Wise and Unwise Economy in Schools

THERE is a strong set of public opinion in favor of economy in city and town expenditures. This general desire for economy is a healthy desire, and it is much to be wished that it may be persistent and keen enough to bring honesty and frugality into the administration of our public affairs; but it is of great consequence that behind the eager desire for economy there should be a wellinformed and careful judgment concerning the best means and methods of retrenchment. It is a noticeable fact that the public schools are often selected as the department in which retrenchment is to be made. There is a plain rule by which every proposed economy in public schools should be tested. Nothing should be done, for the sake of saving money, which will hurt the schools, — which will make them in the judgment of competent persons poorer than they now are. It is just as true of the state or of the town as it is of the family, that the very last place to save money is in the education of the children. In any station of life there is no better test of substantial worth in a family than the estimate which their actions show them to place upon the education of their children. No one expects much from a poor family which has no ambition about the schooling of the children. As to rich people who are careless about their children’s training, their wealth is generally a mischief to themselves, their children, and the community. Whatever else the city or town may deny itself, let it not deny itself schools, or impair the efficiency of those it has. No retrenchment which injures the schools is true economy; for the ultimate object of public economy is to increase the public weal, and this common weal has its roots in the intelligence, vigor, and morality of the population, qualities which are cherished, trained, strengthened, and disseminated in the common schools. Guided by this principle, let us examine a few of the common ways of economizing in the public schools.

One way is to build a very large building for school purposes, instead of several smaller ones. It is undoubtedly an economical measure, as regards both first cost and running expenses, to bring from five hundred to One thousand children under one roof. There is one headmaster with many assistants instead of Several head - masters, one lot of land, one many-storied building, one furnace, and one janitor, instead of several lots, roofs, fires, and servants. But this kind of economy impairs the quality of the schools. It is disadvantageous to bring a great number of children together into one building. The more children the stricter and more repressive must be the discipline, the greater the risk of contagious disease, the more dangerous the influence of bad children, and the worse the heterogeneousness of the school, unless, indeed, it is situated in a densely populated district where all the people are of one stamp. This great and growing evil of heterogeneousness in the free schools is to be avoided only by multiplying schools, so that each neighborhood in large towns and cities can have its own. In small towns the population is generally more homogeneous, and the evil is not so serious. The common school grew up in communities which were singularly homogeneous; and it is all-important that each school taken by itself should be fairly homogeneous still, although the community as a whole has lost this homogeneity. As this is to be accomplished only by multiplying schools, the consolidation of schools is an unwise economy.

The common notion that all children should he taught alike is eminently unreasonable, when the children have different inheritances, prospects, and capacities. Now a large school tends to make children alike, because it moulds them all to one rigid pattern; but it is the interest of the community that each child’s special gift or grace should be sedulously cultivated, not obliterated. We Americans are so used to weighing multitudes and being ruled by majorities that we are apt to underrate the potential influence of individuals. Yet we know that Agassiz’s word about a fossil fish justly outweighed the opinion of the whole human race besides; that Von Moltke is worth great armies to Germany; that a few pages of poetry about slavery and freedom by Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier, have had the profoundest effect upon the public fortunes of this country during the past thirty years; that the religions of the world have not been the combined work of multitudes, but have been accepted from individuals. We must not be led by our averages and our majorities to forget that one life may be more precious than other millions, that one heroic character, one splendid genius, may well be worth more to humanity than multitudes of common men.

A great agglomeration of children in a single school tends to make the product of the school an averaged product, which is a very undesirable thing in education. No community can afford to average its dullards with its geniuses; and it is an unmitigated evil that the bright and studious children should be kept back by the dull and lazy. Again, the theory of toughening children by putting them in contact with rudeness, foulness, and dulness is a gross absurdity, whether looked at from a moral or from a physiological point of view. The pure child should not be thrown in with the impure, or the refined with the coarse. Every step in perfecting the mechanism of a great school as a mill for grinding out children who can read, write, and cipher is a step towards abridging childish spontaneity and individuality. Whenever five hundred or one thousand human beings, be they children or adults, are brought together for a common object, simultaneousness and uniformity of movement and unreasoning obedience become necessary for the efficient management of the mass. They are prime objects in every large school. For these reasons great school buildings are an unwise economy.

