Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Although the Depression began in the fall of 1929, its ominous cloud did not overshadow schools until the fall of 1932 when many citizens facing unemployment or reduced incomes could no longer pay their property taxes. Retrenchment became the buzzword for budget cutbacks, resulting in reductions in the hours schools operated, increased class sizes, and decreases in teachers’ salaries. Poor school districts in rural areas closed their doors. Black students—facing racism, poverty, and neglect—were severely impacted. Adding to school funding problems was the trend for youth to stay in school longer since employment was tough to find during the Great Depression. As a result, more youth were seeking an education.
The Depression greatly transformed teachers’ working conditions. Educators observed the deterioration of school programs they had spent years building. Teachers had to try to teach undernourished children whose families had been devastated by unemployment and could no longer afford to eat well. Teachers fought back against retrenchment. Membership in organized teachers’ unions rose significantly. Educators radicalized and called for teachers to take charge of creating an entirely new social order, redistributing the wealth for a fairer America. Experimental schools such as folk schools and labor colleges trained students for the new order by teaching courses in labor organizing, political reform, civil rights, and reform in housing and healthcare. Conservative groups such as the American Legion perceived civil rights and organizing activities for unions as communistic. Alarmed by the new rhetoric, they feared communism was creeping into all levels of public schooling.
The economic upheaval of the 1930s actually spurred some lasting positive changes. The portion of school budgets from state funds increased. School systems became more efficient by combining small schools and standardizing curriculum and school facilities. Teachers demanded and won higher standards for the teaching profession. Although often at odds with traditional public school philosophy—that only regular teachers in regular schools could teach—New Dealers, those who supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (served 1933-1945) reform and relief plan called the New Deal, reached out to the most needy students by teaching them in settings other than traditional schools. They helped those in school stay in school and demonstrated that students previously not experiencing success in school only needed to be given a chance in alternative settings with effective instruction.
The most dismal years for schools were between 1932 and 1936. By 1939 educators observed that Americans’ desire to maintain and improve public education was very deep rooted. They clamored for more education, not less. The overall upward trends for U.S. education that started in the 1920s had begun again. The deflection downward for state and local educational support during the Depression had been only a temporary setback.
The Great Depression became a time of crisis in public education in the United States. Because of the lack of employment opportunities, more youth were likely to stay in school longer. School attendance, however, would actually decline through the 1930s due to budget crises of local school districts. The rise of unemployment and cuts in pay meant less tax revenue for schools. In addition, many business leaders in the communities pressed, often successfully, for reducing state and local taxes. These reductions led to further cuts in school budgets. This trend came at a time when increased sophistication in industry demanded a better-educated workforce. Fearing that the growing number of idle youth, out of school and with no job prospects, would turn to radical political movements as was happening in Europe at the time, the New Deal social and economic programs under President Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership would attempt to remedy this situation. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and National Youth Administration (NYA) would address student needs by offering classes, often vocational in nature, to teach needed skills for future employment. Though the programs served numerous youth, it was still a small percentage of those out of school.
A Shift in Educational Support
The 1920s were marked by an economic boom following World War I (1914-1918). Many students, teachers, and school districts throughout the decade enjoyed steady funding support. More students than ever before were attending schools. Many teachers were hired to meet the demand, and average annual pay increased from $871 in 1920 to $1,420 in 1930. While some school districts were left behind, many experienced unprecedented levels of funding and support. Many educators, like most Americans, were unprepared for the harsh times that laid ahead.
In October 1929 the U.S. stock market crashed, and the value of stocks plummeted. By 1932, on average, stocks were worth only one-fifth of their value before the crash. Profits of corporations went into a tailspin, falling from $8.6 billion to minus $2.7 billion. Income from the agricultural industry decreased by one-half, manufacturing by approximately two-thirds, and construction by four-fifths. Americans’ combined personal income decreased from $85.9 billion to $47.0 billion as estimated unemployment rose to 25 percent of the workforce. These losses occurred because of many reasons. Besides lack of government regulation of business and overspeculation in stocks and real estate, other possible causes that have drawn attention include: (1) a widespread “get-rich-quick” mentality; (2) overproduction and low prices of farm produce; (3) belief that national economies naturally decline in predictable patterns; and (4) a large gap in wealth between the rich and common citizens.
Retrenchment affected school districts throughout the country, especially in more rural areas. Many rural schools were already underfunded during the 1920s. During the Depression these schools found it necessary to sometimes cut teachers’ salaries, stop purchasing supplies, or to simply close their doors when money ran out. By 1930 over three million children between seven and 17 years of age were out of school. For example, in the South, Georgia closed the doors to over 1,300 schools, affecting over 170,000 children; in Alabama in 1932 and 1933 most children had no school to attend as five out of six schools were closed; and Arkansas’s school year was shortened to less than sixty days. In West Virginia one thousand schools were closed. In Iowa, where schools depended almost solely on property taxes, a salary of only $40 a month for all teachers was established. By April 1934 many districts had greatly shortened the school year. An estimated 20,000 schools across the nation that had taught over 10 million students had either severely shortened their school years or closed completely. Some 2,600 had closed completely. There were 25,000 fewer teachers nationwide in 1934 than four years earlier. The states most affected by retrenchment were in the South and Great Plains, but parts of Michigan, Ohio, and Montana were greatly affected also. Racial minorities were particularly hard hit. In the mostly rural South, 95 percent of black Americans of high school age were no longer in school. Attendance in rural schools in general was down 60 percent.
For the most part, before retrenchment, large city schools were better funded than rural schools. School terms in cities were generally longer than in rural schools, teachers’ salaries were much higher, and more classes were held and were therefore more easily combined when funds dropped and some teachers had to be dismissed. Thus, a 30 percent drop in funding was considerably more detrimental in Arkansas than it was in New York. Retrenchment effects, however, varied from city to city and even within the same urban areas. For example, in the early 1930s, Detroit city schools saw their revenues drop over a two year period by almost 30 percent from almost $18 million to less than $13 million. But schools in affluent Detroit suburbs like Grosse Pointe were barely affected. School districts in cities such as Chicago, burdened with heavy debts from building programs and civic governmental corruption, suffered greatly. And some cities had placed the limited city revenue into unemployment relief, rather than into their schools. For example, Baltimore spent only half as much money on public schools as did Boston, although Baltimore had a much larger population. Los Angeles schools, however, suffered less than the large east coast cities’ schools.
Educators, who had little taste for cutting budgets, searched for ways to reduce expenses. This was especially difficult at the high school level, where the number of students enrolled actually grew during the Depression, despite the overall decline in total number of students in lower grades due to the cutbacks. In the early twentieth century, it was not uncommon for teenagers to quit school early to join the work force, but as employment became increasingly hard to find, the number of students staying in school until the twelfth grade increased. From 1929 to 1934, the number of high school students grew from about 3.9 million to more than 5.6 million. To worsen matters, class sizes were also further increased as a way in which to save money. From 1930 to 1934 the average class size in high schools grew from 20.6 pupils to 24.9. National figures, however, mask considerable differences between districts. Some cities expanded class size to over forty students. Besides increasing class sizes, another cost-cutting measure was the emergence of “social promotion,” or passing children from grade to grade rather than holding them back until certain academic standards had been met. Also, the falling birth rate and subsequent decline in elementary school enrollment allowed districts to save money by closing smaller elementary schools. In normal times closure of such schools would have caused parental protest, but these were not normal times. As long as there was room in a larger school, smaller facilities shut the doors with little public objection. In retrospect, historians argue that such measures—larger classes, social promotion, and school consolidation—actually made instruction more efficient.
The worst period psychologically was the budget planning in 1932 for the school year 1932-1933. Fear of what catastrophes lay ahead caused budget-cutting hysteria for many districts. Some educators feared the depressed conditions might be permanent. Most hard-pressed urban districts cut teachers’ salaries. From 1929-1930 to 1933-1934, the average teacher salary dropped from $1,420 to $1,227, a decrease of 13.6 percent. Depending on the district, however, pay cuts of 25 to 50 percent were not uncommon. By 1934 almost 300,000 rural teachers earned less than $650 a year, the minimum wage of factory workers under the National Recovery Administration (NRA). Approximately 85,000 earned less than $450 per year, which today is equivalent to only about $5,800 per year. Typical of American workers in general, the prospect of losing their jobs was a constant worry for teachers. Between 1930 and 1934, large numbers of superintendents and principals did lose their jobs. In worst-case scenarios, school boards filled superintendent and teaching positions by selecting from the lowest bidding applicant. In one North Dakota system, teaching jobs went to teachers bidding as low as $30 a month. Teachers were obviously shaken and demoralized by the plunge of their income.
