The Educational Situation in the Chicago Public Schools

There is one educational problem that no large city escapes. This arises out of the mere physical magnitude of the undertaking which any city of considerable size sets to its board of education. It is a commonplace of the student of education in America, that our system, even in the large city, has had as its unit the little red school house of glorious memory. But the mere multiplication of rooms and teachers and even principals and superintendents does not adapt the schoolroom any better to the task which the great city presents to its school-system. We are finding out in very various ways that when children are multiplied and the rooms piled up into huge structures we have entirely different problems from those which gave rise to the public school system in the United States. A recent morning paper told us what this has come to mean in terms of bricks, mortar and appliances: A fixed number of square feet of space for every child, ventilated lockers for their wraps, fire escapes, hygienic seats and desks, manual training benches, assembly-rooms and gymnasiums, medical examinations, the problems of school-lunches and free text-books. We find a score of demands which have arisen to no small degree simply because we have undertaken education on such a large scale that it has become a qualitatively different problem from that which our fathers and grandparents faced.

The mere multiplication of numbers has magnified the importance of conditions which, in the little school-house, were quite imperceptible. And though we resent the continually increasing demands that seem so strange and to some of us so grotesque, the American city has as yet never been willing to definitely turn its back upon the demand for the betterment of the life of the child in the school, if it becomes evident that this betterment is really demanded for the purpose of the education for which he has been sent to the school. If one simply reviews the history of the school-system in Chicago for twenty-five years he will find that under every board and every superintendent there has been no real retreat, but a steady advance toward an entirely new school-house, new school-room and school-life, that there has been arising irresistibly a new criterion by which to test them. This criterion is the life of the child in the school. Is the physical life of the child in the school-room what his physique and

(132) his surroundings call for? Every epidemic emphasises this new criterion, every advance in medical science and hygiene gives it more meaning and more force. It would be well worth while, if we had the time, to make such a review to appreciate how irresistible the current has been, and bids fair to remain, and how really novel the ideas are which are coming willy nilly to control our school management.

If we look inside the school-room and examine the curriculum we find a situation that is actually as startling, though not quite so evident as that taking place in our school structures. There is plenty of evidence of its existence in the strange fight that has been and is still going on between the three R's and the so-called fads and frills. Manual training, drawing, music, clay-modeling, domestic arts, have appeared, have at times disappeared, but have always come back and are today more strongly entrenched than ever before.

In the meantime we hear the never-ceasing complaint that the children leave the schools unable to spell correctly, to write legibly and correctly or to figure accurately. We are told from one side that the children leave the schools by the time they reach the fifth grade, because the work is so unmeaning to them, has so little relation to their life, that the school has no power to hold them, and that we must introduce more of the constructive outgoing activities into their school life. We are told on the other side that they leave by the time they reach the fifth Grade, and therefore they should be drilled. drilled, drilled so that they may acquire this control over language and hunger, which is to become a necessity for them in after years. Here is the same contest of old and new ideals in education, the old ideals of the simple acquirements of the little red school-house, and the new ideal of the actual life of the child in the schoolroom. From this new point of view we must test the schooling, not simply by the formal facilities which are gained, but by the mental, moral and physical health of the immediate life that the child is leading in the school room and on its playground.

A review of the school history of Chicago during the last quarter of a century could be paralleled by that of every large city in the country. The steady advance of this conception of education is shown, not so much by theories of education, but by the actual changes paid for by the huge sums voted by boards of education of every color and description.

Into this struggle between the old and the new, which is the background of all school management and finance throughout the land, there has been injected in Chicago a new and, so far as I know, a unique element, the Chicago Teachers' Federation. Not that there are not other Teachers' Federations in the country. There is certainly no other which has become such a power within and without the schools, that has achieved what it has achieved in the court house, in the city hall, and the state capital, that has won such recognition and sympathy among large classes generally uninterested in school problems and school teachers, and such overwhelming condemnation from a large part of those considered the dominant elements in all such problems as those of public education.

And yet, while some of us have, even like Balak of old, summoned from a great distance an educational prophet to curse this abomination, how many of us have seriously put to ourselves the obvious question: Why has such a Teachers' Federation arisen in Chicago? The question is certainly an obvious one when we remember who constitute this federation. We know how difficult it is

(133) to organize women, even in the most wretchedly paid trades; and these teachers are largely girls whose traditions and surroundings must have prejudiced them against an organization that has been affiliated with the Federation of Labor in the city. Certainly so large a percentage of the teachers in the Chicago public schools would never have placed themselves in a position where they have become a byword and hissing to just that part of the community to which they would naturally look for sympathy and support, unless they were convinced that their grievances were crying and that they could look for no redress through the recognized channels of school administration and public opinion. If the question is obvious its answer is equally obvious. A glance at the schedules of teachers' salaries between the periods of 1898 and 1902 will show these salaries fluctuating like stocks on the market. - What was voted at one meeting was rescinded at another. What was given with one hand was taken away with the other. The board admitted that the demands of teachers for advance in salary was justified, both by the increased cost of living and the consequent decreased value of the wage, and by a comparison of the amounts paid for the same work in other cities. Admitting the justice of the demand the board was obliged to make the humiliating reply that Chicago was unable to get the money to pay for the identical services that, for example, New York did pay.

