Urban School Systems, The Rise of

Urban schools have dominated historical writing on the rise of modern school systems for several reasons. As sites of wealth and social differentiation, cities spawned the earliest schools. Furthermore, urban schools pioneered many of the institutional innovations that we identify with modern education, including professionalization, district-wide system building, and bureaucratization. Finally, as focal points of nationally publicized struggles, urban schools have had a visibility rural schools could not match. (When it came to school attendance and graduation rates, however, rural schools led the way.) Highly urbanized societies, due to their wealth and demand for formal education, have always been the most extensively schooled. However, the transition to mass schooling (an educational opening that made it possible for the overwhelming majority of children of a region to attend school for a few months per year) has generally begun in rural areas and spread to urban-industrial centers later. Hence, it has been somewhat misleading to place urban schooling at the center of educational history. Still, we know a good deal about the rise of urban school systems.

The Origins of Primary Schooling in Urban Settings

American primary education traces its origins to English settlement. In 1647, the General Court of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay mandated that every town of fifty families or more establish a public elementary school. The law required towns of one hundred families or more to establish public GRAMMAR SCHOOLS with masters "capable of preparing young people for university level study." Called the Old Deluder Satan Act, its purpose was clear: to ensure that the children of Massachusetts would learn to read and understand the scriptures and thereby keep the devil at bay. Within an overwhelmingly rural society, however, most education took place within households–through the family or APPRENTICESHIP–and to a lesser extent, in churches. Moreover, it appears that despite the legal requirement, far from every town directed by law to establish a school actually did so.

By the early 1800s, however, a variety of urban schools had appeared. The most common–independent pay schools–proliferated in the early national period. Essentially, these schools were organized by entrepreneurial tutors who lived on the fees they charged parents. Dame schools, a lower-cost alternative operated by women from their homes, were popular as well. As with later forms of elementary schooling, pay and dame schools served both custodial and educational functions. Since instruction was simple and costs to parents low, many families patronized these kinds of schools, especially in the largest cities. The wealthy and poor, however, did not. Well-heeled merchants and professionals generally opted to employ private tutors at home or send their children to boarding schools. They wanted their offspring to acquire the cultural accoutrements of their class. Inasmuch as social differentiation was the primary object of their training, common pay-school instruction held little appeal. The poorest Americans, in contrast, could not afford even the modest fees of the early pay schools, so their children went unschooled. By the early national period, however, unemployment and crime accompanied the growing socioeconomic inequality in the nation's principal cities, and the emerging urban middle class saw the unschooled children of the lower classes as the cause of the problem. They put great store in the capacity of schools to discipline and guide children and, believing that if left to their own devices poor families reproduced indolence, mischief, and dependence, urban reformers began organizing schools for poor children. It was not so much the welfare of children that concerned them as the long-term impact of educational laissez-faire upon the community.

Several types of schools emerged in response to such concerns. Charity schools were among the first. Like most early schools, they strove to inculcate piety, morality, and self-reliance through instruction in ciphering and the memorization of scripture. Initially organized by individual denominations on behalf of the children of their poorest members, they derived from English models. As they expanded in reach and ambition over the first two decades of the nineteenth century, however, their denominational character receded. As immigration accelerated in the largest seaboard cities from the 1820s, charity schools increasingly targeted the foreign-born populace. Expansion, however, incurred rising costs that voluntary organizations found difficult to bear. The most influential of the efforts to moderate costs was the monitorial system, or Lancaster system, developed in England in the 1790s by Andrew Bell and Richard Lancaster. Designed as an instructional pyramid, it engaged older, more advanced students to teach younger, less skilled ones at little cost. To facilitate this, Lancaster and Bell simplified instruction by dividing their schools into graded classes of varying abilities. This allowed them to separate complex instructional skills into a series of calibrated exercises that their youthful instructors could handle. Monitorial instruction offered several advantages over traditional methods. It allowed one adult teacher to oversee the instruction of hundreds of pupils, keeping costs to a minimum. It enhanced the efficiency of instruction by permitting teachers to address their students all at once, unlike individualized instruction that characterized ungraded classrooms. Finally, it gave teachermonitors training at a time when the quality of the average teacher was low and training unheard of. By 1830, Lancasterian schools had spread from the Northeast to the urban centers of the South and West.