Another mode of economizing which we see practised is to decrease the proportionate number of teachers, that is, to assign more pupils to each teacher. There is of course no pretence that this process can work anything but injury to the schools. The public schools are at the best very scantily provided with teachers; it is no uncommon thing to see forty, fifty, or even sixty children under the care of a single teacher. Few people realize the plain fact that there can be no good teaching of children without quick sympathy and perception in the teacher, and a strong personal influence going out from him. For the play of these forces close personal contact with the children is essential. These large rooms, raised platforms, and constant transfers of the pupils from one teacher to another give little opportunity for the intimate relations which should exist between the children and their teacher. The greater the number of the pupils allotted to a single teacher, the less chance has the teacher to know and help each pupil, the less chance has he to recognize and foster peculiar talents in individuals. It is a common mistake to suppose that it is the teacher’s duty to treat all his pupils alike, to give as much time and thought to one as to another, or, if any distinction is made, to take most pains with the dullest. Now, on the contrary, the true duty of a teacher, both to the community and to his pupils, is to favor and help to the utmost the bright children. While he ought not to neglect the duller children, he should take the most pains with the finest of his material. The teachers of elementary schools have it in their power to pick out and help forward all the children who are of fine intellectual quality. This is a function of great importance, and the teachers should have full opportunity to make this selection; for whenever they fail to detect a child of this quality, and to put him on the way to a thorough education, the community suffers a grievous loss. Twenty-five pupils are as many as any teacher, who is not an angel or a genius, can teach well. There are exceptional men and women whose sweetness, tact, and skill can overcome the most appalling obstacles to good teaching, but the public school must of course content itself with average teachers. To reduce the proportion of teachers to pupils is then a most injurious measure, which nothing but downright poverty can excuse.

Another very common measure of economy, to which some of our richest towns and cities have not been ashamed to resort, is to substitute for competent and experienced teachers inexperienced ones. When this is done openly and without disguise, everybody knows just what to think of it; we need not waste time in condemning it; but unfortunately there are roundabout ways of accomplishing this result, and when a town or city sets out upon one of these indirect ways, none but the initiated know whither the way leads. One of these roundabout ways is the substitution of superintendence for teaching. A school committee hires a superintendent, and then thinks it can safely employ an inferior class of teachers, just as an inferior class of laborers may safely be employed for digging or sweeping, if a smart overseer is hired to watch them. There is a conspicuous illustration of this very method of substituting inexperienced for experienced teachers in the city of Boston. There used to be at the head of each of the grammar schools an accomplished and experienced teacher, whose personal force was profitably exerted in direct teaching. These gentlemen have been made district superintendents, and their places in the schools have been filled by much less competent persons, employed at comparatively low salaries. There may have been need of more superintendence, but this improvement in the amount of oversight has been gained at the expense of a heavy loss of teaching force. Now a gain in superintendence which is procured at the expense of a loss of direct teaching power is too dearly bought. The reason of this is contained in a selfevident proposition which all people admit on its bare statement, and yet too often lose sight of. A good school ts not a grand building, or a set of nice furniture, or a series of text-books selected by the committee, or a programme of studies made up by the superintendent; and all these tilings put together, though each were the best of its kind, would not make a good school; for a good school is a man or a woman. The very best thing a superintendent can do for his town or city is to select men and women who have the natural gifts, the training, and the experience which fit them to keep good schools, and by hook or crook — for too often he has no direct power — to get them into his school-houses, while at the same time he gets out the incompetent and inapt. A superintendent who is worth his salt will be sure to want, not smaller but larger salaries for his teachers, not worse but better teachers for his schools. There is no reason to doubt the advantages of discreet and competent superintendence; but it is no substitute for real teaching, and the establishment of superintendence should never be the occasion of impairing the teaching force either in quantity or in quality.

