Little doesn’t say this explicitly, Progressive Education touches deeply on something running through American education. Despite school’s compulsory ubuquity, as Dana Goldstein observes, we’ve never agreed what schools should do. Progressive Education has a thoroughgoing mission of social betterment through personal development. Little gives examples of what this means, far beyond simple bromides about “volunteering.” Progressive Education isn’t about fitting students for possible future jobs. It’s about expanding justice by creating engaged, curious citizens.
Little dodges one obvious objection. He admits one year of Park Day tuition runs over $20,000, meaning students are either born rich or subsidized by scholarships. The emphasis on small classes, intensive participation, and field learning inevitably drives up costs, and Americans today notoriously don't want to pay for anything. To really apply Little’s precepts broadly, as we arguably should, we’ll need money from somewhere. Little kicks that important problem problem to policy wonks.
Even notwithstanding this, Little’s precepts deserve broader study and discussion. Diverse writers like John Taylor Gatto and Jonathan Kozol have observed that we compel children into schools, then starve teachers for money, structure students’ days to ratify unjust social hierarchies, and blame teachers when nothing gets better. Little presents a theory that rejects top-down “reform” proposals that bind schools’ hands. Teaching, in Little’s telling, happens at ground level, and is about relationships, not test scores.
This is Tom Little’s first book; it’s also his last. He admits he researched this book for twenty years while organizing America’s Progressive schools into a veritable union. But in the final stages, doctors diagnosed Little with Stage IV bone cancer. Having passed in April 2014, this book represents his lasting legacy, his manifesto for meaningful school reform. He poses challenges and offers solutions that all schools should take seriously. This book is unbridled opportunity.