Sunday and infant schools arose at about the same time as alternatives to charity schooling. Targeting working children, SUNDAY SCHOOLS taught reading, writing, and religion on Sundays. Essentially part-time charity schools, they were nondenominational from the beginning. Infant schools catered to children from two to six years of age. These were informed by the belief that educational intervention worked best on the very young. Known for their relative freedom and encouragement of individual development, they rejected the strict regimentation of monitorial and other philanthropic schools. Still, they sought–as did all charity schooling–to instill in the young Christian morality and a work ethic, primarily through the reading and recitation of scripture. Reformers also sought to foster conservative citizenship that rejected what they considered to be dangerous agitators and demagogues.

The Urban Common Schools

COMMON SCHOOLS, forerunners of the modern public elementary school, built upon this early experience. These publicly financed schools were common in the sense that they brought together groups–boys and girls, Protestants and Catholics, middle-class and poor children–that private and charity schooling had tended to segregate. Far more than autonomous pay schools, charity schooling paved the way for public education by elaborating the organizational know-how and administrative capacity on which it built. While pay schools grew more elite over the early national period, charity schooling became more inclusive. Its contributions to public school systems were several. First, charity organizations bequeathed to the common schools accounting practices designed to limit costs and justify financial subsidies from city and state agencies. Second, this financial coordination often led to the centralization of superintendence, with a single board overseeing the charity schools of the entire city–a model embraced by urban public schools. Finally, Lancasterian graded classes, hierarchical organization, and standardized instruction shaped the pedagogy and curriculum of the emergent common school.

The idea of building a universal public school system, however, came from a group of professional educational leaders, heavily concentrated in New England, who looked to Prussia for inspiration. HORACE MANN of Massachusetts and Henry Barnard of Connecticut were the two most prominent advocates of common schooling. In 1837 Mann took charge of Massachusetts's state board of education and began collecting and publicizing school information throughout the state. Over the next eleven years, he worked on behalf of free, universal, nonsectarian schools staffed by professional teachers. Barnard did much the same for the public school systems of Connecticut and Rhode Island, before being appointed the first U.S. Commissioner of Education. In particular, he fought to establish normal schools designed to provide for professional teacher training. Due to the efforts of Barnard, Mann, and their allies, combined with a Puritan legacy of religious literacy, New England pioneered public schooling. The Midwest–settled largely by New Englanders–followed closely behind, while the mid-Atlantic region moved more slowly. In contrast, the South did not establish regular and continuous public school systems before the Civil War.

Despite the establishment of centralized departments of education in a few states, locally elected school boards still oversaw and ran virtually every aspect of school activity in 1850. Since costs weighed utmost in the minds of most boards, they hired transient, untrained teachers—increasingly women–more for whom they knew than how much. This was possible because the curriculum was simple–recitation and memorization constituted the predominant instructional methods–and popular expectations were low. Educational system builders felt uncomfortable with such amateurism, however, and sought to upgrade the schools. Unlike local boards, which held down costs by keeping school terms short and staffing schools with footloose, low-cost teachers, reformers sought to extend the school year, professionalize teaching, and introduce standards into American classrooms. This meant transferring control of the schools from boards of cost-conscious amateurs to emergent educational experts. It also meant financing the schools through public taxes, for these reforms required money.

School consolidation became a central goal of reformers since larger schools furthered the cause of administrative centralization, permitted the grading of classes, increased control over teacher hiring, and accelerated the diffusion of "scientific" pedagogy. System builders sought to exclude religion from public institutions because of its divisiveness. They also extolled free public schooling in an effort to ease competition from private schools. Private schooling undercut political support for public education and made large, graded schools harder to build. Suspicious of centralizing outsiders, many urban Democrats, some religious groups, and most rural Americans opposed these reforms. Dissenters wanted their schools to be convenient and near to home, responsive to local beliefs and customs, and as inexpensive as possible. Catholics, pietist Germans, and other religious groups rejected either the Protestant thrust of much of public schooling or the secularizing tendencies of the reformers. Resistance proved especially strong in dispersed rural areas where population densities were low, transportation difficult, and the traditions of local control most ingrained. Consequently, unified common school systems first appeared in the largest urban areas where the reform impulse was strongest, population densities highest, and identification with professionalism strongest. Centralization came only gradually to smaller cities, towns, and rural school districts.

