PTA/PTO (Parent Teacher Association/Organization)

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PTA/PTO (Parent Teacher Association/Organization)

Parent-Teacher Associations or Organizations are voluntary groups that forge mutually cooperative relationships between parents and public schools. The umbrella organization of these local groups is the National Parent Teacher Association, which claims affiliation with 27,000 local groups and close to 7 million members. Its mission statement advocates speaking out on behalf of children and youth in schools, assisting parents in their childrearing responsibilities, and encouraging parental involvement in schools. Originally called the National Congress of Mothers, it was formed during the 1890s by Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the latter a member by marriage of the prominent newspaper dynasty.

The name of the original national organization—the National Congress of Mothers—reflects its historical context: during the late nineteenth century, women were expected to focus on nurturing and raising children. Most Americans believed these crucial activities took place solely in the domestic sphere and the private home. What women like Birney did was to extend the traditional role of female nurturing to a realm outside the home and into the arena of public advocacy and activity. This new organization both confirmed the special—some would say subordinate—role of women in raising children while extending it to what Settlement House Movement leader, Jane Addams, once called "social housekeeping." This early group viewed parenting as a specialized activity in need of education and training.

Not surprisingly, the National Congress of Mothers also reflected the spirit of the Progressive Era in American history (roughly 1890-1917), during which time the organization changed its name to the National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations. These years saw an increasing number of middle-class Americans dedicate themselves to reforming the inhumane excesses of industrial capitalism. Perhaps the most famous leader of this movement was President Theodore Roosevelt, who played a major role in the National Congress by serving as a speaker at its conventions. Taking up Roosevelt's call for social and political reform, the National Congress threw itself into numerous Progressive Era causes, including the abolition of child labor, the reform of the juvenile court system, and the passage of the Pure Food Bill in 1906. In addition, the organization helped promote John Dewey's child-centered schooling methods that became known as "progressive education."

During the Progressive Era, the National Congress carved out its particular concern in the midst of other school reform movements. According to Louise Montgomery, a Chicago educator at the turn of the century, the proliferation of the public school system brought with it new challenges since it divorced the traditional activities of education from the home. She argued, "The parent has been strangely silent, surrendering his child to the school system with a curious, unquestioning faith." Parent-Teacher Associations were meant to challenge this sort of passivity on the part of parents. Members of the organization believed ordinary citizens had a fundamental role to play in America's civic and public life.

Though the original idealism of the groups declined after the Progressive Era, the goals remained the same at century's end, with the National PTA maintaining its role as the nation's biggest child-advocacy organization. The PTA continued to involve parents in decision-making about local schools, and to make child welfare its central focus. Among the contemporary issues important to the PTA in the 1990s were the quality of children's television programming; various attempts to reform the public education system, as by vouchers or charter schools; the threat of violence in many public schools; and the rise of drug and alcohol abuse among many young people.

—Kevin Mattson

Further Reading:

Cremin, Lawrence. The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957. New York, Vintage Books, 1961.

Cutright, Melitta. The National PTA Talks to Parents. Garden City, Doubleday, 1989.

Swap, Susan McAllister. Developing Home-School Partnerships. New York, Teachers College, 1993.