Teachers and Teaching
Black and white photo of a teacher pointing at a blackboard with a
pointer in front of students sitting at their desks.
After reading this chapter, you should be able to answer the following
* Who were the 19th-century teachers?
* What education did 19th-century teachers receive?
* How did 19th-century teachers teach?
* Who were the teachers in the 20th century?
* How did 20th-century teachers teach?
* What was teacher preparation like in the 20th century?
* How did teachers become unionized?
Ch. 8 Introduction
In the summer of 1939, Hillsdale County, Michigan, teacher Leona Helmick
attended a workshop on Progressive education that inspired her to change
how she taught classes in her one-room school. For the previous 14 years,
said Helmick, she had followed a set routine, tapping on her desk to call
groups of children to attention and then bringing them up one group at a
time to recite what they had memorized:
School began one September morning. Enrollment was taken. Classes were
called by a "tap" (children turn in their seats), "tap" (children rise
from their seats), and "tap" (children pass to front of room where
recitation occurred.). . . . Exact assignments were given in all
subjects, an average of 25 classes were called [up for recitation] and by
much hurrying, school was dismissed at 4 o'clock.
Inspired by the summer session, however, Helmick reported that she had
profoundly altered her teaching practices:
Now the little bell is no longer used. The children come in large groups
and sit with their teacher in a large circle at the front of the room.
Here they read and talk as the need may be. Much of the studying is done
here. Quick pupils assist slower ones near them. This eliminates walking
around. When the group is finished another group comes. Arithmetic is
privately worked out at their seats with some drill and Blackboard work.
Each one working according to his own ability and speed.
Instead of learning a lot of rules in grammar that many of them never
understand and others soon forget, we study birds and write stories about
them. We publish a bi-monthly paper. In this the children volunteer
original poems, stories and articles. (Cuban, 1993, p. 115)
The two approaches Helmick summarized in her report, while possibly
embellished for the sake of the superintendent for whom she wrote it,
clearly illustrate the two poles of teaching styles that by the 20th
century had come to dominate discussions of pedagogy, a term used to
describe the philosophy and practice of teaching. Helmick learned her new
methods in a summer training program, one of several formal institutions
created for teachers. Her superintendent had mandated both her attendance
and the report she wrote. In this chapter we will investigate in detail
the history of teaching, stressing especially three abiding themes: the
professional location of teachers in the expanding educational
bureaucracy of the 20th century, changes in the preparation and
certification of teachers over time, and what actually happened inside
Who Were the 19th-Century Teachers?
Prior to the 1830s, the average teacher taught for 2 years, often
possessing little more education than his or her students (Fraser, 2007,
pp. 25–26). For both men and women early in the century, teaching was
usually a temporary job, something to do before getting on to the real
business of adult life, which for women was marriage and childrearing and
for men was a professional career (Fraser, 2007). Teaching had become an
acceptable occupation for women by the late colonial period, a trend that
increased markedly during the common school reforms of the 1840s and
'50s. Men still taught school, especially in the South, but the
percentage of male teachers waned gradually throughout the 19th century
Women had begun teaching in the many entrepreneurial dame schools,
venture schools, and academies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries,
and as many who could continued to teach there, because the pay was
usually better in these schools than in public schools (Tolley & Beadie,
2006). The common school revolution described in Chapter 3 hastened,
through philosophy and government policy, the feminization of the
teaching force that was already happening due to market forces.
The Feminization of Teaching
Both male and female reformers made several arguments for female
teachers. First, they wanted to do away with the legendary battles
between older male students and their schoolmasters by providing
classrooms with a maternal, homelike figure who they believed would
soften the feel of the classroom by her child-centered pedagogy. The
claim was that women possessed innate qualities that made them by nature
better teachers than men. As Horace Mann put it in 1843, "In the well
developed female character there is always a preponderance of affection
over intellect. . . . The dispositions of young children of both sexes
correspond with this ordination of providence" (Altenbaugh, 1992, p. 8).
Female reformers were especially attuned to this argument, none more so
than Catharine Beecher, who popularized the idea that women are by nature
the best teachers. For Beecher, women were "best fitted" for teaching
because they were more willing than men to "make sacrifices of personal
enjoyment," to work "not for money, nor for influence, nor for honor, nor
for ease, but with the simple, single purpose of doing good" (Hoffman,
2003, pp. 36–37).
Beecher and other reformers had more pragmatic reasons as well for their
efforts to feminize the teaching force. Unmarried 19th-century women had
very few other options for employment. The choices were basically
"domestic service, dressmaking, work in a mill, or prostitution" (Katz,
1976, p. 99). Beecher couldn't even bring herself to speak of the last
option, and the others she found degrading and unfeminine. Teaching, she
argued, was a praiseworthy alternative to marriage that could secure for
single women an "honorable independence and extensive usefulness to the
community" (Hoffman, 2003, p. 38). Moreover, it would rescue wealthy
unmarried women who didn't need to work from the debilitating idleness of
parlor life and the "diseases of the mind and body that afflict females
of the higher classes" (Hoffman, 2003, p. 38). Said more simply, the
second argument for female teachers was that it gave women something
useful to do.
Black and white drawing (or photo) of women factory workers.
In the 19th century women's employment options were limited. Many ended
up working in mills or factories such as this. Teaching was considered by
many to be a better, more feminine occupation. What do you think are
other reasons why women chose to become teachers?
A third set of arguments pertained to institutional need. As we saw in
Chapter 3, immigration and economic change were dramatically increasing
enrollments in schools. Local school committees needed more teachers but
didn't have a lot of money to pay them. Women, who had few other options,
worked for significantly less than a man would, so hiring female teachers
simply made financial sense. By the 1820s women had caught up to men in
terms of educational attainment, so the supply was there (Hoffman, 2003).
Women throughout the country were paid less than men for the same work.
In 1865, a typical year, male teachers in Massachusetts made an average
of $59.53 a month while their female peers made $24.36. In Pennsylvania,
men that year made $37.87 and women $27.51. In Memphis, Tennessee, where
the schools were still private and paid higher salaries, men earned an
average of $111.25 per month to women's $80.12 (Winzer, 1993, p. 236).
Further west a similar inequality existed. In Iowa, for example, male
teachers made an average of $131.72 in 1858, while women that year
averaged $48.98 (Cordier, 1992, p. 20). Despite the inequity, women
flocked to these jobs, for they still paid better and were far more
pleasant than factory work (Tolley & Beadie, 2006).
Though appealing in comparison to millwork, the job still entailed
hardships. Teachers in the early 19th century were often only teenagers
and were treated by the families whose children they educated like
surrogate children themselves. Teachers typically boarded round with
local families, paying a significant percentage of their meager salaries
for the privilege of living and eating with the family. Michigan teacher
Anna Howard Shaw recalled how as a 15-year-old she often boarded round
in one-room cabins, with bunks at the end and the sole partition a sheet
or blanket behind which I slept with one or two of the children. It was
custom for the man of the house to delicately retire to the barn while we
women got to bed and disappear again in the morning when we dressed.
(Carter, 2002, p. 64)
Teachers often complained of contracting diseases from such close
quarters and especially of the prying eyes and gossip that accompanied
their every move. Absolute virtue and decorum were required from
teachers, and judgment was swift if they were believed not to be meeting
these high standards (Hoffman, 2003).
Despite such hardships, demand for teachers continued to grow along with
school enrollments, and women filled more and more of the new positions.
Between 1840 and 1880 the number of female teachers tripled (Hoffman,
2003, p. 25). By 1888, 63% of all teachers were women, and in urban areas
their share ran as high as 90% (Altenbaugh, 1992, p. 9). In rural areas,
especially in the South, men held on to teaching positions longer, partly
because of a dearth of other jobs and partly because Southern states only
began to develop public education systems on a large scale in the late
1870s. When they did, the rates of female teachers in the South quickly
caught up to those in the North (Allison, 1998). Most of these women,
North and South, were native-born Protestants of Anglo stock from farming
or other lower- to middle-class families (MacDonald, 1999, p. 427).
Teaching for them was both a source of income and the fulfillment of a
sense of Christian mission.
In previous chapters we have noted the extent to which public education
in the 19th century was associated with evangelical Protestant
Christianity. The lives and professional decisions of many teachers
exemplify this. While most teachers in the 19th century taught in schools
close to their hometown, among people like themselves, thousands traveled
further afield to teach out of a sense of Christian service.
