A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (Progressive Education: Centralization)

[Editor’s Note: This blog is a supplement to blog 40 of this series that examines how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Progressive educators from 1890-1920, according to historian David Tyack, were divided into two large categories: administrative progressives and pedagogical progressives. This isn’t just a splitting of hairs, as both groups played a large role in shaping the educational reforms of the time.

Administrative progressives looked to change school organization and management, giving control to a new class of professionally trained administrators. Their responsibilities included reorganizing school systems under “scientific” principles and guiding them with a professionally trained school superintendent. Pedagogical progressives moved toward greater child-centered teaching and a more democratic relationship between teachers and administrators. Since the pedagogical concerns took place outside the purview of the administrators, it can be argued that the administrative component had a more pronounced effect on the school system.

Why were progressive education and education reform necessities? As we discussed in last week’s post, American life during this time was changing economically, politically, and socially. In addition, there was a surge in enrollment in the public school systems, driven by compulsory education legislation, a wave of immigrants to the country, and a large migration from rural areas into the burgeoning cities. Administrative progressives were able to capitalize on the national concern over equitable and effective schooling, mostly by centralizing schools and implementing curricular differentiation.

Centralization refers to the replacement of a local authority by a more distant authority with more extensive control over what happens within that locality. In the case of education, the shift reflected ceding control to the next highest level of government, be that local, state, or national. In the largest cities, with the greatest amount of population influx, power shifted from neighborhoods or wards to citywide school boards responsible for all educational matters within that city.

Centralization was a gradual process, and one implemented unevenly as schools tried to deal with increasing enrollment and the social problems that came along with it. Most often, the centralization was imposed not by the local educational system but by outsiders who felt the schools were ineffective. Two such examples are Nicholas Murray Butler, a college administrator in New York City, and William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago in that Illinois city.

Those who favored centralization wanted to break the hold neighborhood interests had in city schools, giving city boards of education more power over teacher hiring and firing, school construction and maintenance, and textbook selection. They felt this was necessary because neighborhood-controlled schools were victims of political corruption and unable to effectively educate their children. More power to a central board meant members would be elected by the city as a whole and would be prominent professionals, not small businessmen or shop owners who lived in the neighborhood.

The hope was a centralized board would act in the best interest of the greatest number of citizens, not any particular interest of a small group. Teacher hiring would be done based on individual qualifications, not on family or political connections. Decisions on building contracts for schools or choice of textbook suppliers would be made based on broad educational benefit instead of personal relationships. Members would set overall policy and monitoring but not affect day-to-day operations.

Not everyone was happy with this trend. Many religious groups felt that neighborhood boards reflected the beliefs of their constituents, while a centralized board would not. However, the progressives ultimately won out.

Still, years after most urban schools became centralized, many people remained concerned about the social distance between board members and the working-class citizens. A 1917 study published by Scott Nearing showed that greater than 60% of board of education members were from the commercial or professional classes, not the working class, and he argued that they could hardly represent their constituents’ educational concerns. Twelve years after that, George Counts published another study showing 76% of board members were from the professional ranks, meaning the public schools were becoming less representative of the citizens they were meant to serve.

Another issue was the position of superintendent, a role that wasn’t created until the end of the 19th century with increasing school enrollment. At first, the position only required the man to keep records and examine students to ensure they were learning the curriculum. He had no control over teacher selection, choosing texts and materials, or financial and personnel management. With the move to a citywide board, however, the position changed.

The education board made school policy and hired a superintendent to implement it, a role that required specialized training. In the early 20th century, universities began offering professional education specific to the role, in addition to training high school teachers, with the goal of making education into applied science to be mastered by their students.


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.

To read part 29, Common School Period, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke College, click here.

To read part 30, Common School Period, McGuffey Readers, click here.

To read part 31, Common School Period, Catholic vs. Protestant Education, click here.

To read part 32, Common School Period, Compulsory Education, click here.

To read part 33, Common School Period, African American Education, click here.

To read part 34, Common School Period, National Education Association, click here.

To read part 35, Common School Period, Morrill Land Grant Acts, click here.

To read part 36, Common School Period Wrap-Up, click here.

To read part 37,  Leadership in Transition, click here.

To read part 38,  A Time of Reform, click here.

To read part 39,  School Choice and Structure, click here.

To read part 40, Vocational Education, click here.




[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 173-175.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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