"We Are All Reformers" (Part 2)

An education timeline of laws, events, and key people would show that in the 20th and 21st centuries multiple school reforms occurred again and again touching students, practitioners, parents, and researchers. The problem with such chronologies, however, is that they overwhelm viewers with lists of factual details. It is hard to sort out the important from the trivial. So I present no such chronology. For those readers, however, who want to see a few examples, look here and here.

Instead, as a historian of school reform (with a point of view), I will consolidate all of the events, innovations, people, and legislation into three major reform movements since 1900–in each case originating outside of the public schools—that sought to improve the nation and its tax-supported public schools. These three movements were the basis of a course that David Tyack and I taught for over a decade (1987-1999) resulting in our book, Tinkering toward Utopia.

Sure, in merging together decades of reform, I run the risk of dropping innovations and people that other historians and contemporary reformers may find regrettable, even mistaken. So be it. In writing about the past, historians focus on change and continuity. They take the long view and try to make sense of the buzzing confusion that daily life was then and is now. And, yes, this is my interpretation of 20th century reform movements that not only touched me and millions of others as students, professionals, and parents but also shaped and reshaped public schools. I invite others to craft their chronologies, categories, and interpretations of the past century of school reform.

*Progressive education (1890s-1950s)

*Civil Rights movement (1950s-1970s)

*Standards, testing accountability (1970s— )

In this and subsequent posts, I will write about my years as a student in two Pittsburgh elementary schools beginning in 1939 and then one six-year secondary school from which I graduated in 1951.  I was a student during the tail end of the Progressive movement thus an object of this reform that began in the early 20th century.

I need to remind readers that my memory is fallible, and in some instances even unreliable. I write this as an 85 year-old which means that my memory bank is crowded. I have to scrub and polish it while scouring loads of information gathered over decades far more slowly and carefully than a younger person would. What I have, however, because of my age and a brain stuffed with memories, experiences, and information is the ability to see patterns and regularities over time. I can assess the impact of in-school and out-of-school experiences through eyes that have seen decades of changes amid much stability. So while my memory may be fallible on details and even unreliable on names dredged from the past, there are advantages to being older and making sense of the memories I do have.

Since I have no documentation–other than a transcript of my grades and IQ scores from ages 6 to 16–I depend upon what events I can remember many of which occurred outside of the scores of classrooms I sat in year after year. Some of those events and incidents have been repeated in family folklore and, truth be told, I believe they occurred but cannot be certain. While I have checked other sources available to me, what follows is what I can recall of what occurred in and out of school. Nonetheless, keep in mind what novelist Cormac McCarthy said: “You forget what you want to remember and remember what you want to forget.”[1]

At the age of five, I entered first grade in Minersville Elementary school in 1939 and, after my family moved from the Hill District to Greenfield, transferred to Roosevelt Elementary in 1941 from which I left in the sixth grade for Taylor Allderdice, a 7-12 secondary school. I graduated high school in 1951.

In these years, Progressive educators dominated school reform nationally in their language, policy ideas, and desired practices. A political and educational movement originating in the 1890s and surging across cities and school districts during the early decades of the century, Progessive educators left a lasting imprint on school governance, organization, curriculum, and preferred instruction.

There was also a political side of the movement that sought to end corrupt and inefficient city, state, and federal officials. Progressives elected mayors and school board members who swept out bribe-taking officials and party bosses who handed out school jobs to their loyalists. At the federal level, they enacted anti-trust legislation, introduced the income tax, and expanded popular participation in the electoral process under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. When the Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted until the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal expanded government intervention to reduce sky-high unemployment and stimulate business recovery building on earlier Progressive reforms. [2]

Educational Progressives, inspired by both John Dewey’s “learning by doing” and Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management”, promoted both an ideology of educating the “whole child” and operating schools efficiently. Progressives fought for schools providing services to children unheard of in late-19th century public schools from kindergartens to playgrounds to lunchrooms to psychological and medical exams. Progressives educators urged teachers to use the Project Method and develop lessons responsive to students’ interests.[3]

Efficiency-driven district educators, influenced by Frederick Taylor’s success in bringing scientific measurements to help corporations earn more money while reducing labor costs, expanded intelligence and achievement testing that would sort students by their interests and future plans into newly created curricula so that students could better enter the workplace after leaving public school.

Intelligence tests permitted school counselors (a Progressive invention) to place students into appropriate curricula thus making schools more efficient in teaching and learning. Teachers using test scores could assign students to different ability groupings. Both the “whole child” and efficiency-driven Progressive impulses were critical components of the dominant Progressive ideology of reform prior to World War II.

In Pittsburgh, this ideology was pervasive during the long tenure of Dr. William Davidson (1914-1930) and Dr. Benjamin G. Graham (1930-1942), both of whom styled themselves as Progressive educators. Nearly 30 years of back-to-back superintendencies made possible the spread of Progressive ideology, policies, and practices throughout the district.