Another sacrifice educators had to contend with was the elimination of classes and programs of a practical nature that had been instituted during the 1920s under the banner of “progressive education.” These programs were sometimes called “fads and frills.” They included health services, physical education, night schools, adult education, summer schools, kindergartens, the arts, vocational classes, and home economics. These new programs were reduced or eliminated in many school systems as they cost more to teach than traditional core subjects such as English, social studies, and math. Some educators, however, argued that these were the programs precisely needed for the 1930s, as more students from poor families remained in school. They argued that the “new student clientele” required a corresponding adjustment in curriculum. Some schools did choose to cut college preparatory courses such as Latin and advanced algebra. After reaching a high of $90.22 in the 1929-1930 school year, the national per pupil expenditure declined to $83.22 per pupil in 1931-1932. The decline became a collapse after 1932, when the average dropped to $73.96 for 1932-1933, and only $66.53 in 1933-1934.
Black schools and students were perhaps the most negatively affected by retrenchment.
With the everworsening economic conditions in the early 1930s, many rural blacks moved into the cities. City school boards responded by establishing industrial high school programs to keep unemployed black teens out of trouble. Industrial high schools taught practical skills such as car repair, bricklaying, carpentry, cooking, and sewing. Yet the training black youth received generally provided no advantage, as the Depression caused the elimination of jobs in industry. Blue-collar and service industry jobs traditionally held by blacks were given to whites first. When black Americans asked that industrial schools teach traditional subjects so their students could move on to college, southern school boards answered by discontinuing the building of industrial schools altogether.
The Depression affected rural black areas more because their school budgets were already minimal. The average black family income, already very low, decreased dramatically. All that blacks could contribute to maintain their schools was labor. White school boards were more reluctant than ever to fund black schools. Books, supplies, and transportation were virtually nonexistent. Teachers’ salaries could not be maintained, and some black schools could not pay for heat or electricity. A sense of desperation plagued black educators, who appealed to white philanthropists for help, often without success. Philanthropists are wealthy individuals who contribute money to charitable causes.
Despite the many obstacles, some positive changes occurred for black students. Donations by northern white philanthropists allowed black colleges to maintain and expand. Most importantly, a major change occurred in northern cities when budget cutbacks resulted in desegregation of some school systems. In 1932 the Educational Equality League of Philadelphia was formed to promote desegregation and the hiring of black teachers. A key argument most relevant to the times of the Great Depression was that the combining of black and white schools would be more economical. Some progress was seen in the Philadelphia area as one suburb integrated its public schools in 1934. By May 1935 the Philadelphia Board of Public Education had a black member. Spurred by the need to trim expenses, it was during this time that segregated education in the United States was first challenged. Although still much less than the percentage of whites, the percentage of blacks attending high school nationwide more than doubled between 1930 and 1940, and the number of graduates tripled.
Educators Respond to Retrenchment
The most frightening aspect of the Depression for educators was the uncertainty of how long retrenchment would continue. Educators felt abandoned by former business allies who in the 1920s supported schools with loans, donations, and advocated higher taxes. Local school boards were composed almost entirely of wealthy business leaders, but they now were chief proponents of cutting taxes, the lifeblood of schools. The optimism of the 1920s for universal schooling—schooling of all children—had faded. In response educators began to organize into unions. They viewed education as entrenched in a state of emergency and thus moved forth into concerted action.
As labor rights struggles were forged in the industrial sector in the 1930s, so were they also in the field of education. Like workers in industry, teachers struggled for higher wages and more control in their workplace. School boards composed of wealthy businessmen and administrators opposed them, saying schools must be run like businesses, and teachers were merely employees whose every action should be controlled. Teachers considered themselves professionals with some leeway in making decisions. Most hesitated to join unions, fearing this would indicate they were laborers and not professionals. The two leading educational organizations fighting for teachers were the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), founded in 1916, and the National Education Association (NEA), begun in 1857.
Membership in teachers’ unions such as the AFT dramatically increased. To its public school locals, the AFT added 33 college locals. Teachers pressed for higher pay, greater job opportunities, retirement pensions, and enforcement of higher teaching standards. Through time they became more out-spoken and politically active. Other AFT members argued for changes in the U.S. tax structure. They argued that while underpaid teachers paid their taxes, many of the wealthy were not. Even those teachers who had lost their jobs had formed their own union, the Unemployed Teachers’ Association.
By 1933 the NEA, an organization that had loudly celebrated the business community as generous allies, now condemned that broad spectrum of businessmen seeking school funding reductions as exploiters and sinister agents reaching into communities to destroy schools. This was in response to many businessmen demanding budget cuts, loan repayments, and tax cuts. Although the rhetoric was strong, in reality, most educators were deeply distressed by the suffering of fellow teachers and students and angered by school cuts, but few had turned into true radicals. Most desired to realign and again cooperate with the business community in their respective towns.
Conflicts between businessmen and educators were present nationwide. For example, throughout the 1920s the Chicago schools had been badly managed and suffered at the hands of crooked politicians and wealthy property holders who dodged paying property taxes. In 1929 the wealthy organized and pressed for decreases in school spending, including suspending the wages of teachers while increasing teacher workloads. By 1932 the city owed teachers $20 million, or $1,400 apiece. Teachers were paid in scrip, paper IOUs, that banks would not accept. Funding was diverted away from school maintenance to repay debts to businessmen. Teachers neared the breaking point as they depleted their savings, cashed in insurance policies, cut back on necessities such as food, and sold their homes.
Some teachers turned militant, leading protests against local governments. In Chicago in April 1933, 14,000 teachers, with the support of several thousand students and parents, marched on city hall. When the demonstration fell on deaf ears, several thousand then vandalized banks not honoring teachers’ scrip. To punish the teachers, the Chicago school board, dominated by business leaders, fired 1,400 teachers following the end of the school year and dramatically cut back the number of schools. School programs were slashed and the size of classes increased.
Efforts in other areas to protect schools from cutbacks fared better than in Chicago. In Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy and school superintendent Frank Cody successfully resisted budget cuts. Teachers and trade unions, whose members included many parents of Detroit students, organized to elect a school board that would combat efforts by members of the business community to trim school budgets. In the south the Florida League for Better Schools denounced businessmen’s groups and succeeded in passing a gasoline tax to benefit schools and guarantee teachers’ salaries. In California the California Teachers’ Association (CTA) defeated proposed budget cuts and closure of kindergartens. California teachers even saw an increase in pay.
In 1932 the NEA established the Joint Commission of the Emergency in Education to combat efforts of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber had proposed sweeping educational cuts—such deep cuts that many educators labeled the businessmen as “wreckers.” Educators and the general public believed the wealthy business community was continuing the irresponsible actions that had landed the nation in the economic disaster of the Depression. Many businessmen, angered and alarmed by teachers’ rhetoric, began to charge that educators were communistic and filling students’ heads with radical ideas. The battle gained momentum through the Depression years. To strengthen their defense, teachers began embracing different concepts, including social reconstructionism. This further antagonized the conservative business groups.
The Social Reconstructionism Philosophy
In the early 1930s, many influential educational leaders felt pushed by the Depression to urgently seek reform. They sought to move from the progressive education philosophy of the 1920s to a new, more radical philosophy. This philosophy was known as social reconstructionism. Social reconstructionism challenged teachers to take an active role in reform of the social order. To the reconstructionist the Depression seemed to have proven that greedy capitalism was cruel and inhuman. Most social reconstructionists believed that through schools, American life could be changed for the better. Many believed the time of capitalism was over—that community cooperation and collectivism, or shared ownership of goods, should be the new order. Some radical reconstructionists encouraged teachers to join in socialist or communist labor organizing. Others stressed teaching the construction of a new social order.
The philosophy of social reconstruction formed at Columbia University Teachers’ College as professors there pondered the relationship between education and social change. This small band of progressive educators included among others George Counts, William H. Kilpatrick, Harold Rugg, John L. Childs, and R. Bruce Raup. Well-known educator John Dewey closely linked himself to the group. This group became the most influential leaders of educational philosophy during the early-and mid-1930s. The Depression convinced them that collectivism was necessary and the old social order was doomed. The reconstructionists, or “frontier thinkers,” as they called themselves, believed that they should inspire educators with a sense of direction as to where society should be moving. They hoped by a peaceful evolution to clarify American’s needs and assure that abundance was properly redistributed. They wanted progressive teachers to turn classrooms into a forum for political education. In February 1932 Professor Counts gave a talk to the Progressive Education Association (PEA), challenging its members with reconstructionist ideas. His address so moved the audience that rather than applauding, they sat in awed silence. Two days later he took the ideas to the NEA. To teachers the message of social reconstruction—that they could actually build a new social order—was compelling. It was also reassuring, since a new order seemed to be desperately needed. It called for centralized governmental economic planning, a national education system, a professional and organized American teaching force, and sought to break the power local businessmen held over education.