Many of these "soldiers of light and love" ventured out from their East
Coast communities to the Western frontier, inspired by pastors and
reformers who decried the irreligion of these areas and hoped to counter
the work of Catholic missionaries (Kaufman, 1984). Catharine Beecher,
whose father Lyman had made the Protestantization of the West his life's
work, created the National Popular Education Board to recruit New England
women for 2-year commitments to teach on the Western frontier. Between
1846 and 1856 this organization sent 600 young women all over the Midwest
and as far as Iowa, Nebraska, Oregon, and California. Two thirds of these
women stayed, either marrying or becoming career teachers (Fraser, 2007,
p. 40). The vast majority of teachers in the Western states, though, were
children of the Midwestern prairies, not imports from New England.
Nevertheless, the content, teaching methods, and training they received
were modeled on those of the East, and they too tended to be young,
White, Protestant females from farming families (Cordier, 1992).
Photo of an African American school.
Thousands of Northern teachers came South during and after the Civil War
to teach freed slaves. By the 1870s, most had returned home, and Southern
African American teachers took over their work.
Even more profound were the efforts of Northern women during and after
the Civil War among the newly freed Southern slaves. During the war, the
Union Army commissioned hundreds of Northern teachers, who moved into
captured territories to teach freed slaves. By 1870 there were 5,000 such
teachers instructing about 150,000 freed slaves. The majority of these
teachers were White, but about one third of them were Black. The White
teachers were nearly all female, but the majority of the Black teachers
were male (Hoffman, 2003, p. 121). Northern Christian organizations like
the American Missionary Association (AMA) raised funds, sent supplies,
and recruited teachers for the effort. After the war ended, the Union
Army's task of organizing schools and protecting the teachers from
unsympathetic Southern Whites was passed to the Freedmen's Bureau. But in
the 1870s donations dried up and vigilante aggression against teachers no
longer protected by the army increased. Most returned to their Northern
homes. Regardless, what this Yankee, mostly White force started, Southern
Blacks continued. By 1871 the South had 61 private normal schools and 11
Black colleges, whose chief function was to train Black teachers. As the
Freedman's Bureau and its teachers evacuated, these Black teachers took
over. Unlike their White predecessors, most of these Black teachers were
married, which meant their careers were episodic, broken up by years
devoted to childrearing and other family responsibilities. Though they
and the few Northern Whites who stayed tried valiantly, they were unable
on their own to overcome slavery's legacy of mass illiteracy or the
postwar South's rigid racial hierarchies (Hoffman, 2003).
The Union Army's conscription of teachers to do the hard work of
transforming the hearts and minds of conquered peoples was a strategy
copied over and over in the 20th century as the United States' global
influence grew. In Hawai'i, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and, by
midcentury, all over Africa, Asia, and South America, American teachers
were sent by the tens of thousands. Between 150,000 and 200,000 such
teachers were sent out in total, almost all of whom were White, middle
class, and young (Zimmerman, 2006, pp. 3, 13–15). Early in the century
most of these teachers were an extension of the American empire, helping
colonize the peoples of conquered territories like the Philippines,
Puerto Rico, Hawai'i, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. After
World War II these teachers were less colonizers than volunteers, serving
with government agencies like the Peace Corps (founded in 1961) and
several smaller organizations whose aim was to bring literacy and
prosperity to the "Third World." Finally, throughout the century
thousands of American missionary teachers were sent out by U.S. Christian
denominations to both educate and convert the peoples of the world
(Zimmerman, 2006). While many of these colonizers, volunteers, and
missionaries were ill-prepared for what they were to experience abroad,
back at home teacher preparation was growing increasingly formalized, a
process that began in the 19th century.
What Education Did 19th-Century Teachers Receive?
For most of the 19th century, in most of the country the only
requirements teachers needed were literacy and willingness to do the job.
Later in the century formal certification requirements emerged, as did
institutions to help prepare future teachers to meet them. Why the shift
From Informal to Formal Requirements
When her family moved to the Kansas frontier, young teen Mary Ward was
hired as soon as local citizens learned she had been to school back East.
"My dresses dropped from my knees to the floor in a day and I became a
woman and a school mam" (Cordier, 1992, p. 45). In most states until at
least the 1870s teacher hiring was entirely a local affair, run by the
district or county superintendent or school trustees, who would never
offer more than a 1-year contract (Cuban, 1993, 30). Typically a local
agent would conduct an "oral" exam of a prospective teacher. The
following anecdote, written by a 19th-century witness, serves as a good
example of what would often take place. John and Mary McArdle had just
moved to Smith County, Kansas:
When the school board learned the wife was a 'Wisconsin school Ma'am'
they asked her to teach the following three months term, the salary . . .
sixteen dollars per month. The young pioneers journeyed by team and
lumber wagon to the County Seat, 20 miles away, where she took the
teacher's examination somewhat fearfully, wondering if it would be harder
than in her native state. She evidently answered correctly the two
questions asked, together with a specimen of her penmanship, for she
returned triumphantly with a certificate to teach the second term of
school in District 56. (Cordier, 1992, p. 51)
The problem with oral exams, of course, was that their results were
entirely up to the examiner. Reports abound throughout the 19th century
of nepotism and favoritism, of bribes paid by families to get their
daughter the desired teaching job. Qualified, highly educated candidates
were often passed over for a pretty young face or the child of a local
bigwig (Cordier, 1992). To deal with such situations, states slowly began
moving away from oral to written examinations assessed not by local
politicians but by formally trained educational experts. Throughout the
late 19th century these written exams stressed factual subject matter
knowledge in the core subjects of reading, writing, math, geography, and
history. On most tests fully nine tenths of the questions concerned such
topics. Questions about pedagogy were minimal. One early test, after
asking difficult questions in all the major subjects, ended with a
solitary question about teaching method: "Theory and Practice of
Teaching: How should a recitation be conducted, and what are its chief
objects?" (Cordier, 1992, p. 52).
Along with these more rigorous written examinations, many locales began
requiring formal preparation, especially after the Civil War. Several
formal institutions emerged in the 19th century to provide this
Nineteenth-Century Teacher Education
Beginning on the East Coast and expanding after the Civil War to the West
and South, formal teacher preparation took on many forms. Established
teachers kept up with changing requirements by upgrading their
qualifications in the summer when school was not in session, and new
teachers increasingly attended year-round institutions to prepare
Drawing of Troy Female Seminary.
A drawing of the Troy Female Seminary, founded by Emma Willard in 1821 to
In the 18th century, many seminaries were established offering college-
level education to young women shut out from the nation's colleges. In
1821 a new kind of seminary was founded by Emma Willard in Troy, New
York. Willard's design was not only to provide college-level education
for women but to do so as preparation for a career in teaching. By the
late 1830s Troy Seminary had become a leading national institution.
Between 1839 and 1863 it sent almost 600 New England women into teaching
careers. Many of these women went on to found seminaries of their own,
about 150 of them, from Maine to Georgia (Fraser, 2007, p. 41).
Even more influential was Mount Holyoke, founded in 1837 in Massachusetts
by Mary Lyon. While New York had denied Willard's school use of public
monies, the Massachusetts legislature supported Lyon's school, as did
many prominent private citizens. Lyon's school provided a rigorous 4-year
course of studies every bit as long and challenging as the best male
colleges. More than half of Mount Holyoke's thousands of 19th-century
graduates became teachers. Significantly, neither Troy, Mount Holyoke,
nor any of the other female seminaries founded in their image included
formal courses in pedagogy. Teacher preparation consisted entirely of
academic subject matter mastery (Fraser, 2007, p. 34).
Common school reformers like Horace Mann knew that for their system to
work they would need an army of well-qualified female teachers. A key
component of their reform plan, as we learned in Chapter 3, was the
normal school, an institution for "normalizing" teachers through formal
preparation, funded entirely by government. Mann founded the first normal
school in Massachusetts in 1839, but the concept did not really take off
until after the Civil War, both because citizens were often loath to fund
them and because of competition from academies and high schools (Ogren,
2005). To the great frustration of their creators, normal schools prior
to the 1870s were used primarily not by young people hoping to become
teachers but by those who already were teachers, often from rural farming
areas, to get enough education to move on to something better. Rural
teachers who could not afford private higher education were using the
public and free normal schools as a way out of their small-town rural
lives, and out of teaching itself (Fraser, 2007).
By the 1870s the normal school idea had gained ground. While the term
normal school encompassed a wide range of institutions, the dominant
model by the late 19th century was to have normal schools run by the
state rather than by the municipality or private agencies, as often
happened earlier in the century. These state schools continued to teach
subject matter but also emphasized pedagogy. In 1869 there were 35 state
normal schools in operation. By 1900 43 states were operating a total of
139 normal schools. At their peak in 1927 almost 200 state normal schools
were in operation in all but two of the nation's states (Fraser, 2007, p.
