A tactic deployed by progressives to ‘prove’ the efficacy of their novel methods was to set up ‘laboratory schools’. This is one of many examples of progressives using scientific language to describe something completely unscientific.
The word ‘laboratory’ suggests a calm, controlled environment in which scientists can establish ideal conditions for testing their hypotheses. Variables would need to be carefully monitored to ensure their were no false positives, because of cause, the scientists wouldn’t want to embarrass themselves by producing invalid results.
Nothing could be further from the reality of these supposed scientific experiments in progressive education. Institutions such as Columbia Teachers College’s Lincoln School (founded 1917) were staffed by enthusiastic and highly qualified staff, and the student population was overwhelmingly drawn from upper middle class families. The Lincoln School was generously funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s General Education Board. Class sizes were small and behaviour was not an issue. It’s hard to imagine how much more could have been done to fix the results of the progressive experiment, beyond actually fabricating them.
Classroom research is dubious at the best of times. Classroom research promulgated by those who have already made up their minds about methods is worthless.
It was to laboratory schools such as Lincoln that the credulous administrators from the hinterlands repaired during their summer breaks, to be inspired and motivated to implement the ‘latest results of educational science’. Then they returned to the backwoods to mass produce this ‘science’, and the children of the poor were deprived of traditional, sequential instruction, as their teachers were required to introduce Kilpatrick’s ‘project method’, and academic subjects were removed or merged into ‘social studies’ programmes.
The clientele of Lincoln School, hailing from wealthy, literate families, were not likely to suffer much from the experiment being performed upon them. It was the millions of ordinary people who felt the heavy impact of the ideological campaign to discredit liberal education. Given the devastation caused by their philanthropic efforts, one might almost think that the corporate patrons of the movement were more interested in generating consumers and employees who were easy to manipulate than knowledgeable, confident citizens.