A New Hope for Education


HARD times breed hard thinking, not only by business men about their private enterprises, but also by responsible government administrators and governing boards about their public activities. Taxpayers look to their taxes with keener scrutiny, and citizens weigh the services of government with a sharper eye — certainly if they fail to do so at first they will be forced to do so in the long run. In this depression it can therefore surprise no one to see a new rigorous scrutiny of the whole American educational enterprise. At any rate it is here.

In this scrutiny there is a new hope for education because the basis of interest to-day is far deeper than cost. It concerns itself with the fundamental purposes of education and with the effort to find practical methods by which the generally accepted objectives can be realized. Any educational system which is aimed at the wrong target, or which, though well aimed, does not hit the mark, is a waste of money, however economical its costs per pupil may appear. It is much more than a waste of money; it is a waste of time, and life, and human potentiality, all of which are priceless.

In times like these, those who walk the streets looking for work wonder whether the schooling they had was of the right sort. Employers seeking qualified workers question the schools. Parents watching their children’s growth criticize education. Those who watch the ebb and flow of public opinion, the vagaries of the voter, the successful prestidigitation of many politicians, and the inelasticity and narrowness of many business and labor leaders, are justified in asking, ‘What of the schools?’ And behind all of these questions are the queries that come to trouble us when we see throughout our society the moral inadequacies of our generation. Is it not well that we should reëxamine, rethink, and, if necessary, replan our system of education? Or are we satisfied with it as it now stands?

In the effort to answer these questions, more significant organized effort has been devoted in the past two or three years than ever before in the history of our people. First there was the Report of the President’s Advisory Committee on Education. This national committee, made up of twenty-three educators and laymen, devoted special attention to Negro education, rural education, vocational education, educational administration, and the permanent and emergency educational activities of the Federal Government. The committee concluded that the situation demands a gradual expansion to as much as $257,000,000 per year of federal support for state and local education in backward areas, and presented a plan under which there would be a minimum of federal educational direction attending such grants, except with reference to indispensable audits and administrative matters. This committee conducted a nation-wide survey with the aid of recognized authorities, and, in addition to its report, is publishing nineteen separate volumes, each dealing with a specific phase of education.

The American Youth Commission, though nation-wide in its scope, is privately financed as a project of the American Council on Education. Its eighteen members are predominantly distinguished and public-spirited laymen. This commission is still in the midst of its fiveyear study of the problems, educational and other, of the age group from sixteen to twenty-four. It has already issued How Fare American Youth? (a general summary of current educational and community problems) and Youth Tell Their Story (a study of youth in Maryland). The commission, in addition to many studies now under way, is conducting experiments in Baltimore, Providence, Dallas, and St. Louis, the purpose of which is to discover how best to relate the schools to the employment placement agencies and jobs.

The Educational Policies Commission, set up by the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators, is another nation-wide project. Its work is still in progress, but already it has issued the following authoritative statements: ’The Unique Function of Education in American Democracy,’ drafted by Charles A. Beard; ‘The Structure and Administration of Education in American Democracy,’drafted by George D. Strayer; and ‘The Purposes of Education in American Democracy,’ drafted by William G. Carr. These are documents of importance.

Different in purpose but not in value is the Pennsylvania study of high-school and college students over a four-year period by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which was published during the year. This study shows that the wrong people go to college in surprising numbers, that some colleges give less education than some high schools, and that a large proportion of those who are going into teaching are at age twenty-two less ‘educated’ than the abler 25 per cent of normal highschool students at the age of eighteen.

Other local studies have been made. In addition to those of the United States Office of Education, which has been keenly interested in rural education, in adult education, and in the development of forums, there have been valuable school surveys conducted by State Planning Commissions, as in Washington and Nebraska, and city school system surveys in Hartford, in New Orleans, and in Philadelphia. A survey of unusual importance is now under way in St. Louis, and special studies are being carried forward by the school system itself in New York City.


