Topics in the News
The Depression and Education
Retrenchment and Reform.
The Great Depression profoundly transformed every American institution. In education it eroded significant educational advances begun during the 1920s. Schools were closed; teachers' salaries were cut; school programs were eliminated. Yet in an important sense the Depression precipitated the modernization of American schools. The political tradeoff for reduced financing of schools was increased autonomy for school administrators and teachers. Facing budget cuts, teachers organized into militant unions that in many cases successfully represented their interests. Economic consolidation led to standardization of curriculum, textbooks, and testing. The financing of school districts, which had been variable in the 1920s, was reformed and made efficient by the Depression. While the Depression had disastrous consequences for American schools, especially in the early 1930s, it was also instrumental in making education more modern, consistent, and professional.
Boom and Decline.
During the boom years of the 1920s, new schools had been built, junior-high schools had been developed, and new programs, such as vocational education, had been expanded. Teachers' salaries were rising. More and more children were attending schools. In Detroit, Michigan, the student population doubled, increasing from 122,690 in 1920 to 250,994 in...
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Education for African Americans
American education in the 1930s was racially segregated. With few exceptions living patterns and customs led to segregated schools nationwide; in many places, especially in the South, segregation was the law. As African Americans were often the poorest members of communities, their neighborhood schools suffered from their inability to raise funds for teacher salaries and maintenance. African Americans were also unrepresented on most school boards and hence were unable to push for better funding for their schools. The average expenditure per pupil per year was eighty dollars; for African American students the average was fifteen. Nationally, more than 25 percent of all students were black, but they received only 12 percent of all education revenues and only 3 percent of funds budgeted for school transportation. Many white Americans—including many professional educators—embraced an ideology of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority and believed African Americans could not be educated above rudimentary levels. When sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd asked high-school students in Muncie, Indiana, if the white race was "the best race on earth," 66 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls agreed. Georgia education officials argued that whites were "a thousand years" ahead of blacks in evolution and that African Americans were "a constant menace to the health of the community, a constant...
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The Eight-Year Study and Other School Surveys
Studies and Tracking.
The practice of long-term empirical study of curriculum and education, begun in the 1920s, was expanded in the 1930s. Educators framed many new "surveys" to determine the success or failure of curricular innovation and new teaching techniques. These surveys were closely tied to controversies over educational philosophy and the political power and economic strength of certain communities. Their results were accordingly mixed and undermined by charges of partisanship. Despite their inconclusive nature, such surveys thrived in the 1930s.
The Eight-Year Study.
The most prominent curricular survey of the decade was the Eight-Year Study. The Commission on the Relation of School and College of the Progressive Education Association ran the study from 1933 to 1941 to evaluate the success of progressive education in placing students in traditional colleges and how well those individuals competed with students from schools with more-conservative curricula. At the time, most colleges had admission standards similar to those of the 1880s, when college curricula were geared toward a privately educated elite. Progressive educators had turned the public schools away from rote memorization, instruction in arcane subjects, and a college-preparatory curriculum that emphasized Latin and Greek. Such students nonetheless had to pass...
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Folk Schools, Labor Colleges, and Other Experiments
The 1930s were notable as a decade of remarkable experiments in education, especially at the collegiate level. The Depression challenged many educators' traditional assumptions about teaching as surely as it challenged most Americans' economic and political assumptions. Conservative university curriculum and the role of the college in shaping the economic elite were rethought, in part because of the presence of alternative institutions such as the labor college and the folk school. During the 1930s almost every major American city had a labor college. These schools instituted several educational advances that became common in subsequent decades and challenged mainstream educators to rethink their instructional approaches.
The Folk Schools.
The folk schools were derived from nineteenth-century experiments in education pioneered in Denmark. Folk schools broke with the teacher-centered classroom and its emphasis on memorization and recitation. Instead, the folk school stressed interpersonal relations-Teachers and students lived together, and their common labor sustained the operation and financing of the school. Offering courses in labor organizing and political reform, folk schools hoped to become a base for more-sweeping social transformation. They were active in local strikes and health and housing reform. They were often...