117). Private and city-run normal schools were still strong, but the
state institutions were educating ever-growing majorities of the nation's
Most students coming to these normal schools in the 1870s had only a
common school education. They were literate and could do basic math, but
that was all. A 1- or 2-year stint in a normal school was the rough
equivalent of a couple of years in high school today, which was all a
young woman would need to go back to her hometown and teach school. By
the end of the century, however, this was changing. As high schools
became more popular, normal schools were able to ask more of their
incoming students and to raise the level of their curriculum accordingly.
In Winona, Minnesota, to use a typical example, only 8% of the state
normal school's incoming class of 1885 had a high school diploma. By
1900, however, 83% did (Fraser, 2007, p. 119). By the 1920s most state
normal schools had become legitimate institutions of higher education,
offering 4-year degrees as well as their more traditional 2-year
programs. Very few students actually completed such rigorous programs,
however, for they could get hired all over the country by desperate
school districts after only a year or so at a normal school (Ogren,
2005). Though it's not easy to determine exactly what students learned in
these schools, it seems from course catalogues that most of the attention
was placed on academic subjects as in the female seminaries, though
students also took such classes as "Principles and Methods of
Instruction" or "Theory and Art of Teaching" (Ogren, 2005, pp. 126–128).
Photo of women studying in a library.
Future elementary school teachers in 1900, who are studying in a normal
school library in Washington, D.C. By the 1920s the level of education
teachers received was increasing.
While the normal school's formal and lengthy preparatory programs were
favored by state education leaders, most teachers did not attend them.
The most popular means of maintaining certification were summer teacher
institutes. These were typically 1- to 6-week summer courses of study,
often offered by counties, to provide continuing education to area
teachers and allow them to network with one another. In the period before
the Civil War especially, when many state legislatures refused to fund
complete normal schools, summer institutes emerged as a replacement. They
were, as one historian of the institution put it, "normal schools writ
small" (Fraser, 2007, p. 65). They continued to be popular throughout the
19th and even into the 20th century, especially in rural areas or
anywhere else where demand for teachers outpaced the supply provided by
academies and normal schools. Michigan, for example, had eight summer
institutes in 1860, serving a total of 1,251 teachers. By 1880 there were
65 summer institutes in Michigan, with a total attendance of 4,482
teachers. Nationwide in 1890 there were 2,003 such institutes, and almost
half of the nation's teachers attended them (Fraser, 2007, p. 67).
Most of these institutes were very short, held just prior to the
beginning of the school session. They typically included morning,
afternoon, and evening sessions. Morning and afternoon sessions often
involved pedagogical presentations by invited speakers, followed by time
for discussion among the assembled teachers. Evening sessions were more
varied and often open to the public. They might include debates by
teachers on issues of public concern or speeches by notable people about
some educational topic, calculated to increase public interest in and
support for public education. These sessions were, in effect, not unlike
revival camp meetings. "At a time when the core of much of American
Protestantism was evangelical revivalism, teachers were expected to have
their own revivals and to make their own quasi-religious commitment to
their profession" (Fraser, 2007, p. 69).
High schools, especially in cities, prepared thousands of teachers, more
indeed than the normal schools. Many high schools had entire programs,
often 1 or 2 years long and dominated by women, that were designed
explicitly for teacher preparation. In some high schools these were the
only programs in which women were allowed to enroll. While numbers for
the 19th century are unavailable, a 1912 study by the U.S. Bureau of
Education reported that in that year 711 high schools in the country
offered "training courses for teachers," enrolling a total of 2,103 boys
and 12,577 girls (Fraser, 2007, p. 83).
Throughout the 19th century the urban teaching force was even more
dominated by females than elsewhere, and high schools were a big reason
why. One of the key arguments made for the public financing of secondary
education was that high schools would prepare teachers for the common
schools. This function proved attractive to voters as well, many of whose
daughters would be these future teachers. A survey of Detroit's high
school graduates between 1860 and 1882 found that of those graduates who
went on to become teachers, 95% were women (Fraser, 2007, p. 87). Most
high schools had always been coeducational, and many had trouble keeping
their boys enrolled because of the abundance of jobs available to young
urban men without a high school diploma. Girls, however, tended to stay
in school, and a key reason was the teacher preparation programs.
African American Teacher Preparation
In 1865 an estimated 5%–10% of freed slaves were literate. While it had
been illegal throughout the South to teach Blacks to read, many secret
schools were in operation, taught by Black teachers whose only
qualification was their own educational attainment (Williams, 2005).
After the Civil War, freed slaves rushed to obtain the educations that
had been denied them for so long, and Southern Blacks who could do so
taught as many of them as possible. In 1868, of the 8,004 teachers
employed by the Freedman's Bureau, some 4,213 were Black (Fraser, 2007,
p. 98). Many of these teachers were scarcely better educated than the
freed slaves they were trying to teach, but in the ensuing decades
several institutions emerged to improve their preparation.
Portrait of Booker T. Washington.
Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) was born a slave and worked his way into
the highest reaches of African American public leadership. In the years
after the Civil War, he realized that the key to success was in
education. Washington became a major spokesman for education and also
opened the Tuskegee Institute in 1881.
The best known of these are the industrial training schools, the most
famous of which are the Hampton Institute, chartered in 1870 by Samuel
Chapman Armstrong, and the Tuskegee Institute, opened in 1881 by
Armstrong's African American protégé Booker T. Washington. While these
schools were billed to their White financial backers as providing an
industrial education to freed slaves that would prepare them for careers
as obedient servants and workers, the most important function of such
schools was to train common school teachers. As historian James Anderson
put it in his classic work The Education of Blacks in the South, "The
Hampton-Tuskegee curriculum was not centered on trade or agricultural
training; it was centered on the training of teachers" (Anderson, 1988,
p. 34). Much of what teachers were taught in these institutions, financed
heavily by Northern Whites who subscribed to racist ideas about Black
intellectual inferiority, was aimed to perpetuate the segregationist
paradigm within which these teachers would be working and to give Blacks
access to vocational rather than traditional academic curriculum.
However, the Black (and some Native American) students who attended these
institutions were often selective in what they learned. While the intent
of such schools might have been to prepare Blacks for second-class
citizenship, many students who attended the schools used the knowledge
and skills gained there for their own purposes (Anderson, 1988).
A second group of teacher-training institutions for African Americans
attempted to provide a more academic alternative to the Hampton-Tuskegee
model. Many of these institutions were also funded by Northern Whites,
especially church-affiliated bodies, but a number of them were controlled
by Southern Blacks themselves. By 1871 the American Missionary
Association (AMA) was operating 21 normal and high schools across the
South, employing 110 teachers to provide 6,477 Black students with the
same sort of academically based teacher preparatory curriculum that
Whites in the North were getting in seminaries, academies, and normal
schools (Fraser, 2007, p. 105). By 1888, of the 15,000 or so Black
teachers in the South, about 7,000 of them had been trained in AMA
schools. Schools like Hampton and Tuskegee secured the media attention
and philanthropic money, but the AMA schools produced far more teachers
(Fraser, 2007, p. 106).
The Southern Economy
Booker T. Washington was born a slave and worked his way into the highest
reaches of African American public leadership. In the years after the
Civil War, he realized that the key to success was in education and
Washington not only became a major spokesman for that, he also opened the
Tuskegee Institute in 1881. Watch this video to learn more about Booker
T. Washington and how education affected the Southern Economy during that
How Did 19th-Century Teachers Teach?
Investigations of 19th-century classroom practice are very difficult, for
there are few records to go by. The most common sources available are
first-person reminiscences from teachers. One exhaustive study of almost
1,000 of these autobiographical accounts, covering the years 1820 to
1880, found three basic types of teachers. First, teachers in one-room
schools were "intellectual overseers," organizing the students into
ability groupings, assigning each group its work, meting out punishment
when necessary, and calling each group up for continual rounds of
recitation. Second, teachers in larger graded schools were
"drillmasters," leading the entire class in a perpetual recitation drill.
Sometimes the class was called on to recite simultaneously. On other
occasions a teacher might call on individual students to answer her
questions. But whatever the approach, the school day consisted chiefly of
recitation of memorized facts. A third and very rare sort of teacher
tried to take education beyond memory recall to the point of explaining
to students why the facts being learned were relevant to their lives in
the world. Most teachers, however, based upon their recollections, were
concerned only with ensuring that their students memorized as much
material as possible day after day (Finkelstein, 1974).
Behind the Scenes: Studying the History of the Classroom
To date very few historians have written about what actually went on in
classrooms in the past. While there are many fine studies of the writings
of educational reformers, of rates of attendance, and especially of
curriculum, we still know relatively little about what actually happened
in 19th-century classrooms. Why? Reformers wrote a lot, much of it
published in readily accessible printed sources. Attendance rates and
other demographic information are preserved in government documents and
various published school surveys and similar studies. Curriculum changes
are easily accessed by looking at textbooks of the period and at official
lists of classes taught in school catalogues and schedules. All of these
sources are relatively easy for historians to obtain.
