The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education

The following material was excerpted from Chapter 2. Parents and Schools is not available online.


The Peripheral Parent: Making the Most of Marginality

In the 1920S, there was widespread support in the United States for the idea that parents and teachers should work together. However, Americans were still uncertain about the nature and extent of this cooperation. It remained unclear to what degree parents should join in the education of their children. As the movement to connect home and school became more widespread and better organized, new questions appeared, while old ones took on new meaning or assumed greater urgency. Were the home and school separate, albeit interdependent spheres? Should educators interact with parents more or less systematically? What was the proper role of the parent-teacher association (PTA)? Should it act as the advocate for the establishment or keep its distance, laying claim to its own vision and priorities?

Educators and parents approached these questions from different directions. Inspired by a compelling image of themselves as rising professionals, many principals, superintendents, and professors of education came to regard parents as just another element in the school’s constitu- ency. Self-confidence gradually turned to arrogance among these instructional leaders, transforming the idea of an equal partnership between the home and the school into the bureaucratic concept of a professionally managed relationship. Like teachers, taxpayers, or even lawmakers, parents had to be co-opted, taught to appreciate the importance of the school and to accept the limits of their own influence and authority. Some lay women, on the other hand, devoted themselves to the task of organizing parents and teachers nationwide. In the 1920S, they sought to build a net- work of parent-teacher associations across America, even as they tried to delineate the mission of these organizations and sort out the dimensions of their work at the local, state, and national levels.

When the National Congress of Mothers became the National Con- gress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations in 1908, the movement to link the home and the school became more expansive and explicit. While it had always advocated parent-teacher cooperation, the National Congress of Mothers had also sought to promote “the kindergarten movement; . . . legislation for neglected and dependent children, and the education of young people for parenthood.” The renamed organization hardly abandoned such general policy objectives, but it now symbolized the idea that parents and teachers belonged together as coworkers in a quest for both student learning and educational reform. In 1924, the organization modified its name once again, becoming simply the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (NCPT). “Many powerful agencies are working for the schools,” said the president of the NCPT, Margaretta Willis Reeve, and her colleague Ellen C. Lombard, “but the parent- teacher association alone operates in and through them and enlists the active interest of all parents” and all those who are “concerned for the well-being of the community which the boys and girls will soon control.”

The leaders of the NCPT wanted to build a national system of home and school associations, grounded at the local level but tied together by lines of loyalty, authority, and responsibility nationwide. By the mid- 1920S, there were strong state PTAs in every region of the country-New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania having led the way, followed closely by Illinois, Iowa, and California. Only Nevada remained without a state affiliate in 1924, and total membership exceeded 651,000. But the movement was far from lockstep. Many local parent-teacher orgarnzatlons insisted on being independent. The Philadelphia League of Home and School Associations withdrew from the Pennsylvania Congress of Mothers in 1909. “The League has grown too large, its interests too manifold, to do other than stand on its own feet,” said its officers in their annual report. In states like Maine, South Carolina, and Virginia, school improvement associations that could trace their origins to the nineteenth century refused to join the NCPT.

Home and school associations were not all the same. In the 1920S, they served parents and teachers at all educational levels from preschool to high school. Mothers’ and fathers’ clubs were still common as well, but the linchpin of the PTA movement was the elementary school. After all, many children left their mothers for the first time when they entered first grade. At this point, said one champion of PTAs, “the home and the school must cooperate to a very large extent if the child is to be adequately educated.” But even at the elementary level, most parent-teacher associations did not command a large or loyal following. A study of such organizations, conducted in 1925, revealed that fewer than 50 people belonged to a home and school association in towns of less than 2,500; in larger communities, the median membership was 86. In addition, most PTAs were incipient organizations. Their median age in rural America was 3.7 years; in cities, it was less than 6. Such numbers might be explained by the relative youth of the parent-teacher movement in general. More likely, they reflect the white, , middle-class bias of the parent-teacher movement and its loss of cachet after an initial burst of enthusiasm and approval. The turn away from reform after World War I may have been a factor as well. Whatever the reason, PTAs were commonplace but far from universal in the 1920S, and many did not have a firm grip on life. They came and went with remarkable regularity.

That parents graduated from school along with their children certainly contributed to the impermanence of many PTAs. Mothers often outnumbered teachers in these organizations by at least eight to one, and they were usually more interested in their children’s future than educational policy. Because most of their members and officers moved on, PTAs also suffered from a lack of focus and continuity. It was not always clear what they wanted or were meant to be. In 1923, the National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations adopted a five-point platform to define its own agenda and that of its member organizations. PTAs, it said, should educate their members in “the duties and privileges of the organization”; disseminate the principle that parenthood is a year-round job; lighten the load on the schools by restoring to the home some of the duties of child rearing; promote public education; and contribute to the practice of good citizenship. Just what these goals meant on the ground was open to interpretation. By the 1920S, the family in America was anything but a generic institution, and at the grassroots level, parents and teachers often had their own ideas about what to make of their local home and school association.

When educators commented on the work of PTAs, they often complained that such organizations performed three functions, two of which met with their disapproval. Most PTAs were a forum for fellowship and entertainment, “a peg or handle on which to hang a lot of social activities.” Some tried to be a second board of education. They sought “to dominate the school and its policies, instead of leaving them to the school officials.” Finally, PTAs were community service organizations, committed to the idea that the home and the school were distinct but reciprocal institutions. “The ideal Parent-Teacher Association has as its ultimate goal the bring- ing about of a closer understanding between the home and the school,” said James Newell Emery, the principal of the Potter School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Parents found themselves attracted to all three activities, but setting priorities was no easy task. It meant making difficult choices that could lead to conflict among neighbors and friends. In the generation after 1920, a consensus about objectives remained elusive, as PTAs undertook several different and sometimes incongruous functions, including member entertainment, parent and teacher education, school and com- munity service, political activity, and organizational maintenance.