American High Schools

Though often traced to the residential rural academy, American HIGH SCHOOLS owed much to the common school. The common school paved the way for high schools in several ways. It accustomed Americans to the idea of free schooling financed by property taxes. It provided an institutional framework on which the high schools built. Indeed, in some regions, urban high schools literally grew out of common schools through upward extension. Finally, common schools created a public for high schools by preparing the young for entry. ACADEMIES shaped high schools too. Replacing the colonial Latin grammar school in the early nineteenth century, academies were rural, private institutions, largely cultural and preparatory in orientation. The academy bequeathed the academic method to high schools, especially an early emphasis on memorization and deductive learning.

The high school's purpose, however, was quite different from the start. Artisans, shopkeepers, and other urban middle-class parents sought useful, local, affordable education for their children–not costly private boarding schools that stressed the liberal arts. They wanted practical finishing institutions, not preparatory schools that led to further schooling. Consequently, the first school of its type, the Boston English Classical School, established in 1821, aimed to provide middle-class youth with useful skills for vocations in commerce and the mechanical arts. Its curriculum—consisting primarily of mathematics, natural sciences, and modern languages–was academic in approach but practical in purpose. By 1851, eighty cities possessed public high schools, primarily for boys. Americans debated high schooling for girls through the 1850s, when the demand for common school teachers led to the establishment of high and normal schools for young women. Not until the 1880s, however, did high schools begin to find widespread acceptance.

Though it is hard to detail the development of a system as decentralized as the American one, several generalizations emerge from the diversity. Nearly from the beginning, Americans fought over whose interests should dominate the schools. From the 1840s, state governing boards such as the board of regents in New York and Michigan championed an elite, college preparatory curriculum with high standards for public high schools. Local school boards, in contrast, fought for more accessible high schools offering courses in practical subjects with less rigorous standards. Moreover, since only a small percentage of Americans attended high schools initially, and fewer still graduated, opponents contested the schools' right to tax support. In the Kalamazoo case of 1874, however, the supreme court of Michigan ruled that school districts could support high schools with taxes. Thereafter, the fact that they offered free, mostly practical education rendered them an attractive alternative to academies.

Educational Professionalism

Pioneering system builders found much to dislike in American schools. From the 1840s to the end of the century, they decried the incompetence and brutality commonplace in many early American classrooms. When teachers were hired for a season and for their connections to local political machines, their teaching skills were often limited and their discipline sometimes draconian. Educational leaders hoped to develop professional methods of recruitment, training, and development, screening out the most incompetent and brutal. Moreover, they sought to standardize the curriculum to achieve some control over what transpired in classrooms. They understood, however, that so long as local political interests dominated the schools and financial parsimony remained the guiding principal of school policy, professional standards remained beyond their reach. At the same time, like other professionalizing groups, early educational leaders had an agenda of their own. Using the welfare of school children as their justification, they sought better working conditions, higher salaries, and enhanced job status and control. In the 1890s, they began organizing professional associations that lobbied state legislatures to set educational certification standards, which they effectively controlled. Only two states had specialized teaching credentials in 1900. Thirty years later, nearly every state did.

Two developments between 1893 and 1935 dramatically shaped the evolution of the American high school. The first, a two-part shift in the governance structure of American schooling, played out between 1893 and 1930. At the local level, the Panic of 1893 unleashed a series of Progressive-era reforms that insulated the schools from political machines. The financial crisis bankrupted thousands of municipalities and school districts after two decades of heavy borrowing and provoked a transition in local government to professional management practices. These reforms included the emergence of city commissions, city managers, central, consolidated school boards, city-wide, nonpartisan elections, and other measures designed to favor professional administration over political patronage in local and school government. While land acquisition, school construction, school bonds, and the like continued to provide big city machines with ample opportunity for political graft, professionally trained school superintendents gradually took control of areas bearing directly on education, including teacher recruitment, textbook selection, curriculum development, and graduation standards. By legitimizing school expenditures, professional expertise encouraged increased public outlays on the schools.