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Loyalty Oaths, Red-Baiting, and Academic Freedom
During the 1930s financial pressures and political factionalism combined to imperil the principle of academic freedom, by which teachers are free to instruct without the imposition of political or ideological agendas. Conservatives in groups such as the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) repeatedly attacked the schools as bastions of communist propaganda and sought to have school boards restrict the curricula of public schools and require teachers to sign loyalty oaths. After the Democratic landslide in the elections of 1936, conservatives, smarting from wholesale repudiation at the polls, turned their attention to the schools, attempting to turn them into bastions of conservative philosophy. Although historians normally date the onset of "red-baiting," or "witch-hunting" for communists, after World War II, for teachers red-baiting began in the 1930s.
Immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, conservatives suspected communists were attempting to take control of the schools so that they could subvert the minds of children. Often such charges were brought by conservatives distraught over the new progressive curriculum and seeking to tar it with the brush of communism. In...
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Management and Labor in Education
American education reflected the labor struggles that so dominanted industrial relations in the 1930s. While management and labor battled over wages and working conditions in the steel and automobile industry, school administrators and teachers' unions did much the same. Like industrial workers, teachers were concerned with low wages, the lack of pension plans, and control of the workplace. The two leading education organizations, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT, begun 1916) and the National Education Association (NEA, begun 1857) struggled to change these conditions by advocating the "professionalization" of the workplace—by which they meant greater teacher control of schools and increased salaries. Opposing them were school administrators and school boards who had their own definition of professional education—one in which schools were run like businesses and teachers were treated like employees. The conflicts between these groups defined the character of American education in the 1930s.
Prior to the 1930s most school districts were run on the model of the corporation, with the school board acting as a board of trustees; the school administrators and principals acting as the chief executive officers; and teachers functioning as employees. In the 1920s local school boards composed mostly of wealthy or...
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The New Deal in Education
Although Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal significantly altered practices in business and politics, it did little to change the traditions of American education. For the most part the New Deal left control of schools to localities and failed to deliver federal assistance to schools. Roosevelt cut the budget and staff of the U.S. Office of Education until it was smaller by the end of the decade than it had been at the beginning. Tensions between New Dealers and educators were so high that Roosevelt snubbed the NEA convention of 1934, which had convened in Washington specifically to consider the relationship between the New Deal and education. When it came to education, the New Deal and teachers' groups were adversaries, not allies.
New Dealers kept their distance from educational reform because the issue was so politically charged. Schools were powerful political symbols to many Americans, representing both progress and independence. Conservatives already accused the New Dealers of attempting to centralize power in Washington; New Deal administration of local schools would only give credence to the accusation. Educational reform furthermore threatened the emerging New Deal political coalition of labor, liberals, southerners, and blacks. Federal financial assistance to public schools, for example, might create tensions...
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In the 1930s many intellectuals shifted from political liberalism toward more-radical alternatives. Before the Depression the dominant educational philosophy in the United States was the liberalism of progressive education; in the 1930s many prominent progressive educators turned toward a more radical philosophy known as social reconstructionism. Social reconstructionism urged teachers to take an active role in advocating social reform. Some social reconstructionists urged teachers to participate in socialist and communist labor organizing. Other social reconstructionists urged teachers to instruct their students in the follies of capitalism. Almost all social reconstructionists believed that the school was the one institution in American life capable of rapid, yet nonviolent, change. While social reconstructionism was widely publicized in the 1930s, it was never a broad movement among educators, and it had almost no real impact on schools. Its prominence during a politically charged decade, however, affected the debate between conservative and progressive educators about the curriculum of American schools.
Progressive education appeared in the United States at the turn of the century. Closely associated with the instrumental philosophy of John Dewey, progressive education sought to transform...
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Overpopulated and Underfunded.