Sometimes educators and school board members tried to discourage PTAs from becoming political by pointing them toward activities that might well be described as recreational. When home and school associations came into existence, those in authority often advised them to combine something useful like fund-raising with the pleasure of getting to know one another. According to Mrs. B. F. Longworthy, a vice president of the NCPT in 1932, educators were “afraid of the onslaught of interested parents, mostly mothers, and cast about to find activities that should keep them busy and out of the mischief of trying to run the schools.” Some parents were just as eager to avoid conflict or embarrassment, and they restricted themselves. In 1925, a large sample of PTAs characterized the majority of their events as entertainment. In both public and private schools, such ritual occasions as public assemblies, athletic contests, and graduation ceremonies afforded mothers and fathers many opportunities to socialize. In one suburban school system, the social committee of the PTA was “responsible for ‘all-school’ parties” that not only explained the school to its patrons but also enabled “parents to know teachers, teachers to know parents, and parents to know each other.”

While meeting your neighbors or your child’s teacher might have been a good reason to join the PTA, such organizations usually looked for other ways to justify their existence. One popular rationale was parent education. In the 1920S, it was widely believed that Americans did not know how to bring up their children. This problem was not confined to black, immigrant, and working-class homes. Led by Lawrence Frank of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation, educators, social workers, psychologists, and social scientists devoted themselves to discovering the scientific principles of child rearing and teaching them to parents. Work in this field had already begun at places like the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station and the Merrill-Palmer School for Motherhood and Home-making in Detroit. Frank persuaded Teachers College of Columbia University to house the Institute for Child Welfare Research and served as a catalyst for the founding of Parents’ Magazine, which debuted in October 1926.

Parent education united the educational establishment with parent activists around a common cause. Under the leadership of Margaretta Reeve, the NCPT actively promoted it. Established in 1929, its Department of Parent Education included a Home Education Committee, which developed and distributed materials for reading courses and study groups. Such training programs were supposed to transform parents, sparking their “interest in the school and the conditions there which each child must be equipped to meet.” It was the job of the NCPT, said Mrs. Reeve, to convince Americans that parents should be ”as well trained for the all- important task of child-rearing as are the teachers” for the demands of classroom instruction. They could both contribute to children’s learning, but what Mrs. Reeve and her colleagues did not realize or refused to acknowledge was that such thinking encouraged educators to believe that parents did not deserve to be involved in school policy-making.

In the 1920S, parent education found its way into many public and private schools. Cleveland and Des Moines sponsored it, as did the exclusive Tower Hill School in Wilmington, Delaware. The National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) devoted its entire yearbook to the topic in 1929. As individuals, parents could not be relied on to educate themselves, the NSSE said. The school was the natural setting for such training. It al- ready had most parents’ attention; they naturally turned to it “for guid- ance in regard to problems relating to their children.” Why not make the most of this situation?

Both educators and activists believed that the PTA was the ideal host for parent education. “It is a great School for Parents-and for Teachers,” said Margaretta Reeve, capable of creating a “single standard in home, school and community.” It might even be a valuable weapon in America’s struggle against the cultural deterioration that could result from too much ethnic heterogeneity. In the high school, the PTA could be a source of useful information about social life and the curriculum. At lower levels, it conveyed to mothers and fathers a better understanding of educational methods or the importance of proper habit formation. The parents of preschool children were not to be overlooked; they had to take responsibility for introducing their children to such values as “truthfulness, cleanliness, [and] respect for the rights of others.” It was up to the PTA to teach them how to give their children lessons in morality.

A responsible PTA made certain that parents and teachers knew their respective roles. At the North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois, the chief function of the home and school association was “to educate the parents to a better understanding of their position in the scheme of education in their children’s lives.” The NCPT’s Margaretta Reeve believed that mothers and fathers were indispensable but often ignorant or misinformed; they could be insensitive to the work of the teacher or blind to their children’s flaws. They needed to learn about the school’s aims and the principle behind each of the its rules and regulations. Teachers, on the other hand, could not be effective unless they understood the educational ideals of the home and the facts about each child’s environment and heredity. It was up to the PTA to be the forum for the exchange of such in- formation, building a community of understanding and a harmony of expectations between the home and the school.

In the 1920S, educators and even leaders in the parent-teacher movement remained hesitant about the degree to which the home and the school could be equal partners. It was parent education, not teacher education, after all, that was sorely lacking. However, both educators and parent activists did not hesitate to say that the home should be an active and aggressive advocate for the public school. Led by a new generation of university-trained administrators, researchers, and instructional experts, public education was expanding rapidly in size and scope after World War I. Senior high schools began to attract more and more enrollment. The junior high school, ability grouping, special education, and mental testing debuted or proliferated. Parents’ votes could mean the difference between success or failure for such reforms. They could make a majority in favor of the requisite local taxation or persuade state legislators to enact a bill or authorize a vital appropriation. But could they be relied on to consistently back the schools? It was the job of the PTA to marshal parental support. “The primary reason for such an association,” said The American School Board Journal in 1919, is “to create intelligent school sentiment and to give that sentiment organized form.”

As advocates for public education, parents found themselves in an alliance with the educational establishment that called for considerable diplomacy. While expected to make their views known, they had to avoid challenging or upstaging school authorities. Parents should “begin work from the outside,” said Angelo Patri in 1925, and gradually make their way in. Discussion of such esoteric topics as the curriculum should not serve to introduce strangers. “Practice on the building and the equipment first,” Patri recommended, and whether or not it was because of him, this advice took form in the behavior of many home and school associations. Responding to a survey conducted in 1932, more than 150 PTAs in rural Pennsylvania mainly reported purchasing supplies and fixtures for their school library, playground, and music department. Local PTAs in California concentrated on improving buildings and grounds. In the 1920S, the Delaware Congress of Parents and Teachers focused public attention on the state’s pressing need for new schoolhouses. Following the Delaware’s example, the NCPT conducted an organizing campaign in North Dakota, hoping more resources soon would flow toward its public schools.

