School Reform in Boston

A SIGNIFICANCE singularly marked and singularly broad attaches to the reconstitution of the Boston School Committee. The reform involved no technical problem of the schools, but concerned itself merely with the reconstruction of a faulty administrative system; it consisted, in fact, solely in the reduction of the school committee from a membership of twenty-four to a membership of five; yet so fundamental and so timely was this simple measure that its effect upon Boston school administration, great though that has been, is but a part of its scope. The reformers found themselves building better than they knew. They found that the principle of their reform was widely applicable, that elsewhere it had already been applied, and, later, that its application would be urged in Boston to affairs outside the schools. In the light of their success, indeed, the reformers believe that the principle upon which they worked is now become of interest, not chiefly to the schoolmaster nor exclusively to the Bostonian, but to the thoughtful citizen in every municipality of the country.

The principle thus proclaimed so important is not new and is nothing cryptic; it is simply concentration of authority and responsibility for the sake of efficient administration. It is a common mandate of expediency, to be followed where abstract principles are not at issue; it counsels merely economy of time and energy, by asserting that business, as business, had better be taken from the hands of many men and put into the hands of a few. The idea is important because it has heretofore been considered, and has doubtless properly been considered, to present a policy dangerous to adopt in American affairs. It is now the more important because, being obviously applicable, without present danger, to the administration of the American city, it has as yet been very seldom so applied. The effects of its application in Boston are almost worthy to be called blessed. In them and in the story of the reform which produced them, the principle will best reveal its certain and increasing value.

The story of the reform movement can best be told, however, in the story of two minor revelations, both of which, happily, will help to illuminate the principle in question. The two other revelations were: a political lesson for reformers — and a man.

The man is James J. Storrow. Mr. Storrow does not pretend to be an educator, but he is a true school reformer. For purposes of organization the schools stand less in need of the psychologist and the professional pedagogue than of the man of affairs; and thus, as the work of the schools must ultimately depend upon the organization of them, the practical organizer is often the truest school, reformer. Now a true reformer of the schools is rarest, perhaps, where school reform is most the fashion. For school reform is a good shibboleth: it serves the rising politician for a slogan, it sanctifies the scheme of the grafter, and compels attention to the Utopian symmetries of the dreamer and the disproportioned enthusiasm of the crank. These are the false prophets of the schools, of whom some lack ideals and some lack powers, and all alike lack the magnanimity of true leadership. The true reformer towers above them. Large service to our city, schools demands all that they lack, and more. It. demands vision,— the power to foresee the future of the community and its need, to comprehend the changing function of the schools in the social whole and their deepening import in the life of the individual, and from this comprehension to conceive a standard for the work. Something of an idealist, in other words, the school reformer must be, yet without losing his grasp of the practical situation. And to this capacity for applied idealism he must add political leadership. The progress of American education depends—and may it never cease to depend ! — upon the public intelligence and the public will. Concentration for efficiency can never in America be applied, as in Germany it is applied, to the extent of taking the control of the schools out of the hands of the people. But the people are inclined to seek principles where they can find them embodied in men. Fortunate the city that finds a man who can “illuminate”a saving principle! Partly on account of this necessity for political leadership, the layman who would reform the schools — and it is the layman who must do a large part of that reforming — must have another remarkable trait: he must be far above pride of opinion. He must be frank to seek the expert’s advice and careful to weigh it in the balance with the practical exigencies of the moment. Only thus, in technical matters, can he be sure that he advocates before the people a saving principle. As a reward for all which, he will have the opportunity for continued well-doing; like charity, he must bear all things and seek not his own. These four qualities —vision, leadership, magnanimity, devotion — combined for Boston in James J. Storrow; without the combination of them in a single man, the application to the schools of a fundamentally remedial principle might have been long delayed.