Not all progressive educators subscribed to the social reconstructionist philosophy. Many believed the Depression required administrators and teachers to focus on increased efficiency. They criticized reconstructionists as “romantics,” believing any challenge to the business community was doomed to failure. Nevertheless, Professor Counts and other social reconstructionists held the attention of some educators for a time. In the end the majority of educators were not nearly as influenced by the “frontier thinkers” as they were by cutbacks in their own school systems. The talk of new social orders and collectivism made little practical sense to them. A superintendent from Minnesota said the social reconstructionist should “be put in the rear seats and muzzled.” Social reconstructionist thinking caused a conservative backlash toward the new philosophy. Conservatives regarded the philosophy as left-leaning or communistic. Lumping all educators together, groups such as the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) attacked schools as pools of communist propaganda. They attempted to have school boards restrict curricula of public schools and demand teachers sign loyalty oaths.
First adopted by state legislatures in the 1920s, state laws required teachers to take loyalty oaths in which they swore to not teach ideas “subversive” to mainstream American ideas. The consequence of breaking the oath was dismissal, and no one could afford to lose his or her job during the Depression. By 1936, 21 states made teachers take loyalty oaths. Fourteen of those states had begun loyalty oath administration since the beginning of the Depression.
Also, in 1935 the U.S. Congress attached a last minute rider to an appropriations bill for the District of Columbia. Known as the “red rider,” it required teachers to sign a statement that said they would not teach any communistic ideas. It also asked: “Do you believe in God? Do you believe in any of the doctrines of communism? Do you approve of Dr. George S. Counts’ writings? Have you been to Russia?” (Tyack, p. 64). The red rider violated the constitutional right to free political expression. It also violated the principles of academic freedom whereby teachers are free to teach without being forced to adhere to certain political or “ideological agendas.” Congress repealed the rider in 1937.
Great Depression financial pressures, in addition to existing politically conservative attitudes trying to maintain stability as they perceived it, led to many other attacks on academic freedom. William Randolph Hearst, publisher of a national chain of newspapers, filled his papers with warnings of the “red,” or communist, menace in schools. He and his reporters practiced “red-baiting,” portraying individuals as communists or communist sympathizers regardless of whether they were or were not involved with the Communist Party.
Despite harsh economic times and criticism from conservatives, the 1930s produced a number of experiments in education, especially at the college level. Most experiments were in search of a new progressive educational approach or a new social order reflective of the reconstructionist philosophies. Although some would succumb to the financial strain of the Depression, they pioneered new curriculum and administrative procedures that more mainstream universities would adopt in the coming decades. Such experimentation took place in higher level learning institutions that included folk schools, labor colleges, the New School for Social Research, and various other small schools with alternative approaches.
Folk schools, which originated in Denmark, stressed interpersonal relations, and students and teachers lived together and worked together to sustain the operation of the schools. Free of the usual memorization and recitation school work common in other schools, folk schools instead offered courses in political and social reform, labor organizing, and folk music as a type of oral history. One of the better known folk schools in the United States was the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Others were located in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.
Labor colleges existed in the United States as early as 1903 with the opening of the Work People’s College, a Finnish immigrant college in Duluth, Minnesota. The Brookwood Labor College of Katonals, New York, founded in 1921, and Commonwealth College of Mena, Arkansas, founded in 1925, derived from socialist labor movements. Like folk schools, students and teachers donated labor to maintain services at the schools. Innovative curricula included labor history and economics, labor organization, instruction for adult industrial workers and farmers, class consciousness, and activist theater with socialist themes. At Commonwealth such traditional college social activities as fraternities, sororities, and varsity sports were prohibited. Nationally known liberal personalities such as social worker Jane Addams, scientist Albert Einstein, educators George S. Counts and John Dewey, and author Sinclair Lewis defended the colleges against attacks by conservative groups.
Brookwood and Commonwealth finally succumbed to the financial and conservative political pressures of the Depression in the late 1930s. Nevertheless, their graduates made important contributions to the labor movement as labor organizers and leaders. Work People’s College suspended classes in 1941, as its Finnish students assimilated into American society.
Other Progressive Institutions
Other educational institutions known for their variety of experimental philosophies were Bennington College, Rollins College, Black Mountain, Reed College, and Swarthmore College. Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, opened in 1923 to study quality higher education for women. Classes provided creative, progressive instruction to women. Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, offered students a wide range of instructional freedom of choice. Black Mountain College near Black Mountain, North Carolina, was founded in 1933 by a group of dissident professors from Rollins. Like folk schools, Black Mountain focused on interpersonal relations between teachers and students as a community. Black Mountain gained a reputation for its progressive art program. Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gained respect for its honors program and was imitated by other universities in the 1940s. Reed College in Portland, Oregon, was already established before the 1930s as an institution with excellent academic credentials. Reed refused to field competitive athletic teams, banned fraternities and sororities, was highly selective of students upon whom it imposed difficult examinations, and encouraged strong participation of faculty in the university administration. Black Mountain closed in 1956, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Bennington, Swarthmore, and Reed continue to flourish.
The state funding of schools was one of the most important changes in public education during the 1930s. Education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but the Tenth Amendment gives states any powers not specifically reserved for the federal government. Hence control of education lies with the states. Legally, the state governments had monetary and regulatory responsibilities over public education, but they had long given these responsibilities to the county and city governments. Schools traditionally had been almost entirely funded through local property taxes. Citizens pay property taxes based on the value of land and structures they own. For years the rich districts had better schools because their higher property values brought in more tax money.
Hard pressed during the Depression as property values plummeted, educators turned to the state legislatures for funding. Since teachers had become more organized as a professional group during the early 1930s, they were able to lobby successfully for increased state support of schools. They found allies in the real estate business since more state funding to schools would decrease their reliance on property taxes of local governments. Property would then be easier to sell. In some states a minimum funding level was set, affecting all school districts. They were assured that their funding would not fall below that level. Localities were also given freedom to spend the funds they had largely as they saw fit. Between 1930 and 1940, the proportion of school budgets supported by the state nearly doubled to 30 percent of all funding. In 1930 only seven states had financially supported local schools to that extent. That figure increased to 18 states by 1934.
The New Deal and Education
In the depths of the Depression, in late 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States. Many educators eagerly awaited his inauguration in March 1933. The rhetoric of Roosevelt seemed to express their deepest hopes. They hoped Roosevelt and his New Deal would carry schools and teachers to recovery. The New Deal was a collection of economic and social programs created by Congress and the president to assist those suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. In this educators were disappointed. Their hope turned to disillusionment, then to anger as the New Deal created its own educational alternatives alongside public schools. For the most part, the New Deal failed to deliver federal assistance to schools. The Roosevelt Administration chose to leave public schools out from under the New Deal umbrella, and as a result, professional educators and New Dealers become adversaries rather than allies. One key factor contributing to this situation was that many educators wished to emphasize education for the brightest students, not the general population. They considered blacks and other minority groups incapable of learning beyond the basics. New Dealers had an entirely different outlook. New Dealers, supporting universal education, believed the most needy and the illiterate deserved a chance for an education. They began developing programs to help students that had left schools as well as those still enrolled in the traditional schools.
A large number of professional educators held to the notion that education could only take place in school classrooms with a credentialed teacher guiding instruction. With this view educational leaders attempted to protect their jobs during the Depression times. Much to the professional educators’ dismay, New Dealers would soon readily hire nonprofessionals to teach in the alternative New Deal programs. Tensions rose between New Dealers and teachers’ groups.
Although Roosevelt’s reputation among conservatives was that of a spendthrift, he actually worried about the federal debt a great deal and attempted to control spending. He did not push for any federal public school funding. He was concerned that federal aid to schools would drastically increase the debt. Compared to other sectors of the economy, he viewed schools as in pretty good financial shape and teachers as relatively well paid. As governor of New York before taking over the presidency, Roosevelt believed in state and local control of schools, and there was no evidence he had changed his conservative position. President Roosevelt, along with his wife, Eleanor, simply saw too many other pressing needs to pursue federal school funding. In addition, Roosevelt never felt like a kindred spirit with educators. He referred to them as “the school crowd.” In fact, he and John Studebaker, the commissioner of education, had a very tense relationship. Roosevelt consistently excluded Studebaker when formulating policy. If he needed advice on education matters, he turned to university presidents, professors at the New School, individuals on his staff with social work experience, and to his wife and her friends.