At the topmost level, a second trend affected American school governance: the growing influence of higher education on the entire educational pyramid. Preoccupied with the flow of high school students into their institutions, colleges and universities banded together to form regional accreditation boards that acquired the capacity to mold high school curricula. These boards prescribed the kinds of academic courses accredited schools had to offer. Since accreditation affected students' capacity to qualify for college, influential parents in virtually every urban district insisted their schools be accredited. This power was reinforced by the emergence of professional schools of education after 1900. Attached to some of America's most prominent universities, these shaped American educational policy in two ways. First, they increasingly monopolized the training of educational leaders, especially state officials, superintendents, and influential teachers. Second, they created a body of "scientific" pedagogy and best practice through educational research that laypeople found difficult to counter. Meanwhile, prominent university presidents assumed leading roles in national debates over the schools, chairing several national commissions that drew up influential guidelines for the secondary schools.

Consequently, just as financial crisis and municipal reform were loosening the hold of the political system over the schools, a professional group of academically trained educators within or allied with higher education moved decisively to govern them. This governance shift favored the college preparatory function of the American high school, an orientation that progressively pushed the grooming of students for workplaces to the periphery of its concerns. After 1900, a rising demand for educational qualifications in the white-collar labor market reinforced this movement. In effect, urban high schools adjusted to the changing occupational and educational aspirations of their predominately middle-class clientele, administration, and staff. Immediately on the heels of this governance shift, however, a second and in many ways countervailing transition occurred. Between 1920 and 1935, American urban high schools metamorphosed from middle-class into mass institutions.

Two events rendered secondary schooling nearly universal throughout the non-Southern United States in these years: the transformation of industrial and commercial workplaces in the 1920s and the GREAT DEPRESSION of the 1930s. Technological innovation marked the decade of the twenties, sharply undercutting the demand for child labor. Consequently, public high schools witnessed a doubling of enrollments over the decade, from 2.2 to 4.4 million. Then, after 1929, the Depression effectively ended full-time juvenile labor in urban America. Working-class kids streamed into the schools, pushing high school enrollments to 6.6 million by 1939–1940. This high school growth spurt proved especially dramatic in the largest, most industrialized cities. Claudia Goldin's data shows that secondary schooling was a function of two factors: the presence of high schools and the demand for juvenile labor. Americans could not attend high schools where none existed. Low property values, restricted school funding, and limited demand for skilled labor discouraged school building in the South–a poor, overwhelmingly agricultural region–until the 1950s. Consequently, high schooling expanded in two distinct phases: from 1920 to 1935 in the West and North, and from 1950 to 1970 in the South.

Agricultural areas with high average incomes, in contrast, sent their children to high school earlier than their urban counterparts. They built schools because the burdens and rewards of schooling were more fairly distributed in farm areas than in urban areas. Property taxes were more equitable since few farmers had intangible wealth, common in cities, that was easy to hide from assessors. Moreover, farmers had little need for family labor in winter. Consequently, nearly all farm children attended school once school buses guaranteed access, in contrast to cities, where many adolescents worked year-round. Finally, unlike eastern cities, the absence of competition from private institutions encouraged well-heeled citizens to support public schools. Thus, rural states in the Midwest and West built high schools early and sent their children to them. Heavily urbanized, industrial states, in contrast, were far slower to send their children to high school. In 1920, they had the lowest high school attendance and graduation rates outside of the South. Overwhelmingly peopled by immigrants and the children of immigrants, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and other major industrial cities sent the majority of their children to work at the age of fourteen or fifteen, since their families needed the income. This made sense at a time when school diplomas were not required for most jobs and work was one of the best ways to learn a trade.

Thus, urban high schools in 1920 still tended to serve a predominately native-born, middle-class clientele headed for either higher education or white-collar jobs in commerce and industry–just as professional middle-class academics were shoring up their control of the schools. However, as ethnic working-class children flooded the urban high schools after 1920, the social background and life trajectory of the average student changed. This dramatically increased the demands placed upon the schools, both financial and curricular. It led to America's first national teacher shortage, one worsened by a sharp rise in white-collar employment that siphoned off practicing and prospective teachers. It also unleashed a public debate on the character and purpose of schooling.