For the “political lesson for reformers” lay in the need of the man. In 1904 the schools of Boston were governed by a committee of twenty-four members, whose business was transacted mainly in twenty-six sub-committees. Meetings of the whole board were taken up chiefly by an “avalanche of votes, or by formal speeches intended to attract attention rather than enlighten, and to be sensational enough for a headline in the next morning’s paper rather than to change the conviction of fellow-members.”1 The system, in spite of the presence on the committee of many able and highminded men and women, had become a morass of encumbrances, recriminations, conflicting rulings, and petty graft. A radical change was needed, but for years no radical change had been attempted. At last, in April, 1905, after a struggle which swayed long in the balance, the “Storrow Bill” was passed by the state Legislature. By its provisions, a new board of five members was to be chosen at the next city election. The old Committee was to be “concentrated” for the sake of efficient administration. In December came the political battle over the personnel of the new “small board.” The field was hotly contested by persons who violently opposed the reform, but who could “illuminate” no principle whatever; but the vote resulted in the election of five admirable candidates. The record thus far made by these gentlemen is a matter of congratulation to all who supported them. Now here was a hard fight in the Legislature, followed by a sharp city contest and thereafter by administrative labors of peculiar difficulty and importance. One who watched all this with the eye of a strategist has said of it, “Reforms are conceived, begun, guided, defended, only by the leader. The leader is the only fulcrum by which the world of civic unrighteousness may be forced from its orbit.” To the success of the Boston school reform many men and many forces contributed; but the influence of James J. Storrow was upon them all, persuasive, continuous, directive. It would be hard to tell how often, without it, the movement might have gone astray. As necessary to reform as principle is the leader.

Such is the story of the reform campaign, as it depended upon the man and embodied the “lesson.” The connection of these incidental revelations with the principle of the reform lies in this, that the principle of the reform is entirely different and in a sense directly opposed to the principle which the “revelations” may be said to embody. But this very opposition makes the need of a leader “as a fulcrum” fit, curiously enough, into a broad argument for “concentration for efficiency.” The work of the new Boston Board, which will best illustrate the practical effects of the reform, can itself be more profitably reviewed in the light of this broader argument. For the argument puts a new construction upon the reform, causing it to appear no longer as an isolated educational movement, but as part of a wide social readjustment demanded by the peculiar needs of our day. It presents, in other words, a philosophy into which the results of the reform fit like the articles of a creed.

The philosophy is as simple as the reform, and as fundamental. It concerns itself merely with the question, “How many ?” The campaign demanded concentration to the point of one-man power; the reformers worked for concentration to the point of five-man power. Here is a difference, apparently, only in degree. As a matter of fact, however, there is involved also a difference in kind. It frequently happens in human affairs that a difference between five and one means more than a difference of four. In this case it means a difference of four plus the difference between the kind of command needed in a fight and the kind of command needed in the administration of public affairs.

Evidently the latter sort of command, far more than the former, is characteristic of our day. Broadly speaking, the age is not an age of war. Modern civilization seldom reproduces that stress of tribal conflict which evolved the tyrant. The fear of swift death at the hands of hostile tribesmen no longer compels us to submit to the command of a single military leader. Under milder penalties, and in those few activities which are the softer analogues of war, the necessity for one-man power does still, of course, exist. Witness our case in point, the political campaign: whether for reform or for party power, its success depends on leadership. Witness also athletics and the sterner exigencies of railroading and of life at sea. These examples show our continued need of commanders in activities which partake of the nature of war; but such activities cannot be called distinctively modern.

Yet activities distinctively modern do demand a certain degree of concentration. The “unconcentrated” representative assembly is no more truly a typically modern form of control than is the tyrant. It is true that in the long struggle for personal liberty against the power of kings, the representative assembly played an indispensable part. To establish democracy and to define its scope, the discussions of deliberative assemblies were essential. That work is likely to remain uncompleted for centuries, and the deliberative assembly, in consequence, for centuries indispensable. This argument does not demand that representative assemblies be condemned root and branch. No one is likely to deny that wherever prolonged deliberation is necessary, the large assembly will always be the best agent of civilization, — witness the great associations of scientific men, of merchants, and of educators. Nor are we likely to recommend radical changes in our national government. That institution has still before it the great work of extending and defining democracy. It is the heart of democracy, which beats as strongly now as when our body politic was born. We have no desire to apply the knife to it. But the extremities are not the heart. City government, school government, church government, the control of public trusts and corporate affairs generally, do not involve the functions of the national government. They do not call for the extension and definition of democracy by means of large representation. In them small representation will guard quite as well the democratic principle and will serve much better the business in hand.

For in these cases the business in hand is not the establishment or the defense of principles, but the construction of practical policies; it is literally business, not in the sense of detailed execution, but in the sense of organization and direction. The age of discussion is merging into an age of administration, and the extremities of the social organism are the first to feel the change. Distinctively modem activities are economic activities, for which the large representative assembly is not the best agent. Deliberations upon questions of policy must be carried effectively and expeditiously to definite conclusions. When an assembly is forced by reason of numbers to become a debating society, it cannot properly administer, even under well-established principles, interests which are unequivocally practical. Such interests, when they are public interests, demand more than one head; it is not safe, ordinarily, to entrust them to a single man; but they demand conference rather than debate, and the limit of conference is the limit of conversation in which every one concerned can join without temptation to speechmaking. The exact number, and the manner of putting that number into office, will naturally vary with place and circumstances; but the essential point is the “conversational limit.”