Politics also played a role in keeping education at a distance. President Roosevelt was a politician of the highest order. A political coalition of labor and urban liberals had formed to support the New Deal social and economic relief programs. Roosevelt feared that providing federal funds to public schools would create friction between the largely Catholic labor movement and urban liberals over federal funding for parochial schools. Parochial schools are private schools, most commonly run by the Roman Catholic Church, and are independent of state control. Southerners were another group whose support was vital to New Dealers. Providing federal funds to southern school districts would raise local fears that the federal government would force an end to racial segregation in public schools. Thus, any activist federal education policy might disrupt the New Deal support base.
Roosevelt’s political impulse said to leave education alone, but his humanitarian nature called to him to help the needy. Rather than ask Congress for relief money to aid all school systems throughout the nation, Roosevelt created alternative education agencies to help the most needy. Those agencies included the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the National Youth Administration (NYA). Roosevelt saw this approach as having a number of advantages. It delivered funds and services directly to people who needed the training for jobs and cost far less than general federal funding for the entire nation’s school systems. Roosevelt could have control over the budgets, programs, and recipients of these specific programs headed by his appointees and could cut back the funding as economic conditions eased. Roosevelt believed the Democratic Party could reap political points from Americans to a much greater extent than it could from costly general federal funding.
The Roosevelt administration, though refusing to fund public schools directly, nevertheless answered and lent support in crisis situations. The New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) provided financial assistance to over four thousand rural schools by paying teachers’ salaries. FERA paid out $44 million that helped some 150,000 students. With the New Deal relief programs in place for states through FERA and other programs, the New Dealers could threaten to withhold much-needed funding for other relief programs if states cut back school funding. This threat proved effective in maintaining state support for education. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) helped schools pay off their debts by issuing loans. Roosevelt and the New Dealers found other ways to help schools. Through various public works programs between 1933 and 1939, such as the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the WPA, the New Deal was behind 70 percent of all school construction projects. In addition to the construction of new schools, federal relief workers also painted and upgraded thousands of other schools.
Educational Agencies of the New Deal
Other New Deal programs besides the PWA and WPA provided support for schools in some form. These included the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Youth Administration. These agencies developed new methods to prepare people to ultimately find work producing goods and services.
The Tennessee Valley Authority had many goals—building dams, generating electricity, promoting flood control and soil conservation, supporting local industries, and creating waterways for commerce. It also had an education section in its Social and Economic Division. One part of its educational program was aimed at the entire nation. Films and visual exhibits illustrated the TVA’s activities and helped to restore confidence to Americans. The other educational program was adult education for workers on the dams. They worked only five and a half hours a day, five days a week, as a way of spreading work around. The adult education was designed to produce foremen and skilled workers, previously in short supply in the Tennessee Valley. Workers could request what kind of classes they wanted. Offerings included carpentry, electrical work, auto mechanics, engineering assistance, scientific agriculture, literacy classes, economic studies, rural rehabilitation, and community organization. Classes were sex-segregated, and women learned about new home appliances and studied child care. Progressive educator Harold Rugg, far from disapproving of New Deal educators’ efforts, regarded the TVA as “the finest ‘social’ laboratory in our country” (Tyack, p. 116).
Besides establishing work relief programs that constructed public buildings, including schools, the WPA also had the Emergency Education Program. Aimed toward younger children, the program offered nursery schools for children of poor families and classes in parenting for their parents. Between October 1933 and June 1934, almost three thousand such schools opened. By 1938 over 200,000 children had benefited from health services, supervised recreation, and social development activities such as music, storytelling, and drama. Ninety to 95 percent of its teachers came from relief rolls and were receiving financial assistance or other kinds of aid.
The WPA’s largest educational program was its adult education. By February 1934 over 40,000 instructors taught over 1,500,000 individuals in an amazing variety of subjects from general academic courses to occupational classes. Approximately one-sixth of its teachers and students were black. Possibly one million people had learned to read and write through the program by 1938. It also directly contributed to public schools in the poorest sections of the country, providing health services, constructing furniture and teaching aids, and providing supplementary teachers who taught remedial reading and math. One of the most popular education-related programs of the WPA—which became a model for similar programs later in the century—was the provision of over one billion free hot lunches to needy students.
The CCC was created to provide jobs involving forestry work and environmental improvement for young, unmarried men between the ages of 18 to 25. The educational component evolved almost as an after-thought as to how to fill the men’s free hours in the camps. From 1933 to 1942, the CCC had nearly 2.5 million enrollees assigned to almost 2,500 camps located across the nation. The CCC youth came predominantly from families on relief, and the average enrollee had finished only eight or nine school grades. Most wanted no more of traditional educational fare. Therefore, the educational program at CCC camps was flexible, voluntary, and offered a large choice of studies. Many CCC corpsmen took remedial classes to learn basics such as reading and writing, while others took traditional academic classes. Much instruction was directly related to the work of the camp, such as typing, surveying, drafting, construction, use of heavy machinery, driving trucks, and auto repair. This provided vocational skills for later employment outside federal work relief programs. Many camps had libraries, classrooms, and facilities for showing films. Though a large number of youth gained classroom skills, it was still small on a national scale. Over eight thousand received high school diplomas. Impressively, 96 enrollees received college degrees. Clarence S. Marsh, the Educational Director of the CCC, likened the program to “a great American folk school” (Tyack, p. 121).
Like the CCC, the National Youth Administration was a work relief project aimed at young people. While discipline of work in a military style was stressed in the CCC, the NYA focused on alternative teaching approaches. Aubrey Williams, director of the NYA, was a social worker and lay minister who believed in administering government programs to help bring about social justice. As did the CCC, the NYA dealt with impoverished individuals. Almost all participants were from families on some form of relief, and few had higher than an eighth-grade education.
Committed to giving youth a chance at life, the NYA even provided some high school and college students with cash through a work-study program to help with living expenses. The cash was intended to help the students stay in school. The simple ability to buy a pair of shoes enabled many to remain in school. To qualify for cash, the students had to take work-study jobs. Through these jobs they learned yet more skills. The NYA also provided training to youths no longer in school. Such training included work at fish hatcheries, road construction, building community centers, and being teacher’s and nurse’s aides. The NYA also established resident centers to teach various everyday skills such as machine and automobile repair, farming, welding, painting, and sewing, in addition to reading and writing. Approximately 300,000 black American youth were reached through the Division of Negro Affairs.
A survey in 1940 of 62,000 NYA students in 666 colleges showed that they academically outperformed their fellow students. Both the CCC and the NYA educational programs came at relatively low expense.
The New Deal education programs proved that groups of underprivileged youth who traditional educational systems might have written off as uneducable could learn. Their successes rebuked traditional educators’ and conservatives’ beliefs. New Dealers had consistently emphasized that the needy youth, when given access to appropriate education could compete with their wealthier peers. Many professional educators and conservatives, still angry about Roosevelt’s snubs, joined together to fight the New Deal programs. Through World War II (1939-1945), the last of the New Deal programs related to education had been phased out. Nevertheless, models for education of the most poverty stricken had been established. The programs would serve as a blueprint for 1960s social programs begun under president Lyndon B. Johnson (served 1963-1969), who had served as one of the NYA’s state directors in Texas.
Inequalities in Educational Support Continue
By the end of the 1930s, two themes in American education arose. First, education was a deep-rooted institution in U.S. society to which Americans remained committed even in hard times. Secondly, significant inequality existed between the country’s school districts.
Despite economic challenges and conflicting educational philosophies, compromise and continuity persisted. The public’s desire for education and its confidence in schools remained strong. Public education became woven into the life of not only the privileged but also the needy. People blamed the Depression on wealthy businessmen, not on the schools. They saw the schools as the solution that would unlock doors of opportunity for their children. Even in the depth of the Depression, rather than say education was unnecessary or not making a difference in people’s lives, the public wanted more educational opportunities. By the 1930s elementary education through eighth grade had become the norm except in deprived areas serving black children in the South. The suggestion of closure of school systems because of monetary difficulties provoked outrage. The public knew children remained children just so long and could not wait for their education. Growth in high school enrollment kept school systems expanding even when funds were short. The public continued to have a great deal of faith in the professionalism of its teachers. The standards of training and certification for both teachers and administrators increased throughout the 1930s.
