Category Archives: Education History

Cautionary lessons for today’s “new educators” from New Jersey’s famed Elizabeth Allen

Elizabeth Allen: A teacher leader for our day, too. Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Education Association.

Elizabeth Allen: A teacher leader for our day, too. Photo courtesy of the New Jersey Education Association.

Earlier in May, the New Jersey Education Association elected a new president and the state’s schoolteachers observed Teacher Appreciation Week, making this a good time to recall the remarkable woman who was elected, a century ago, to head the NJEA – Elizabeth Almira Allen.

For 40 years, Allen (1854-1919) was a principal in Hoboken, and in 1882, a decade after she began teaching there, she was chosen by her peers to be vice president of their local branch of the NJEA. For the next 35 years, Allen fought valiantly for her fellow teachers – for their professional autonomy, for a reliable pension system, and for them to be evaluated as other professionals were: on the basis of experience and competence.

In reviewing Allen’s career today, one is struck by the similarities between issues schoolteachers faced a century ago and those they face today. But of greater significance to the taxpayers of New Jersey is how counterproductive were practices and regulations imposed upon them back then – most often by leaders of the “new education” movement whose chief experience in the classroom was as students themselves.

Today the state is still paying – both figuratively and otherwise – for the shortsightedness of these men. Alas, misogyny and paternalistic attitudes prevailed as the role of urban teacher developed in cities nationwide as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

Allen’s career was, at its start, representative. It began when she enrolled, at age 13, in what was then the Trenton Normal School (it’s now known as the College of New Jersey). After a few years of secondary education and pedagogical preparation, she had her first classroom, at age 18, in Atlantic City. Two years later, in 1871, she moved to Hoboken.

Not until the Civil War did women moved into the nation’s classrooms in large numbers; a scarcity of male teachers was less the issue than that females could be had for far less money than male teachers: in fact, NJ’s commissioner of education in 1871 noted that a “first-rate” woman could be hired for $500 per year, while a “second-rate” man would demand far more. Further, there was the assumption that these young women would teach for a few years, then marry, and a fresh crop of young ladies would take their place. By 1900, 90 percent of New Jersey’s teachers were female; except for rural areas in the southern part of the state, male teachers in elementary schools were seldom to be found.

Men had moved into district administration, a field that of necessity grew as immigration drove the growth of urban districts. And leading the development of this part of public schooling was another New Jersey native, Nicholas Murray Butler (1862-1947), founding president of Teachers College in New York. Butler was a pompous autocratic who achieved national prominence with condescending pronouncements about the “undemocratic” tendencies of new immigrants and the need to centralize urban education under the leadership of omniscient men like himself – guys with three names and a similar number of college degrees.

Allen, according to her biographer (see note on sources below) tended to use Butler as a foil – as am I. But his fear of women, especially those whose abilities rivaled his own, and of people whose last names ended in vowels (or were, for him, otherwise unpronounceable), blinded him to the realities of the urban classrooms of his day, to the potential of the new Americans whom he did not quite trust, and to the challenges faced by the women (not all of whom were young) who were struggling daily to assimilate children of these immigrants into mainstream American society. And, as it turned out – look at the American economy in 1950 — doing a pretty good job of it.

From 1890 until 1910, Butler led the National Association of Education – then an elitist group of university presidents (in 1902, Butler became president of Columbia) and superintendents of large urban districts. When women like Allen and other strong-minded teachers began muscling their way into the NEA beginning in 1900, Butler and his cronies tried to limit their influence. Allen’s opinion of Butler’s attitudes is most succinctly summed up in a paper called “The Teachers Congress,” published by the New Jersey Education Association in 1900.

Three years earlier, Allen had joined with a group of other New Jersey teachers to begin their campaign for a pension fund similar to that police and other civil servants had – an effort that finally met with some success a dozen years later. But her concern in this article outlining a “teachers parliament” was not material but philosophic. Teachers, she felt, should be organized to address “questions of vital moment” not only to the students but to the taxpayers of the state. She wanted an organization in which teachers could meet (at their own expense) to discuss a “higher pedagogy” that would lift them from the “weary technical grind of the classroom into the healthy, inspiring atmosphere of large educational views” and send them back to the classroom “refreshed and enriched in mind and spirit, a better teacher and a better citizen.”

But leading male educators of her day, led by Butler, had a different conception of what teachers needed in the way of preparation and supervision. He was, Allen argued, advocating a “new education” which would establish a “privileged class” of supervisors that would be “tremendously expensive” to taxpayers, centralize and “remove the public school system from the control of the people,” and degrade the teachers. The teachers congress that Allen proposed would be one in which these dedicated and poorly compensated women could discuss what they were doing and how. But such discussion was not only discouraged, it was banned outright by some administrators.

