I am not ready to blame John Dewey for the ills of our education system, although he is one reason why education schools have become irrelevant.

In The One Best System, David Tyack points out that there were two types of progressive movements in the first half of the twentieth century. Dewey, G. Stanley Hall, George Counts, and Harold Rugg represented the pedagogical progressives, those who believed in an educational romanticism aligned with the program of radical individualism outlined in Rousseau’s Emile (but with much more statism). The second group was the administrative progressives, who sought to rationalize education according to scientific principles to make schools more efficient. Edward Thorndike, Ellwood Cubberly, and Charles Prosser were leaders of this group.

The emerging design of early 20th century public schools followed the ideas of the administrative progressives as they were outlined in the 1918 report, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, an incredibly influential document that urged schools to vocationalize and differentiate (track) their curriculum. Dewey liked vocational education but found this curriculum program too regimented and too light on social reconstruction. Besides, Dewey did not care about efficiency and believed that the science reinforced his educational ideas and not Thorndike’s new educational psychology.

In Changing Schools: Progressive Education Theory and Practice, 1930-1960, Arthur Zilversmit argues that the pedagogical progressives won the rhetorical war but were unable to implement their ideas in public schools. Dewey’s clan ran into the problem of the Great Depression and World War II, which limited the resources given to the public schools. Efficiency was a much more appealing concept to a cash-strapped locality than an expensive child-centered pedagogy.

Finally, Ellen Lagemann in An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Educational Research pointed out that Dewey was retired and on to other matters (political philosophy, aesthetics, and an odd trip to China) during the period of the most significant public school reform efforts.

Make no mistake – Dewey is alive and well in schools of education and can rightly be called the “patron saint” of education schools. Ironically, many future teachers and education professors never read actually Dewey but believe in him and in simplified Deweyian principles. When teachers actually get into the classroom, they typically abandon their Deweyian indoctrination (and everything else learned in an education school) out of a realization that it just does not work.