Inequalities in education between districts became clear during the 1930s. Using local property taxes as a means to fund schools served middle-and high-income districts reasonably well throughout the 1930s, particularly after the most dismal years between 1932 and 1935. Those school districts in poor localities, however, collected fewer property tax dollars because their property had less value. While many affluent districts barely felt affected by the Depression, poor districts were severely impacted. This inequality of funding continues to be wrestled with in the twenty-first century.
The U.S. Constitution does not provide for federal funding of public schools. In fact, in the eighteenth century no public general education existed. Such matters as education and health would be left to the states. It was not until the economic crisis of the Great Depression that the federal government, through New Deal programs, would enter the school scene.
Boom Years for Most
The 1920s were boom years for most schools in the United States. Increasingly more students attended school. The student population in grades kindergarten to 12 increased from 23.5 million in 1920 to 28.6 million in 1930. Enrollment at colleges and universities almost doubled in that time period rising from 598,000 to over 1.1 million. Teachers were hired to meet the demand and their salaries increased steadily. New schools were constructed, and a new concept, the junior high school, appeared, creating a separate middle school for generally the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. New programs such as vocational education quickly expanded.
Schools operated with a business-oriented philosophy that served them well in the 1920s. Local school boards were mostly comprised of businessmen and the professional elite in the cities and in the more prosperous smaller districts. As a result, schools operated with corporate precision. The administrators were expected to manage districts on the basis of specialized professional knowledge, while not bowing to political factions and achieving the greatest results at the minimum costs. Businessmen cooperated with school administrators to improve education in the 1920s. They donated funds, initiated bond drives and advocated raising taxes. They generously loaned money for building new schools, then profited as the building contractors and suppliers of school needs. Although constitutionally states were responsible for their systems of schooling, in reality responsibility was left to local districts, keeping schools close to the people in the communities. Schools were funded almost entirely from local property taxes.
Optimistic boom times generally prevailed in American public education during the 1920s. Since the American school system was not a single system, however, but consisted of over 145,000 local branches or districts, inequalities existed. While many districts were affluent, some contended with shocking scarcity of resources. Certain parts of the educational system in the agricultural, coal-mining, and textiles sectors were already in the throes of depression well before the stock market crash of 1929. A resulting problem for public schooling was inequality of school finance, especially in these rural and depressed districts. For example, the agricultural industry had struggled since World War I, leaving schools in farming communities with the lowest paid and most poorly trained teachers, the worst buildings, inadequate books and equipment, and highest rate of nonattendance. Between 1929 and 1930, there were approximately six thousand high schools with fewer than fifty students each, some with fewer than ten students. The majority of these schools were rural. Small high schools often offered narrow and restricted programs of study. The main problem of many rural youth, however, was not small high schools but no high schools. Elementary school districts covered all areas, but high school districts were spotty. Elementary districts in such areas could send their graduates to the nearest high school by paying tuition for them and if housing was available. As early as 1918, educators had developed a case for federal aid to needy districts. Little came of the campaign except a few visionary states began providing districts with “foundation grants,” which was a flat sum of money per pupil per year. Areas where school funding was already a problem would be hardest hit by the Great Depression.
Schooling for Black Americans
America was racially segregated in the early twentieth century, which meant black and white students attended separate schools. In the 1920s as in all previous decades, most black Americans lived in poverty in communities with low-quality school facilities and low salaries for teachers. School boards, composed mainly of whites, blocked better funding for black schools. The average expenditure per pupil per year for black students was roughly 15 to 20 percent that for white students. Even though 25 percent of all students in the United States were black, only 12 percent of all education monies went to their education. School boards, especially in the southern states, refused to fund black education because most whites believed blacks were incapable of advanced learning. This widespread belief was accepted without question throughout the 1920s. Hence the barriers of poverty and racism combined to hold black education at woefully inadequate levels.
Denied funding by the white school boards, black communities during the 1910s and 1920s pooled their limited resources into programs of self-help. Former slaves donated their meager savings. Blacks banded together to farm land communally and donate profits to finance local schools. Those who did not have any money donated labor. People who lived in shacks built tiny schoolhouses. At least half of these schools had no desks, only rickety benches and a wood burning stove. By 1932, 3,464 schools had been erected in 880 southern counties. They were locally run with no government funds.
Despite the effort put forth for building schools, the southern black communities remained undereducated. Still only 25 percent of all black students could be served, and virtually all of the schools were elementary schools. Nearly half of all black students were in the first two grades, compared with 28 percent of whites. The mere handful of operating black high schools in the South were located in cities. By 1932, 230 southern counties still had no high school for black students. Nearly one-half of black Americans had never gone beyond the fifth grade. By 1930, while black students comprised approximately 10 percent of the general population, only 3 percent of high school students were black.
Spurred by a belief that black students were incapable of higher learning, northern white philanthropists funded a program to build industrial high schools for blacks in southern cities. The schools almost never taught traditional subjects such as literature, history, or math. Instead, they taught carpentry, bricklaying, auto mechanics, sewing, cooking, and laundry work. Industrial education aimed to prepare black Americans for “stable,” but low-paying positions in the industrial workplace. The Depression would soon eliminate even those jobs.
In the 1890s the chief challenge for America was dealing with problems brought on by urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. Many education reformers believed schools would have to help solve society’s problems by teaching about real-life subjects.
Throughout the 1800s specific subjects were taught by rote memorization. Lessons dictated by teachers were written down in notebooks, and students then learned by heart what they had written. Latin and Greek studies were emphasized in high schools with the belief they taught mental discipline. Students’ desks were bolted to the floor. Students could not move or talk without permission.
Progressive education appeared around the turn of the century and sought to turn classrooms into places of active student participation. Subjects that related to everyday life were introduced. John Dewey, a well-known spokesman for progressive education and one of the most prominent figures in all of American educational history, established an educational laboratory at the University of Chicago. In the laboratory children learned “by doing.” Curriculum was “child centered” and stressed individual talents. For example, children would build a small log cabin while studying about early homesteading in the U.S. West. The applied-learning tasks of the curriculum were forerunners of vocational education. Projects and creative arts allowed for individual expressions.
In the 1920s progressive education philosophies translated into elementary schools with science laboratories, art studios, gyms for physical education, kitchens, and gardens. High schools incorporated vocational education, home economics, physical education, health services, art classes, summer schools, night schools, and adult education. Highly conservative groups increasingly criticized progressive education programs as being expensive frills, liberal, and outright communistic, believing they trained workers for a cooperative society rather than the competitive capitalist society.
Conservative Americans feared communists would make inroads into American schools and subvert the minds of children. Frequently, conservative groups such as the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), alarmed at the new progressive curriculum, charged it was tainted with communistic ideas. In 1928 the DAR accused the National Education Association (NEA), the professional organization of teachers, of being “sympathetic with communist ideals” (Bondi, American Decades: 1930-39, p. 156) and put out a pamphlet denouncing the organization.
The most popular means of assuring educators would not teach such “subversive” ideas or doctrines was the loyalty oath adopted by some states in the 1920s. The oath required teachers to swear allegiance to American ideas and to not teach subversive ideologies such as communism. The consequence of not taking the oath was dismissal. The prospect of dismissal would become highly intimidating during the Depression.
Business Community and Educators
Following a decade in which businessmen played a strong role in running school districts, the economic strife of the 1930s led to major change. By 1932 economically strapped businessmen changed direction. Instead of lobbying for higher taxes as they had before they became hostile to using tax money for funding schools, they now wanted to lower their own taxes because of the economic hard times. They also demanded that the loans to school districts be paid back.
The interaction between businessmen and educators also dramatically changed. Business organizations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called for sweeping cuts in school programs and in funding. Educators were frightened over how far the retrenchment would be taken and felt betrayed by their former allies in the business community. The National Education Association (NEA) fought back against these new proposals. This was quite a reversal by an organization that celebrated its business association in the 1920s. Businessmen, angered by the educators fighting back, attacked harder themselves, especially in the years between 1932 and 1935. They accused educators of being communistic and spreading radical ideas among their students. Cooperation between the business and educational communities was not restored until the second half of the 1930s when economic conditions overall improved.
Teachers who had long desired greater control and advocated professionalization of their endeavors became more militant in the 1930s. They saw the dayto-day miserable situations that children were living under. Many school children were suffering from malnutrition. Teachers helped individually when they could on their limited incomes. They paid for school lunches for hungry kids or collected clothing for those students in need. Detroit teachers contributed $30,000 to a general relief fund.
Teachers joined unions by the thousands. Membership quadrupled in the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which fought for the reclamation of lost pay, unemployment insurance, the planning of relief projects, and a decrease in retrenchment of public schools. Older teachers seeking retirement benefits and job stability were less militant than younger teachers. Communist teachers, the most militant, alienated the more moderate teachers. Most teachers were deeply moved by the suffering they saw and angered by school cuts, but few actually became radicals. The militancy of the teachers’ organizations and unions subsided in the 1940s, although they continued to lobby for higher salaries, better benefits, and lower class size throughout the twentieth century.