It was an open question whether organizations dominated by women could be relied on to achieve political goals. After all, school boards and administrative offices were still largely the province of men. There were more than a few who strongly believed that for just this reason PTAs needed male volunteers; fathers had to be recruited to lobby for public education. In Denver, they joined the fray when hard times threatened the city’s schools. Responding to an attack by “selfish interests,” they organized themselves into councils that generated sentiment in favor of the schools and the good work they were doing. However, Denver’s fathers were exceptional because men were often made to feel unwelcome in parent-teacher associations. In 1933, the United Parents Associations (UPA) of New York conducted a survey that revealed the city’s women to be at best ambivalent about the place of men in PTAs. Some said frankly that men did not belong, while others “thought fathers should be satisfied to perform those particular tasks which seem most fitting for men.” But troubled times required new thinking, and the UPA urged PTAs to focus on issues like vocational guidance to inspire “a sense of mutuality” between men and women.

Gender was not an impediment when parent-teacher associations considered whether or not to address social issues. With or without male members, most state and local PTAs joined with educators, social workers, and other helping professionals to improve children’s health and welfare. Their work assumed a supporting role for government within the larger realm of female voluntarism. Begun by the NCPT in 1925, the “summer round-up” of schoolchildren to identify and correct such common problems as swollen adenoids and poor vision soon became a popular pro- gram at the grassroots level. State, regional, and local organizations endorsed child labor legislation in Alabama; supported juvenile court reform in Iowa and California; sponsored dental clinics and vaccination programs in New York, New Jersey, and Washington; and fought for mothers’ pensions and against immoral films and literature in a host of states. In Iowa, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, PTAs distributed food and clothing to children made destitute by the Depression. It was even said that rural PTAs could counteract the exodus of the young from the countryside. By bringing children together with responsible adults at school, they could bind the young to their home surroundings, causing them “to question the city’s call to novel pleasures and companionships.”

To be sure, some parents, educators, and reformers questioned the wisdom of PTAs involving themselves in school and community service or child welfare reform. Trouble was just around the corner if they became a forum for local disputes or an instrument of personal ambition. PTAs also had to guard against spreading themselves too thin. A study of the activities of home and school associations in the 1930S revealed that the presidents of 100 local PTAs ranked parent education far ahead of community service as an important function of their organizations. But for women like Margaretta Reeve, the relationship between the home and the school had profound implications for reform in America. They thought of themselves as their neighbors’ conscience. Working together as mothers and teachers, middle-class women could be a force for enlightened public opinion.

Home and school associations reached no consensus in their struggle for self-definition in the 1920S. Fellowship, enlightenment, advocacy, and community service all claimed a prominent place on their agenda. Although such functions were not necessarily complementary, each drew on a facet of the ideology of domesticity. PTAs gave women the opportunity to be both leaders and followers in defense of middle-class values and Protestant Americanism. The conflict between the home and the school that attracted attention as early as the I840S had not disappeared. Writing nearly a century later, sociologist Willard Waller concluded that this conflict was inevitable. “Parents and teachers are natural enemies,” he intoned, “predestined each for the discomfiture of the other.” They came at the child from opposite poles, the former representing the interests of the school and the latter the family and community. Pupils might actually benefit from the contrast, Waller said. However, many educators and parent activists rejected this assessment. In the 1920S, they aired opinions, discussed options, and sometimes formed alliances in pursuit of a common goal. They shared a vision of the home and the school as distinct but reciprocal institutions. But they also struggled with some basic and persistent questions. Should mothers and fathers speak in their own voice or only in harmony with the professionals? Should educators treat parents as equals, giving them the respect and power to which a partner is entitled, or only as subordinates, carefully managing all aspects of their relationship? As prosperity turned to depression, this dilemma became more, not less, important. The responses of educators and parents were not always conciliatory or predictable.


From Mutuality to Manipulation: Home and School between the Wars

In 1928, Carleton Washburne told the readers of Child Study magazine something they already knew. Principals and teachers could be aloof, holding parents at arm’s length. Parents, on the other hand, could be opinionated, insisting that educators implement their recommendations. Having taught at the San Francisco Normal School before becoming school superintendent in Winnetka, Illinois, Washburne surely must have known people who behaved this way. The parental stereotype appealed especially to principals and superintendents because it simplified matters. Those who joined home and school associations could be dismissed as politicians or social climbers. My experience with PTAs, said one school administrator in 1935, has “convinced me that more often than not a few of the more aggressive parents will take charge of the organization.” Treating it like an end in itself, they turned the PTA into a political fiefdom. Educators had to shed such biased expectations, Washburne thought. Schools needed both the confidence and the criticism of parents, and neither could be had unless the professionals respected the parents’ right to make requests and express opinions.

Washburne was not alone in believing that parents should speak with an independent voice. The idea received considerable play in the years after World War I because it called attention to an important point of ambiguity. If the home and the school were distinct but reciprocal institutions, just what did that mean? Some thought that parents deserved the teacher’s ear because they were masters of a significant though separate sphere; they controlled the home environment whose relevance to the school’s work was undeniable, if indirect. But parents were also every child’s first teachers. Learning began at home, entitling mothers and fathers to the school’s attention and respect. Clearly, teachers had to take them into account, but was it because they performed a distinct, albeit complementary function or because parents’ and teachers’ work was largely the same? Were parents specialists in a related field or direct competitors?

The final report of the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection maintained that the home and the school were separate institutions in an interdependent but differentiated system of education. Published in 1932, the report stressed the importance of the home as a source of strength and character. Parents who loved and respected their children taught them discipline and self-reliance; they built a solid foundation for emotional health. Many mothers and fathers felt the same way. “The objective of the home is to care for and develop the emotional life of the child,” researchers reported one mother as saying; “the objective of the school,” on the other hand, “is to promote education, that is, …intellectual life and scholarship.” Many educators, social workers, and child-rearing experts did not accept this division of labor. They took the position that there was a close relationship between the cognitive and affective domains. Of course, the professionals were not all of one mind; some authorities thought that schools should focus on their accustomed tasks because by the time most children entered first grade, the psychological die had been cast. “It seems safe to say,” wrote Gerald Pearson of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, “that the personality and behavior of an individual are molded during his preschool years by the [emotional] interplay. . . between his parents and himself.” However, in the 1930s, many schools in the United States assumed responsibility for the promotion of good mental hygiene.