But if you want to study actual classrooms, you have to do some digging.
Most classroom teachers never wrote anything for publication. Many only
left personal reminiscences in diaries or letters. Most of these have not
survived, but those that have are often housed in local historical
societies peppered all around the country or even in musty attics yet to
be discovered. Student papers, evaluation records, and other incidentals
are very rarely preserved. It's just not easy to find good sources to
help us understand what 19th-century classrooms were like. Most of what
has been found—teacher reminiscences, diaries, and autobiographies, for
the most part—reflect the teacher's point of view much more than the
student's. It is even harder to find sources reflecting a student's
perspective of 19th-century classroom life.
Reflection Question: How do you think our understanding of 19th-century
classrooms would change if we knew more about students' experiences?
Black and white photo of a 19th century school house with benches facing
the front of the teacher's desk.
In this photo of a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse, what similarities
and differences can you see compared to today's classrooms? How would
teaching in such a schoolhouse be different?
The story of 19th-century pedagogy is basically that of the gradual
replacement of overseers with drillmasters, as one-room schools slowly
gave way to larger graded schools with smaller individual classrooms
(Cuban, 1993). Both types of classrooms were dominated by the teacher and
by subject matter memorization from textbooks, but in different ways. The
one-room schoolteacher's approach allowed for more group work by
necessity, as children of various ages and abilities were together in one
room. Such students tended to be arranged in pods throughout the room,
hopefully working quietly around tables or on benches as they waited for
their turn to approach the teacher for recitation. In the graded
classroom the teacher's role was more obvious. She was at the front and
center of the room, with students arranged in rows totaling 40–48
separate desks bolted to the floor, with all eyes focused on her (Cuban,
1993, p. 30). She did most of the talking, but the talking she did was
not instruction. The textbook provided the content, which students were
expected to memorize at home or during periods of assigned reading in
class. The teacher for the most part asked questions, hundreds of them.
One researcher visiting 100 English, history, math, language, and science
classes found that students were asked on average 395 questions a day.
Some teachers asked as many as 200 questions in a single 45-minute class.
Students who spoke in class typically did so only to answer these
questions, in one-word or short phrases. The one exception to this
pedagogical approach was science class, where the focus was less on
recitation and more on experiments and student reports. Turn-of-the
century science teachers tended to question less and lecture more, and
observers report that such methods were met with "splendid enthusiasm" by
students (Cuban, 1993, p. 37).
By the end of the 19th century this "deadening drill" and "busywork" that
pervaded American classrooms was coming under tremendous attack by the
pedagogical Progressives we discussed in Section 4.3 (Cuban, 1993, p.
27). They promoted, and to some degree obtained, significant classroom
changes in the 20th century.
Who Were the Teachers in the 20th Century?
In many respects, 20th-century teachers were a lot like their 19th-
century predecessors: Most were White females from lower- to middle-
class, often rural, families. But the dramatic changes in 20th-century
life altered the living and working conditions of these teachers in many
A Demographic Breakdown
The feminization of the teaching force held steady throughout the 20th
century, stabilizing at about 70% female nationwide across the decades.
In 1900 women were 82.1% of all city and 70.6% of all rural teachers.
Regionally, in 1900 the South had fewer women, but as the century
progressed the South's teaching became more like the national average. By
1971, the South led the country in percentage of female teachers at 77.9%
(Carter, 2002, pp. 14–15). In 2006, 70% of the nation's public school
teaching force was female, a figure nearly identical to 100 years before
(National Education Association, 2010).
Throughout the century, despite massive immigration and the influx of
minority populations into public schools, these women teachers have
remained overwhelmingly White. In 1900 about 90% of female public school
teachers were native-born Whites, 4% were African American, and 0.1% were
Asian or Native American (Carter, 2002, p. 15). In 1971, 88% of public
school teachers were White. In 2006, 87% were (National Education
The percentage of African American teachers rose modestly in the 1960s to
a high of 8% by 1971. As we discussed in Section 5.4, school integration
dealt a significant blow to these teachers, especially in the South. By
2006 the percentage of Black teachers had dropped to 6% of the overall
teaching force (National Education Association, 2010). While a
significant percentage of 19th-century African American teachers had been
male, by 1910 some 66% were female (Carter, 2002, p. 25). Early in the
century, especially in some Northern cities, a small, elite group of
Black teachers taught in predominantly White schools. But after the Great
Migration of Blacks to the North in the late 1910s and 1920s, the vast
majority of Black teachers worked in schools attended predominately by
minorities, whether due to de jure or later de facto segregation
(Altenbaugh, 2004, p. 63).
Black and white photo of a 19th century school house with benches facing
the front of the teacher's desk.
By the early 1900s, the majority of African American teachers were female
and taught in segregated schools like the one shown here.
Teachers have gotten older over the course of the 20th century. In the
1850s young women frequently began teaching in their mid or even early
teens. By 1910, with the increase of educational standards and
certification requirements, the average new teacher was 19, and these
older teachers were staying in the profession longer, bringing up the
median teacher age considerably (Carter, 2002, p. 67). In 1900 the median
teacher age was 23, and it rose steadily to 1960, where it peaked at 44
(Carter, 2002, p. 15). By 1976 it had dropped again to 33, but it has
risen steadily since that time until a new high in 2006 of 46 (National
Education Association, 2010). Why the dramatic increase in average
teacher age? As we will soon see, it had a lot to do with teacher
political activism in securing pension plans as well as the right to
marry and bear children without forfeiting their jobs. In 1900 only 4.5%
of teachers were married. By 1990 73% were (Carter, 2002, p. 16).
American teachers have become steadily better educated throughout the
20th century, partly due to increased certification requirements and
partly due to broader changes in schooling among the wider population. In
1920 in many parts of the country almost four in five teachers lacked
even a high school diploma (Cuban, 1993, p. 122). By 1961 some 85% of
public school teachers had earned bachelor's or master's degrees. By 2006
that proportion had increased to 97%, with the most dramatic increases
coming among those with a master's degree (60%) (National Education
Another thing that changed over the course of the century is the way
teachers were paid. We've seen how the 19th century institutionalized
unequal pay scales for men and women. This pattern continued well into
the 20th century. It became the central issue around which female
teachers organized, and their political activism was ultimately rewarded
by reforms garnering equal pay for equal work. Despite these gains,
however, female teachers continued to make less than male teachers, for
three reasons. Men were more likely to fill the better-paying secondary
teaching positions, were more likely to fill the better-paying
extracurricular positions like coach of male sporting teams, and
especially were more likely to be promoted to better-paying
administrative positions (Carter, 2002). In 1905 women held 62% of
elementary school principalships. By 1972 their share had dropped to 20%
(Altenbaugh, 2004, p. 11).
Where Did 20th-Century Teachers Live?
When a new teacher might be as young as 13 or 14, it made sense to have
her live in a semidependent state with local families. In rural areas
especially, this system persisted well into the 20th century. In 1900
perhaps as many as one in four teachers still boarded with local families
(Carter, 2002, p. 63). But older teachers chafed against the constraints
on their privacy that such arrangements entailed. Host families felt the
same way. Rural farming families were gaining wealth thanks to the
increased market for cash crops in the growing cities. Homes were getting
bigger and standards of privacy that had been associated with the urban
middle class were spreading to the countryside. No longer needing the
income and resenting the invasion of family privacy, local citizens
banded together across the country to build homes specifically for
teachers, called teacherages. Between 1915 and 1923 about 3,000
teacherages were constructed nationwide (Carter, 2002, p. 59).
The teacherage ideal was a "model cottage" idealized by some female
reformers as a sacred sanctum for the teacher where her spirit could be
refreshed in a cozy, private, comfortable setting. Most of these homes
were built in a spurt of enthusiasm by local civic groups, often with
donated supplies. As such they were typically done on the cheap, often by
converting abandoned schoolhouses or other shacks. Moreover, after an
initial burst of enthusiasm for construction, local support for
teacherages typically waned, causing them to fall into disrepair. One
1929 Texas teacher recalled how four teachers shared one double and one
single bed in a leaky three-room shack with no outdoor plumbing (Carter,
2002, p. 74). By the late 1920s the teacherage movement had run its
course. Technological advances in construction brought down home and
rental prices, making it easier for teachers to afford private lodging,
which they generally preferred to the communalism of the teacherage
How Did 20th-Century Teachers Teach?
Classroom practice in the 20th century becomes easier to track than it
was in the 19th, thanks largely to increasing use of new technologies
like photography and video, to much more rigorous efforts by educational
administrators and researchers to document classroom practice, and to the
simple fact that historians have been able to talk to 20th-century
teachers. The results of all this information suggest that there has been
a pronounced move away from the recitation method popular early in the
20th century. But that transformation has not worked out as Progressive
reformers hoped it would.