Educational Progressives versus Educational Conservatives
Progressives, organized and becoming a force by 1919, were interested in creating a better society through child center education. Teaching by rote memorization was out of favor. Progressives believed that allowing a child to be creative would better prepare him or her to solve problems and meet challenges as an adult. In progressive education the teacher was conceived as a friendly guide. Progressive ideas translated in the 1920s into hands-on learning in science laboratories, art studios, gymnasiums, projects of all varieties, and vocational classes such as electric shops and mechanical repair shops.
Social reconstructionists, considered more radical than progressives, called for indoctrination of students toward establishing a new social order. Social reconstructionists were deeply disturbed over the capitalist profit motives that they believed had led to the misery of the Great Depression. George Counts challenged his fellow educators in 1932 to take up the banner of social reconstructionism. They believed the educator could identify the prevailing social ills and deliberately use the schools to correct them. Many progressives actually opposed social reconstructionists, calling the reconstructionists “romantics” that would not be successful in taking the United States to a new social order. Although many bewildered educators were listening, these ideas made them nervous as conservative school boards controlled their jobs.
Educational conservatives had long been opposed to progressives and were even more opposed to social reconstructionism. They insisted classical curriculum such as Latin in high schools and colleges developed mental discipline and the ability to conquer difficult subjects. They had no use for spending time and money educating the general public. Educational conservatives viewed school as another stage for competition where the most gifted win.
By the end of the decade, social reconstructionism faded. Its goal seemed unrealistic to educators and dangerous to many conservatives. The threat of war shifted the focus of educators. The ideas of progressivism endured and were put into practice when vocational education became an outright necessity to prepare individuals for jobs in the defense industries. Most likely the only lasting legacy of the more radical social reconstructionism was that it supplied conservatives with ammunition to claim that schools were a base of communistic subversion—a criticism that would be wildly pursued in the post World War II hysteria over communism.
The Politically Conservative
The rise of social reconstructionism during the Great Depression years led conservatives to believe communists were infiltrating into American life through the schools. Even progressive education was frequently the target of conservatives seeking to label it as communistic. Conservative groups such as the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) attacked schools as harbors of communist thought and propaganda. They attempted to force school boards to restrict the curriculum and demanded teachers sign loyalty oaths swearing they would not teach ideas or doctrines that went against mainstream thought.
William Randolph Hearst, a powerful newspaper publisher of the 1930s, frequently charged that the schools were full of communist subversives. Through his newspapers he often targeted teachers who he quoted out of context. The subject of hidden teacher plots proved a boon in selling more newspapers.
New Dealers versus Educators
President Roosevelt and his New Dealers kept their distance from educational reforms. Roosevelt believed in state and local control of schools. Politically he did not want to upset the coalitions of urban liberals and largely Catholic labor by pursuing federal school funding for public schools and not for Catholic schools. Also he did not want to alienate southerners who believed federal school funding would lead to demands for segregation. Overall, an activist federal educational policy could disrupt the fragile coalitions of all these New Deal supporters. Rather than concentrating on federal funding, both Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, believed the New Deal education programs must reach the most needy, those already falling outside the traditional educational process. New Dealers talked of education for the masses and teaching skills to the poorest and least-educated Americans.
On the other hand, many conservative professional educators had long considered these same people, which the New Deal agencies taught, as incapable of education beyond a certain level. They believed the focus of education should be toward the gifted and rigidly held to the notion that education took place only in the classroom with credentialed teachers. Educators were also annoyed that monies flowed to the new agencies but not to established school systems. Even though it seemed as though New Dealers and professional educators would be kindred spirits in the cause of educational reform, they instead remained in opposite camps through the Depression.
The average American’s faith in the value of education remained steadfast. By 1930 eight years of education had become the norm in all but the poorest regions. In the frightening times of the Depression, most people wanted schools to teach familiar subjects and themes. Families considered education necessary for new opportunities for their children and looked on in dismay when schools closed. They wanted more education, not less. The reformist issue of social reconstruction was an academic matter that did not reach into American homes.
Trends in Education
As the 1930s came to a close, the decade of scarcity altered the development of American public schools in the years to come. The Depression did not reflect trends in education that began in the 1920s. The percentage of children and teenagers aged five to seventeen attending school increased from 83.2 percent in 1920 to 94.2 percent in 1940. During World War II, the numbers dropped a bit because youth left school to work or go into the armed services. After the war, however, the rise resumed and reached 92.3 percent by 1950. The percentage of 17-year-olds who graduated increased steadily from 16.3 percent in 1920 to 57.4 percent in 1950, with the only downward dip occurring during the war. By 1998 over 80 percent graduated. Overall expenditures per student rose rapidly through the 1920s, decreased slightly during the harshest early Depression years, and rose steadily through the rest of the twentieth century.
The cost-saving closure of tiny rural schools and the consolidation of districts so that resources could be shared positively made public education more efficient. Between the school years of 1929-1930 and 1970-1971, the number of elementary schools declined from 238,306 to 65,800. The number of one-room schools went from 149,282 to 1,815. This allowed more efficient use of teachers, facilities, supplies, and transportation.
Following the federal government involvement in education through the New Deal programs of the CCC, NYA, WPA, and other agencies through the 1930s into the early 1940s, the federal government played a small role in education through the 1950s into the 1960s. National concerns over the quality of education in public schools arose again by the mid-1960s. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social programs addressed inner-city decay and the near collapse of school systems as white Americans moved out to the growing suburbs, reducing the tax revenues of the cities themselves.
An office of education was created in the U.S. Department of Interior in the mid-1950s. It grew later into its own Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Congress established an actual Department of Education by 1980 that serves as a research center and database for educational activities in the nation, oversees financial aid for college students, and makes sure federal laws passed concerning civil rights and students with disabilities are followed. These last two areas were where federal funding in education was primarily focused by the end of the twentieth century. If local school districts do not follow laws in these areas, then the federal government may withdraw the small, but vital, amounts of funds provided. As it was before the Great Depression, general funding for public schools constitutionally rests with the individual states.
Ironically, the Depression in some ways improved the situation of black education. Some northern schools began to abolish segregated education as a cost-saving measure in the 1930s. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a series of Supreme Court challenges to segregation in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet the South resisted desegregation. In 1954 the NAACP mounted another legal challenge to segregation and won in Brown v. Board of Education which declared that any form of separate education is always unequal. Although it was a struggle, schools across the south desegregated.
The newly built industrial high schools at least added to the number of black high schools available in southern cities. Many of these were used for decades. After desegregation the industrial high schools were open to all who wanted a vocational education. Often they were called technical high schools or “polytechs,” meaning studies in multiple technical fields.
Reform spawned by the progressive education movement began appearing in schools in the 1920s. The child centered, “learn by doing” approaches included science laboratories, vocational classes including shops and home economics, physical education, and art projects. After a temporary setback in the first half of the 1930s due to perceptions that these classes were unnecessary expensive “frills,” progressive education expanded from primary grades to high schools. The education provided in New Deal agencies also incorporated many aspects of progressive education. The movement grew in the 1940s and resulted in the 1950s “life adjustment movement” with classes such as home economics, family life, health, and various vocational shops.
The launching of the Soviet Union’s satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957 caused concern in the United States that American students were not keeping up with the Russians in educational pursuits. As a result, more traditional classes were returned to for a time. The pendulum, however, swung back to progressive in the 1970s. Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, educators tried to balance child-centered, individual-development progressive ideas with required skills.
Educators who had demanded the building of a new social order abandoned their broad social reform goals. Instead, teacher unions concentrated on higher wages, pensions, high standards for credentialing teachers, and smaller classes. Teacher militancy over the issues often led to strikes. As a result, between 1960 and 1970 teacher’s salaries increased by over 70 percent.
The experimental colleges that established new curricula and administrative methods continued to do so. For example, the Highlander Folk School that trained individuals for nonviolent protest in the 1930s continued to pioneer. In the 1940s and 1950s, it established “citizenship schools” to lead voter registration drives for black American voters. They continued to train leaders for roles in the civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s.
New Deal Educational Programs
New Deal agencies that had extensive educational programs—TVA, CCC, WPA and NYA—left a legacy that continues into the twenty-first century. The TVA’s vast array of vocational classes such as carpentry, electrical courses, auto mechanics, agriculture science, community studies, and child care are prevalent in specialized public high schools and community colleges. Vocational classes prepare students for employment. Vocational education also includes business training, health care, industrial training, and computer applications and repair. Highly technical training classes in addition to basic reading and writing are also available in the armed services, much as they were in the CCC.