Parents could not hide from such internecine disagreements. They were forced to consider whether they should accept advice from the school on the affective and ethical aspects of child rearing. When it came to values, the NCPT believed that the family’s sovereignty was supreme as long as ethnic, racial, and social class differences did not complicate matters. Margaretta Reeve cautioned teachers against relieving mothers and fathers of their obligation to provide moral and religious training. “You must throw back on the parents the duties which belong to them,” she said, compelling them “to become what they were of old: the molders of the characters of their children.” The functional difference between families and schools also impressed Helen Bott. “I believe that a much finer sense of justice and social obligation can be developed in an enlightened family group,” she told the readers of Parents’ Magazine in 1933, “than in any institution which rests on a basis of strict individual accounting.”

When it came to academic matters, teachers expected parents to respect their professional authority. The “bugbear” called homework revealed just how distinct some educators thought the cognitive work of the school should be. According to Angelo Patri, teachers should not assign homework to children under ten years of age. Boys and girls needed time for play and relaxation as well as work. For older pupils, Patri said, homework should do no more than “tie up the loose ends of the child’s knowledge,” giving him or her “the feeling of a finished, well-rounded day.” In the I920S, many educators condemned homework, arguing that it threatened children’s mental and emotional health without contributing much to their education. Teachers were the experts in conveying the subject matter taught at school, and mothers risked disaster if they tried to intervene. “The success of the school is not dependent on homework but upon the teacher herself,” said one experienced educator, writing for Child Welfare, the national PTA magazine.

Homework was counterproductive in another way. By making “the home subservient to the school,” it alienated both parents and pupils and encouraged early school leaving, said Albert E. Winship, the editor of the Journal of Education. Educators in Newark, New Jersey, eliminated it altogether for being unfair to pupils whose homes were without many books and whose parents had little or no education. Most of Winship’s peers were not prepared to go quite that far. According to the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, total dispensation should be granted only to those in elementary school, but even at the high school level, homework had to be assigned in moderation. Such a policy, argued the chair of its Conference Committee on Home and School, would permit the very young to take advantage of the “real educational opportunities in the home,” those arising from informal contact with adults. Adolescents should not have too much homework because they needed time to themselves.

In the nineteenth century, teachers assigned homework to instill discipline in students and overcome parental indifference to the school. Educators thought of it as serving another purpose by the 1920s. The disintegration of family and community that seemed to be epidemic made it perhaps the only link between generations. But educators also said that homework was an external presence in the home. Lobbying for exclusive control over academics, they advised parents to treat it like work, isolated in time and space. Approached in this way, it would be more likely to help them teach discipline and self-control. “A child’s job is his school life,” said Fred Arthur Nims, the school superintendent in Haddonfield, New Jersey, “and nothing should be allowed to distract from that.” Lessons done at home were the equivalent of work adults brought home from the office, and parents should provide a sanctuary for their students “away from all distractions.” By the same token, teachers and children should not expect parents to assist with homework; “they have had their school days,” said the president of the Montana State Normal School, and “do not wish to spend too many evenings teaching lessons to their children.” Such sentiments, no doubt, often prevailed at home. “I am not prepared to teach arithmetic, grammar, reading, and spelling,” one father complained; “those are the things my boy brings home as homework.” The PTA could help parents understand their role. It could teach them not to confuse their children by questioning the school’s methods. It could help them realize that homework and home life were not the same.

In 1936, the readers of Parents’ Magazine expressed their opinions about homework. While some favored it, most were opposed. It burdened them and their children unnecessarily, detracting too much from the simple pleasures of the family. The home should be off-limits to the outside world, including the school. As one man from Wisconsin put it, “Let the home, church, and just living have some leeway during these impressionable years.” Americans had grown accustomed to the fragmentation of their lives. The quality of life at home and the freedom of families from outside interference depended on the maintenance of substantial separation. Parents and teachers had much in common, but they also presided over different domains.

Their views about homework notwithstanding, most Americans were unwilling to hand the school an academic monopoly. The idea that parents had a cognitive contribution to make derived from the venerable belief that the family was every child’s first and primary educator. “The home influence is the greatest of all,” said The Massachusetts Teacher in 1850, “and, if this be defective, no other can repair the injury.” The family–especially the middle-class family–had lost its intellectual edge by the beginning of the twentieth century, but even the most dedicated educators still had to admit that they could never replace the home. So much “unconscious teaching” goes on there, said Martha Mason, the editor of Child Welfare Magazine, that a woman “cannot be a good mother unless she is a good teacher.” The headmaster of an elite boarding school acknowledged the significance of the family. Among those institutions that educate the child, said Alfred E. Stearns of the Phillips Andover Academy, “none plays a more important part than does the home.”

But by the 1920S, it was widely recognized that the family was no longer authoritative in education or child rearing. Experts routinely questioned the behavior of parents, challenging their judgment and wisdom. Social agencies often displaced them in the lives of children. Paradoxically, the family’s loss also may have been its gain. As the home has become less autonomous, wrote Benjamin and Sidonie Gruenberg, themselves well known for their views on child rearing, it has become more important than ever in the child’s life. It was an integrating force, putting everything else in perspective. It, and it alone, could be “a continuous guiding influence,” a constant source of affection, protection, and counsel. The leadership of the NCPT could hardly disagree. “The home as a molder of personality, as a controller of the social destiny of children, is still the leading educational institution for both parents and children,” wrote Ada Hart Arlitt, the chair of its Committee on Parent Education. Professionals outside the home conceded that parents remained indispensable. No social agency can truly stand in loco parentis, said George Hastings of the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. M. E. Moore, the school superintendent in Beaumont, Texas, put it bluntly: “Nothing can be in- vented,” he said in 1923, “to take the place of the home in the education of the child.”

