District Progressives and the Progressive School District
The book’s opening chapter introduces key concepts that rest at the core of The Importance of Being Urban and identifies the years between 1913 and 1928 as crucial to the forging of district progressivism. Several dilemmas faced Progressive Era school leaders in the early twentieth century; among them was the challenge of harnessing the exciting pedagogical experiments emerging in small, often independent, schools and spreading those innovations throughout large urban districts. Gamson argues that by examining school reform at the level of the urban school system, one sees that “district progressives” often blended approaches that historians have viewed as incompatible, such as hands-on, child-centered instructional practices with more rigid testing and tracking initiatives. Through a comparative analysis of school systems in four western cities—Oakland, Denver, Portland, and Seattle—he demonstrates how the willful eclecticism of district practitioners often mirrored that of municipal leaders. The introduction raises central questions that will be explored throughout the book, including: what did it mean to be a progressive school district? And how did progressives blend science and efficiency with democratic practices in ways that they believed ultimately offered students equal educational opportunities?
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