Under these circumstances it is not remarkable that the teachers should have organized to bring what pressure they could to get what the board had confessed was but their due. They did more. They did what the board had not dared to do. They went into the courts and forced corporations that had evaded the payment of just taxes to enrich the treasury of Chicago by close to three quarters of a million a year, of which $250,000 went into the coffers of the board of education. But even then, though the policemen and firemen were paid the cuts in their salaries by this very money which the Teachers' Federation had brought in, the quota which came to the board was not used to pay the increases which the board of education had previously voted and refused to pay because their treasury was empty. Under these circumstances it is not remarkable that an organization which had met the non possumus of the board of education by increasing their funds from sources prescribed by law, and had still failed to get the poor justice done other employees of the city, should have strengthened their organization and should have turned with gratitude to the one body in the city that had bade them Godspeed.

Strange and anomalous as is the Chicago Teachers' Federation, it is amply explained by the simple American demand for what one has confessedly earned, and the American determination to fight, if necessary, to get one's fair rights. I think we must go further and admit that this body has justified its existence in the past by its legitimate championship of the material interests of its members. I do not think that we can complain if such a body continues to watch over these material interests for some time to come, at least until they are convinced that those interests are clearly recognized in the community and properly safeguarded in the board.

But the Teachers' Federation has not confined its efforts to fighting for what it conceived to be the material interests of the teachers in the city schools. It has identified itself with an educational program. This program is, in a few words, that the teacher- needs no stimulus to outside preparation and mental growth beyond her work in the school;

(134) that she needs little, if any, supervision beyond that which can be given by the principal of her school. This educational program, if we may call it such, was formulated in the fight over the promotional examinations.

Since 1903 the promotional examination has been the storm center in the administration of our city schools. They were introduced under very unfortunate auspices. l he board had refused to use the funds gained through the legal proceedings instituted by the Teachers' Federation, to pay the cuts made in salaries which had been promised. At practically the same period, the further increase in the teacher's salary, after the seventh year, was made conditional upon her passing an examination in a number of subjects, the bulk of which were not directly related to the efficiency of her work in the school. To take this examination she was obliged to have had a marking of 80 or above in the reports sent in by the principal of her school. These conditions stopped the advance of teachers' salaries after the seventh year, except in a comparatively small number of instances. Up to this year they advanced as they had in the past. After this period a hurdle had been set up, as the teachers expressed it, which kept back the majority of teachers from reaching the maximum salary which they considered too low in any case. It was natural that the teachers should have looked upon the system as a scheme for placing upon them the responsibility of their inadequate remuneration, and that they should have fought the plan with the same energy that had characterized their former contests. They were still fighting for their material interests, only the struggle was now partially masked under the contest over Mr. Cooley's program for raising the efficiency of the teaching force. The struggle was rendered still more bitter by the secret marking system. The gradings which were sent in semi-annually to the superintendents by the principals were originally kept from the teacher, in the supposed interest of the impartiality of the principal. When this marking system entered in, under the promotional plan, to determine who could advance in salary, its secrecy naturally drew upon it suspicion and indignant protest, until gradually the teachers were admitted to more and more information in regard to their standing, up to the point where the superintendent could say that they knew all that really affected their standing. All this provided a most unfortunate atmosphere for testing fairly the superintendent's plan for raising the efficiency of the teachers. The Teachers' Federation were certainly in no frame of mind to judge the plan impartially, and the educational program which they announced was bound to be influenced by the struggle in which they were engaged.

If, however, we take Mr. Cooley's scheme as a whole, if we assume that his marking system indicated reliably the efficiency of the teachers, and if we assume that the examinations were intended, directly or indirectly, to raise the efficiency of the teachers, there is no question of its complete failure. The investigations of the Post committee demonstrated that the markings for efficiency remained the same for teachers who had passed the examinations and for those who had not passed. Mr. Cooley took the impregnable ground originally that if advance in salary is to be conditioned upon anything it should be increased efficiency in the school room. The promotional examination had therefore to be defended from this point of view, and from this point of view by his own system of marking it is utterly indefensible. But Mr. Cooley's belief in the system remains unshaken, which, it seems to me, can lead to but one conclusion;

(135) that at bottom the superintendent has felt not that the passing of this examination revealed a higher efficiency which justified an advance in salary, but that there should be inducements in the system to teachers to continue their intellectual work beyond the routine of the school room.