The Twilight of Recitation
Classroom instruction early in the 20th century continued to be
dominated, as it had in the 19th, by teacher-guided student recitation.
Several surveys found as much. One 1922 survey of rural Texas schools
concluded, "In practically all the work observed, the teacher is
concerned in drilling the children upon some facts they are supposed to
know or in asking questions that call for textbook answers." A 1928 North
Dakota study found a one-room school teacher conducting 22 recitations
per day, averaging 15 minutes each, for her 24 students in grades 1–8
(Cuban, 1993, p. 125). One observer of a New York geometry classroom at
Townsend Harris High taught by Alexis Senftner in the 1920s reported the
Recitation in geometry was a scary exercise presided over by Senftner who
brandished a long wooden pointer. . . . Recitations had to be word
perfect or the pointer hit the nearest desk to a roar of "Wrong! Zeeeero!
Zeeeero!" whereupon the student was sent to stand in the corner with his
face to the wall. (Lebow, 2000, p. 57)
An analysis of 30 years of such reports and studies from 1900–1930
concluded that "the work of the typical American classroom, whether on
the elementary or secondary level, has been and still is, characterized
by a lifeless and perfunctory study of recitation of assigned textbook
materials" (Cuban, 1993, p. 137).
Photo of students reading textbooks at their desks.
This mid-20th-century photo, taken at the George Washington School in
Ridgewood, New Jersey, illustrates well the extent to which textbooks
dominated classroom instruction and students remained sorted into rows,
seated at fixed desks.
Reports like this deeply troubled Progressive reformers (who were often
the ones conducting the reports), for they suggested that despite the
reformers' best efforts, teaching practices were not changing.
Progressives had been arguing since the turn of the century for pervasive
changes in American classrooms. They wanted to move away from "fixed
grades in the schools, fixed rules for the children, and fixed furniture
in the classroom" to a more child-centered, free-flowing pedagogy (Cuban,
1993, p. 12). They wanted recitation replaced with small-group work,
textbook memorization replaced with creative projects, floor-bound desks
replaced with movable furniture, and rich, interesting materials for
students to work with. These Progressives for the most part were
professors at the nation's emerging college and university departments of
education, which would become the standard form of teacher preparation.
The key question in the history of 20th-century classroom practice is the
degree to which their visions filtered down to the daily practice of
teachers and students (Cuban, 1993).
Rhetoric versus Reality of Classroom Change
When it came to changing teaching practices, two basic things were going
on at the same time. At the level of public policy talk, newspaper
editorializing, and public opinion polls, successive waves of enthusiasm
have vacillated between praise and condemnation of Progressive education.
Early in the 20th century Progressivism was celebrated as the hope of the
future. It would rescue schools from the tedium of old-fashioned
recitation and bring them into the modern era. After World War II,
however, and especially during the height of the Cold War, educational
Progressivism was blamed for all sorts of social ills and deficiencies,
as prominent scholars and citizens called for a return to a more
traditional focus on tough academic subjects and teacher-centered
instruction. By the late 1960s and '70s, bestselling books were again
condemning the lockstep, deadening routines of school and urging child
liberation and freedom. But a backlash against such calls came in the
1980s and '90s as politicians and citizens again called for tough
academic standards and accountability (Cremin, 1991; Tyack & Cuban,
Meanwhile, practice in classrooms has not been nearly so volatile.
Despite rhetoric on both sides condemning reforms the other held dear,
American classrooms from decade to decade possessed more continuity than
change (Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Historians studying actual classroom
practice have found slow, gradual changes taking place, but these changes
did not really align with the prominent public critiques of what many
Americans feared was going on. So what was going on?
Progressivism in Action
Progressives seeking to change inherited classroom practice faced many
difficulties, many of which were not so much ideological as practical. To
switch, for example, from fixed desks to movable furniture, one would
need to buy new furniture, and lots of it. Since this proved impossible
to do in most places, a compromise was often worked out. In New York, for
example, class sizes were reduced in the 1930s and '40s from 45–48 to 35
or so. This allowed the removal of a couple of rows of desks to provide
more space in the typical classroom for student group work (Cuban, 1993).
Modest curricular changes took place as well, as arts and crafts, music,
physical education, vocational education, health education, and other
life-focused topics were added to the school day (Kliebard, 2003). Some
locales like Denver engaged in long-term and extensive curriculum reform
efforts that aimed to make all subjects relevant to "life situations"
(Cuban, 1993, p. 80). In many places, lunchrooms, libraries, swimming
pools, and outdoor recreational facilities were added to schools.
Black and white photo of students playing on a playground with a swings
and a slide.
Progressives in the 1920s and '40s made some modest curricular changes
and changes to the learning environment, including things like
playgrounds. What are some benefits of adding physical education, arts
and crafts, and music to the curriculum?
One of the most detailed studies of such efforts, called the Eight Year
Study and conducted by the Progressive Education Association (PEA),
tracked 30 public and private schools around the country for 8 years,
beginning in 1933. Participating schools were asked to create alternative
programs that would allow groups of students within the school to work on
projects connected to real human needs, developed in conjunction with
core teachers. Students in the program were exempted from the normal
grades and college admission requirements that bound other students. In
1940 the first results began coming in from the study, and they found
that students involved in these experimental programs did just as well or
better in college than did students taking the traditional high school
curriculum. For these students in these classrooms, at least, Progressive
ideas really did seem to influence classroom practice. The study's
positive findings, however, did not lead to the wide-ranging changes in
the nation's high schools the PEA had hoped for (Kridel & Bullough,
Over the decades Progressive ideals made significant headway in
elementary school classrooms far more than in higher grades. Vermont
teacher Mary Stapleton, for example, after learning about Progressive
methods from her superintendent, transformed her pedagogy in 1932. She
abandoned her traditional recitation approach and provided her students
with "self-instructive practice material" upon which they could work at
their own pace, taking charge of their educations (Cuban, 1993, p. 121).
Most teachers did not transform themselves overnight but slowly adapted
themselves to the more informal approach generally preferred by
Progressives. By the 1940s it was common practice in elementary
classrooms across the land for teachers to conduct class by continuing to
ask questions, but in an informal, chatty way, calling on individual
students, who would raise their hands if they knew the answer (Cuban,
1993, p. 145).
Between 1968 and 1974, some teachers in schools around the country
briefly experimented with a more radical Progressive pedagogy called open
classrooms, which sought to make schools less structured by doing away
with formality. In North Dakota, for example, after the state had been
ranked last in the nation in terms of its teachers' educational
attainments, the government established the New School, bringing in open
classroom advocate Vito Perrone as dean. In Perrone's ideal school, walls
between classes would be taken down, desks clustered together, learning
centers erected, children allowed to roam freely, and letter grades on
report cards abolished. By 1973 over 500 graduates of the New School had
brought open classrooms to 80 schools, or 15% of the state's schools
(Cuban, 1993, p. 159).
Surveys done in 1975 revealed that North Dakota's situation was
paralleled in many other states. In that year perhaps 10%–17% of schools
nationwide had at least one open classroom (Cuban, 1993, p. 198). Despite
the fad, it was clear that the vast majority of teachers had not adopted
this more informal approach. And by the 1980s even teachers who had been
trained in open classroom methodology were returning to a more
traditional approach in their classrooms. Why? First, a "Back to the
Basics" movement swept through the education world in the late 1970s and
'80s as conservative politicians and business groups sought to steer the
country in a more conventional direction after what they saw as the
excesses of the liberal 1960s and early '70s. Second, much of the public
felt that public schools had become lawless places where basic skills
were being neglected, children were running wild, and no one was in
charge. Such concerns vastly overestimated the degree to which reforms
like open classrooms had penetrated into the typical public school, but
the mood did shift in a fundamental way, even among many who had
advocated for more informal methods just a few years before (Cuban,
The Classroom in the 1980s and Beyond
In the 1980s, spurred by high-profile national, corporate, and state
initiatives, testing and accountability became far more pronounced in
classroom life. Researchers carefully studied correlations between
classroom practice and student test scores, finding that the classroom is
most productive when the teacher organizes the day around clear goals,
offering structured review of previous material covered, focused
introduction of new material, opportunity for students to practice,
immediate feedback and reteaching, and opportunity for students to work
independently to achieve mastery (Cuban, 1993, p. 231).
Several studies of classroom practice in the 1980s found teachers
struggling to meet the expectations placed upon them by advocates of
improved test scores even as they found themselves teaching an
increasingly diverse set of children as immigration rates soared. These
studies found very little Progressive pedagogy, as teachers felt
compelled to cover as much content as possible as rapidly as possible.