The WPA focused on adult education and preschool children. Millions participate in adult education today. Colleges and universities offer extension courses to adults so they may continue their formal education, learn a new skill, or develop a hobby. Most adult education classes are held at night to allow working people to attend. Likewise, high schools in many districts turn into adult education centers in the evenings, providing everything from remedial classes to special interest classes.
The WPA’s Emergency Education Program for young children and their parents served as a model for the Head Start Program begun in the 1960s. Head Start provides child development programs for children from birth to age five, pregnant women, and their families. Its goal is to increase the school readiness of children from low-income families. Head Start continues to play a vital role in the lives of underprivileged families. Similarly, the WPA free hot lunch program for needy children was a forerunner of the later federally funded school lunch programs.
The NYA allocated its funds to help high school students stay in school according to the number of youth on relief in the district. Likewise, with Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, funds were allocated according to the number of children from poor families. Title I continues to assist underprivileged children by providing intensive help with the basic skills of reading, writing, and math.
Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948)
In the 1930s Charles Austin Beard was counted with John Dewey and George Counts as one of the foremost examples of U.S. teachers as political and social reformers. Beard grew up on a prosperous Indiana farm and graduated from DePauw University in 1898. During his undergraduate years, Beard spent a summer in Chicago and observed internationally noted social reformer Jane Addams’ work at the Hull House. The Hull House, established by Addams in 1889, was a private organization that provided many social services to its local area within Chicago. Prominent among the services were educational courses of various levels and topics. Beard also traveled in Europe between 1898 and 1902 and in England observed socialists of the time who were attempting to build a Labour Party. Returning to the United States, he received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1904 and remained there until 1917. Although supportive of America’s entry into World War I, he also believed antiwar protesters had the right to speak. When three Columbia instructors were fired for opposing the drafting of young men into the army, Beard resigned. He became a national symbol of academic freedom. With John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, and James Harvey Robinson, in 1919 Beard founded the New School of Social Research. In the 1920s and 1930s, his fame and involvement in educational issues increased.
During the early twentieth century Beard authored numerous scholarly books on the U.S. government system. He also wrote well-received textbooks such as The Rise of American Civilization (1927)—a standard in high school and college classes. In 1932 Beard’s A Charter for the Social Sciences in the Schools had an enormous influence on the way social studies was taught.
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)
During the 1930s Mary McLeod Bethune was the most influential black American woman in the United States and the most influential black administrator in the New Deal. She possessed the ability to reassure whites, and at the same time, push for greater civil and social equality for blacks.
Bethune was born on a farm near Mayesville, South Carolina. She was one of seventeen children of parents who were freed from slavery after the Civil War (1861-1865). Her family recognized her superior intellectual abilities early in her life, and she was sent to mission school where she excelled. In 1894 she graduated from Scotia Seminary, a Presbyterian school for black girls in Concord, North Carolina.
In 1929 she founded and managed Bethune-Cookman College and kept it together through the Depression. By 1943 it was a fully accredited four-year institution and a leading southern teacher training college. In 1935 Bethune created the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). She participated in many national organizations such as the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools.
Bethune became a close friend and associate of Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1935 Bethune was appointed to the National Advisory Committee of the National Youth Administration (NYA). By 1939 she was Director of Negro Affairs for the NYA. She is credited with helping over 150,000 black Americans attend high school and 60,000 attend college.
Horace Mann Bond (1904-1972)
Horace Mann Bond, an extraordinary black American scholar, labored with intelligence and diplomacy to improve education for black Americans. He despised segregation and quietly worked to abolish it, yet at the same time realized he must strive to improve education for black students within the confines of segregation. Born into a family that produced a number of scholars and civil rights leaders, Bond graduated from Lincoln University, a black college in southeastern Pennsylvania, in 1923. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1936.
Bond attacked a key issue of segregation—that intelligence testing proved the intellectual inferiority of black students. During the 1930s many asserted the decline of black schools was due to black indifference. Bond’s studies clearly showed that poor financing by white-dominated school boards kept black schools substandard. Bond demonstrated exceptional black students were the products of well-financed and well-administered black schools, and poor educational performance was tied to political and economic exploitation of the black schools rather than any genetic characteristics.
Bond, despite his radical scholarly revelations, managed to survive as a black educator in the 1930s by tempering his articles. He advocated financing black schools on an equal basis instead of calling for an end to segregation. By 1939 Bond was a highly respected and influential black educator. In 1945 he became the first black president of Lincoln University. In 1957 Bond assumed the position as dean of the School of Education at Atlanta University, remaining there until his retirement in 1971. He tirelessly worked for improvement in black education and in the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
George S. Counts (1889-1974)
Born in Baldwin, Kansas, as a youth George S. Counts dreamed of being a trapper on the frontier. Instead he enrolled at the local Baker University. He had no early intentions of becoming a teacher, but after his marriage he began teaching high school science and math and within a year was a teaching principal. In 1913 Counts received a scholarship to study sociology at the University of Chicago. Counts shifted his focus to education shortly after arriving at Chicago. Chicago’s School of Education was strongly influenced by the progressive teachings of John Dewey. Counts studied under some of the most distinguished educators and sociologists of the day. All of his teachers focused on education’s role in the social and economic fabric of the country. Counts received a doctorate from Chicago in 1916 with a major in education and a sociology minor.
Counts held positions at a series of educational institutions over the next few years. During 1924 Counts co-authored “The Principles of Education,” an overview of the philosophy of education favoring the progressive child-centered approach of John Dewey. In 1927 Counts moved to Teachers College, Columbia University of New York City. There he became one of several influential leaders on the cutting edge of educational reform.
Counts gained broad perspectives on education by studying approaches in other countries, including the Philippines and Russia. In Russia he studied the country’s planned economic system and its organized school system. By the early 1930s, Counts was a wellknown educator throughout the United States. At the onset of the Depression, many educators were still teaching students the merits of competitive capitalism even as it appeared to claim more victims every day. Counts believed teachers should lead society in building a new economical, political, and moral order that would solve problems and make social improvements.
Counts wrote “Dare the School Build a New Social Order?,” a pamphlet that consisted of three papers he read to national educational meetings in February 1932. He demanded that educators become economic reformers and political activists involved with labor unions, farmers, and minority groups. This new educational philosophy was known as social reconstructionism.
Conservatives denounced Count’s philosophy as communist. Counts was a reformer but not a communist. When elected president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), he began a purge to rid the union of communist influence, expelling communist-led locals, including New York Local #5. When a mandatory retirement policy forced his retirement in 1955 from Columbia, he continued to lecture across the country. He went to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 1961, remaining there for a decade. Counts continued as an activist his entire life.
John Dewey (1859-1952)
John Dewey was perhaps the most influential American philosopher and educator during the first half of the twentieth century. The son of a Vermont grocer, Dewey attended public school in Burlington and graduated from the University of Vermont in 1879. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University in 1884 and served as an instructor in philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan for most of the next ten years. Dewey’s interest in education began at Michigan. His observations and studies convinced him that most schools taught only traditional classical classes. They failed to respond to a changing democratic social order or to recent findings in child psychology revealing how children learn best. Dewey began to search for a new modern approach for education.
In 1894 Dewey left Michigan to join the faculty of the University of Chicago where his research and writings in education would bring him national fame. Dewey’s works, My Pedagogic Creed (1897), The School and Society (1899), and The Child and the Curriculum (1902) became the underlying basis of the philosophy of education he originated. The basic concepts of his philosophy proposed that education needed to be student-centered rather than subject-centered and that education through activities such as workshops, laboratories, and occupational programs would serve students and society better than the formal learning of traditional subjects. The “progressive” educational movement of the 1920s and 1930s embraced these ideas. Dewey established the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools in which his educational theories and approaches could be tested.
In 1904 Dewey accepted the post of professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York City. He would actively teach there for 25 years, attracting worldwide attention. His output of publications was tremendous. He also devoted time and energy to organizations and the formation of experimental schools.
During the 1930s and 1940s Dewey became the target of conservatives complaining that American schools were not training students adequately in the liberal arts, math and science. Critics also charged Dewey’s progressive ideas caused a lack of discipline in schools.
Robert Fechner (1876-1939)
Robert Fechner, born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, became a machinist’s apprentice for the Georgia Central Railroads at age 16. Four years later he began traveling through Mexico and Central and South America as a machinist in the mining industry. Returning to Georgia in the late 1890s Fechner became involved in labor union activities, serving as an executive officer of the International Association of Machinists from 1913 to 1933.