Before parents could make the most of their influence, they needed to become aware of its significance. They had to realize just how important they could be. Some educators believed that mothers and fathers would never learn to speak for themselves; they would always be inhibited by the fear of official resistance or hostility. Others complained that the PTA was a self-indulgent organization. Dominated by a handful of power-hungry parents, it usually became an end in itself. Parents turned this argument around, arguing that by working together they learned to believe in themselves. They realized just how much the relationship between parents and teachers was characterized by interdependence and reciprocity. The PTA is “neutral ground,” said Margaretta Reeve, on which parents and teachers meet as equals “to discuss their common interest, the child, who is also the pupil.” Educators, even those predisposed to agree, remained unconvinced. Without “the constant enthusiasm and encouragement” of the principal or headmaster, said Isabel Damman of the North Shore Country Day School, no parents’ association such as ours would exist.

It is worth asking whether educators really wanted free-thinking parents. They would be a constant problem that might force the school to adjust to the home rather than the other way around. Not unlike their predecessors, many school administrators in the 1920S took a proactive approach. Unlike most teachers and school directors, principals and superintendents believed that they should manage parents, using their esoteric knowledge and administrative experience to bring the home and the school into proper alignment. Working with parents and the PTA was not for the uninitiated; it required professional training in the science and art of public relations.


A Question of Trust

Between 1920 and 1940, there was a crisis of confidence in the United States. Change was ubiquitous. At first, Americans faced a world transformed by war; no longer could they assume that events in Europe and Asia would spare them. At home, the nation coped with Prohibition, women’s suffrage, and rapid economic growth. The automobile was rearranging the utilization of space, altering the pattern of urban and suburban life. The Depression brought a different kind of uncertainty, as unemployment disrupted millions of lives. Capitalism itself seemed to be in jeopardy, and there were no simple solutions in sight. It was not even clear where to look for help.

Families and schools felt the stress associated with such change. In whom should Americans invest their trust? Were schools deserving of the power they exercised? Could parents be expected to live up to their responsibilities? These questions were met with no shortage of opinion. Educators, social workers, and psychologists wrote at length about families and schools. More often than not, they told parents and teachers what they wanted to hear. Trust yourself, the experts said, because your judgment or instincts are right. But compared to the. family, the school inspired greater confidence among those trained to dispense advice. More and more, pundits proclaimed, educators must take command. They should persuade families to have faith in schools.

Parents struggling to retain some control over their children’s schooling could turn to the pages of Parents’ Magazine for help. Mothers and fathers could make a difference, its contributors often said, by making certain to find the right school for their child, if nothing else. They could insist that meetings with teachers occur not just on school grounds. “To establish the most thorough understanding all around,” said Alice Fox Pitts in 1929, “you should invite your children’s teachers to visit your home.” The president of the Progressive Education Association urged parents to take more responsibility for the quality of their children’s schools. “The modern mother,” said Stanwood Cobb, “is distinctly interested in the education of her child, and is not willing to delegate this important matter to others.” She must acquaint herself with the newest methods in education; she must study her child’s school, analyzing it for its strengths and weaknesses. “She must become qualified to choose the right school for her child.”

In sharing responsibility for the education of the child, said Benjamin and Sidonie Gruenberg, parents should not be the only ones to make concessions. “They will want to accommodate themselves to the requirements of the school,” they wrote. “But it is fair for parents to ask: Must all the adjustments be made by the home, must all the adjustments be made to the school?” Cooperation was difficult to establish, let alone maintain, especially in immigrant and working-class neighborhoods. Most schools functioned more or less smoothly without any input from parents, and the resulting alienation was self-sustaining. “Schools don’t use parents because they are unreliable,” complained Martha Ray Reynolds in 1935, “and parents see no point in being reliable as long as schools don’t need them.”

Between 1920 and 1940, the burden of adjustment fell more and more heavily on parents. Emboldened by a blizzard of research on child development and learning, educators and experts on family life urged mothers and fathers to cooperate with school authorities. Parents should reinforce the lessons learned in school; they should defer to the greater wisdom of those who had been professionally trained. In a series of articles published by Parents’ Magazine in 1927 and 1928, Elizabeth Cleveland of the Merrill-Palmer School spoke to mothers and fathers from the vantage point of the classroom. Parents, she said, must not dominate their children. Family life, after all, was not an end in itself but “a means to worthy adjustment to the larger life of the community.” Autocratic parents worked at cross-purposes with teachers and society. If parents would only listen to their children, giving them a “voice and choice,” then the home experience could be made “to function in cooperation with, and not against [the] school.” Julian Butterworth went one step further, putting into words what many educators must have thought. A professor of rural education at Cornell University and the author of a popular book on PTAs, he advised school officials not to get too excited about parental suggestions or complaints. Such input might be “very beneficial,” Butterworth said, but parents had to be made to understand that they were in no position to rule on the merit of their own ideas. Making decisions about educational policy and practice was “a technical job that should be left to the teachers and supervisors under the general direction of the board of education.”

Angelo Patri lent his considerable weight to the idea that parents should bend with the school. He urged them to make sacrifices, taxing themselves unselfishly and making time to learn about its work and monitor its performance. However, Patri did not expect mothers and fathers to alter the direction of education. Thinking perhaps of the immigrant families who patronized his junior high school in New York City, he advised parents to trust teachers. “Leave the child with the teacher and go away cheerfully,” he said to those whose children were just beginning school. She “knows exactly what the first day’s work should be” and “how it should be done. Show her that you have faith in her.” Teach your child to respect teachers. Above all, do not be afraid to confide in them. “All sorts of mistakes and misunderstandings occur,” Patri wrote, “because mothers have not been frank with the teachers.”

Patri’s belief in teachers never wavered, and he counseled parents to always have confidence in them. Even when the school’s policies or methods confounded them, parents should not lose faith in the teacher’s judgment or good intentions. Intelligence tests were a case in point. Developed for the United States Army during World War I, they became an integral part of the school’s arsenal in the 1920S. Educators treated I Q scores as esoteric information not to be shared with parents, who might misinterpret them. But according to Patri, good teachers measured their pupils’ moral as well as mental dimensions. “The teacher’s judgment is to be given consideration equal to that of any test,” he said. Living with the child, “she knows his purpose and his will power. No test has been devised to measure these.” Like most educators, Patri applied a double standard: teachers might be more qualified than parents to evaluate and educate children, but if pupils fell short in school, no one was more to blame than the pupils themselves. Teachers could not be expected to do for them what they were unwilling to do for themselves. Parents had to teach their children to take responsibility for their own education.

