Review: Holding Values

K-12 Testing

The North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation was convened to address assessment and evaluation, both good practice and issues posed by the then-new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA's current incarnation is No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The book reviewed below, Holding Values, which discusses the work of NDSG, powerfully illustrates the wide gulf separating quality education from NCLB.

Holding Values
Reviewed by Sabra Lee and Carol Baldassari, November 2006


Holding Values: What We Mean by Progressive Education is a timely and important look at the history and views of the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation (NDSG). As editor Brenda Engel explains in her Introduction, NDSG is an informal association of progressive educators first convened by Vito Perrone in 1973, and meeting continuously together since that time.


NDSG members are educators with a range of progressive values, committed to creating constructive approaches to documenting children's learning, consistent with their beliefs about "worthwhile, relevant education for a democratic society." Engel defines the values that have 'held' the group together for more than three decades- its "intellectual shared territories and common purposes"-by weaving together vivid examples of members' personal experiences and professional work. She traces the roots of the progressive tradition from writers from the mid-seventh century up through John Dewey.


The body of the book contains 26 essays by members of the NDSG, organized into six sections: progressive education, education and democracy, diversity and antiracism, children and the curriculum, teachers and teacher preparation, and research and evaluation. The authors write passionately and personally about their educational experiences as children and educators. Their combined essays articulate a vision of progressive education and social justice:

  • respect for children's autonomy;
  • belief in children's serious mindedness and interest in learning;
  • the importance of invention and exploration;
  • immediate experience and observation as sources of understanding;
  • educational experiences that help prepare children for participation in a racially diverse and multicultural democracy,
  • ways to prepare and support teachers to work within the progressive tradition; and
  • the relationships among what is valued, what is taught, what is learned and how we know it has been learned.
  • Many of the essays provide the reader with practical ways to create an educational setting that supports this vision.

As educators committed to the values expressed here and as evaluators of educational "reform" efforts, we are struck by the stark contrast between the principles that have informed NDSG's members' work and the predominant economic and political priorities that drive public education today. National and state standards now define what children 'should' learn and when, and standardized tests sort those who 'know' from those who do not. As a result, education is about exclusion not inclusion. Instructional minutes are counted. It's a race to teach and often to re-teach what must be learned by exam time. How wide that gulf is.

  • Sabra Lee and Carol Baldassari are Senior Research Associates at the Program Evaluation and Research Group at Lesley University.
  • Holding Values: What We Mean by Progressive Education, Brenda S. Engel with Anne C. Martin, eds.; Heinemann 2005 (, $21.00, paper).
  • Vito Perrone was a member of FairTest's Board of Directors, and FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill is on the NDSG Planning Committee.