The Boston school reformers found direct election a necessity, and thought five a good number. This decision is easily tested. With the story of the reform campaign already before ns, we may turn to examine the effect of its success in the record made since January, 1906, by the new Boston School Committee. This record has been mentioned above as a matter for congratulation. Such it might be, of course, without proving that the results were due specifically to concentration. The personal integrity of the gentlemen composing the board is beyond question a chief cause of many happy effects. Moreover, if it were shown that specific improvements in the Boston schools were due directly to the reduction of school-committee membership, irrespective of persons, it would not follow that similar specific improvements would ensue upon reductions of other school committees, of boards of trustees, of boards of aldermen, common councils, commissions, and like bodies generally. Boston school business differs from the business of other institutions. But if we find in the Boston schools a number of specific benefits due to improved conditions of administration, irrespective both of persons and of the nature of the affairs in hand, we may reasonably conclude that like improvements in the conditions of administrative action would follow like reductions of other administrative bodies. Other cities have an equal chance to get good men; other affairs depend equally upon the general conditions of administrative action; concerning the good deeds of the Boston School Board, therefore, we need but ask if to any extent they are due to conditions inherent in a conference of five, but hardly to be looked for in an assembly of twenty-four.

One might well ask in the first place if the personal character of the new board is not due in a measure to the fact that the board consists of only five men. Of the old board of twenty-four at least a third could not be relied upon for entirely honest and efficient service. A school-employee once boasted that he controlled nienteen of them. The present committee, to a man, is honest, earnest, hardworking, and efficient. Members habitually refuse even to discuss appointments, which are now entirely under the jurisdiction of the superintendent, subject only to confirmation by the board. It is the sort of board one might hope the people would elect, but of whose election one could never be sure. Yet when we consider that eight of the old committee came up for election every year, whereas of the new committee the people will never be called on to choose more than two at a time, may we not feel some assurance of continued good choice ? When the attention of the voters is concentrated upon candidates for two places, there is some likelihood that they will avoid mistakes; such a result is more likely, at least, in the election of two candidates than in the election of eight. In the election of two there is no chance, either, for selection by wards. The old committee corresponded in number very nearly to the number of Boston wards, — twentyfive. There was a consequent tendency to the evils of ward representation, a tendency reproduced wherever there are enough candidates to go round ” among the wards. Concentration makes this tendency inoperative, except, perhaps, in a large way: five members may be profitably taken from five large sections of a city, thus securing difference in point of view without inviting ward politicians to exercise their influence. Concentration, besides, increases the chance of good party nominations. In the first election under the provisions of the Storrow Bill, an independent body called the Citizens’ Union was able to persuade the dominant parties to endorse good men despite strong influences against it. In the second election under the new régime, David A. Ellis, candidate for reëlection, received both the Republican and the Democratic endorsement, and won against Julia E. Duff, a member of the old board, who controlled thousands of votes and who violently opposed the whole reform. When parties must show their hands in nomination for an office ostensibly beyond party spoilsmanship, they are more likely to be careful if they find themselves unable to hide venal henchmen in a crowd of nominees. On the whole it is not too much to say that the principle of concentration tends to insure the election of good men.

There is a corollary to this proposition in the argument that a small committee is less open to graft than a large one. The question involved may be purely hypothetical, but discussion of it will serve to reveal the greatest defect in a large committee system. There is at least a show of reason, too, in the argument itself. Publicity is the greatest enemy of graft, and the doings of one man in five are more public than the doings of five in twentyfour. It is in a system of sub-committees that graft finds its most favorable atmosphere. The public usually watches meetings of the whole board, most of which, in fact, are bound to be open; but sub-committees. adroitly formed, usually meet in executive session, unnoticed of the press; and sub-committee measures are railroaded through the meeting of the whole board under cover of misunderstanding. This sort of thing was repeatedly charged against the old Boston School Board, with ample confirmation from the records; against the new board it simply cannot be charged with the slightest show of truth. In any case, the weakness of large boards is that they are bound to break up into sub-committees. This is true of them whether they have much to do or little; it is not rush of business that causes it, but their own weight. Consequently the large board is sure sooner or later to offer good cover for the dodgings of the grafter. Better, surely, not to have even the cover.

And while the quiet political wirepuller is using the sub-committee system in one way, the demagogue will use the solemn assembly of the whole board in another. The meeting of a board large enough for speeches is too good an opportunity to be lost. “You may go into executive session if you like,” said one member of the old board, “but what I am going to say has already been given to the newspapers.” Better, surely, to exclude speech-making from the meetings of an administrative body.

