Have Public Schooling and Teaching Changed Over Time (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, I laid out an argument that both schooling and teaching have changed over time while retaining a remarkable stability in organization, governance, and, yes, classroom practice. Part 2 continues the “yes” answer to the question. The “no” answer comes later in the series.

Demographic changes in teachers and students

Consider the major shifts in 19th and 20th century state and local standards to become a licensed teacher. Initially, local district trustees would hire anyone who finished the 8th grade of grammar school since completion meant that a graduate could get a state license to teach if he or she passed an examination. Then states raised their standard to having a high school diploma.  By the mid-20th century, in addition to having a college degree and preparation in education courses, many states required teachers to have a master’s degree and to pass a state test on knowledge of their subject and methods of teaching. [i]

Second, note how teaching, initially male dominated in the early 19th century became a woman’s occupation by the end of that century. In the 1880s, women constituted nearly two-thirds of all elementary school teachers and remained dominant since then; in secondary schools, men were in the majority until the 1970s.[ii]

But pay was low compared to other occupations. With short academic terms during the late-19th and early 20th century, women were initially paid for working part-time but as public school enrollments grew and the school day lengthened, wages still remained low.

Throughout these decades, males exited teaching for higher-paying jobs. Women, however, found that society’s dominant mind-set of their gender being nurturing and mindful of the young flocked into one of the few occupations available outside of the home. And as states lengthened the school year, passed regulations governing which schools were eligible for state aid and as county supervision became more standardized and evident in classrooms, the job gained increased respect even as it continued as a gender-based occupation.  [iii]

Accompanying these demographic and societal changes were structural shifts, including states licensing of teachers and establishing uniform courses of study. As wages and salaries increased for other jobs in the economy, teacher compensation lagged behind.  Men continued to exit the schoolhouse. Moreover, more women became teachers because it was one of the few respected occupations outside of the home that single women and, later, married women could enter albeit one that paid poorly compared to other jobs in an expanding economy. [iv]

The feminization of teaching in lockstep with the growth of state regulation of schooling including licensing of teachers and development of state curriculum guides were significant structural and demographic changes in who and how teachers became teachers and what they were expected to do in classrooms.

Feminization of teaching tracked another demographic trend that became cemented into American schools: segregation of students by race and ethnicity.

Where students went to school in the U.S. depended upon where families lived.  In the American South since the Civil War and Reconstruction, most cities and suburban neighborhoods were racially segregated producing schools that were nearly all white, Black or Latino. Beginning in the 1950s, activists used both direct action such as boycotts and marches and legal strategies to get urban and suburban districts across the nation to desegregate through busing, building schools that straddled city and county attendance boundaries, and taking school boards to federal court for maintaining segregated schools—strategies that civil rights reformers believed would bring minority and white children together to learn.

What occurred since the 1970s from these efforts, however, were unintended effects, most obviously the acceleration of re-segregation of poor and minority students. Few policymakers after the Brown decision (1954) anticipated the return of racial and ethnic separation of whites from African American and Latino school children. [v]

While these larger changes occurred and garnered media attention, these shifts should not mask the incremental changes in teaching and classroom practices that escaped media attention.

Incremental changes in teaching and classroom practices

I begin with the obvious. Consider the clothes teachers wore in school. Just as in the larger society customs about what to wear when and in what places shifted over the decades, what teachers wore to school mirrored larger shifts in fashion.

From formal wear to informal wear was the pattern in teacher apparel over the 20th century.  Note the clothes that teachers wore in above photos of classrooms between the 1890s and 1940s as compared to what teachers now wear in 2021.

[i] PBS, “Only a Teacher,” at: https://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/timeline.html

Lisa Borten,  “What American Education Was Like 100 Years Ago,” at: https://stacker.com/stories/3315/what-american-education-was-100-years-ago

[ii] Alia Wong, “The U.S. Teaching Population Is Getting Bigger, and More Female,” The Atlantic, February 20, 2019 at: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/02/the-explosion-of-women-teachers/582622/

[iii] Myra Strober and David Tyack, “Why Do Women Teach and Men Manage?” A Report on Schools,” Signs, 1980, 5 (3), pp. 494-503.


[iv] Ibid.

[v] Erica Frankenberg, et. al.,  Center for Education and Civil Rights,  “Harming Our Common Future: Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown, “ May 10, 2019.


1 Comment

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One response to “Have Public Schooling and Teaching Changed Over Time (Part 2)

  1. bluecat57

    Yes, for the worse.

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