President Roosevelt was impressed with Fechner’s skill in negotiating labor disputes. Deciding he needed a labor leader to head the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Roosevelt appointed Fechner as its director. Fechner insisted that the CCC was chiefly a work relief and conservation agency. He contended that education should not be a main priority. Under mounting pressure, Fechner relented and agreed to an educational plan with voluntary classes that did not conflict with working hours. Fechner was a conservative, fearful of radicalism, and was content to allow the CCC to operate under the racially segregated system of the army and the South. Perhaps in spite of Fechner, the CCC educational program became very popular and well attended by corpsmen. With the outbreak of war in Europe, Congressmen and military officers advocated turning the CCC into a military training program—a move Fechner opposed.
Glenn Frank (1887-1940)
H. Glenn Frank served as the president of the University of Wisconsin from 1925 to 1936 when progressive governor Philip F. LaFollette fired him for being too conservative. Frank was an educational reformer during the 1930s, but he proposed more modest change during a period of radical ideas and reform approaches. He stayed in the center and became an outspoken critic of the New Deal, calling it a dictatorial government. Many Republicans hoped he would run for president in 1936, but he declined. He did help draft the 1940 Republican National Committee platform. He also ran for the U.S. Senate in 1940. While campaigning Frank was killed in an automobile accident.
Catherine Brieger Stern (1894-1973)
Born in Breslaw, Germany, to Jewish parents, Catherine Brieger Stern earned a Ph.D. in physics and math from the University of Breslaw in 1918. Stern developed an avid interest in preschool education as she raised her own children. She developed new materials for teaching reading and math and opened Breslaw’s first Montessori kindergarten. After publishing works in the educational fields of kindergarten and elementary education, Stern became too innovative for German Nazis. She immigrated to New York in 1938. Stern continued to develop challenging approaches to math and reading rather than to demand memorization. She authored influential textbooks, including Children Discover Arithmetic: An Introduction to Structural Arithmetic (1949). Stern’s teaching methods continued to be widely used throughout the twentieth century.
Loyd S. Tireman (1896-1959)
In spite of prejudice-driven opposition, Loyd S. Tireman established some of the first bilingual education programs in the United States. Tireman received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1927 and took a position with the University of New Mexico that same year. His interests revolved around the poor performance of Spanish-speaking children in public schools. In 1930 Tireman secured funding to open an experimental school, the San José Demonstration and Experimental School in Bernadillo County, New Mexico. San José became a model for teaching Hispanic students. Many educators of the 1930s believed minority students were incapable of learning to the extent white students could. Tireman’s experimental school showed that the minority students could learn if given the proper curricula.
In 1938 Tireman founded the Nambé Community School. As in San José he abandoned curricula designed for white students and created curricula especially for Hispanic children. Nambé also taught adults scientific farming techniques with the help of several New Deal agencies.
Aubrey Willis Williams (1890-1965)
Born into a poverty stricken family in Alabama, Aubrey Willis Williams left school at age seven to go to work. One of his earliest memories was the discriminatory treatment of the town’s black residents. Williams absorbed the teachings of his religious mother and two Birmingham ministers, learning that Christian responsibility required caring for the physical as well as spiritual needs of the poor. Williams developed an attitude of outrage toward society’s treatment of the very poor.
Not surprisingly, as an adult Williams entered the field of social work. In 1932 and 1933 he worked for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), centralizing relief efforts in Texas and Mississippi. Williams’ efforts caught the attention of Harry L. Hopkins who headed up the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Hopkins appointed Williams his deputy within the FERA and the Civil Works Administration. The two shared views on relief issues and enjoyed a smooth working relationship throughout the New Deal years. In 1935 Williams became deputy director of the Works Progress Administration and executive director of the National Youth Administration (NYA). He held the post at NYA until just before it ceased operation in 1943.
Like Hopkins, Williams sought to bring about social justice and racial equality. He believed the government, with its vast resources, was the instrument to bring those at the lowest economic levels of society upward. A blunt man, he stated that educators should stop talking about the “glories” of free education which in reality did not exist for millions of children and young adults. Williams, as well as Hopkins and President Roosevelt, was not enthusiastic about an Office of Education plan to train youth in traditional school-based guidance centers. All three realized the youth unemployment problem involved up to one-third of the youth ages 16 to 24. Many had no money for shoes or lived in regions where schools were not even passably adequate. More school-based education was not a reality for these young people. So Williams, as director of NYA, developed work-study programs for poor high school and college students still in school. High school NYA students received an average $5.41 a month and college students $11.54 to $12.90. This was not much, but it was enough to keep students in school. For the youth already out of school and out of work, Williams’ NYA developed paid work and training centers through local agencies. Williams sought to make his programs free of racial bias and to aid women as well as men. These objectives differed widely from the CCC, which largely operated under a segregated military system.
Williams remained in favor with President Roosevelt throughout the New Deal era, and they shared a mutual respect for each other. Williams spent the last twenty years of his life speaking out against racial discrimination in the South and against the witch hunt for Communists in the 1950s, the period of McCarthyism.
“He must attend some kind of school.”
The following excerpt is from a 1935 pamphlet by Kingsley Davis, entitled “Youth in the Depression,” funded by the American Council on Education. First Davis describes how few students in the early 1930s made it through high school. He then relates in practical terms what the Depression was doing to youth and how it affected their schooling and job possibilities (quoted in Davis, Youth in the Depression, pp. 8-12):
Every young man and young woman wants to get somewhere in the world. Except for a few who are too lazy or too discouraged, they are ambitious to become somebody. There are various ways of doing this, but most positions that are worthwhile nowadays require training. Before a boy can get a good job, he must learn something. He must attend some kind of school.
Our schools act in much the same way as the sieves … We may think of all the schools together, in all their branches, as a great sieve, or a series of sieves, by which young people are trained and sorted out for suitable positions in the business, industrial, and professional life of the nation. Many occupations, in fact, are closed to men who have not had a college training.
Of course, schools are just one of the many kinds of training and grading places in which the younger generation proves its merits and qualifies for a place in social and business life … But the schools show pretty well how the process works. Their selective action is shown partly by the number of boys and girls who drop out along the way. Out of 100 children who start in the first grade, about 50 enter high school; of the 50 who enter high school, only 10 ever graduate; of the 10, only about 3 enter college, and still fewer graduate from college.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only the “dumbbells” drop out. Many good students drop out because of ill health or poverty. Intelligent boys and girls often dislike school work. Sometimes they leave school to take a job, or so that they can get married sooner.
Still, in the schools the sifting process is as work. It sorts out every year those who are ready for various kinds of employment …
But sometimes the machinery of our youth-sifting and youth-training system gets clogged. It clogs in a great crisis—a revolution, a famine, or some other disaster. It clogged badly in the Great Depression.
What happens to the sifting process in a business depression?
In the first place, millions of people are thrown out of work. Many who have proved their ability to do good work lose their jobs. Young people looking forward to a business position find nothing open to them. Even if they pass all the tests and examinations in the world, they will not get the places they seem to deserve.
In the second place, the public schools get so little money that they lose teachers and equipment. Parents, also suffering reduced incomes, are not able to send their children to school.
Finally, to make matters worse, business firms can’t promote their men. Skilled trades can’t take on new apprentices. Thus the industrial system enlists no new recruits.
So, you see, the whole machinery of sifting, or selection, breaks down. Boys and girls all over the country find nothing but a blank wall in front of them. With their parents suffering, their own futures clouded, the ordinary roads to success closed, they blindly seek a way out. In such conditions youth movements spring up. If the older people do nothing to help the young, they may take matters in their own hands and do things, often strange things, for themselves. Crimes committed by young people increase; revolution is not improbable. Anything may happen in a country where the normal selective processes become clogged.
Suggested Research Topics
- Evaluate the public education available to black American students between 1900 and 1939. Narrow the study to a specific geographic area or compare and contrast urban versus rural schools.
- Imagine, before you are allowed to teach, you must swear a loyalty oath that forbids you to teach certain ideas. Discuss the pros and cons of such a test. Are there any basic American principles that appear to be violated by such a test?
- Explore reasons why high school attendance increased during the 1930s Depression decade.
- Research public school funding at the beginning of the twenty-first century. How have state governments attempted to deal with inequity of funding between districts? Explore property tax funding versus funding from general state revenues.
- Study in depth the life of an influential Depression era educator of your choice. Suggestions are: Mary McLeod Bethune, Tom Dewey, Catherine Brieger Stern, Horace Mann Bond.