A second roundabout way of insuring the ever-recurring substitution of inexperienced for experienced teachers is to employ an undue proportion of female teachers. It is true that sentimental

reasons are often given for the almost exclusive employment of women in the common schools; but the effective reason is economy. Sentiment is charming in its season, and true economy is always wholesome; but sentiment and economy make a very suspicious mixture. If women had not been cheaper than men, they would not have replaced nine tenths of the men in American public schools. Let it be granted at once that an experienced woman who has the requisite gifts and training is likely to he as good a teacher as an experienced man of like gifts and training. The superiority of men to women, or of women to men, has nothing to do with the matter now in hand. That frequent changes of teachers should result from having nine tenths of the teachers women is a necessary consequence of two stubborn facts: first, that women have not the physical endurance of men, and secondly, that the great majority of female teachers stop teaching at marriage, an event which does not stop a man’s teaching. The employment of women in the schools in the enormous proportion in which they are now employed in many towns and cities is an unwise economy, because it inevitably tends, first, to make the body of teachers a changing, fluctuating body, fast thinned and fast recruited, and secondly, to make teaching, not a life-work, as it ought to be, but a temporary resort on the way to another mode of life. The first point requires perhaps some elucidation. When we try to make young women in large numbers take the places of men in any service, either public or private, we introduce into that service a new element of change and instability, which is the result, not of injudicious provisions about tenure of office, compensation, or duties, which may affect men and women alike, but of the working of irresistible natural laws which operate only upon women. In order to maintain good schools a town needs a tolerably permanent body of teachers, who have been bred to the business, have grown up with the schools, and have made a life-work of teaching. There is no business in which experience is more valuable than in teaching, and none in which local knowledge and local attachments are more effective and desirable. It is a very silly notion that everybody can teach an elementary school. Skill, experience, and personal force and attractiveness tell for as much proportionally in a primary or grammar school as in a university. Frequent changes in the corps of teachers are injurious to a town’s schools in every possible point of view. The public schools in New England suffer in this respect very much more than the private schools and the endowed academies, and here is to be found a principal reason for the growing superiority of these private institutions, and the rapidly increasing favor in which they are held. It is too true that the term of service of many of the men who teach school is deplorably short, and some of the remediable causes of this bad state of things will be considered later; but this fact does not lessen the force of the arguments that women are inevitably drawn away from teaching by marriage and family life, —good things, which only make men steadier and more earnest in their professional work, — and that being weaker than men, they are more apt to be worn out by the fat iguing work of teaching. The second reason for objecting to the form of economy now under consideration is a principle of very general application. There is no trade or profession demanding a high degree of skill which is not injured by the coming into it of a considerable number of persons who regard it merely as a means of temporarily earning a reputable living. Such persons have not the motive for attaining real excellence in the trade or profession which those have who expect to devote themselves to it as their main work in life. It does not matter whether the trade or occupation be printing or telegraphing or book-keeping or teaching; the average skill of the persons engaged in it will be lowered if large numbers of young people enter it for a time, with no fixed purpose of remaining in it for life. The average skill of the persons engaged in any handicraft cannot be lowered without more or less loss to the community; but that the average skill of the persons engaged in teaching should be lowered is a very grave matter indeed. No improvement in the implements of education can make up for less skill in the teachers. To have less skilful teachers, means poorer schools and generations less well trained.

It is quite unnecessary to this argument to undervalue the work of women in schools. Their legitimate work in teaching is immense. All children under ten years of age may be advantageously taught by well-educated women of tact and vigor, and the immediate charge of the education of all girls should be in women’s hands, with some help from men towards the close of girlhood. This protest is directed against the excessive employment of women into which towns have been led from motives of false economy.

Let us now turn to the opposite side of the subject, and briefly discuss two methods of wise economy in schools, one looking to rewarding teachers for their services with certain valuable considerations besides money, and the other looking to the expenditure of less money raised by taxation.

There are several considerations which lead men and women into certain employments, besides the money they expect to earn in them. The chief of these are security, quiet, a prospect of promotion for merit, independence, and public consideration. The security or permanence of a livelihood is a very great attraction to many persons, who constitutionally prefer a moderate living with security to any chance of great gains without security. A quiet life, safe from the risks of business and the strains and worries of professional contests, from the burdens of weighty responsibilities and all the excitements and alarms of the market, the forum, and the senate, is the dearest desire of many excellent persons who are capable of rendering the best of service in congenial stations. The prospect of promotion for merit, though it be slow, is a very attractive thing to many men and women of an admirable type. A position in life which is reasonably independent within well-defined bounds, in which one is not subject to the caprice either of an individual or of a multitude, has great charms for Americans of the best sort. Finally, consideration in the eyes of the public may replace money to a large extent as an inducement to enter an honorable service. It has often been said by ignorant people, and by some who are better-informed but prejudiced against American institutions, that Americans are eager for nothing but money, and are not open to considerations of the kind I have been describing. It is an odious slander. No people in the world are more open to these honorable considerations than Americans, and no nation consequently has better material from which to organize the great public services of the state, military, naval, and civil, that of public education included. Now, by our ill-judged method of electing the teachers in the common schools every year, or in some towns and cities twice or even thrice a year, we throw away in the most wasteful manner almost all the valuable inducements to the teacher’s life, other than salary. The tenure of the teacher’s office in the public schools is precarious, there is no assured prospect of promotion for merit, the mode of election and the frequent recurrence of the election both militate against a reasonable independence, and finally the function has lost in the eyes of the public too much of that consideration and dignity which used to make it attractive.

