Whatever Happened To the Dalton Plan?

When, where, and why did the Dalton Plan arise?

Begin with Helen Parkhurst. A 20th century educator much taken with the Progressive approach to schooling, she designed the Dalton Plan after World War I as a way of organizing instruction consistent with Maria Montessori’s and John Dewey’s ideas of individualizing all academic work and building school community. The core of the Plan was students making contracts with their teachers to study and learn content and skills.

Deeply concerned by the grouping and lock-step movement of children and youth in American schools, Parkhurst sought to reorganize classroom work so that teachers would be able to convert traditional age-graded schools and classrooms where whole-group teaching, 55-minute periods, textbooks, and tests prevailed into laboratories where individual students contracted with their teachers to work on topics that interested them. Students then would have to make decisions on what to study when, finishing assignments, and meeting the terms of the contract to complete the teacher designed work (see below for description of Dalton Plan).

Parkhurst named the Plan after the public high school in Dalton, Massachusetts where it was first put into practice in 1920. She also was the founder of a New York City private school named after the Plan where it was the primary means of instruction for the students. In 2021,The Dalton School charges $55,000 to attend and its headmaster earns $700,000 a year making it one of a score of elite private school (see here and here).

Helen Parkhurst

What did the Dalton Plan look like in the classroom?

Evelyn Dewey described the plan as it would work for a typical student in a school that put the Dalton Plan of instructional organization into practice in the early 1920s.

Horace Marshall is a pupil in the fifth grade in a Dalton public school in the city of ____.

School hours are from 8:45A.M.to 4:00P.M., with an intermission from 1:00 to 2:00P.M.

From 8:45A.M.to 12:00 noon is considered free time. It belongs wholly to the pupil and it is his responsibility to organize it to suit his needs.

The half hour between 12:00 and12:30 is taken up with pupil assembly, special work, or committee meetings. During this time, the academic instructors meet for faculty conference. The following half hour is devoted to group conferences. All the pupils of a grade report to an academic instructor at this time, but they report to a different teacher each day, so that there is a weekly report for each grade in each subject. The remainder of the day may be used for work in art, manual training, recreation or athletics, any work which can be readily handled in grade groups.

The school year is ten months. Horace studies five academic subjects,—history, mathematics, geography, English literature and some form of science. Therefore, Horace has five contract jobs a month, or fifty during the school year. Besides this, he will have a certain amount of work in special subjects—gymnasium, carpentry or art. As far as the school staff permits, this work should also be managed by contract jobs in subject laboratories.

Where such instructors are on part time only, these subjects maybe conveniently handled in groups in the afternoon, or at the close of the morning’s socialized time.

Horace works in all of these subject laboratories instead of in one fifth-grade room.He has a locker for his per-onal school  belongings instead of a desk. His group is under the special care of someone teacher, and will meet in her laboratory for a short period each day, usually at the beginning of the morning. Horace’s advisor talks over class plans and. problems with the children, makes announcements and suggestions to help groups and individuals in planning their day’s work.Then Horace and his class-mates get out their assignment cards. On these cards, they have copied in detail the work of the monthly contract in each subject. There is no times schedule, no bell to summon Horace from one room to another. He determines to work on his geography this morning and so goes to the geography laboratory. His work may be reading references, questions to be answered, maps to be drawn or other pertinent matter. He carries on his work independently, entering and leaving the room when and as he pleases. The time he spends there is determined entirely by his interest-span and his fatigue.

For other fifth-grade pupils are in the laboratory at the same time he may join them. The group is allowed to talk, help each other, exchange books and papers, in fact they should be encouraged to work together. As they work, they make notes on questionst hey cannot answer among themselves or on any point where the teacher’s advice is needed. She is in the laboratory during the whole morning helping groups or individuals, so Horace is free to go to her as he requires assistance. Or she may call his group to her to see what they are doing, discuss difficult questions or make suggestions about better ways of working. Before leaving the laboratory, Horace indicates on the instructor’s subject graph the amount of work completed. If he is in any doubt as to the amount covered, he may ask the instructor to assist him in this. He also indicates the amount he has done by a line on his own contract card. If he leaves before the end of the free laboratory work time, he will select another subject, go to that laboratory and work there as he did in the geography room….

In the afternoon, Horace’s grade will probably have a more regular time-table. Gymnasium, recreation, music and certain kinds of shop work, notably cooking, depend upon organized groups for their value and their success. Part of the afternoon may be spent on a time-table and part in free study for art and carpentry, or allof it may be given over to classes and time found for more than one recitation a week in the academic subjects. … [Evelyn Dewey, The Dalton Laboratory Plan (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1922), pp. 12-16].

One student in a Dalton Plan school said to Dewey, I like this school because each child has ample time to do his work. In other schools,when you go into arithmetic,you have to do arithmetic for half an hour and you have to do so much that you get mixed up. Here, if you begin to get tired and can’t make your mind work right on one thing,you can go into another room and forget all about the first thing,so you don’t get muddled up.Later,you can do the arithmetic.I like it,too,because you can go on and do your work and not be held back by children who are slower. (Evelyn Dewey, The Dalton Plan, 1922, p. 1)

Did the Dalton Plan work?

Two criteria determining whether it worked can be applied to the Dalton Plan: longevity and effectiveness. The overall aim of Parkhurst and followers of the Plan was to upend the age-graded school and its lockstep manner of getting children and youth to learn. For the few years that it was adopted in various places, that occurred. But the age-graded school ended up transforming the Plan. For those scattered and few schools that adopted the entire Dalton approach, the age-graded school was altered substantially. For other schools that selected elements of the Plan, the cardinal features of the age-graded school continued as before. On the criterion of longevity, then, while there are a few instances of the Plan still around in 2021–especially in Europe (see below), it has pretty well disappeared.

And in that disappearance, the dominance of the age-graded school as the primary form of organizing instruction continues. The Dalton Plan failed to upend the prevalent way of organizing schooling in the U.S.

What happened to the Dalton Plan?

Two historians of education wrote that the Dalton Plan spread to a small number of schools in the 1920s and 1930s:

Recognizing that the Plan required dramatic changes in school organization, only a few schools adopted Parkhurst’s reforms wholesale. Many more adopted features piece-meal. By 1930, 162 (2%) of 8,600 secondary schools surveyed in a national study reported that they had completely reorganized their school to conform with the Dalton Plan. Another 486 (6%) of the secondary schools reported that they had a modified version of the Plan in their buildings.

As for the public Dalton High School in Massachusetts that piloted the Plan in 1920, it lasted only a year although features of the Plan lasted for a decade.

For the most part, by the 1950s, the few schools that had embraced the Plan had either abandoned it completely or just retrained the singular practice of teachers and students signing contracts to complete required academic work. Like most innovations, the rhetoric and a few practices continued as other innovations swirled across the U.S. landscape shoving aside older ones like the Dalton Plan. A few schools and some teachers continued “laboratories” in non-science classes to individualize content and skills. Few researchers, parents, practitioners, and administrators in 2021, however, have heard of the Dalton Plan, much less seen it in practice.

Yet the Plan remains alive in 14 nations, including the U.S. with the private Dalton School in New York City. As one would expect after a century of implementing the innovation many modifications have occurred and continue today. Nonetheless, some schools across the world continue to embrace the Plan as they adapt it to their settings. The Netherlands has the largest number of schools following the Dalton Plan (see here).

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Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

2 responses to “Whatever Happened To the Dalton Plan?

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