We are thrilled to share with you today's Journal Sentinel opinion piece written by our very own Julia Burns!
It was late in the evening, long after my husband and children had gone to bed. I was researching the work of John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick when I stumbled upon an article about events that occurred here almost a century ago.
It was a scanned copy of an article that itself looked like a relic. I had to read the first line, “A Milwaukee Story” several times to believe it. Ever since my co-founder, Amber Reagan, and I began our journey to establish Pathways High, a proposed charter high school in downtown Milwaukee, I was used to seeing research about educational innovation emanating from the coasts, but never Milwaukee.
The full title, "A Milwaukee Story: The Project Method Versus the Stubborn 'Grammar' of School" conjured images of an entrenched battle that didn’t end well for project-based learning, the basis of Pathways High. Written by David Levine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2001, it used the Milwaukee case study to explore the barriers to education reform described by David Tyack and William Tobin in their 1994 essay, "The 'Grammar' of Schooling: Why has it been so Hard to Change?"
I assumed this historical account wouldn’t bode well for our efforts to establish Pathways High and wondered whether we were doomed by past failed attempts. As I read, I was enthralled by detailed descriptions of Milwaukee teachers, superintendents, school board members and their actions in the early 1920s. I empathized with their passionate voices. The 1922 Milwaukee Sentinel articles cited could have been published in today’s Journal Sentinel. And I was greatly encouraged that our plan for Pathways High will serve us well for a successful launch and long-term sustainability. In the early 1920s, two dynamic teacher leaders and the Milwaukee Teachers Association (MTA) activists, Flora Menzel and Ethel Gardner, along with Meta Berger, a member of the Milwaukee School Board, were inspired by Kilpatrick, a pupil, colleague and successor to Dewey. The Project Method, popularized by the work of Dewey and Kilpatrick, had emerged in the United States as “the ideal way to invigorate and modernize public education.”
Dewey had demonstrated the efficacy of project-oriented learning at his University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, founded in 1896. Both believed students should be encouraged to experiment with their environment in ways that helped them grasp important ideas and build a sense of intellectual adventurousness. During the 1921-'22 school year, Menzel and Gardner organized an extraordinary weeklong lecture course by Kilpatrick in Milwaukee. Today’s equivalent would be a visit by Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High, which has grown to 13 diverse PBL schools in San Diego since 2000. Kilpatrick’s visit was a tremendous success — more than 1,600 teachers attended. His message “focused on the need to adapt education to a rapidly changing world through a pedagogy which stressed independent thinking over coercion and rote instruction.” Kilpatrick’s visit “helped boost the prestige of the MTA and promote a cooperative spirit between teachers, the school board and MPS supervisory staff.”
Soon after, Berger proposed an experimental school committed to the project method for a four-year trial. Sadly, this pilot school never opened. A Marquette University professor supported experimenting with project teaching throughout MPS instead of in a single school, which resulted in a watered down approach. Here's what we can learn from the shared characteristics of Dewey’s original Laboratory School and High Tech High:
Julia Burns is co-founder of Pathways High.