One study late in the decade found remarkable similarity of practice
across districts and regions—rural, urban, and suburban, elementary and
secondary, majority White and majority minority. In all settings teachers
stressed whole-group activities like lectures and question-and-answer,
interspersed with seatwork where students worked individually on
worksheets or out of textbooks (Cuban, 1993, p. 234).
Changes to classroom practice in the 1980s and 1990s occurred mostly
around the periphery of the classroom. New computer technologies, for
example, altered the means of delivery of mathematics and other
curricula, but typically computer exercises simply replaced worksheets or
other more traditional pedagogies and did not radically transform the way
teachers taught (Gray, Thomas, & Lewis, 2010). To use another example,
the public debates over phonics and whole-language reading instruction
that raged in the 1980s and '90s led some districts to change their
textbooks or to place more official emphasis on one set of skills or
another, but the actual practice of literacy instruction in the classroom
has changed only gradually. Phonics and phonemic awareness take their
place alongside quality children's literature and an effort on the part
of teachers to stress comprehension and vocabulary knowledge (Cassidy,
Valadez, & Garrett, 2010). Topics that are politically volatile in public
discussion become less so in the classroom as teachers must deal with the
pragmatic needs of their students along with the host of other
responsibilities placed upon them (Kennedy, 2006).
Did You Know? The History of Teachers and Technology
Black and white photo of students watching a TV program in their
classroom in the 1950s.
A Rushville, Indiana, classroom watches a television broadcast in the
late 1950s. Technology like this was considered innovative. What things
in today's classroom would you consider to be most innovative?
Technological innovation has long been integral to education reform. In
the 19th century better textbooks and blackboards transformed teaching
across the country. Progressive reforms like indoor plumbing and central
heating have similarly transformed school life. Unlike many other
curricular reforms, these technological changes met with rapid and
widespread implementation and very little controversy (Tyack & Cuban,
1995, pp. 54–55).
In the 20th century, as the pace of technological innovation quickened,
schools struggled to stay abreast of the latest trends. With every new
communication medium invented came utopian claims for its ability to
improve teaching and learning. New technologies tended to produce a
predictable cycle of initial enthusiasm followed by disappointment among
reformers that teachers were not using the medium in transformative ways
(Cuban, 1986). This pattern happened in the 1920s with radio, in the
1930s and following with film, and in the 1950s and following with
television. Thomas Edison proclaimed in 1922 that "the motion picture is
destined to revolutionize our educational system." He was certain that
"in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely the use of
textbooks" (Cuban, 1986, p. 9). But teacher frustration with
technological glitches, the cost of purchasing and upgrading materials
and equipment, and the limited availability of suitable materials meant
that teachers never used film for more than supplemental purposes. Radio
and television faced similar issues. One study of television use among
teachers between 1970 and 1981 found that most teachers used the
television an hour a week or less (Cuban, 1986, p. 39). Like radio and
film, television was an accessory, not a primary means of instruction.
In recent decades personal computers have become the technological reform
of choice. A nationwide 2010 study found that 97% of public school
teachers had at least one computer in their classrooms. Of those, 40%
claimed to use the computer often for classroom instruction, and another
29% claimed to use it sometimes. The computer's nearly universal reach
into modern life, its programming flexibility, and its ability to promote
individualized instruction have made it perhaps the most successful
classroom technological innovation since the chalkboard (Gray, Thomas, &
What Was Teacher Preparation Like in the 20th Century?
Well into the 20th century most American teachers received little to no
formal teacher preparation. By the 1920s public normal schools had
emerged as the most popular teacher preparation institution, and many
were beginning to require a high school degree for admittance and to call
themselves teacher's colleges. In 1920, 38 such colleges required a high
school diploma of prospective students, and another 114 normal schools
did so. Sixty-nine of these schools offered the option of a full 4-year
program (Fraser, 2007, pp. 120–121). Many, perhaps most, American
teachers were still not enrolled in such programs, but they were becoming
The Universities Take Over
Even as normal schools and teachers colleges began to look more like
universities, colleges and universities began opening departments or
schools of education. In state university systems it was not at all
uncommon for normal schools to get folded into a state system of higher
education, transitioning almost overnight from a distinct institution
focused exclusively on teacher preparation to a branch campus of the
state's university system offering a full range of college degrees,
including education. This shift was interpreted by institutional
administrators as progress, as the old 2-year normal programs were phased
out and a more rigorous collegiate education was universalized.
Institutions distanced themselves from their normal school past,
sandblasting "the ignominious word 'Normal'" from building facades and
changing the town's Normal Avenue to College Avenue or, even more
impressively, University Avenue (Ogren, 2005, p. 3). By the 1960s the
only kind of teacher-training program available was housed in a 4-year
degree-granting institution, accredited by the state to deliver a 4-year
bachelor's degree in education. It has remained the same ever since
Black and white photo of women in line for graduation in the 1950s.
By the 1950s, states required a 4-year college degree to become a
Central in the shift to a university model of teacher preparation was the
accreditation process. At the turn of the century a teacher might reach
local certification through any number of routes, and it was not at all
clear how comparable a high school diploma, a 2-year normal school
degree, and a 4-year teacher's college degree were or which, if any, of
them should be required of future teachers. In the early 20th century the
Carnegie Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by steel
magnate Andrew Carnegie, set about bringing order to the chaos of teacher
training by defining high schools, colleges, and universities much as
they are defined today and establishing standards that high schools would
have to meet if they wanted to become feeder schools to the nation's
colleges. In 1895 the North Central Association, a group of Midwestern
college and university administrators, began accrediting high schools. In
1908 it began accrediting colleges. One of the main conditions high
schools had to meet to receive accreditation was to have a majority of
its teachers be graduates of a four-year collegiate program. After World
War II this standard was applied to elementary schools as well, and
enrollment in and graduation from the nation's college-level teacher
preparation programs increased dramatically (Fraser, 2007). In the 1950s,
state after state mandated a 4-year college degree as a condition for
Alternative Approaches to Certification
Since the 1960s, the 4-year education major keyed to state teacher
certification standards has been the path to employment taken by nearly
every public school teacher in the country. Given this monolithic
practice, it was perhaps inevitable that critics of public education
would point to these college-level "ed schools" as responsible for the
ills they believed afflicted public education. Perhaps the most frequent
criticisms of schools and departments of education have been that they
lack the rigor of other college-level programs and that they are
intractably Progressive in their basic pedagogical assumptions despite
empirical evidence disproving the efficacy of Progressive practice
(Labaree, 2006). In many states, such criticisms have resulted in efforts
to break up the monopoly that college-level education programs enjoy as
the only route to teacher certification, and hence to jobs as public
Many alternative methods to achieve certification have been proposed, and
a few have enjoyed limited success as state legislatures have approved
them (Tamir, 2008). Perhaps the most successful alternative to
certification via the traditional 4-year degree has been to offer a
postgraduate program, often as short as 1 year, that would provide
enrollees both a master's degree and teacher certification. Such programs
were first proposed and supported in the late 1950s by the Ford
Foundation and other private interests eager to inject more intellectual
rigor into the nation's teaching force even as they fought what they took
to be the excessive emphasis on Progressivism in the nation's education
schools (Gaither, 2003). The goal was to get students who had majored as
undergraduates in some field other than education certified as quickly as
possible and into the nation's classrooms.
A second approach has been to offer "fast-track" certification,
especially in school districts facing serious teacher shortages
(Pascopella, 2001). This approach was pioneered in the late 1960s by
policymakers who created the National Teacher Corps (NTC), believing that
talented college graduates with intrinsic leadership abilities and a
strong liberal arts background would make better teachers than the
typical graduate of the nation's education schools (Rogers, 2009).
Although the NTC was dissolved in 1981, similar reform instincts have
produced many successors. In such situations "emergency" certification is
often granted to a college graduate without a formal education degree,
often with the expectation that the newly hired teacher will engage in
continuing education leading to eventual certification along more
The most conspicuous recent example of fast-track reform out of a growing
list of options has been Teach for America. Since its founding in 1990,
it has, like its predecessors, provided struggling urban school districts
with some of the most talented graduates of the nation's top colleges and
universities by offering a brief and intensive orientation to teaching
and then placing these students directly in public schools, bypassing
completely the traditional educational certification process. Such
efforts have been very polarizing, often drawing high praise from critics
of the public school bureaucracy and intense criticism from public school
leaders, educational professionals, and especially the nation's teacher
unions (Foote, 2008).
How Did Teachers Become Unionized?