Such advice notwithstanding, most parents and taxpayers held schools accountable for the education of children, but assessing them was no easy task. What was the best indicator of their success or failure? In the minds of many laymen, the absence of grade repetition indicated all was well. It was a sign of trouble, on the other hand, when many students were held back, a problem that was sure to damage any school’s reputation. By the late 1930S, some urban, superintendents favored promoting students regardless of their academic performance. New York, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis implemented a policy of social promotion. Along with increased class size and homogeneous ability grouping, this practice closed the gap between income and expenses. But the school’s image as a public trust was also important, and by the late 1920S, many educators concluded that to maintain their standing in the community they had to do more than just increase efficiency. They had to make a systematic and comprehensive effort to shape public opinion.

As had been the case with scientific management and bureaucratic administration, American business supplied the model. for educators to follow. Railroad companies like Illinois Central, Burlington, and Union Pacific were among the first to exploit the power of the press, and in the 1880s, both electric and telephone utilities also began to acknowledge the importance of good public relations. At the Westinghouse Electric Company and American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) management decided that the future should not be left to chance. Public acceptance of new products and regulated competition required company intervention, including a well-orchestrated campaign of popular education. Through paid advertisements, ghostwritten articles, press releases, and even films, Westinghouse and AT&T sought to spread their message. Not overlooking future customers, the telephone company distributed movies to schools, while the National Electric Light Association (NELA) made a concerted effort to influence curriculum. It published books for use in schools and tried to affect the content of textbooks written for the mass market. By 1921, more than eight hundred high schools in Illinois were receiving pamphlets from the NELA.

The gains to be made from such efforts impressed more than a few managers and decision makers in American education. College presidents like Charles R. Van Hise at the University of Wisconsin and William Rainey Harper at the University of Chicago saw a parallel between their work and that done by public utilities because the state empowered universities to provide the public service that was higher education. Even more to the point, growth required self-promotion; to recruit students and attract donations, colleges and universities had to build their image. Along with Chicago and Wisconsin, such prestigious schools as Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan devoted resources to public relations. In 1908, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hired the same consultant to massage their reputations, a move that anticipated the founding of the American Association of College News Bureaus by nearly a decade. In the same year that the noted public relations theoretician Edward Bernays published Crystallizing Public Opinion, he began a second career in higher education, accepting a teaching position at New York University.

Elementary and secondary educators were also quick to recognize the advantages of systematic image-making. As early as 1920, prominent periodicals like School and Society and The American School Board Journal published articles touting the benefits of advertising. At Teachers College, students could take a course called Educational Publicity, and prominent members of the educational establishment such as Ellwood P. Cubberley of Stanford University and Arthur B. Moehlman, a professor of educational administration and supervision at the University of Michigan, taught prospective colleagues not to take the school’s good name for granted. In addition, they advised those already in the field to develop a comprehensive strategy for public school relations. There were many different ways to shape public opinion, and schools should take advantage of them all. But for men like Cubberley and Moehlman, one stood out from all the rest. Cultivating the relationship between the home and the school was the best way to develop a good reputation. Institutional reciprocity meant concentrating and building on the idea of parents as advocates for schools and schooling.

Arthur Moehlman specialized in the field of public school relations. Published in 1927, his first book on the subject set the standard for its time. Education has become so complex, he wrote, that “the average man is bewildered.” Because he will not make the effort to inform himself, educators had to take the initiative. They had to organize a “factual information service for the purpose of keeping the public informed of its educational program.” Moehlman advised superintendents to leverage their social contacts. Teachers as well as administrators should call on churches, fraternal orders, and businessmen’s clubs. They should make certain that the local newspaper was their ally, disseminating information about the school and creating a favorable impression. The voice of the press could be amplified or, if need be, muffled-by such in-house publications as newsletters, annual reports, and the student newspaper. The school plant made an important contribution to good public relations. Beautiful school buildings and well-manicured grounds promoted civic pride and inspired confidence in the school.

According to Moehlman, regular contact with parents was the most important element of any school’s public relations campaign. Mothers and fathers, after all, had a vested interest that could be made into persuasive advertising. “The schools will progress,” he said, ”as the parents understand thoroughly their work, and insist upon the best of modern practice for their offspring.” Communication with the home was the place to begin, and it had to proceed on many fronts. School officials could address parents’ groups like the PTA; plays, concerts, exhibitions, and athletic contests were sure to attract parental attention. The California Congress of Parents and Teachers swiftly accepted the new mantra to good public relations. After studying educational trends for a decade, its Education Committee stated that its new purpose was to interpret the schools to the public and “create a strong body of support for education.” But not all parent organizations were so cooperative, and educators always had to keep the nature of their audience clearly in mind. “Varying degrees of intelligence and comprehension,” Moehlman said, made the effect of reports written for the home unpredictable at best. Open to misreading and misunderstanding, they might do more harm than good.

In the 1930s, public relations in education became more important than ever. Straining budgets at every level of government, the Depression forced educators to rethink the way in which they laid claim to public resources. The president of the National Education Association (NEA) urged parents to insist on adequate funding for public education. “Parents,” he said, “your defense of schools is the only hope in this period of taking stock and reconstruction.” School boards and superintendents had to lead the way, polishing the public school’s image even more carefully than before. Through the efforts of the Joint Commission on the Emergency in Education, appointed by the NEA in 1932, and the Educational Policies Commission, which appeared three years later, educators trumpeted the idea that the public school was the cornerstone of local government and the foundation of American democracy. But to survive the crisis without massive cuts, schools could neither rest on such ideological laurels nor rely on the existing reservoir of good will toward education that was based on experience and tradition. As Arthur Moehlman observed in 1938, educators had to adopt a more aggressive and functional: strategy of “social interpretation.” They had “to maintain and improve these attitudes by . . . educating the adult population to current institutional conditions and needs.” They also had to stress “the importance of good institutional practice and efficiency” and capitalize on “the fundamental value of confidence growing out of personal contacts.” In other words, teachers and principals had to take advantage of every opportunity to sell themselves and their work to the American people, enlisting parents to the cause by drawing on their intrinsic need to believe in the high quality of their children’s schooling. The reciprocal relationship between the home and the school had to be exploited in hard times.

