In 1983, Donna Beardsley, an assistant professor at Southwest Missouri State University, used the progressive education of the Study years as a theme for a research report. She based the report..."Evalyn C. Johnson: Reminiscence of the Progressive Education Era in Springfield, Missouri"... on a conversation with Evalyn Johnson who taught in the Springfield Public Schools from 1928 to 1956. The following passages from Ms. Beasley's report capture what progressive education was all about.
"With the introduction of Progressive Education into the high school, emphasis changed from product to process. It was possible to make this change in learning orientation because people in general seemed more willing then in previous times to listen to what students were saying. Likewise, the teachers seemed more willing to turn some of the control of learning over to the students. The changes made in emphasis were sought to improve the learning process, develop thinking skills, better interpersonal relationships, and meet student interests. Something had to be done to keep students in school and off the streets, and since most students didn't have a burning desire to learn by the old method, the switch in emphasis to process over product seemed to be the logical alternative. Accordingly, asking the why's and why not's became more important than rote learning. It was fine if someone could diagram a sentence, but there was really no saving grace in just knowing how to diagram a sentence. Besides, content would follow naturally from an emphasis put on process.
"As changes were made in the learning process and in teaching methodology, high expectations developed over the benefits to be derived from the new program. Progressive educators hoped to cultivate individuals who as adults would not follow the first demagogue to come along. These students would become thinking human beings, people who could examine critically a situation and make intelligent decisions. They would be people who would be of an independent nature yet aware of the adjustments one must often make in order to live life in a social environment. The extension of this social setting would demand that students as adults take an active interest in their community and in their country. They would be voting, participating citizens and ready supporters of education. As such, progressive educators hoped that students would have the wherewithal to combine their knowledge of basic human values with their newfound proficiencies in the traditional subject matter areas. That is, scientific knowledge or any other kind of knowledge would have little meaning without the temperance of compassion."
What caused Progressive Education to decline by the end of the 1940's?
"Though teachers and administrators were aware of the need for Progressive techniques from the very beginning and though many Progressive techniques survived even after a return to a more traditional education, the need for Progressive Education at the high school level was not at all that obvious to much of the community during the very earliest period of the program. Those people vocally opposed to Progressivism in Springfield were never to recognize the need. As for the others, support was only mildly evident. The idea was just too new. Support for the program would be withheld until after the program had shown itself to be worthy of support.
"Actually, it really didn't seem to matter to the administration, at first, that community support of Progressive Education was negligible. Community support didn't appear to be a necessary prerequisite in the very earliest development and organization of the program. Having a Progressive Education program at Senior High was an administrative decision, simply a program put into place. Parents weren't offered choices by the administration. Parents didn't vote on the issue and they were not asked by the administration to participate to any great extent in the development of the curriculum, instructional techniques, or goals and objectives. It just seemed all too early for community involvement. Only later was there an open and active administrative search for support from parents and students."
Ms. Beardsley says that, despite all the changes in the curriculum and in teaching methodology, problems of overwork and low teacher salaries contributed to the decline of progressive education in Springfield. The new methods, Ms. Beardsley says, had never had the total enthusiastic support or understanding in the community.
"Being one of the most conservative of places in the country, Springfield was ripe for the battle between those supporting Progressivism and those opposed to the abandonment of traditional education. From the beginning, proponents of Progressivism faced rapid opposition. Some of the remarks made by the opposition made it seem as if they might have been much happier had the high school been converted into a technical university. If only Progressivism had been called by another name initially, there might have been less opposition to it. Though progressivism in later years was called by such other names as general education and life adjustment education in an attempt to placate the populace, the damage from having originally called it Progressivism could not be undone.
"The use of the term Progressive Education by the administration was clearly the wrong move because its effect was the same as having waved a red flag in the face of the community. The name merely served to create a plethora of false impressions. Because the community was conservative and accustomed to a more traditional approach, people felt that Progressivism meant no rules, no discipline, and students doing just as they pleased, even though Progressivism really meant just the opposite. Ms. Johnson recalled hearing one man say that the juvenile delinquency problem in Springfield was due to Superintendent Study's Progressive Education program. Though juvenile delinquency also existed after Springfield returned to the traditional mode of education in 1952, no one, interestingly enough, blamed the traditional program for the reoccurrence of the same problem. It seemed that what was being placed as blame on Progressive education was really rather the result of natural changes taking place in society. In any instance, the inevitable could not be forestalled. As the years passed, the opposition continued to grow in strength and numbers. Eventually, the call to rid Springfield of Progressivism ruled and with it came the end of the Progressive Education Era."
Ms. Beardsley notes that even after Mr. Study retired in 1952, many Progressive techniques continued to be used by teachers. "To this day," she says, "many of the educational goals heard about in Springfield (in 1983) are the same goals expressed by the Progressives some forty years ago."