During the 1930s about one-half of all children went to school in rural areas, where the proportion of children to adults was higher than in the cities. In 1930 rural school districts had, on average, 686 children per 1,000 white women; cities had only 384 children per 1,000 white women. There were 799 children per 1,000 black women in rural districts, compared to 360 per 1,000 black women in urban centers. Such ratios meant that rural areas had proportionately fewer adults to educate children than did cities. They also had fewer resources. The states with the highest birth rates—Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas—also had the highest levels of poverty in the nation and the lowest expenditures on education. Rural schools on average spent about half what urban schools spent per pupil. In 1930 Arkansas spent $33.56 per pupil per year, while New York spent $137.55 and the nation as a whole spent $76.70.
Of all the schools affected by the Great...
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Beard, Charles A. 1874-1948
Along with frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard was in many ways responsible for creating the modern discipline of American history. His An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) put the study of the past on a modern, economically based foundation and established an interpretative tradition in history that continues to this day. Beard was also an important and controversial educator in the 1930s, author of the most commonly used history textbooks of the day, an activist who challenged political orthodoxy, and a leading proponent of change.
Beard grew up on a prosperous Indiana farm, immersed in the political and ethical certainties of midwestern Republicanism. At Spiceland Academy, a Quaker school not far from his home, he absorbed something of the Friends' vigorous nonconformity. In the midst of his undergraduate career at DePauw University, he spent the summer of 1896 in Chicago, a center of the populist radicalism of the time. There he witnessed the reform efforts of social worker Jane Addams at Hull House. He graduated in 1898 and traveled in Europe for the next four years. In England he was drawn into the circle of the Fabian socialists, who were attempting to build a Labour Party and industrial democracy in Britain. Beard...
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Bethune, Mary Mcleod 1875-1955
EDUCATOR AND CIVIL RIGHTS REFORMER
In the 1930s Mary McLeod Bethune was perhaps the most influential African American woman in the United States. A somewhat domineering woman with an unshakable religious faith, the charismatic Bethune was sometimes considered a female Booker T. Washington. Like him she had the capacity to reassure whites even as she pressed for greater civil and social equality for blacks. In the segregated, Depressionera South, she managed to promote the fortunes of Bethune Cookman College, which she had founded. By the end of the decade she was the most influential African American administrator in the New Deal, the director of Negro affairs for the National Youth Administration. Her achievements are proof of what diligence and vision can accomplish in education, even under the most trying circumstances.
One of seventeen children of parents freed from slavery after the Civil War, Bethune was born on a farm near Mayesville, South Carolina. Her family recognized early her aptitude for scholarship and singing. She excelled...
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Bond, Horace Mann 19O4-1972
EDUCATOR, COLLEGE PRESIDENT
An imposing figure in a family that produced several important scholars and civil rights leaders, Horace Mann Bond had a career that exemplifies the dilemma of the black educator in the segregated South during the 1930s and 1940s: despising segregation and silently struggling to abolish it, while still helping to improve education for African Americans within its confines. Sociologist, college president, and philanthropic agent, Horace Mann Bond resolved this dilemma with intelligence and diplomacy. His work, and that of other educators like him, set into motion the historic forces that found expression in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Grandson of slaves, Bond was the child of an extraordinary couple. His mother was a school-teacher, his father a minister. Both excelled in the network of religious and educational institutions established in the South after the Civil War. Bond was an academic prodigy, graduating from high school at the age of fourteen. He attended Lincoln University, a black college in southeastern Pennsylvania. Lincoln placed a premium on W. E. B. Du Bois's notion that racial improvement in the United States would be accomplished by a "talented tenth" of African Americans. Bond quickly proved himself to be such a leader,...