And now comes the Regents’ Inquiry into the Character and Cost of Public Education in the State of New York. That is the long title for the big job in research and educational planning which my colleagues and I have just finished. It is aimed at New York, but it hits the whole country. This New York Inquiry is unusual in more ways than one: it was made officially under the sponsorship of the Board of Regents; it is the bestfinanced study of the sort, with a grant of half a million dollars from the General Education Board; and, though its staff included a number of educational experts, its approach is that of the layman and general administrator looking for clean-cut answers to the major educational questions, and for practical methods of carrying these answers into daily practice. Our New York study is a consumers’ study.

We examined the schools of the state not primarily by looking at the modernity of the buildings, or the academic degrees of the teachers, or the ‘up-todateness’ of teaching techniques, or the ‘correctness’ of the educational system. So far as possible, the school system was studied by examining the character of its product. We tried to find out what the boys and girls are like, what they know, and what the schools have done to equip them for work, for citizenship, and for growing, happy, individual life. Though the instruments for such a study are far from adequate, significant differences were discovered, and the examination of these differences disclosed important lessons in school program and administration. But the major approach of the Inquiry was from the product to the process.

The staff experts of the New York Inquiry were drawn primarily from men who have not participated extensively in the development of the educational system of New York. It is what in the business world would be called ‘an outside audit’ calculated to give the Regents, the schoolmen, and the citizens of the state an independent appraisal of policies and management. Though the basis of selection excluded some of the best-known educators of America, the staff did include seven college presidents, four deans of graduate schools, two state commissioners of education, and a score of other specialists.

The schools of the State of New York are on the whole good schools in comparison with those of other states. In fact, some extraordinarily good schools were found. The weak spots were discovered in small rural schools and in certain subnormal city schools. The best educational results were discovered in wealthy suburban areas and in the well-directed large city schools. But fine buildings and high salaries were not necessarily found to produce good education. Even in education the price tag is no hallmark of quality. The problem is apparently more subtle than support. This is an important discovery for New York, which places so much emphasis on finance and now spends more per child in school and pays higher average teachers’ salaries than any other comparable state.

From its examination of the total school system, the Regents’ Inquiry has come to the conclusion that the ‘common school’ has redefined its age limits. As recently as 1915, the common school — that is, the minimum of schooling we expect every youth to have — started at around age six and ended at thirteen. In New York State, these age limits have now changed to reach from five up to seventeen or eighteen. And there are forces which indicate that the upper limit will soon stretch another year or two, to nineteen or twenty. It need hardly be pointed out that this upward stretch of the common school to include ages seventeen and eighteen, and to enroll not a selected few only who are going on to college, but all the children of all the people, places an entirely new task upon the schools. This is not a task which can be discharged on the pattern of the old program. It will require new thinking and planning.

Judged by these standards, much of the school curriculum was found to be behind the times and poorly suited to the needs of the boys and girls in school. In spite of all the discussion of the past decade, the high schools are on the whole pushing all the youngsters into college preparatory work, though only one in five in a modern secondary school will go on into advanced or professional education. The program of vocational education both in the cities and in the rural areas was found to be unsuited to meet current employment needs and opportunities. Where such education is offered, far too much emphasis, apparently, is being placed on high specialized training for a specific skill or trade, and not enough on broad training to serve as a foundation for a general line of work. And very little is being done to acquaint those who are going into the industrial system with the nature of that system and its demands and opportunities.

Preparation for citizenship in the American democracy seldom goes beyond a modicum of history and a superficial knowledge of the federal constitution and government. Knowledge of local government and civic problems is picked up by some boys and girls from the newspapers, but on the whole it is terra incognita, too close to home to be a worthy subject for bright young ladies from the normal schools.

Is it any wonder that the rising generation seems to have no real understanding of American democracy, or the rights and responsibilities of free speech, or the duties and powers of citizenship? And yet there are schools in which the curriculum, the student activities, and the influence of the teachers are such that those who come from these schools are well started on the way to becoming useful, effective, and responsible citizens.

In spite of the fact that New York is one of the advanced states in its programs of local health and physical training, we are far from satisfied with what we found in the schools. The failure to enroll more of the pupils in intramural athletics, and particularly in sports which will be of interest when school days are over, is roundly criticized. The greatest weakness in the health field is the tendency to regard health instruction as a ‘subject’ entirely apart from daily individual and school life, and to ignore the mental and emotional aspects of health.

