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FIRST, DO NO HARM by Steve Nelson


Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk

by Steve Nelson

Pub Date: Nov. 28th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-942146-48-3
Publisher: Garn Press

A veteran journalist and progressive educator presents a critique of America’s school system and a call to action.

In his debut book, Nelson, a principal at a progressive Manhattan school, tackles many of the issues in American education, from the achievement gap to standardized tests. He begins his treatise by reminding readers of the grave existential threats the world faces, from climate change to nuclear war, and the importance of education in the face of these dangers. He goes on to outline how progressive education can create students who will be more active participants in America’s democracy and who can cope with these perils. Despite his strong opinions about education, Nelson maintains a humorous, self-deprecating touch: “So-called reformers want rigid accountability, more structure…longer school years, more tests and more discipline. Undoing the damage of those loosey-goosey progressive practices is arduous work!” Part history lesson, part professional memoir, the work outlines the roots of America’s current “conventional,” “factory” educational model as well as the history of the progressive model. He advocates for the education of the whole child and seeks to remove stereotypes about project-based, community-oriented progressive education. Throughout, the text maintains a readable, conversational tone: “Beginning in the ’50s and ’60s, America has steadily moved away from intellectualism and toward business-focused pragmatism.” Nelson sprinkles in heartening anecdotes about success stories from his work in progressive schools. He also includes idealistic, flowery adages like “Seeds of brilliance need a dose of aimlessness to flower.” The author makes a concerted effort to maintain a balanced perspective on the place of privilege he writes from, noting that “privileged schools are also immune, in whole or in part, from the misguided public policies that drive bad education.” Occasionally Nelson’s suggestions and opinions are surprisingly simple and radical, such as “It is not hyperbole to suggest that millions of American children might be better served to skip school entirely.” After making his case for progressive education, the author concludes by urging educators to take action and agitate for more funding and smaller classes.

This optimistic, anecdotal book offers useful ideas for changes in education.