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Counts, George S. 1889-1974
In 1932, with a single address to the Progressive Education Association (PEA), George Counts became the most discussed educator in the United States. His speech—"Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive?"—articulated the anxieties and ambitions of professional educators during the Depression. Calling American teachers to arms, he demanded that they put their talents to work not only as educators but as economic reformers and political activists. Insisting that only education could advance the cause of social reform without revolution, Counts challenged educators to take an increased role in leadership and government and to impart to their students a sense of progressive politics. Denounced by conservatives, he was the foremost advocate of the new educational philosophy of social reconstructionism, a lightning rod for the tensions of the times, the champion of the teacher as social reformer.
Counts was born on 9 December 1889 near Baldwin, Kansas. As a youth, he hoped to become a trapper and evidenced a marked taste for adventure. As the frontier was...
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Frank, Glenn 1887-194O
UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT, POLITICIAN
A Varied Life.
Evangelical preacher, philanthropist, journalist, college president, politician: Glenn Frank had many careers during his short life, and he excelled at each. A colorful, affable, and intelligent man, Frank was one of the leading college presidents and educational reformers in the United States during the 1930s. A moderate conservative who called himself a liberal, Frank proposed modest programs for educational reform at a time of radical alternatives. He successfully held to the center and then became one of the most articulate conservative critics of the New Deal, becoming for a time a figure who was proposed by many for the presidency of the United States.
Frank was born in Queen City, Missouri, on 1 October 1887, and he grew up in nearby Green Top, a small agricultural community where almost everyone was white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. Frank was the youngest—by fifteen years—of four boys. His father was a country schoolteacher, his mother a zealous Methodist, who instilled piety in her son. When Frank was twelve he became a boy evangelist, riding a circuit and giving as many as six sermons a day. In 1903 he was officially ordained a Methodist minister. In 1909 he came to the attention of the famous evangelist Billy Sunday, who hired him to...
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Stern, Catherine Brieger 1894-1973
Elementary Education Leader.
An acknowledged leader in the education of kindergarten children, Catherine Brieger Stern immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1938. Stern's innovations in the teaching of elementary mathematics and reading anticipated many of the curricular innovations of the 1960s and 1970s? and her work had a lasting impact on elementary schools.
Born Kathe Brieger, Stern was the only daughter of a medical and academic family in Breslau, Germany. Much influenced by her mother, Hedwig, Stern was educated by a private tutor and at the Madchen Gymnasium in Breslau. Following in the footsteps of her father, she took a degree in physics at the University of Breslau, where she was awarded a Ph.D. in physics and mathematics in 1918. She met her husband, Rudolf Stern, through a shared interest in literature and the theater; they were married in 1919 and had two children, Toni, a daughter, and Fritz, a son.
Expertise and Exile.
Raising her children led Stern to an interest in preschool education, and she studied the Montessori method of teaching. In 1924 she opened Breslau's first Montessori kindergarten, which she later expanded to include the primary grades. Renouncing drills and routinization, Stern...
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Tireman, Loyd S. 1896-1959
PIONEER IN BILINGUAL EDUCATION
During the 1930s Loyd S. Tireman conducted some of the first bilingual education experiments in the United States. At the San Jose Demonstration and Experimental School in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, and later at the Nambe Community School in Nambe, New Mexico, he developed new methods of teaching reading, bicultural education, and community relations. For thirty-two years he was among the leading American educators who organized bilingual educational programs in the face of much prejudice and opposition.
Tireman was born in Orchard, Iowa, in 1896. The farming community in which he was raised emphasized quality education and tied the schools closely to the local community. For Iowans of that time good schools produced good citizens, and community interest in education was high. Tireman benefited from this attention, graduating from Fayette High School in 1913 and continuing his education at Upper Iowa State University. He graduated in 1917, in time to enlist for service in World War I, after which he returned to Iowa, married, and assumed a position as school superintendent in Hanlontown, the first of several superintendencies he held. In 1924 he earned an M.A. in education from the University of Iowa at Iowa City and continued there until he was granted a...
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People in the News
In 1933, responding to widespread criticisms that American education was out of step with the times, the U.S. Office of Education asked progressive historian Charles Beard to supply high-school libraries with a book list designed to "acquaint teachers and pupils with facts, known and unknown, about this new world we are entering."
