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The Public Schools And The Public Mood
Since the birth of the nation, the public’s perception of the quality of public schools has swung from approval to dismay and back again. Here an eminent historian traces the course of school reform and finds that neither conservative nor liberal movements ever fully achieve their aims—which may be just as well.
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
These were conservative voices crying in the wilderness, though. Not until the 1890s did the public mood shift enough to foster another major reform movement. The problems of labor strife, immigration, and economic depression had escalated by then, intensifying concerns about whether the public schools were doing an adequate job of moral education and cultural assimilation. In the judgment of many observers, the schools had become stagnant—lifeless bureaucracies for the educators and stultifying memorization factories for the children.
The person most responsible for spreading this view was Joseph Mayer Rice, a New York pediatrician interested in education. In 1892 Rice received an invitation from Walter Mines Page, editor of the monthly opinion magazine The Forum, to tour thirty-six cities throughout the United States and to inspect their schools. The resulting series of nine articles, beginning in October 1892, caused a sensation. Starting with New York’s schools, Rice lambasted the boredom and passivity of rote learning. “In no single exercise is a child permitted to think. He is told just what to say, and he is drilled not only in what to say, but also in the manner in which he must say it.” One of Rice’s main complaints was the unscientific nature of teaching, a cry that would echo throughout the subsequent reform movement. “The typical New York city primary school,” he said, is a “hard, unsympathetic, mechanical-drudgery school, a school into which the light of science has not yet entered.” In Baltimore, Rice noted, “the schools...are almost entirely in the hands of untrained teachers” and “political influence appears to play a much greater part in their appointment than merit.”
The first district schools sufficed to teach rudimentary literacy to a large part of the population in a rural and diffuse nation.
There were a few bright spots. Teachers in Indianapolis showed great sympathy for children’s interests (another watchword of the developing reform movement), and in Minneapolis Rice found a system free from politics, staffed by well-trained teachers who engaged children in active, creative work. But mostly Rice’s series exposed corruption, mindlessness, and failure. “In nearly every class that I visited,” he wrote of Philadelphia’s schools, though he could have been speaking about the nation’s, “the busywork meant little more than idleness and mischief. It was the most aimless work that I have ever found.”
School officials, of course, reacted defensively to Rice’s findings. One professional journal sneered about the “cheap criticisms and the charlatanism of an alleged expert.” But Rice caught the public mood. A new reform movement developed in the 1890s, and its name—progressive education—linked it with the larger political reform movement of the day. Actions were taken to distance the schools from ward politics in large cities. Smaller school boards hired “captains of education” to run urban school systems according to efficient, scientific principles. New schools of education churned out research on motivation, individual differences, and specialized curricula for different children.
Two goals were at the heart of progressive education: efficiency and individual growth. The tension between these goals went unrecognized by many reform enthusiasts, who patched together new ideas and new programs in a general effort to make schools more relevant to the world of work and more responsive to children’s individual needs. Others recognized the problem but made the kinds of practical compromises necessary in large school systems. In Seattle, for instance, the superintendent Frank Cooper resisted much of the enthusiasm for factory-like efficiency in the schools, but he still believed that testing and grouping were necessary: “The teacher’s greatest problem is to diagnose the individual needs of her pupils and then so to adjust her work that she may be able to give each child the thing that he especially needs.”
Many educators embraced scientific efficiency and the industrial metaphor without qualms. Franklin Bobbitt, an influential education professor at the University of Chicago, argued that education was like industry: “Whether the organization be for commerce or for manufacture, philanthropy or education...the fundamental tasks of management, direction, and supervision are always about the same.” He hoped that the business world “would state in specific terms the kind of educational product that it desires,” just as railroad companies specify what kinds of rails they need from steel plants.