Butler and others were enamored of the emerging “factory system” of organizing the teachers’ work and of “close supervision,” which would regulate what they were teaching and how. Allen and other teacher leaders, such as Chicago’s Ella Flagg Young (1845-1918), argued that this would treat teachers like “workers on a treadmill” and instill in them fear of their supervisors. (Butler, by the way, was so afraid of Young that he resigned from his leadership posts at the NEA when she was elected its president in 1910 – and then had his henchmen endeavor to discredit her leadership.)

Another of the new educators’ priorities was an evaluation system which would be a prerequisite for promotion or advancement in salary. These examinations, Allen argued, would take “time, energy, and enthusiasm” away from pupils. Exams would not make good teachers of poor ones, and further, they were not required of lawyers or school superintendents or university presidents – most of whom, not incidentally, were male.

Allen advocated, instead, for more stringent requirements for entry into teacher education programs, something other leading female educators such as Young argued for as well. They also advocated for the teachers congresses and real professional organizations for teachers such as those other professions were establishing at the same time. Allen also urged the NJEA to more carefully monitor state legislation that would be injurious to teachers and principals (many of whom were also women).

Alas, male fears of Allen’s prescriptions became part of how teachers were selected, prepared, and provided with professional development. Except that the NJEA became more proactive in monitoring legislation – for which the organization is roundly criticized today – none of Allen’s ideas were institutionalized. Instead, universities relegated teacher-education programs to the status of “cash cows” to fund more prestigious programs. Teachers did get promotion and tenure, but as a leading education historian has argued, it was a “corrupt bargain.” In return, the teachers were forced to remove themselves from the policy arena – hence, they retreated behind closed classroom doors and did the best they could with the limited professional autonomy they did have. Until Albert Shanker revitalized teachers’ professional organizations in the 1970s, teachers’ voices were seldom sought – or heeded – when education policy was made. Butler’s “new education” was like organizing the legal system without consulting lawyers.

How I wish today’s education “reformers” (or deformers as their opponents would say) – men like Bill Gates and Eli Broad – would learn a few humbling lessons from the counterproductive actions of men like Butler. So might Chris Cerf, New Jersey’s current commissioner of education, and several big city mayors in New Jersey and elsewhere. Whatever the shortcomings of urban schools today, further demeaning classroom teachers does not address the problems. It’s time to heed the lessons of Allen and Young, women who knew that they were talking about.

A note on sources. The most complete recent biography of Elizabeth Allen is an article by Margaret Smith Crocco, “The Price of an Activist Life,” in Pedagogies of Resistance (Teachers College Press, 1999). The article referred to above, “The Teachers Congress,” was published by the New Jersey Education Association on December 28, 1900. The era and the personalities – including that of Nicholas Murray Butler – were covered in my Ph.D. dissertation, “Ella Flagg Young’s Educational Legacy: Theory and Practice in Chicago’s Schools, 1862-1917” (UIC, 2005).  The most recent biography of Butler is Nicholas Miraculous by Michael Rosenthal (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006); that of Shanker is Tough Liberal by Richard Kahlenberg (Columbia University Press, 2010).

Trenton’s role in addressing threats to American public education

On April 22, the last Trenton Board of Education meeting to be presided over by outgoing board president Toby Sanders, I made a brief statement during the public participation part of the meeting. Motivating my comments was an ongoing concern about what Trenton graduates do not know when they start taking courses at the local community college where I teach. Despite my regard for district leadership and considerable sympathy with the pressure teachers are under, something is missing in the preparation district schools are able to provide for their students. Further, the academic deficiencies revealed by these students’ performance on statewide tests are being used as an excuse to dismantle American public education. Less its introductory remarks, my comments appear below.

 . .  . Despite all the good work I have seen in this room, I am very concerned about public education here in Trenton and in many other communities nationwide. The public school, free and open to all, is one of America’s gifts to the world, and it is the basis for our middle-class democracy. I realize that many Americans have been deprived of this right, or provided it only grudgingly, and I know that many of the problems Trenton’s schools face today are a heritage of that deprivation.

But that does not absolve us of responsibility for doing better, as Rev. Sanders would repeatedly remind us.

Over the past two decades or so, we as a nation have seen our public education system assaulted by those who seem more interested in redirecting into private pockets the vast amounts of money states and municipalities invest in public education. The rationale for this disservice is the poor academic performance of schools in cities like Trenton. Closing the achievement gap, meeting the global challenge, whatever, are all, to my mind, distractions from less honorable motives.

But that does not mean that all is well in Trenton’s schools. As a teacher at a local college I note with great sorrow what your graduates do not know; they do not have the knowledge base that they need for success in the workplace or for discharging their duties as citizens.

Too many students cannot write a simple sentence, cannot conjugate a verb, do not know the difference between a preposition and a possessive. They cannot fill in a map of the United States or put the Emancipation Proclamation in the right decade. According to my math-teaching colleagues, they cannot line up numbers on the decimal point or add fractions with different denominators.

