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).

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