Americans do not look with much respect upon official stations from which the incumbents may be suddenly dismissed without cause alleged. If a public servant is liable to receive the notice, “From this date your services will be no longer required,” he will not be the object of much public consideration, no matter how high-sounding his title or how large his salary. To make a position respectable in this country it is essential that it should have some permanence of tenure. Again, if a public servant is liable to receive any day the following notice, “ From this date your salary will be reduced so many per cent.,” his office will not be held in any high estimation. Notices of this description have too often been served upon teachers in the public schools. A sweeping reduction of teachers’ salaries is quite the readiest way of effecting a sudden economy in town or city expenditures. It is an unjust and semi-civilized proceeding, injurious to public morality and grievously harmful to the profession of teaching. If it ever be necessary to lower the salaries of the teachers in a town, the reduction should take effect upon the salaries of persons newly appointed, never upon those of actual incumbents. Such is the rule of common-sense and common justice, and such is the practice in all civilized nations which have learned by experience what the fundamental principles are upon which alone honest and efficient bodies of public servants can be organized and maintained.

As a profession, teaching should be as much honored as preaching. The school-master should rank with the minister. The profession ought never to be chosen from mercenary motives merely, or by any persons except those who enjoy teaching and who deliberately propose to be satisfied with a modest but honorable living. It offers no money prizes, and young persons of vigor and talent should be induced to enter it by its stability and peacefulness, and by the social consideration which should attach to it. Permanence of tenure and security of income are essential to give dignity and independence to the teacher’s position.

These principles do not apply to the profession of teaching alone; far from it. The neglect of them is what makes the civil service of the United States a national reproach and mortification; it is the observance of them which makes the army and navy service, and the service of our banks, savings-banks, colleges, endowed academies, many of our large industrial corporations, and most of our successful private mercantile and manufacturing houses, honest, efficient, and honorable. The statement so often reiterated by low politicians, that the civil service of the United States is as good as the people deserve or can maintain, is a slander upon the people, and only proves that the breeding and associations of these politicians have not made them familiar with the only class of Americans who ought to gain admittance to the civil service, — the very large class of faithful, hard-working men who only want a moderate but secure livelihood, a quiet routine of duty, and the respect and consideration of their superiors and the public. It is the undemocratic and corrupting exercise of usurped powers of patronage which has destroyed our civil service, by making tenure of office short and insecure; and the same insidious demoralization has invaded even school administration. Who has not heard, when an appointment is to be made, that such a district, or such a member of the committee, is entitled to it? New legislation is urgently needed to make the teacher’s office, after suitable periods of probation, tenable during good behavior and efficiency. It would at once appear that the money now spent in salaries would go further, and procure much better service. The experiment would be by no means an untried one. All the great organizations for public instruction in Europe are made upon this plan from top to bottom; and the whole of the higher and a large part of the secondary instruction in this country have always been organized upon this principle.

The second point to be treated is the justice and expediency of saving public money by collecting, from the parents of children whose education is carried above a certain level in the public schools, a portion of the cost of that advanced education. The whole cost of that modicum of education which the state compels all children to have may rightly enough be borne by the community. Suppose, for example, that the state requires of all children a certain knowledge of reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography, such as children usually acquire by the time they are twelve years of age. It is not unreasonable, though by no means necessary, that the com-