Although it was by no means clear how to go about educational image-making, most educators believed that knowledge was essential to good public relations. Somehow parents and taxpayers had to learn more about teachers and schools. In the 1930S, many school directors and superintendents concluded that they were not making the most of those occasions when outsiders came to school of their own volition. Athletic events certainly fell into this category, but their outcome could never be guaranteed, and educators decided that they were overlooking one of the most important opportunities for conveying accurate and up-to-date information about the status and prospects of public education. Paralyzed by tradition, they had failed to recognize the potential for better public relations represented by every graduate’s last day in school. Commencement should be not a meaningless exercise in academic formalism but an occasion for parent and community education.

As early as 1927, Arthur Moehlman urged school executives to make the most of the high school commencement. If they “would properly organize this event in the interests of the parents,” he said, “much good might be accomplished.” It was a perfect opportunity to explain the school program and strengthen the home’s commitment to the school. The NEA touted what it called “vitalized commencements,” suggesting that educators use graduation day to teach the public about the Seven Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. It recommended, for example, that commencements in 1930 focus on worthy home membership. “Let the activities of the commencement season interpret to the patrons the specific contributions of the school to the homes of the community, such as the teaching of better habits, wiser use of leisure time, [or] increased vocational effectiveness.”

For graduating seniors, such programs could not possibly improve their secondary education. Their high school days were over, but they could make a lasting contribution to the future of their alma mater by participating as speakers, not just listeners, at commencement. “The commencement program offers an unexcelled opportunity for the right kind of school publicity,” said Robert Shaw, the deputy superintendent of public instruction in Pennsylvania. It gives the superintendent the chance to prove that the taxpayers’ money has been wisely spent and call attention to the educational needs of the community. “The schools of the nation are passing through a trying and critical period,” said the NEA’s assistant director of publications, Lyle W. Ashby. They need to take advantage of “every opportunity to interpret their work to the public. The high school graduation is undeniably an opportunity for effective interpretation. … Why not use it as an instrument for informing the public about the schools–their needs, aims, and achievements?”

In the 1930s, school authorities made the vitalized commencement commonplace. Families and friends of graduating seniors became a captive audience for educational salesmanship. Seated in high school stadiums, gymnasiums, or auditoriums to honor the graduates, they witnessed demonstrations of the curriculum, pageants about the history of education, and even discussions of school tax rates and building programs. In Amelia, Virginia, the 1934 high school commencement asked those assembled to reflect on the current status of education in their community. One student pointed out that tax rates on real property in the state were among the lowest in the nation, while another “discussed the retrenchment program carried on in the school system and made clear that the county board of education . . . had cut terms and reduced salaries so far as could be done.”

Vitalized commencements often adopted historical motifs. Both the importance of tradition and the prevalence of progress were themes that led graduation ceremonies to feature venerable alumni, commemorate school foundings, or examine the evolution of public education over time. Between 1933 and 1937, the senior high school in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, devoted its commencements to such topics as the opening of the first public high school in the state, the virtues of the current curriculum, and the fiftieth anniversary of the town’s first high school graduation. In Madison, Nebraska, the class of 1934 marched into the high school auditorium between a formation of alumni representing every class that had ever graduated from the school. Selected seniors then delivered speeches on the value of a modern high school education. Exercises like these were repeated countless times across the United States during the Depression.

Cultivating the school’s reputation at home and in the community required more than just the careful orchestration of graduation day. School boards and superintendents had to redouble their efforts to enlist the PTA in their image-making campaign. “The parent-teacher association,” Arthur Moehlman said, is “the best organized single agency around which a public relations program may be developed.” Many teacher educators and school administrators agreed. No other organization could explain public education as effectively, promoting “cooperation and mutual understanding between the schools and the community.” According to the editor of Child Welfare Magazine, superintendents in fifty-six cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Chicago, endorsed the PTA as the best means of representing their schools to clients and constituents. After all, a well-run PTA itself reflected credit on any educational system. More to the point, it could convince the community to accept curricular reform, maintain the system’s operating budget, or finance school plant expansion. Demonstrations of schoolwork became standard fare at PTA meetings during the Depression, forming the basis for nearly three-quarters of all home and school association programs in Philadelphia by the mid-1930s. Instead of raising money to buy books or basketballs, Ellwood Cubberley said, the PTA should direct its efforts “toward the formation of public opinion in favor of higher taxes that the school may be provided with all the needed equipment.” The superintendent who approached his community about a bond issue without the help of the PTA was imprudent indeed.

Incorporating the PTA into a public relations program required a special kind of educational leadership. School authorities had to make their influence felt without appearing to be interfering. Parent councils offered an alternative to the PTA that seemed better suited to the special needs of the 1930s. Attached to each grade or homeroom, councils improved communication, bringing “more intimate contact and knowledge” than was possible in “the larger, more generalized parent-teacher association.” They also gave educators the advantage of more “complete control which is not so easily possible in the parent-teacher organization.” But, said Moehlman, “this condition is its own greatest weakness since the desirability of complete institutional control of any parental cooperating group is questionable.” Dependence dampened parents’ enthusiasm and ultimately made their endorsement politically less valuable by casting into doubt the depth of their conviction.

Published in 1939, Home-School-Community Relations by William Yeager further examined this dilemma. Simply extolling the schools to the public was no longer adequate, Yeager said. School boards and superintendents had to choose between interpreting them in a way that invited passive parental participation and actively involving the home and community through “mutual interaction.” Some educators preferred PTAs to classroom councils because they nurtured feelings of parental autonomy without sacrificing too much administrative control. A principal could join it, Cubberley said, but “remain somewhat in the background.” As an ex officio member of its executive committee, she could “help direct the organization without seeming to do so or being too prominent in the meetings.” Maintaining the illusion of parental independence was no easy task. Superintendents had to rely on the subtle influence they exer- cised by being the primary source of information for PTAs. Serving as program coordinator, a chief school officer could help shape PTA policy, while avoiding the limelight. One superintendent had a standing place on the agenda of all eight home and school associations in his district, carefully preparing presentations for every meeting because he believed that parental support depended on such regular contact. But educators had to be careful not to insult the intelligence of laymen. Even the most cooperative parents would rebel if “undiluted propaganda [was] thrown at them without thought or study.” Educators should always credit community leaders, Moehlman further advised, for “personal publicity” could quickly turn from good to bad and should never outrank leadership or integrity.