This is a tragedy – and it bodes ill for the future of American democracy. Many of these educational deficiencies are common to graduates of other Mercer County high schools; less common are behavioral barriers to success in school. And I do not believe we can effectively address the former without addressing the latter first.

As some of you know, I have recently written about what is widely known as the KIPP method and a local charter school that employs it. And this school been getting far better academic results from many of the same students as the regular district schools have. And, though I recognize that this is a contentious point, these results are not just the outcome of “skimming” the best students.

The KIPP methods work; I have been using some of them in my college classes. Students are paying more attention and doing better on quizzes. So, I am appearing here today to urge Trenton’s regular district teachers to try using them as well.

Trenton, along with other urban districts in New Jersey, wants to get the state off your back. But until the academic performance of your students improve, that isn’t going to happen. And I worry that if you cannot take up this challenge more effectively, we will continue to witness the decline of American public education. And this, too, would be a tragedy. Thank you.



Bringing a legacy to light — Trenton’s New Lincoln School

Biking around Trenton one day, I noticed an impressive-looking school building on north Montgomery Street and became curious about its history. Soon I learned that it’s now home to Rivera, an alternative public school for the district. But not until hearing about a new exhibit at the Ellarslie museum in Cadwalader Park did I learn of the building’s distinctive role in Trenton history. An earlier exhibit at the Shiloh Baptist Church — called Bringing Our Legacy to Light — told part of the story. This new one, curated by collector (and proud grad) Elizabeth Carter Lacy, relays the school’s significance with elegance and enthusiasm.

Constructed in 1924, for a quarter of a century the New Lincoln School served Trenton’s growing black population, and as the exhibition asserts, it did it abundantly well. With migration from the South increasing during World War I, the deteriorating buildings in which classes for black children were held had become cramped. Though school segregation had been prohibited in New Jersey since 1882, it was alas widely practiced. But the New Lincoln community made the most of what the school had to offer.

Built in 18 months, start to finish, to house 1,100 students, kindergarten through ninth grade, New Lincoln was the centerpiece of its neighborhood. Though its $500,000 initial cost would hardly pay for a school roof today, it was well equipped. The school had not only an auditorium, spacious classrooms, and a gym, it had the only swimming pool in the city system. And all the school’s furnishings and equipment were new, too.

A working fireplace graced a wall of the school’s kindergarten, and one of the exhibit’s most charming displays is a tribute to its teacher, Miss Arnetta Lee. For a quarter century, she enchanted five-year olds with the possibilities that school had to offer. Miss Lee taught her young charges to have fun, to love learning and to follow rules. Among them: “be compassionate . . . share . . . be focused . . . do the best you can do.” Demonstrating her dictum to “live a balanced life,” she had students paint some, sing some, work and play some each day.

With one class in the morning and another in the afternoon, Miss Lee must have been a remarkable lady. Her lessons about grace and decorum were obviously effective: another of my favorite displays was the group portraits of graduating ninth graders: the girls dressed primly in white and the boys in jackets and ties. (Yes, my kindergarten teacher was of Miss Lee’s generation.)

Miss Lee’s standards — high, though delivered with affection — characterized other aspects of the New Lincoln experience, according to a history of Trenton’s black community. Segregated though the school was, the city’s board of education had its own standards to uphold. For one (though this was a controversial move), it replaced a popular principal who did not have a college degree with one who had two. Mr. Arthur Long, with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago — at the time, one of the nation’s leading education schools — was hired as principal. Like the rest of the staff, Long was “colored,” a term commonly used then, according to a sign at the exhibit’s entrance.

But apparently, Long never moved into Trenton, which distressed much of the New Lincoln community. So in 1933 he was replaced by Mr. Patton J. Hill. An army veteran and veteran educator, Hill served the Trenton schools until 1958 — and lives on today in the name of P.J. Hill School.

And that raises a question not answered in the display — Trenton’s schools were finally desegregated in the mid-1940s, as a result of a famous court decision also memorialized in a school name: the Hedgepeth-Williams case, which predated Brown v. Board of Education by a decade. As many historians of education have noted, school desegregation had some unfortunate consequences, one of which was that the dedicated black teachers who had served generations of students in segregated schools lost their jobs in the wake of Brown. Hill may have been a fortunate exception as he remained with the system for 10 years after New Lincoln was converted to a middle school.

This charming exhibition has numerous other lessons to offer, as well as a list of some of the school’s noted graduates: the distinguished judge and legal scholar Leon Higginbotham and former New York City mayor David Dinkins among them. A proud legacy indeed! The exhibition will be on display until May 25; on Sunday, March 10, Elizabeth Lacy will give a talk about the school between 2 and 4 in the afternoon.  (Note: some of the information in this blog came from The Quest for Equality: Trenton’s Black Community, 1890-1965, written by Jack Washington, a teacher at Trenton Central High School.)