Parker, Col. Francis Wayland (1837-1902)

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Col. Francis Wayland Parker (1837-1902)

Father of american educational reform


From the War to the Schools. Francis Wayland Parker, who had risen to the rank of colonel in the Union army during the Civil War, began his influential career in education as a strict conformist to the schooling practices of the postwar era. He knew how to drill and discipline, and as principal of North Grammar School in Manchester, New Hampshire, he had everything in good shape. As he relates in his autobiography, I had battalion drill and marching, and everything went like clockwork. I ranked my scholars, changing their places from week to week. However, when he organized a normal school (a secondary school that provided for teacher training) in Dayton, Ohio, he ran into a wall of opposition from the teachers already in service. When an aunt died and left him $5,000, he left to study in Germany, determined to educate himself better in modem teaching methods. There he studied Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel and Johann Friedrich Herbart, two pedagogical reformers whose ideas were sweeping Europe, and he returned to the United States a man convinced that there was a great deal better way of teaching than anything I had done. Of course I had a great deal of enthusiasm and a great desire to work out the plan and see what I could do.

The Quincy Experiment. When he returned to the United States in 1875 as superintendent of the Quincy, Massachusetts, schools, he instituted reforms that would become a model for twentieth-century educational practices. The prevailing paradigm for schooling was imitation and memory, each child drilling on identical materials so as to reach a norm in his absorption of the facts or to be punished with dunce cap or rod. Parker rejected these notions and in his five-year tenure at Quincy experimented with allowing children to learn much as they learned to skate. The methods of instruction were rational: he banned drillrote methods of instruction, introduced the phonetic method of teaching reading, and changed arithmetic, geography, and history not a little. Copybooks, along with traditional rewards and punishments, were altogether discarded. By 1880 these modest reforms, which have come to be called the Quincy Experiment, had attracted some thirty thousand visitors to Quincy. Parker, one of Americas best-known educators of the day, briefly supervised the Boston schools and then left to become the head of the Cook County Normal School (soon to become the Chicago Normal School) in Engelwood, Illinois.

The Artist Teacher. The staff that Colonel Parker assembled in Illinois was a living illustration of his ideal of the artist teacher, a person skilled and trained in the science of education a genuine leader of little feet. The teachers whom Parker aggressively recruited were among the best in the nation, including Professor H. H. Straight, a student of the great Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz; the mathematician William Speer; Dr. William Jackman, later dean of Chicago Universitys School of Education; and the artist Josephine Look. Parker was willing to pay whatever was necessary to get outstanding staff. When he offered Jackman a $3,000 salary, $1,200 more than the school board had allotted, the board demanded to know where the additional funds would be found. Parker responded, Getting the money is your job. You sent me to get the best man capable of training teachers to teach science. I expect you to be grateful to me that I persuaded Dr. Jackman to come. This approach made him many enemies on the board, and from 1890 to 1898 both the financial and philosophical struggles were incessant, but Parker prevailed.

Lasting Influences. Parker built the Normal School into an institution that attracted international attention. G. Stanley Hall, the psychologist, claimed that he had to come here every year to set my educational watch. The school developed a museum and a library, began manual training in 1883, and, most important, modeled a curriculum that would influence American educators for the next century. Parker suggested in an essay on the Chicago Normal School that there are but two all-embracing subjects of study, nature and man. The studies of nature constituted the central subjects of his program: geography, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, anthropology, and ethnology. However the curriculum was not divided up among these sciences in the traditional course of study; rather they were considered to be artificial distinctions that an adult made of a childs spontaneous study. Teachers needed to begin with the interests of the child, using these interests in the environment to instruct in all of the sciences. Parker believed that the techniques of written English grammar, spelling, and punctuation should be gained largely through the presentation of daily opportunities for writing correlated with other subject matter and much creative work.

Parkers Legacy. In 1897 John Dewey visited the Chicago Normal School, bringing the manuscript of My Pedagogic Creed to read to the faculty. Parker said of the essay, This is what I have been struggling all my life to put into action. After Parkers death in 1902, Dewey, his friend and admirer, suggested that Parker had touched many with a truer perception of the ideals and calling of the teacher. Although Parker died before the progressive school movement had national promience, at least twelve of the outstanding progressive schools in the United States were founded by members of his faculty or the graduates of schools directly guided by his educational principles.


Francis Parker, An Account of the Work of the Cook County and Chicago Normal School from 1883-1899, Elementary School Teacher and Course of Study, 2 (June 1902): 767.

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Parker, Col. Francis Wayland (1837-1902)

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