But the greatest evil of the large board with its sub-committees lies in the lack of unity in its work. In the mere matter of unanimity of opinion the small board has an advantage. Under the old Boston Committee the rules and regulations for the schools were amended in one year twenty-three times, in another, twentyfive times. Originally an excellent body of rules, based on years of experience, they finally became almost unintelligible. It was simply a case of “too many cooks.” The new board’s first business was to codify and revise the rules. The old board broke its conflicting regulations right and left. Under a consistent code it is now the invariable policy of committeemen and school officers alike to insist on recognition of its provisions.

A still more fatal defect than this of conflicting rules is presented in what Mr. Storrow said in defending his bill: “[A] thing that would soon strike a new member of the [old] school board is the fact that, although he may be faithfully attending the meetings of his five or six subcommittees, yet he can never really grasp the school business. This is the inevitable result of the system; . . . twenty— [one] other committees [are] grinding out business and putting things into operation without any notice to the board, or else rushing matters through the board after incomplete explanation.” It is safe to say on the other hand that every member of the new board knows all that is necessary about the business properly before that body. Nothing is put into operation without the cognizance of the whole board, and nothing is “rushed through.” There is far more deliberation on the new board than there was on the old. It is credible that there should be, for before five men issues are hard to confuse. To convince a board of five, without advantage of oratory and with no chance to fall back on sub-committee findings, is a task which demands the inspiration of a good cause.

Thus of any small board it may be hoped that its compactness will bring unity of administration, with such concomitant benefits as harmony of rulings and certainly of deliberation. By virtue of this necessary unity a small board is also a more democratic body than a large board; its work, that is to say, is more clearly exposed to the public view. So diffused was the work of the old Boston School Board that not even the members themselves could grasp it, to say nothing of the public. The matter of hearings is a case in point. The old board hearings were private, sub-committee affairs. Only the findings came to the whole board and the printed minutes. As late as November, 1905, the public was apprised of a sub-committee plot to protect an unfit principal, the means of publicity being the report of a sturdy minority of one! Such things are impossible on the new board. Its work is done in a single room, at known hours, and by a single body. Whatever is tabled, referred, passed, or lost appears, as so disposed of, in public minutes. Hearings upon important matters, such as corporal punishment and coeducation in elementary schools, have been entirely public and searching. And in the printed minutes of the meetings the eager citizen may find a record of consistent accomplishment instead of a tangle of minority and majority reports from sub-committees.

Consistent accomplishment has thus at least some connection with small membership; but the connection will become more clearly inevitable as we consider another aspect of that unity of administration which small membership permits. Small membership forces each member to see the functions and duties of the board in their just proportions and in their complete inter-relations. Sharing responsibility to the whole public for work of the board, no member of it can forget his duty to the city in his desire to favor a district. In the old Boston School Board there were nine district sub-committees; in the new board there are none. Though the members of the new board live in different parts of the city, they are charged with no responsibility for their respective sections; as they are members of no body but the main body, their jurisdiction covers the whole city. Thus “geographical ” favoritism has no formal sanction. More important still, each member must see the work of the board as a whole. He must measure his duty to the children by his duty to the teachers, and both by his knowledge of the state of school finances. His view of the situation must be as complete as his responsibility; he has no sub-committee labors to excuse him from seeing the whole circle of affairs. One striking result of this completeness of view has already appeared in the work of the new board. The old board, harried by the recommendations of seventeen standing committees and nine division committees, so far exceeded its appropriation for 1905, that Boston teachers had to go without their December salaries. Mr. Storrow, replying to charges against the new board by Mrs. Duff, wrote as follows: “This board has not felt justified in appointing teachers to positions for which it did not have the funds to pay the salaries; and we are certain that this year no teachers will be faced by a bankrupt school committee, unable to pay the salaries of the Christmas month.” It is conceivable that the better element of the old committee might have prevented so miserable a fiasco, had not confusion of powers and duties, inherent in a sub-committee system, kept the matter from appearing in a clear light. It is even conceivable that five of the least worthy of the old committee-men, had they been charged with complete responsibility for the work of their board, might have succeeded in conducting at least a more respectable retreat. Unquestionably the mere matter of numbers had something to do with the mistake. It is probable that the members of a large board can never secure so just and so complete a view of the business before their body, as is forced upon the members of a board of five.