The Depression hit heavily indebted urban school systems hard by reducing funding in the face of an exploding demand for services. It undercut expensive vocational programs while reinforcing book-based general and college preparatory courses that were much cheaper to deliver. World War II, however, revived the economy, temporarily reduced the demand for secondary schooling as adolescents found work, and led to increased funding for the schools. Thanks to the South's convergence with the educational practices in the rest of the country in the postwar years, secondary schooling became universal though racial segregation rendered school access more difficult for Africa-American children than white children, particularly in the rural South, quite apart from its biased impact on spending per child. However, the middle-class orientation of the schools and their dominance by academics created a system that failed to address the educational needs of all children equally. Savage inequality has characterized America's urban school systems. This is partly due to great variance in the financial, social, and cultural resources available to schools across districts–a legacy of local control and its interaction with housing markets. Less widely recognized has been the impact of a single system of comprehensive schooling that has favored the educational interests of the academically successful over those of everyone else.

America's Urban Schools in Comparative Perspective

Early state building put Europe's urban schools on developmental paths quite different from America's. In Germany, France, and other continental European nations, state bureaucracies preceded the elaboration of public school systems. This gave the state a prominent role in the growth and governance of schools. Whereas the American Constitution severely limited the power of the federal government in school matters, reflecting its anti-centralist origins, continental European governments took an active role in educational policy from the beginning. In particular, they were keen to shape elite higher education, a recruiting ground for state officials. Many economic leaders eventually emerged from elite schools as well. Consequently, as popular free primary schooling appeared in the nineteenth century, it was sharply differentiated from the elite system of secondary education already in place. Whereas American high schools grew out of common schools, the urban German GYMNASIUM and French LYCÉE had little in common with predominately rural Volksschulen and écoles primaires. Like Americans, however, Europeans initially invested in public schooling to foster social order and instill political allegiance.

The class-based nature of these two-tier systems offended Americans, though for middle-class Europeans they created an opening by substituting achievement for aristocratic, status-based organizing principles. More important still, they encouraged technical and vocational programs governed and financed independently of elite academic tracks. Though backers of the Vocational Education Act of 1917 fought hard to achieve a similar separation of vocational programs from academic schools in the United States, they lost out to a coalition of labor, teacher, superintendent, and women's groups in every state but Wisconsin. Consequently, whereas American educators closely linked to higher education became responsible for all students in comprehensive public schools, European states thought educational policy too important to give over entirely to academics. In an effort to coordinate education and training policy with broader economic and labor market initiatives, Europeans sought to extend a voice in educational policy to nonacademic groups as well. No state went further in this direction than Germany, where organized groups of employers and workers–with state oversight and input from the educational community—govern the entire vocational education and training system. Providing secondary education to a majority of young Germans throughout the twentieth century, the system was specifically designed to limit the role of academics. Its originators in the German southwest had seen how academically trained administrators and staff transformed Prussia's trade schools into elite preparatory institutions, leaving those desirous of affordable, practical education without anywhere to turn. Thus, they built a system governed and staffed by the communities of practice for which it educated and trained. Virtually every European state eventually integrated some form of apprenticeship into its secondary education mix, in contrast to the United States, where school-controlled vocational programs developed such mediocre reputations that many Americans came to think of them as lyceums for losers.

Schooling and modern school systems originated in cities on both sides of the Atlantic. Mass schooling, in contrast, took root in the countryside and diffused to the cities. How this urban-rural divide shaped the development of national educational regimes is still not well understood. Despite considerable variation, European states built educational systems that addressed the different capacities and interests of students. Their greatest challenge has been to render elite education more inclusive, making it accessible to all socioeconomic groups. Americans, in contrast, have focused on equal access and opportunity, but much less on how comprehensive schooling affects the distribution and fairness of educational outcomes. European nations that have tried the American model have found it wanting. Nowhere have its shortcomings been more glaring than in America's cities, the crucible of the events that stamped it in its formative years.

See also: Compulsory School Attendance; Education, United States; Vocational Education, Industrial Education, and Trade Schools.


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