Over the course of the 20th century, concerns over salaries, pensions,
discriminatory practices, and other issues led teachers to form
associations to work for changes. Organization began at the local level
and only very gradually resulted in the large, national teacher unions we
have today. Future teachers would do well to understand the origin and
current state of these unions, for they will play a significant role in
any future teacher's professional life. Controversies over such things as
teacher pay and benefits, and even the right of teachers to bargain for
such things, continue to feature just as prominently in today's headlines
as they have in the past.
The Origins of Teacher Activism
The main issue that led teachers to come together in associations was the
unequal pay scales between males and females. Female teachers had been
making less than men since the beginning of the common school movement,
but two things happened in the early 20th century to spur women to do
something about it. First, the administrative changes associated with
Progressivism increased the control of male administrators over the
mostly female teaching force, curtailing some of the autonomy enjoyed by
teachers in earlier days. Second, by the early 20th century many female
teachers were foregoing marriage for what was sometimes called "single
blessedness," and therefore were teaching longer than their predecessors
had (Carter, 2002, p. 38). So popular was this trend that teaching was
increasingly seen as a "spinster's profession" (Blount, 2005, p. 45).
Historically, most teachers had been very young women who left the
profession after a few years to marry and raise children. But this new
group of experienced unmarried career teachers provided the continuity
and leadership necessary to create the momentum for taking on the
centralized educational bureaucracy (Carter, 2002). The movement began in
some late-19th-century cities, as groups of "lady teachers" formed clubs
to help protect themselves from dependency in old age by seeking pensions
and other benefits. The National Education Association, whose leadership
remained all male well into the 20th century despite having an
overwhelmingly female membership, did not do much to support these
teachers in meeting their financial needs, so they had to create their
own local groups (Leroux, 2006).
By 1910 half of all large cities in the United States had at least one
organization representing female teachers (Carter, 2002, p. 21). Time and
again the concern that galvanized teacher activism was wages. There were
two issues. The first was the problem of inflation. Teacher wages
typically remained stagnant for years despite fluctuations in the value
of money. The second issue was the galling inequality in salary scales
between female and male teachers. School boards paid male teachers more
than females for the same work, both to keep them on staff and because
offering equal pay to females, who constituted the great majority of
teachers, would require exorbitant increases in cost and hence taxation.
Bureaucrats also worried publicly that if the salaries were too high, it
might discourage female teachers from ever wanting to marry (Carter,
2002; Hoffman, 2003).
Attitudes such as these were only changed by persistent activism.
Beginning in some of the nation's major cities and expanding after World
War II to the rest of the country, women teachers organized and fought
for a single pay scale that would apply to all, regardless of sex or
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, a wave of patriotism
swept the nation, focusing attention on international rather than
domestic affairs and creating a difficult climate for movements that
challenged the domestic political status quo. Tremendous pressure was
placed upon teachers especially to show their patriotism in and out of
class (Howlett & Howlett, 2008). This was not a good context for teacher
activism. By the 1920s new ideals about feminine beauty led to a backlash
against the type of single matron that had been the bulwark of teacher
organizations earlier in the century. As Victorian restraint gave way to
the more open social standards of the "Jazz Age," the teaching profession
became less appealing to young women, and the male hold on career
administrative positions was cemented (Blount, 1998).
1930s black and white photo of a classroom with students sitting at their
desks and their female teacher standing at the back of the room.
A 1930s classroom. During this decade, teacher shortages and loss of
family income due to the Great Depression led to an increase in the
number of married female teachers.
The Great Depression of the 1930s further curtailed female teachers'
political power. In the 1920s increasing numbers of women had been
quietly continuing to teach even after marrying. This trend led to
controversy in the 1930s, as widespread male unemployment produced a
nationwide backlash against employed married women, whose second income
seemed an unnecessary luxury at a time when many families had no income
at all. By 1931, 77% of U.S. school districts had passed formal bans
prohibiting the hiring of married teachers (Carter, 2002, p. 97). Despite
these laws, however, the percentage of married female teachers actually
increased during the 1930s, from 17.9% in 1930 to 24.6% in 1940 (Carter,
2002, p. 115). Why? Because public opinion about the propriety of married
women working was shifting because of a liberalization of sexual
attitudes and also because severe economic hardship led many to forego
tradition and accept income wherever they could get it (Carter, 2002).
Moreover, many city school districts faced severe teacher shortages and
simply ignored the laws and hired anyone they could find to staff the
schools (Pieroth, 2004).
The interwar period also saw a spike in anti-activism sentiment among
leading politicians and watchdog groups concerned about communism in
public life. Surveys of public opinion regularly found that Americans by
the 1930s had little respect for teachers (Altenbaugh, 1992).
Conservative groups especially worried about the negative influence these
unconventional teachers might be having on children (Erickson, 2006). In
actuality, conservatives had little to worry about. Surveys of teacher
attitudes in the 1930s found teachers as a whole to be some of the most
conservative people in the country. Far from being political radicals
seeking to subvert the minds of the young, American teachers were far
more likely to be socially conservative, deeply pious, and obedient to
authority (Chirhart, 2005).
The Return of Teacher Activism
World War II was a pivotal event in the social history of teaching, for
several reasons. First, it completely reversed the policies many cities
had created in the 1930s against married teachers. With men gone to war
and women in demand for factory jobs, school boards were desperate to
find teachers. Moreover, World War II led to the "baby boom," part of the
postwar rush by young Americans to return to prewar normalcy by marrying
early and having children. In 1940 only 42% of women aged 24 were
married. By 1950, 70% were. This meant there were far fewer younger
unmarried women available to be teachers and far more children who needed
to be taught. The result was a complete reversal of policies forbidding
married women and especially mothers to be teachers. By 1953 married
teachers for the first time outnumbered unmarried teachers (Carter, 2002,
The postwar teaching force, increasingly comprised as it was of older,
married women, were frustrated by the same funding inequalities that had
angered their big-city predecessors in the early 20th century. Postwar
inflation dramatically lowered the value of a teacher's salary even as
the nation rewarded returning soldiers with starting teaching salaries
higher than those paid veteran female teachers. Again, the national
organizations to which teachers belonged, the NEA and the American
Federation of Teachers (AFT), were hesitant to act on behalf of teachers,
so teachers in city after city took matters into their own hands (Urban &
Wagoner, 2009, p. 345). During the 1946 school year teachers around the
country went on strike to obtain higher wages. The result was a swift,
nearly nationwide change in how teachers were paid. In addition to
across-the-board raises, by 1949 some 90% of city school districts had
passed single-scale salary rates, eliminating the historic discrepancy
between male and female pay for the same work (Carter, 2002, p. 51).
The Evolution of National Teacher Unions
The teacher strikes of the late 1940s were not generally supported by the
NEA or AFT. But in subsequent decades both organizations would come, in
different ways and at different times, to embrace such practices. Today
both organizations exist as high-profile national teacher unions with
state and local affiliates across the land. All future teachers need to
know something about the histories of each organization and the
differences between them, for in many parts of the country teacher
contracts require teachers to be in a union or at least to pay dues.
The National Education Association (NEA) was founded in 1857 as the
National Teachers Association. It served in its early years primarily as
a society for male school leaders to discuss policy and curricular
issues, though its rank-and-file membership increasingly was composed of
female teachers. In 1910 the NEA elected as its first female president
Ella Flagg Young, a dynamic teacher who had worked her way up the Chicago
educational hierarchy, earned a doctoral degree in education, worked with
John Dewey at the University of Chicago, and finally been elected in 1909
as superintendent of the Chicago school system. Young worked toward
greater collaboration between (mostly female) teachers and (mostly male)
administrators (Blount, 1998).
In 1917 the NEA moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C., in an effort
to refashion itself into a player in national education debates. Its main
goal was to establish a federal-level department of education, a dream
that was not realized until 1979. Despite the repeated failure of this
initiative, the NEA's increased advocacy on behalf of teachers led to
enormous growth throughout the 20th century. In 1917 it had 8,000 members
(Urban & Wagoner, 2009, p. 279). By 1957, on its 100th anniversary, the
NEA had 700,000 members (Holcomb, 2006a). The organization continued to
be dominated by male administrators, which helps explain why it was cold
to the militant strikes of the postwar period despite its own efforts to
work with government authorities to improve teacher salaries.
By the 1960s the NEA's cautious approach to negotiations with government
over issues like teacher salaries and benefits was causing it to lose
members to a newly energized and more militant AFT. In response, it began
to move cautiously toward a more activist political stance. It also moved
away from its historic racism by merging in 1966 with the American
Teachers Association, an organization founded in 1904 by Black teachers
and administrators who were excluded from membership in the NEA (Holcomb,
2006b). In 1968 some NEA state affiliate groups began to engage in
strikes. By the 1970s the NEA had redefined itself as a union of
teachers, committed to organizing teachers to help them fight
collectively for the best wages and benefits they could obtain (Urban &
Black and white photo of NEA protestors in the 1970s.