This cutting up of education into courses, each of which is independent and mutually exclusive, is a widely prevalent disease of secondary education. We found it everywhere in New York State. There has grown up the tendency to treat each subject as unrelated to all others and to leave to the immature student, scurrying from class to class, the difficult task of relating his newly acquired knowledge and skills each to the other. The difficulties of this procedure have been growing in proportion as knowledge has split off into more and more highly specialized divisions. As the report says, ‘This pulling apart of knowledge makes the task of general education more and more difficult. Boys and girls up to the age of eighteen or nineteen will never get a unified, meaningful picture of the world in which we live if they spend their time learning a great deal about a few disjointed fractions of the universe.'

The books read by youth showed the greatest variation from school to school. On the whole, the state syllabi and the dreaded Regents’ Examinations have become a strait jacket, compelling rigid application to the narrow circle of timehonored classics. Broader reading, where found, was induced by unusual teachers and the availability of good literature in school libraries, public libraries, and the home. In those communities studied most intimately, the largest amount of good reading was found to be done by the teachers, the next by the high-school seniors, and the least by the parents! Though embarrassing, perhaps, this is a comforting discovery until one learns that the state institutions training teachers, with two possible exceptions, are totally unequipped with modern cultural libraries. How can teachers whose education has been narrow and starved nourish the minds of youth?

Can the schools do anything to build sound ethical character? Yes, but apparently not so much by going at the problem head on with courses in ‘ethics,’‘morals,’or ‘good citizenship,’as by a more subtle approach which embraces the live discussion of questions met in literature, history, and current events, coöperative student activities, participation in community services, practical work experience, the sympathetic study of the world’s ethical masterpieces, and — above everything else — inspiring teachers.

Thus at almost every point the New York Inquiry comes back to the teacher. Schools were found to vary specifically in mathematics, in science, in English, or in history, and in each case closer investigation showed that the primary cause was to be found in the ability and personality of a specific teacher. This rediscovery of the central importance of the teacher is a most important emphasis of the New York Inquiry. It is an emphasis greatly needed in these days when we hear so much talk about organization, joint committees, curriculum, buildings, special services, machinery, and finance. As we say in the report, ‘The classroom teacher is the heart of the school system. The characterbuilding influence of the schools depends, as does the quality of the intellectual work, almost entirely upon the teachers.’


In addition to these findings in the field of education, the New York Regents’ Inquiry calls attention to three important new factors in the social and economic system which are destined to have a revolutionary effect upon the American school system. These are the decrease in births, the postponement of self-support, and technological change.

Birth rates are going down spectacularly in New York State. Now that immigration is ended and the drift to the cities materially reduced, none of the cities of New York will continue to grow as in the past. Stuart Chase told the story in the February Atlantic. New York City will have half as many children entering the first grade in 1943 as it had in 1928, a change which will gradually work its way up through all stages of education. This change in the birth rate not only alters the school load, but immensely increases the need of attention to school planning and to the selection and preparation of teachers. In the future we cannot cover up our blunders through the growth of the system.

The postponement of self-support has been progressing for many years. First we saw it in the elimination of child labor. That was wholly commendable. Now we see it in reduced opportunities for youth; this is not wholly commendable, but it is apparently inevitable. It arises in part from the depression but even more from the nature of modern industry, the policies of employers, the principles of organized labor, and the general standards of the community. The effect on education is important.

As the report says, ‘Work may be exactly what a youth most needs, not only for economic reasons, but more particularly because of the value of work emotionally and in the building of habits, skills, knowledge, and character. Work is education, and a far better education for many a boy than are the inappropriate things he is now doing in school.’

If boys and girls are to grow up without any real work until after they are seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, or twenty, there will have to be drastic revision of the school and community program for youth to bring work into that program. Can a generation be reared capable of working together in our industries or in our democratic society which has had no taste of hard labor until after it is fully grown physically and emotionally? It is not an experiment one would care to make when so much hangs in the balance.