We all recognize that it is not only the child who has suffered by the formal character of the school curriculum. We expect a woman who has taught many years to show that fact by a certain rigidity of mind and manner indicating that a process of ossification has gone on in her soul. Mr. Cooley's specific for this ossifying of the teacher's mind is outside study and reading -- diversifying of intellectual interests. To this the teachers of the Federation have replied either that they were not ossifying and needed therefore no specific, or that they found plenty of inducement for such continued study in their own vocation.

Here, then, at last we have a plain educational issue between the superintendent and a very large percentage of the teachers for the efficiency of whose work he is responsible to the Board of Education and the city of Chicago. But as we all know to our sorrow, it has not been discussed as such. We have seen the reasons why a very large number of teachers almost necessarily approached it as a question of their rights in dollars and cents. I have not the time to indicate the various material and political forces that have been drawn into this fight or have taken advantage of it. Some of the results of it are startling enough. But the responsibility for the whole sordid struggle must fairly be placed with the city that put and kept in power that administration with its school board, which had neither the desire nor the courage to provide for its school teachers what it admitted they- had earned, and thus became the cause of a federation of teachers who dared to fight for their own rights.

There is another very profound reason for the fact that the superintendent finds arrayed against him an organization that comprises a very large part of his teachers. This is the isolation of the school teacher. There is no social functionary who is more unfortunately isolated than the teacher in the school room of our city schools. Above her stands the vast system of school administration, giving her books and methods which she is to use, and before her stand the children who can receive the contents of the curriculum and be affected by the methods of the school only through her agency. There is no natural way by which she can react back upon the administration, by which she can make herself felt individually or collectively in the system of which she is the most important part. People who feel themselves isolated naturally organize themselves on the basis of that isolation. Until there is a natural method by which the teacher may be felt in the school administration, by which her judgment on books and methods and the ordering of school life may be heard, until she is recognized as a part of a social organization and not of a machine, there will always exist the situation out of which irresponsible bodies like the Teachers' Federation will arise. If the teacher, as a teacher, is not consulted by those who lay tasks upon her shoulders, she is bound to make demands as a member of an externally organized association.

If one wishes to prevent the ossification of the teacher's mind the first thing to do is to make possible the introduction of the breath of life into the relations between the teachers, the superintendent and the Board of Education. No other educational institution can exist without some faculty life. Why should

(136) we suppose the city school system can get along without it?

If we face again the educational issue which existed between the superintendent and the Teachers' Federation, we see the difference really lies in this; should the teacher be forced to pursue studies outside of school to keep her mind fresh and active, and on this issue the present board sides with the superintendent. As we have seen the only justification that could be offered for the promotional examination, after the findings of the Post committee, was the inducement that they gave to the teacher to take outside work. The present board has made this work not optional but compulsory, though it does not have to be done out of school hours. Every teacher is deputed, "for one school afternoon weekly for ten weeks, in alternate years, to pursue in the Normal school, or the Normal Extension Department of that school, as part of her duties as a teacher, and without loss of pay, such course or courses of investigation or study as she in consultation with her principal shall freely choose for the promotion of her efficiency as a teacher in the school service." The present board has therefore taken Mr. Cooley's plan and made it obligatory and universal. It is not confined to the seventh year and it is not left to the discretion of the teacher. This plan differs further from the superintendent's in that the teacher is required to seek the advice of the principal who may be supposed to know her weak points and be able to direct her choice in such a way as to correct them. It has the further advantage that it brings the Normal Extension work into more organic relations with the schools of the city.

The dependence, however, upon the principal for supervision of the work of the teacher, indicates the weakest part of the school system as it exists in Chicago today. Chicago has had for a number of years three assistant superintendents only, where New York has had thirty two. At the same proportion we should have more than sixteen. The board has voted to appoint but three more -- that is, six in all.

Chicago's earlier system of district superintendents has disappeared before the business organization of the school administration. As the assistant superintendents have died or have been removed no others have been nominated for appointment. There is no purpose in recalling the personal and other issues that have gathered about these positions and those who filled them in the past, but it is of moment to note the tendency to organize the schools more and more on a business basis, and the injury that is done the system by this false- ideal. Teaching is not business. There are, to be sure, business conditions to which it must in some sense be subject, but it is itself a social process in which the personalities of children are influenced and developed by coming into contact with the personalities of teachers. The older system in Chicago had the advantage that the supervisor could come into comparatively frequent contact with the teachers in their schools. Their advent was in many cases not a terror-inspiring inspection, but a visit from one who could be of assistance as well as a critic.

