Less Choice, More Structure

At the annual meeting of the American Council on Education yesterday in Phoenix Hillary Pennington of the Gates Foundation announced that Gates plans to grant $3.6 million to expand the Academy for College Excellence program at several community colleges. According to an article by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed:

The academy concept, similar in some ways to the ideas behind the new community college being planned by the City University of New York, involves more direction and fewer choices for students, with the goal of getting them into college-level work right away and earning an associate degree in a reasonably speedy fashion. Pennington said… that “less choice, more structure” may translate into the kind of revolutionary change the foundation wants to see in community colleges.

“Less choice, more structure” seems to represent a fairly dramatic move away from progressive education, the belief that people learn best by conducting experiments and making their own choices. Progressive education, whose most famous advocate was probably the philosopher John Dewey, revolutionized education in American high school and colleges in the 20th century. A 1940s news program explains progressive education to a skeptical public here:

It’s not clear what went wrong with all this but at least something about the “less choice” method appears to be working. A study of the one iteration of Pennington’s academy concept revealed that the program did a very good job getting remedial students to make rapid advancements in reading and math. Let’s see what happens when the philosophy comes to community colleges across the country.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer