"Progressivism" is a term often used to refer to the reform movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Self-identified progressives were interested in improving the conditions of the poor, particularly the urban poor whose lives had been worsened by the rise of industrialization.
Some of the specific problems that caused or fueled the movement were unsafe and unfair working conditions; big business monopolies; disease among the poor; social discrimination; and the lack of autonomy of workers.
The progressive education movement reflected a desire by reformers to improve the plight of the poor by making quality schooling available to everyone; changing the student-teacher relationship in ways that increased student autonomy; and attempting to address the student's social and psychological needs.
Here are the details.
What specific problems inspired or caused the movement? Some of the most important include those below.
Poor working conditions in factories, mines, and other workplaces -- conditions which included health and safety hazards
Disasters like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (1911) created outrage among reformers. At least 140 garment workers died because workers had been locked inside, and the building lacked fire alarms, sprinklers, and an adequate fire escape. Reform was also inspired by stories of children being maimed or injured by factory equipment. In addition, progressives argued that lower-class children deserved the opportunity for an education. They shouldn't be forced to work long hours at a job.
Big business monopolies
A lack of regulations in the 19th century permitted the rise of trusts like the Standard Oil Company. Progressives noted that such big business monopolies were responsible for the terrible working conditions mentioned above (because employers didn't have to compete for workers by offering better conditions). Progressives also contended that monopolies reduced individual economic freedom by thwarting small business.
Epidemics and disease among the urban poor
Reformers argued these problems were caused by crowding, unsanitary conditions, and prostitution. Progressives worked for remedies like requiring landlords to install more toilets in their buildings.
Racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of social discrimination
Progressives were motivated to fight social discrimination. Organizations like the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League were founded in the early 20th century.
How was the progressive education movement inspired by attempts to solve these problems?
Prior to the progressive era, conceptions of formal education often emphasized the student as a passive learner who was subject to the absolute authority of the teacher. Rote learning was favored, and harsh disciplinary tactics were taken for granted. In addition, education was considered a privilege of the affluent.
Progressives in education sought to make education universal and free. They viewed this as a matter of social justice as well as a way to improve the social, political, and economic problems in society: Education would function as an escape route for poor and other socially disadvantaged groups. It would help them achieve more autonomy and even improve health (by raising student awareness of hygiene practices and sexually transmitted disease).
Public education would also further progressive aims by making students full participants in democracy. Students would become more aware of their rights, for instance, and function as more informed activists and voters.
This relates to another connection between progressivism in general and progressivism in education: Progressives wanted to expand the concept of education to include more than a narrow body of academic subject matter. They wanted education to address the "whole child," including the child's psychological, social, and health needs. Connected with this goal, progressives like John Dewey wanted to move away from the authoritarian model of teaching, and make classrooms more respectful of child autonomy. To varying degrees, progressive educators wanted to bring democracy into the classroom, and encourage students to think for themselves.