Of course, the PTA could be an independent voice in the politics of education, and even experts occasionally argued that outspoken parents were an asset to the school and community. They could prevent school officials from falling “under the influence of a few powerful taxpayers,” Julian Butterworth said, and be a potent force for constructive change. “Every school system,” said the editor of the national PTA magazine, “needs back of it an organized, interested body of citizens, free from the control of any individual or group, free to express progressive opinions and to inspire clear thinking on the part of school officials.” Such advice notwithstanding, most mothers and fathers hesitated to question the policies and practices of their children’s schools. It was, of course, a question of trust, and during the Depression, fear often undermined trust. But the school was a symbol of continuity in a world threatened by change, and belief in a reciprocal relationship between the home and the school remained in place, even though many educators became more defensive, convinced now more than ever that they had to exploit the family’s natural interest in and commitment to schools.

One small corner of American education resisted the temptation to manipulate the home. Not all progressive schools were parent centered, but in the 1930s, those teachers and administrators who considered themselves to be at the cutting edge did not give up on the idea, introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century, that parents and teachers should be equal partners, engaged in open cooperation. But the relationship between the home and the school was difficult to negotiate even in progressive circles, creating its own special dilemmas.


Parents and Teachers in Progressive Schools

Far from disappearing after World War I, child-centered education maintained a strong hold, especially among affluent parents who patronized exclusive schools. In the Northeast and Midwest, many independent and suburban public schools practiced the educational theories and techniques of reformers like Francis Parker, Caroline Pratt, and John Dewey. Just as these schools wanted to make children more responsible for their own education, they welcomed parent participation. At the North Shore Country Day in Winnetka, Illinois, and the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, parent associations tried to make mothers and fathers appreciate the importance of their contribution to the educational scheme. However, parents presented a special problem for progressive schools. Although most were well educated, they were often unfamiliar with the newest ideas and methods in elementary and secondary education. Some even had doubts about progressive schools, and it was feared that they might not reenroll their children if they did not learn to understand and respect what was happening in these schools’ classrooms.

Being both mentor and partner created a problem for progressive educators that, while easy to recognize, was not so easy to solve. How could they shift from one role to the other without breakdowns? Working with families from all socioeconomic levels, teachers at a public school in Washington, D.C., tried to deal with this dilemma. In the fall of 1932, the W. B. Powell Elementary School organized study groups for mothers and fathers who had children in the first grade, hoping that through the “intelligent understanding gained from a first-hand acquaintance with the ideals and products of a progressive school, the child’s highest development would result.” But the effort was handicapped from the beginning because the superintendent, Frank W. Ballou, who modernized the district’s administrative practices, was never enthusiastic about child-centered instruction. Even parents who chose a progressive school were not always prepared for what they encountered. Discipline was not maintained in the traditional way, and teachers did not appear to stress the mastery of basic skills. “Unfortunately,” said one contributor to Progressive Education in 1934, “when experimental education broke through the thin assumption that teachers in themselves do the teaching of children, it brought with it a new need for them to retain the attitude of instructors of parents in methods of dealing with children.”

Progressive schools needed to educate parents, even as they relied on them for help, thereby testing the limits of reciprocity between home and school. At Shady Hill, for example, the Parents’ Council took responsibility for parent education, helping new families adjust to the school’s routines, methods, and expectations. Not only did progressive schools welcome parental support; they counted on it as well. Committed parents helped “gain general acceptance for innovations,” it was thought. They also learned lessons about democratic living that could be applied in the world at large. Only through the participation of the “parent in the child’s activities, of the teacher in home activities, of all in worthwhile social activities,” said Ernest G. Osborne of the Child Development Institute at Teachers College, “can we hope to develop an education that matters, that changes people significantly, that can in any way direct social changes.”

Enthusiastic reformers like Osborne believed that parents should take “responsibility of a major sort.” They should be offered and accept significant assignments at school such as library work, adjunct teaching, or service on finance and admissions committees. Taking collaboration to the extreme, Winifred Bain recommended that teachers confer with parents about the important matter of discipline. If they gave parents access to this part of their professional domain, the home would identify more readily with the school. Artificial barriers would disintegrate, and parents and teachers would cooperate successfully.

In the 1930s, progressive educators stressed the importance of educating the whole child. It was not a new idea, of course; reformers had spoken of it since the beginning of the twentieth century. But during the Depression, when many schools took responsibility for the child’s mental hygiene, such language was used to link parents and teachers. “Progressive education today is concerned with all factors that influence the total personality or character of the child,” said Lois Hayden Meek of Teachers College in 1932, “and it can only succeed by bringing together the home and school in a united[,] consistent program for child development.” Her colleague, Winifred Bain, went one step further, claiming for progressive schools a special familiarity with the family. The procedure of such schools, she said, “looks very much like that of a well-regulated home where children live through the problems of daily life. . . . Progressive schools work actively with parents and seek by every means to coordinate the two educational agencies-the home and the school.”

But even Bain did not believe that parents and teachers were one in the same. While mothers and fathers might enrich their children’s education at home, the school could not expect them to be familiar with all its methods or be objective about them. IQ test scores unnerved worldly as well as artless parents. Having had psychological training, teachers knew that not all children were alike. They recognized when pupils was ready to master basic skills or begin the study of major subjects. They should take primary responsibility for arithmetic and reading. Parents could supplement this work “by keeping supplies of good books in the home or by encouraging the habit of using the library.” Parents and teachers were anything but natural enemies; between them, there was always room for broad-based collaboration. But the professionals should be in charge in school. In fact, parents should settle for nothing less, even–or perhaps especially–in progressive education.