As long as children have been attending school, parents and teachers have shared in their education. Both have participated in decisions about what would be taught, who would do the teaching, and how it would be done. Their relationship was informal and unstructured in the United States until mothers' clubs and parent–teacher associations began to appear in the 1880s. Gradually, these local organizations became a national movement in American education. Renamed in 1924, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (NCPT) had convened for the first time as the National Congress of Mothers twenty-seven years before. Because African Americans were not welcome in the NCPT, they formed their own organization in 1926; the two remained separate for forty-four years. What is now known simply as the National PTA has almost 6.5 million members in twenty-six thousand local chapters. Countless others belong to home and school associations and parent–teacher organizations that are not affiliated.
From the beginning parents joined such organizations to meet one another, educate themselves, and perform school and community service. While men were welcome to attend meetings and become members, parent–teacher associations were (and still are) organizations primarily for women. They attracted mostly white, middle-class mothers who wanted to be more involved in their communities. Taking their talents outside the home, they applied them at their children's schools. Through the PTA they expected to exercise influence, if not authority, in education.
Before 1890 most educators held parents at arms length. Because their own lack of training and experience made it easy for them to be treated with disrespect, teachers did not reach out to parents. But at the end of the nineteenth century many began to realize that it was better to have parents for allies than adversaries. The best way to do that, they thought, was through parent–teacher organizations. School administrators gave PTAs a place to meet, attended their meetings, and collaborated with them on projects like fundraising, schoolhouse repairs, and parent education. Mothers responded by joining up. In 1928 membership in the NCPT stood at 1.25 million, and it climbed dramatically over the next thirty years, reaching almost nine million by the early 1950s.
But soon thereafter PTAs began to lose ground. Over-crowded classrooms, teacher strikes, and the civil rights movement changed the way many parents felt about public schools. Having promised time and again that public education would solve personal and social problems, educators now found themselves caught in the grip of rising but unfulfilled expectations. Beginning in the 1970s federal and state legislation guaranteed students with disabilities access to public schools and mandated parental involvement in these children's individual educational plan (IEP), convincing many parents that they did not have to defer to professionals. In a world shaped by developments like these, PTAs began to appear anachronistic–a relic from the past that was part of the problem, not the solution. Parent councils, community school boards, and charter schools seemed to offer parents more power. While parent–teacher organizations continue to play a significant role in American education, they are not as respected or admired as they used to be.
Cutler, William W., III. 2000. Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Woyshner, Christine A. 1999. "'To Reach the Rising Generation through the Raising Generation': The Origins of the National Parent–Teacher Association." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University.
WILLIAM W. CUTLER III