There can be no doubt, in the case of the small Boston School Committee, of the thorough understanding, by each member, of the duties before the board. The old board spent hours on minor matters, the new board goes to the heart of things. Under excellent professional advice it has begun constructive work at exactly the points where reform is most needed, American schools stand most in need of better teachers and of smaller classes. Thanks to the new board, Boston is in the way of securing both. A merit system of appointment, and changes in the requirements for certificates to teach, will go far towards securing better teachers for entrance into the service. A supervisor of substitutes, to help raw teachers in their work; a system of requirements for promotion, in the way of professional and academic study and successful teaching; and a liberal system of leave of absence on half-pay, for purposes of study and travel, — all these, the work of the new board, tend to keep good teachers in the service and to increase their powers for good work. A school appropriation based on the valuation of taxable property prevents much advance towards higher salaries and smaller classes, but every possible shift in this direction has been tried. Reorganization of the business department and stringent economy in materials have been made to yield something for increased salaries and smaller quotas of pupils. Thus the board has seized unerringly upon the most effective means for improving the schools, and has subordinated other means in an effort to increase its efficiency. Much work has been done besides, but none that shows so well the insight of the committee into its own problem. Perhaps a committee of twenty-four might have done as well; but the old board never did. At least it is possible that for other institutions, in Boston and out, a reduction of the governing body might produce similar effectiveness of administration. When a few men share the full responsibility for certain public affairs their grasp of them is likely to be sure and firm.

There remains one further advantage of the small board: it must leave the execution of its policies to paid official experts. This result is hardly less important than the administrative unity just insisted on, and is in effect more striking because more concrete. There used to be an American notion that citizenship in the United States was sufficient training for any public duty whatever. Happily, the notion is passing. Perhaps the schools will be the last institution to be free from its effects, because every American seems to be born with the notion that an educational hobby is meant for riding and that the best place for riding it is the public school. Personal interference with the running of the schools is still the usual school-committee-man’s conception of his duty. But such a conception is surely wrong. School-committee duties are best summed up in the word “administration.” Now “to administer the law is to declare it or apply it; to execute the law is to put it in force.” In part legislative and in part judicial seems to be the proper complexion of school-committee functions. Such also are the functions of most boards of control. These boards represent the public in dealing with the affairs of an institution; and the public is willing to pay professionally trained experts to advise the board as to the needs of the institution and to carry out the policies inaugurated under such advice. The board cannot itself execute its policies, nor ought it to act without professional advice upon technical matters. Specialists are not lacking: in hospitals there are doctors and nurses; in libraries, trained librarians; in city governments, police, firemen, accountants, engineers, counsel; in charitable institutions, the modern trained charity-worker; and in schools, the teacher and supervisor. These experts should know their work and should be allowed to do it unmolested.

Interference, however, is a great temptation to the member of a large board, particularly if the precedent of non-inference has never been firmly established. Concentration usually does establish it. A large committee divides its work, making a sort of specialist of every member and increasing the temptation to interfere. A small committee retains its general character and gets so forcible an impression of its general duties that it has no time to play specialist. Accordingly, we find a marked difference on this point between the old Boston School Board and the new. One of the first acts of the new board was to define clearly the duties and powers of its school officers. The position of supervisor was dignified by increased salary and a six-year term of office, secured by legislation. The appointing power, subject to confirmation by the board, was more firmly fixed in the superintendent. In the old days members used to interfere by personal order with the working of the schools, in order to make places for applicants. Admission to the Boston Normal School was secured by personal influence. Nowadays, persons who cannot get rid of old habits go to members in the hope of getting positions or admissions — and are referred to the superintendent, with the surprising information that he will act under the rules. In the old days, bad boys with “important” fathers triumphed over teachers, supervisors, and superintendent, by “going higher up.” Nowadays they go up only to find that short cuts do not count and that regularly constituted authority is to be upheld. Transfers of pupils to create a new class or secure a new building in one district used to leave another with empty seats which cost the city thousands of dollars. Members of district committees grew so careless as to grant transfers verbally. Now transfers are made only upon the signature of assistant-superintendents. Concentration has helped the board to rely on its experts and on its rules.

Would it not help other boards to do the same ? Is there not in the reduction of large boards to smaller membership some guarantee of better general character, of less politics, of more consistent and more effective administration, and, finally, of this wholesome reliance on official specialists ? Boston has experienced these effects in her school system. At a meeting of the Boston Economic Club last January, G. K. Turner of New York told what concentration had done for the city government of Galveston. It took a flood to bring Galveston to it; may something less costly force other cities to adopt the “saving principle.” May a true reformer arise for every board of twenty-four!

  1. From a speech by Mr. Storrow before the Committee on Cities of the Massachusetts Legislature.