munity should bear the whole cost of giving all children that amount of elementary training, on the ground that so much is necessary for the safety of the state; but when the education of a child is carried above that compulsory limit, it is by the voluntary act of the child’s parents, and the benefit accrues partly to the state, through the increase of trained intelligence among the population, but partly also to the individual, through the improvement of his powers and prospects. It is then just that the two parties benefited should divide in some equitable proportion, which would not be the same in all places, the cost of procuring that benefit. When a sewer or a sidewalk is built along a private estate, the owner makes a direct contribution to its cost, beside paying his proportion of the general taxes levied to construct the sewer or sidewalk; and he is required to do this for the reason that the sewer or sidewalk benefits him more than it does the rest of the community. So when a man has a child at the high school or in the upper classes of the grammar school, he should pay a portion of the cost of maintaining the school, beside paying his proportion as a citizen of the general taxes levied to support the school; and he should be required to do this for the reason that he receives a greater benefit from the school than the rest of the community, and he is perfectly free to take that benefit or not. The American free school was devised for and suits a homogeneous community, in which every head of a family is a tax-payer and a voter, and occupations and fortunes are similar or comparable. The free school was, at its origin, a common want, and was supported by common sacrifices. This description no longer applies to Massachusetts towns and cities. Our population is very heterogeneous as regards race, religion, education, and condition of life. A large part of the population pays no taxes and casts no votes. This part of the population now makes no contribution whatever to the cost of educating their children, even when that education is carried far above the compulsory limit. The institutions which met the wants of the New England town of fifty years ago need to be adapted by judicious modifications to the changed condition of New England society. Our theory is republican, but our practices in several details are fast becoming communistic. There is no distinction in theory between giving all school-children their books at the public expense, and giving the children their shoes and the parents soup at the public charge. All such gratuities are wrong in theory, and in practice are subversive of republican pride, self-respect, and independence. Parents ought to be called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of educating their children. To be frugal and laborious for the sake of benefiting their children is a blessed thing for the parents. The motive is a strong one, and it impels men and women to good lives. When public legislation and custom take away this motive from a large class of the community, — and that the very class which most needs every inducement to right living, — it is not a good but an injury which is done them; just as harm and not good would be done to the poorer classes if legislation could relieve them from the necessity of working for their daily bread. The change in our school administration which is here advocated is therefore not only an economical but also a just and wholesome measure.

Two objections which come at once to mind need to be met. It may be said that the free school, with its heterogeneousness and its equal discipline for all comers, typifies American society and implants in the young mind the fundamental doctrine of equality; to alter the character of the free school is, therefore, to tamper with one of the corner-stones of republican institutions. Reasons have already been given for the belief that heterogeneous schools are not so good as homogeneous schools. Equality is a word used in many senses. The equality upon which modern republicanism is founded is not social equality, or the equality of possessions, or the equality of powers and capacities; but simply the equality of all men before the law. Republican institutions obliterate hereditary distinctions, level artificial barriers, and make society mobile, so that distinction is more easily won by individual merit and power, and sooner lost through demerit or impotence; but they give free play to the irresistible natural forces which invariably cause the division of every complicated human society into different classes. It is indeed one of the chief merits of republican institutions that they give this free play to the endless diversities of innate power, inherited capacity, and trained skill which humanity exhibits. If society were a dead level, the characteristic desire of all Americans — to “ better ” themselves — could have no fruition. Our laws and institutions tend to perpetuate themselves just in proportion as they help to breed men and women who have self-respect, self-reliance, and genuine independence of character. The change which is here advocated in school administration would tend to preserve and strengthen these republican virtues among our people, and these virtues are the real foundations of public liberty.

A second objection may be stated as follows: What would become, under this system, of the bright children of very poor people, children who ought to be well educated and lifted from their low estate in the interest of the whole community? The objection is readily answered. When through misfortune or crime a family became utterly unable to provide for the education of their children, the children should of course be trained, up to the compulsory limit, at the public charge, and the bright and promising among them should then be carried further at the public charge as a reward of merit, and by gradual promotion from one grade to another, each step being earned by good scholarship. The method which prevails in colleges is perfectly applicable to the common schools. Let the great majority of parents who can afford it, pay a part of the cost of their children’s education, and let the meritorious scholars, whose friends are too poor to pay for them, have help from the public purse, proportioned to their needs. Experience teaches that endowments would be provided for this purpose. The dull children whose parents are unable to pay for them will of course get no further than the compulsory limit, but the community will lose little or nothing thereby.

Charles W. Eliot.