Six thousand NEA members converge on Chicago's Grant Park to support
teachers striking across the country in 1974. By the 1970s, the NEA had
redefined itself as a fully committed teacher's union.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was founded in 1916 by several
groups of teachers in the Chicago area. From the beginning it identified
more with the labor movement than with the professional organizations to
which most teachers belonged that tended to avoid confrontations and
political aggression. In the 1920s AFT leadership grew more ideological
even as the country as a whole experienced its first "Red Scare," a time
when politicians and concerned citizens worried about and prosecuted
individuals and organizations believed to be communistic. The AFT also
allowed African Americans to be members and agitated for equal pay for
Black teachers at a time when racial tensions were high. Because of such
unpopular political commitments, AFT membership declined precipitously in
the 1920s (Urban & Wagoner, 2009).
In the late 1940s, however, the AFT's prospects began to improve. By the
late 1950s the AFT had positioned itself as a much more aggressive
defender of teachers than the more subdued and professional NEA. For
example, New York social studies teacher Albert Shanker and others
organized New York's teachers into the United Federation of Teachers, an
affiliate of the AFT, and won through a strike the right to engage in
collective bargaining, a process whereby teacher representatives
deliberate with school board representatives to work out pay scales and
other issues to everyone's mutual satisfaction.
New York's success under Shanker led teachers in other cities to seek
collective bargaining as well, and these teachers increasingly turned to
the AFT instead of the NEA for help. In 1960 the AFT had fewer than
60,000 members. By 1970 its membership had grown to over 200,000 (AFT
history, n.d.). Throughout the decade, in city after city, local teachers
voted to join with the AFT rather than the NEA.
Efforts to Merge the NEA and AFT
By the 1970s both the NEA and AFT had committed themselves to an activist
role on behalf of America's public school teachers, fully supporting
collective bargaining and taking the lead roles in efforts to improve
teachers' workplaces and rights. On most issues the AFT and NEA spoke
with one voice. One example was maternity leave laws. For most of the
20th century, most schools had required that pregnant teachers resign 4
to 6 months prior to due date and not return until at least 3 months
after the birth of their child, often not to their old job but to
whatever was available. Administrators and school board members, the vast
majority of whom were men even in the 1970s, were not interested in
changing these policies. Union activists and committed teachers were, and
they secured a 1973 Supreme Court decision in their favor. In 1978
Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which mandated that
pregnancy be treated like any other temporary disability. These and
subsequent laws guaranteed the rights of pregnant women to teach (Carter,
Given the common ground on this and many other issues, many within both
the AFT and NEA began to talk of merging the two organizations and
thereby creating an even more powerful national advocacy organization for
teachers. There were several factors working against such a merger,
however. The AFT's membership had long consisted far more of secondary
teachers, many of whom were male. The NEA, in contrast, was dominated by
elementary school, mostly female teachers, and educational
administrators. The NEA's female teachers and administrators tended to be
less confrontational and aggressive than the AFT's members. Additionally,
AFT membership was overwhelmingly urban, while the NEA's predominately
came from suburban and rural areas. Finally, the NEA's organizational
structure had long been very bureaucratic, with leadership emerging
gradually as individuals worked through the ranks in predictable
patterns. The AFT, in contrast, had typically been fronted by a high-
profile, charismatic leader without term limits and with tremendous power
(Urban & Wagoner, 2009). All of these factors contributed to the failure
of the two unions to merge (Archer & Bradley, 1998).
At the state level, however, several affiliates have merged, including
Minnesota, Florida, Montana, and New York (Honawar, 2006). Despite such
mergers and the continued growth of both the NEA and AFT, the 21st
century has witnessed a pronounced decrease in the ability of the
national unions to influence public policy. One of many factors in this
declining influence is the shift in the center of gravity of educational
policy from the state to the federal level, which is the subject of the
next chapter (Honawar, 2007).
Chapter 8 Timeline
This Concept Check is for your own instruction and will not affect your
Critical Thinking Questions
1. Nineteenth-century reformers, male and female, believed that
females were naturally better suited to teaching than males. Are they?
Explain your answer.
2. Many 19th-century teachers chose the profession out of a profound
sense of mission. Do you think teachers today are still motivated by any
kind of civic or social service? Are you?
3. Nineteenth-century teacher preparation was far less organized and
rigorous than it is today. Would you want to be a teacher under these
circumstances? Why or why not?
4. Would you enjoy living with the families of your students or in a
teacherage with other teachers? Why or why not?
5. On the continuum between Progressive pedagogies like open
classrooms and traditional pedagogies like recitation, where do you
situate yourself? How do you anticipate conducting your own classroom?
6. Early-20th-century teachers organized over inequitable pay scales
and poor benefits. Are there any issues today that you think merit
Key Ideas to Remember
* In the 19th century the trend toward the feminization of teaching
continued because of the need for a cheap labor supply, because popular
ideology saw women as intrinsically better suited than men to the task,
and because young women eagerly sought these jobs.
* Nineteenth-century teacher preparation remained for the most part a
local and haphazard affair, though formal requirements increased after
the Civil War and institutions ranging from high schools, normal schools,
industrial training schools, and summer teacher institutes emerged to
help teachers meet the new standards.
* Nineteenth-century teachers overwhelmingly and almost exclusively
relied on recitation as their pedagogy of choice, shifting gradually from
the small group recitations of the one-room schoolhouse to the collective
recitations of the graded classroom.
* Twentieth-century teachers remained predominately White and female,
but they got progressively older as married teachers and teachers with
children became more common. Teacher educational attainment also grew
over the course of the 20th century.
* In the 20th century as teachers grew older, the boarding round
system was abandoned, first for publicly funded teacherages and later for
private independent dwellings.
* In the 20th century, recitation pedagogy gradually gave way to a
teacher-centered Progressivism that, while not usually going so far as
open classrooms, did bring a more informal approach into most American
classrooms, assisted from time to time by various technological
* Twentieth-century teacher education gradually became a
postsecondary affair dominated by the nation's universities, where most
teachers are now prepared. A small but growing percentage of the nation's
public school teachers are prepared through other means, such as 5th-year
master's programs or "fast-track" alternative certification programs like
Teach for America.
* Teachers began to organize and fight for better pay and benefits in
the early 20th century, when a new breed of older female teacher came
into conflict with an increasingly bureaucratized male administration.
This activism was eclipsed by two world wars and the Great Depression,
but it emerged again in the late 1940s.
* Though at first leery of the teacher strikes of the 1940s, the AFT
and NEA have emerged as the leading national voices for organized
teachers. Despite their common aims, however, efforts to merge the two
organizations have thus far failed.
Key Terms to Remember
American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—Teacher union founded in 1916 that
took an aggressive stance on advocating for issues of teacher salaries
and benefits; membership consisted primarily of male secondary teachers
in the urban setting.
Boarding round—A practice inherited from colonial days and continuing
into the 20th century that involved teachers living with local families.
Teachers typically paid a percentage of their salaries for the privilege
of boarding and eating with the host family.
Collective bargaining—A process of negotiation between union
representatives and employers over wages, benefits, and other working
Eight Year Study—Experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education
Association in the 1930s and early 1940s that found Progressive methods
of high school instruction like collaborative projects to be helpful in
students' post–high school lives.
Industrial training school—Institution founded usually by Northern White
philanthropists after the Civil War to educate African Americans. The
goal of most of these schools and of their White financiers was to
prepare the South's Black population for servant trades, but African
Americans themselves used the institutions largely to acquire the
training necessary to become teachers.
National Education Association (NEA)—Teacher union founded in 1857 that
was composed predominately of female elementary school teachers and
educational administrators from suburban and rural areas; it was more
bureaucratic than the AFT and less prone to strikes and aggressive
Normal school—A government-funded institution that sought to formally
prepare teachers. Normal schools reached their peak in the mid-1920s.
Open classrooms—Pedagogy popular in the 1970s that sought to free
children from many of traditional education's restraints, including age
segregation, fixed furniture, and scripted curriculum.
Pedagogy—Philosophy and practice of teaching, derived from Greek roots
meaning "to lead a child."
Single pay scale—Reform sought and eventually obtained by organizations
representing female teachers that mandated equal pay for equal work
regardless of the sex of the teacher.
Summer teacher institutes—One- to 6-week summer courses of study, often
offered by counties, to provide continuing education to area teachers and
allow them to network with one another.
History of American Teachers
For a concise summary of the history of American teachers from 1772 to
the present, go to: http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/timeline.html
American Federation of Teachers
Additional information about the work and mission of the American
Federation of Teachers union can be found at the AFT's homepage:
National Education Association
The National Education Association's website offers a variety of
resources for and about teachers today: http://www.nea.org/