The third factor to which the Inquiry directs attention is technological evolution. When a new process is discovered, a new product launched, a new machine invented, or a new style introduced, the effects upon society and upon the individual are likely to be incalculable and revolutionary. Technological evolution gives us two things: it gives our whole social system ceaseless improvement in the general standard of living by reducing prices and increasing the variety, the utility, and the attractiveness of the things we use and consume, and it gives each one of us as individuals ceaseless insecurity in work, in investments, and in peace of mind. Scientific research is thus at once a treasure chest and a Pandora’s box of trouble.

I happen to believe that man cannot stop invention and technological evolution. There will be more technological changes in the future than there have been in the past. I also believe that mankind will learn how to assimilate even the striking new developments with respect to energy, and life, and mind, that now lie just around the scientific corner. This is, however, another story. But once you accept rapid technological evolution as a normal element of life, you are forced to reconstruct the school system, as well as certain other elements of the social system, to fit.

Without going into this extensively, the Inquiry report suggests that there are three points at which technological change now requires a redesigning of the school program. First, vocational education should be more interested in broad training for adaptation than in training for a specific trade, which may be gone when a youth steps out of school. Second, the school must concern itself with the nature of the social and economic system and the steps by which technological changes may best be assimilated so that the average citizen may, in the course of his education, be equipped with knowledge and skill to live through the inevitable changes. Third, the community should provide, partly through the schools, the agencies which are necessary to help the displaced individual bridge the gap from job to job when he is displaced in the process of technological change.


The New York Inquiry report, Education for American Life, and its many supporting studies are bristling with specific recommendations for immediate and future action. Most of the recommendations focus upon six central problems: (1) what to do with boys and girls from fifteen to nineteen years old; (2) how to improve the quality of teaching; (3) how to modernize the small rural schools; (4) how to achieve greater economy in school management; (5) how to approach the new problems of adult education; (6) how to make the influence of the State Education Department more effective.

The most revolutionary recommendation is that we add, by gradual degrees, two more years to the high-school course, for those boys and girls who do not go to work or to college. It is revolutionary partly because of its expense, which is estimated at some $19,450,000 annually, partly because it will require extensive revision of the high-school curriculum. The new course of study is envisioned as one which will throw more emphasis on integrated general education, on student activities, on broad vocational education, and on guidance, adjustment, and placement. This will bring the schools into much closer contact with the employer, with labor, and with the whole world of work. It will require the development of totally new courses and experiences, and must be looked upon as a long-range program, rather than as one which can be inaugurated suddenly.

Better teaching is sought through extending the required teachers’ preparation from the present three years to four years for elementary-school teachers and to five years for secondary-school teachers; through the revision of teachers’ college courses to include more general and cultural work and less technical pedagogy; through the development, with the aid of the teachers themselves, of better competitive methods of selection, with more attention to personal and emotional fitness; through the development of more adequate professional supervision, especially during the earliest years of teaching, and the modernization of curricula and teaching materials. It is recommended that tenure be extended to the 20,000 rural teachers and that their minimum salaries be increased from $800 to $1200 just as soon as the little school districts can be consolidated into more eifective educational units. A needed relaxation of the unduly rigid requirements with regard to teacher certificates, which are issued by the state and without which no one can teach, will give the private colleges more chance to experiment in the preparation of teachers, especially for the new kinds of courses now called for. Among the many other recommendations is the plan to have the state award each year twenty state teacher’s fellowships in recognition of distinguished teaching, to enable holders to travel, study, write, or rest, without financial loss to themselves or to the schools which employ them.

In the rural areas, the problem of the teacher is closely linked up with the system of district organization. New York has some 6000 school districts, of which 5000 possess each a one-room, one-teacher school. This is a heritage of the pioneer effort to carry schools to all sections of the state through the famous school law of 1812. With the changes that have come since pioneer days in education, and in community life, these very small districts are no longer satisfactory for the pupils, the teachers, the parents, or the taxpayers. New York has worked out its own solution over the past generation through the voluntary consolidation of small districts into larger ‘central school districts.’