Like cities across the country proud of being Progressive, Pittsburgh public schools built playgrounds, served meals to students, housed doctors and nurses in health suites to check vision, teeth, and give physical exams. Professionals gave psychological tests to determine intelligence and diagnose individual learning problems. Teachers had to have college degrees to teach and be prepared in schools of education–except for certain vocational teachers who were hired based upon their experiences in the workplace. Senior high schools were comprehensive—a Progressive invention in the 1920s–with multiple curricula for students to find a fit between their interests and future careers and extracurricular programs of sports and clubs for after-school activities.

Demographically, Pittsburgh schools were ethnically and racially mixed both in neighborhoods and schools. The district had 88,000  students in 1930 many of whom came from families that had immigrated to America from Eastern and Southern Europe and ended up in Pittsburgh where jobs in the steel industry and manufacturing were magnets drawing unemployed newcomers. District schools sponsored classes for families to learn English and organized Americanization centers for adults who wanted to become citizens. [4]

Black families had been in the city since the early 1800s and their community grew as migrants from the South also looking for jobs found them in domestic service, unskilled labor, manufacturing and professions within the community.  Because of segregated housing policies and attitudes, the black population clustered in the Hill District making it a hub of social, religious, and community life through the Great Depression.

Pittsburgh school board members, administrators, and teachers used both the rhetoric and policies of national Progressive leaders in a commitment to educating children and youth in citizenship and preparation for work, college, home and family life. Also expected was, as the 1940 Survey of Pittsburgh Schools put it, “Education for Self Realization Through the Arts, English, and Music.” [5]

Inside Pittsburgh’s Progressive elementary schools, the curriculum focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic in grades 1-3 with dollops of geography, social studies, science, art, and music lessons scattered across all grades. Social studies lessons were critical in teaching children and youth about neighborhood, the city, and being a good citizen. Principals and teachers grouped students by ability and assigned them to different classrooms. Classes were created for the “exceptional” student (i.e., children labeled as gifted or determined to have disabilities).

In some classes, variations of the Project method were used. Activities also took students out of school to a rich array of art and science museums, theaters, and parks across the city. Students were semi-annually promoted (e.g. I went from 1B to 1A in January 1940 and 12B to 12A in 1950-1951, my last year of public school). Such twice-a-year promotion was popular among Progressives since such a policy was thought to increase efficiency in teaching and administering and at the same time fair to teachers, students and parents. [6]

In junior high schools, Progressive ideas of student exploration prior to making curricular choices in high school, led to mixed grouping of students. Academic courses contained both students who thought of college and getting a job once a diploma was in hand.  Also exploration meant in these years that girls took “home economics” courses such as cooking and sewing while boys took metal, wood, and print shops.  [7]

In high school, the district in 1939 converted from students being slotted into four different curricula (General, College Preparatory, Commercial, and Vocational) to a single Core Curriculum plus electives for all students. Counselors met with students to help them make choices. Fourteen of the 26 credits for graduation in the Core Curriculum were distributed between English (6), Social Studies (4), Science (2), and Physical Education (2). Twelve credits in electives could be taken in math, foreign languages. Students could also take vocational subjects (e.g., auto mechanics, print shop, electrical work) at separate schools such as Connelly Vocational School.[8]

The 1940 Survey of Pittsburgh Public Schools reported that this adoption of a Core Curriculum was “to assure certain basic learnings” yet the Survey Committee found “little evidence … that the content and procedures comprising the learning experiences of these required subjects are different from the content and procedures which were characteristic of the same subjects under the abandoned multi-curricula plan.” [9]

These consultants called attention to a persistent gap then (and even now), between implementing a new curriculum and what happens in the classroom–a gap that many observers and researchers often ignore in examining districts.

In the next post, I turn to what I recall from my experiences in three Pittsburgh schools.


[1] Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Vintage, 2007), p. 10.

[2] Joseph Cronin, The Control of Urban Schools (New York: The Free Press, 1973); David Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

[3] Raymond Callahan, The Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[4] Columbia University. Teachers College. Institute of Educational Research. Division of Field Studies, N. L. (Nickolaus Louis) Engelhardt, and George D. (George Drayton) Strayer. The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1940). p. 524; Richard Kristufek, “The Immigrant and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, 1870-1940,” unpublished dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, 1975.

[5] The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Preface, p. ix.

[6] National Association of Secondary School Principals, “Annual or Semi-Annual Promotion,” NASSP Bulletin, December 1957, pp. 17-29.

[7] The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania pp. 61-65.

[8] The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pp. 62-63.

[9] The Report of a Survey of the Public Schools of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pp. 66-67.

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