In 1930 the New Orleans school board hired sociologist Mabel Byrd to investigate black labor conditions in New Orleans and to recommend an appropriate system of African American education. Byrd concluded that African Americans should be given a high-school curriculum designed to improve their low-wage work skills but not their intellectual competence, so as to prevent "increasing competition between the races."
Chemist James B. Conant succeeded A. Lawrence Lowell as president of Harvard University in 1933.
On 9 May 1933 the director of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Robert Fechner, approved a U.S. War Department directive that began educational instruction at CCC camps.
On 30 June 1934, in an address to the National Education Association, Gustave A. Feingold, principal of Bulkeley High School in Hartford, Connecticut, condemned educators who sought to reduce academic requirements for the soaring enrollments of American schools. "The spreading of the idea that...
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Felix Adler, 81, educator and social reformer, founder of the Ethical Culture Society, professor of ethics at Columbia University, 24 April 1933.
John Howard Appleton, 86, professor of chemistry at Brown University, author of many popular works on chemistry, 18 February 1930.
Irving Babbitt, 67, influential critic and Harvard University professor of modern languages, founder of the New Humanist movement in American letters, whose best-known work was Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), 15 July 1933.
William Henry Black, 75, theologian and educator, president of Missouri Valley College (1890-1925), 23 June 1930.
Frank David Boynton, 61, superintendent of the Ithaca, New York, public schools and president of the New York State teachers' association, 17 June 1930.
Elmer E. Brown, 73, educator, commissioner of education under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, chancellor of New York University (1911-1933), 3 November 1934.
James Joseph Carlin, 58, Jesuit theologian and educator, president of Holy Cross College (1918-1925), 1 October 1930.
John Bates Clark, 91, political economist at Columbia University, president of the American Economic Association (1893-1895), 21 March 1938....
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American Association of School Administrators, Schools in Small Communities (Washington, D.C.: American Association of School Administrators, National Education Association, 1939);
American Association of School Administrators, Youth Education Today: Sixteenth Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: American Association of School Administrators, National Education Association, 1938);
American Historical Association, Commission on the Social Studies in the Schools, Conclusions and Recommendations of the Commission (New York & Chicago: Scribners, 1934);
American Youth Commission, American Council on Education, What the High Schools Ought to Teach: The Report of a Special Committee on the Secondary School Curriculum, Ben G. Graham, Chairman (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1940);
Byron K. Armstrong, "Factors in the Formulation of Collegiate Programs for Negroes," dissertation, University of Michigan, 1939;
Charles A. Beard, A Charter for the Social Sciences in the Schools (New York: Scribners, 1932);
Beard, The Nature of the Social Sciences in Relation to Objectives of Instruction (New York: Scribners, 1934);
Howard Bell, Youth Tell Their Story (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1938);...
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Important Events in Education, 1930–1939
- On February 3, some 1.5 million schoolchildren listen to the first educational radio broadcast, transmitted on CBS by the American School of the Air.
- On July 1, Francis T. Spaulding at the Summer School for Engineering Teachers in New Haven, Connecticut, criticizes college and university faculty for teaching by lecture, leaving students to learn the information on their own.
- On October 15, festivities at colleges and in communities around the United States celebrate the Virgil Bimillennium, the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of the Roman poet.
- On December 6, a grand jury in Westchester County, New York, accuses its public schools of fostering an increase in crime by failing to teach morals and character. No evidence indicates that crime increased in 1930 in Westchester County.
- In January, funding cuts force Oregon State University not to offer contracts for the 1931–1932 academic year to 66 professors, leaving them unemployed at the end of the term. This was the first of a wave of depression-era cutbacks in higher education.
- In January, the William H. Spencer High School is dedicated in Columbus, Georgia. A model of the industrial-school movement, Spencer High is an all-black school designed to prepare students for...
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