It is proposed by the Inquiry that all the remaining areas of the state, except those in the city school districts, be now required to come together into similar central districts. This is to be done through a home-rule procedure with the initiation of the plans by local committees, after hearings, and final approval by a temporary state commission to see that the individual plans fit together to form a harmonious and adequate system for the state as a whole.

A central district, under the plan which has already won endorsement in all parts of the state, maintains at least one high school and one or more elementary schools. Most of the children come to school by bus over hard-surfaced roads which are kept cleared in winter even in the Adirondacks. Many a little red schoolhouse is kept open for the younger children, however, and none is closed without the vote of the original little district; but the governing and administrative unit is the larger area. ‘Centralization’ makes possible more professional educational supervision, more adequate special teaching and special services, better business management, and much more community activity around the school centre. The automobile and other factors of modern life have changed the boundaries of the natural rural community. When the school district is modernized to fit this expanded community, the school naturally becomes the community centre. In scores of communities it is thrilling to see the way this brings the home and the schools, the parents and the teachers, together again in their common task of raising the oncoming generation.

Better business methods, elimination of unduly small classrooms through the reorganization of the small districts, more careful attention to insurance and the purchasing of supplies, cost accounting, and better debt management are the chief methods of saving the taxpayers’ dollars which go into the schools. At the suggestion of the State Comptroller, a plan is being worked out whereby the school districts may borrow from the state rather than from the public, and may thus enjoy the state’s low interest rate on the funds which they need for construction. In many cases this alone will cut the cost of school buildings by 25 per cent. The report points out, however, that other economies in school construction are possible through better planning, and through curbing the great American temptation to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ If all of the economies suggested by the Inquiry are realized, particularly those arising from the drop in the number of pupils, they will more than counterbalance the estimated cost of the New Educational Program put before the state in the Inquiry report.

Adult education will soon require systematic planning and direction even though it is to remain, as suggested by the Inquiry, ‘voluntary, purposeful, and individual.’ With this in mind, it is recommended that there be in every community a coördinator of adult education to be appointed by the school board and to serve directly under the superintendent of schools. It would be his function to find out what is going on, to stimulate complementary activities, and to see that facilities and equipment are made available. The need for the development of industrial retraining and occupational upgrading is stressed. Special emphasis is placed upon the strengthening of libraries, and recommendations are made for a new state-wide county library system based on state library aid. Adult education by the state over the radio and by means of coördinated correspondence courses is also suggested in the supporting studies of the Inquiry.

The Inquiry presents figures to show that there are enough colleges and universities in New York State already, and that a greater percentage of the population goes on for advanced and professional education in New York than in any other state with one exception, in spite of the fact that it does not have a free state university. To meet more adequately the needs of qualified students who are now debarred from advanced training for economic reasons, the Inquiry recommends that the number of state scholarships awarded on a competitive basis to high-school graduates be increased from 3000 to 6000, and that the stipend be increased from $100 per year as set in 1911, when that was the normal college tuition — to $300, the normal tuition to-day.

In laying plans for the Inquiry, the Regents and the State Education Department felt that their own functions and work should also be subjected to the same ‘outside audit’ which was arranged for the rest of the educational system. The recommendations of the Inquiry, accordingly, are extensive and detailed. They spring from the desire to decentralize school control and management, to loosen central red tape so as to encourage experimentation, and to concentrate the efforts of the state on research and leadership based on this research. Therefore, under the appointed Commissioner of Education, a new major division of research is recommended, and all the remaining functions of the department, with the exception of legal matters which come under the Counsel and Deputy Commissioner, are brought together under three associate commissioners, one for elementary and secondary education, one for higher education, and one for business and financial administration.

This part of the program, as well as that involving the extension of teacher training, has already been adopted by the Regents, so that it describes the new practice rather than a future hope. Similarly, many other recommendations which can be put into practice without legislation are now being considered and adopted.

The program of the Inquiry was based on careful research and broad discussion with schoolmen and teachers, with laymen, with taxpayers, with employers, with labor leaders, and with youth in and out of school. It is intended as a sailing chart for the total educational system here and now, and not merely as a report to gather dust on academic shelves. It is a program now presented for democratic discussion in the expectation that this will lead to unity of purpose and action.