One of the great evils of the marking system lay in the fact that every inspection had the value of an examination -- its result counted toward the teacher's final standing. Inspection should be of a friendly character, giving assistance, not warning. During the wrangle over the promotional examinations it seems as if the real function of the supervision in the schools had been quite forgotten. That most teachers' work needs strengthening on one side or the other is highly probable. There should be in the system those who are competent to observe this

(137) and able to assist in correcting such defects, by immediate advice of course, but especially by directing the teacher to such reading and study as her work shows that she needs. It is not usually the case that any schools in a district are not weak in the teaching of some subject. The school system should possess means of strengthening this weakness within itself. Chicago schools have such means in their Normal school and its Extension departments. There is no other city in the country so far as I am aware which is so equipped in this respect to assist its teachers.

We have been attempting under the regime of the promotional examinations to make the inducements to get a higher salary and the terrors of a marking system take the place of the healthful personal contact of superintendents and teachers and the reinforcement of what is weak by competent specialists. There has also been a tacit admission in the promotional examination system that the work of the teacher was necessarily a deadening process that could be corrected only by work which was in some way foreign to the work of the school. Now this is only the case if the work of the school is itself dead, or if the school room is so overcrowded that she can accomplish nothing except by a deadening routine. Given, however, fairly normal conditions in the school room and there is hardly a place in which more intellectual problems are to be found than in the course of study that we find in the city school today.

Let me call again to your mind what I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, that there is a tremendous process of growth going on in our schools today. We feel it in the different demands we make upon the schools. We demand that the teaching shall be moral -- that is, shall produce law-abiding citizens -- and in this legitimate demand we ask for that which can only come out of a healthful social life in the school. On the other side, we demand that the schools shall drill accuracy in the three R's into the children, and here we ask for the discipline of the army or the factory, which can give us unconscious habits but no morality. The contest between these ideals is going on in the schools. New subjects are forcing their way into the, curriculum year by year, the method of teaching old subjects is as constantly changing. And these changes are not taking place because of pedagogical doctrines, but because of the pressure of life upon the schools. The science that is reconstructing our lives cannot be kept out of the schools. The different social ideals that are reinterpreting life inevitably gain admittance to the school. Pedagogic theory comes in to justify the change after it has taken place. Certainly no one who had taken a comprehending part in the changes which have taken place in our schools within the last twenty-five years would have lacked for intellectual interest.

While no one would do aught but encourage any teacher in pursuing any intellectual or aesthetic interest that took her out of her work, we need never fear that the work of the teacher pursued under healthful conditions will dwarf her intelligence or dry up her soul. Those healthful conditions, involve, first, of all adequate competent supervision that is helpful rather than critical; abundant opportunities within the school system to build out what is lacking and strengthen what is weak, the full opportunity which we may hope the teachers' councils will give for discussion and criticism by the teachers of what they are supposed to do and the tools they are supposed to use.

(138) I do not believe that the Teachers' Federation would last over night if these conditions were met.

In conclusion, allow me to say that they are attempting to build up in St. Louis a system of extension work within the school system, which will be comparable with that which Chicago is fortunate enough to possess at the present time, and the importance of which we are but just beginning to appreciate. Eighty per cent of their teachers are taking courses in these St. Louis classes, not because any pressure is brought to bear upon them, but because they feel the need of the work. St. Louis is doing this, other cities will follow in this lead. We can congratulate ourselves that we have gone so far in this direction, because the intellectual work that the teacher needs to do outside the school must have some relation to what she does in the school and this relation can be assured only by the school system providing this work; but more important still, the school system itself needs the intellectual activity and organizing power of the extension and supplementary work for teachers. Can you conceive of anything more valuable to an intellectual organization like a school system than to have to provide for its teachers just what its own defects make them cry out for? If anything can bring a social system such as our schools to consciousness of itself and give it self-control and self-direction it is such a mechanism as is represented in the extension of the Normal school.

But I wish to insist again that an essential link in this organization is adequate competent professional supervision. We depend for this far too much upon the principals of the schools. They are much too near the teachers, too constantly in their rooms to get the proper perspective. They have become themselves almost responsible for the teachers' shortcomings by continually seeing them and making allowance for them. Furthermore, they are not competent for the supervision that teachers in a great city's schools require. We could not possibly afford to provide every school building in the city with the man of the caliber of an assistant superintendent. Given such supervision that connects the teachers' needs with the means of meeting them, and a department in the system whose business it is to comprehend these needs and satisfy them, and given the social interrelation between teachers, superintendents and Board of Education, which leaves no one isolated and enables the system to take advantage of the ideas and judgments of everyone in it, and it seems to me that such a system from an educational standpoint is guaranteed.


  1. An address delivered before the City Club, February 2, 1907. At that time the Bulletin had not been established and the Club had no medium for giving its discussions publicity. Professor Mead's address possesses more than a mere transitory interest. It is deemed of such permanent value that the Club is glad, at this late date, to give it a wider hearing.

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