The 1920s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1920s Education: Topics in the News



Overcoming the problem of illiteracy (the inability to read and write) was a fundamental challenge for educators who participated in a national movement in the late 1910s to assimilate (absorb into the American culture) the newly arrived foreign born. At the start of the 1920s, almost five million illiterate people over the age of ten were living in America. As more immigrants settled in the United States, the rate of illiteracy grew to be as high as 25 to 35 percent.

Among the groups who took on the responsibility of immigrant education were the Federal Bureau of Education and the naturalization division of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The organizations published a textbook on citizenship training, which was distributed to all accredited schools at no cost. In 1921, the National Education Association (NEA) set up the Department of Immigration Education to teach American culture to immigrants. Labor groups, churches and synagogues, and local civic organizations sponsored classes in the English language, American history, civics, and industrial education.

Recognizing the diversity in society, educators began to institute changes in the character, purpose, and direction of American education. In the 1920s, literacy and citizenship became focal points in American public school education. Not just for immigrants, but for all the population, education was considered a worthy expenditure of tax dollars. Many people believed that education led to a better and more meaningful quality of life, and even to a more virtuous way of life.


Senator Clayton R. Lusk (1872–1959), chairman of the New York state legislative committee investigating sedition (actions challenging the authority of the government), pushed for the enactment of "Loyalty Laws" in 1920 and 1921. These laws required public school teachers to obtain certificates of loyalty and character from the state commissioner of education. Many teachers were opposed to this process, believing it to be a breach of their civil liberties; in 1923, under the guidance of Governor Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944), the Lusk laws were repealed.

Anti-German sentiments were so strong during World War I that state education administrators were motivated to make changes in curricula. Eleven states enacted laws to forbid the teaching of foreign languages in private and public schools. Learning to speak German, in particular, was considered akin to adopting a dangerous political and cultural influence. In 1923, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Meyer v. Nebraska that laws banning the instruction of foreign languages were unconstitutional.

The state of Oregon passed a law in 1922 requiring all children to attend public schools. The legislation was aimed at closing parochial schools and other types of private schools that did not adhere to the Protestant ethic. In the 1924 case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names, the Supreme Court decided that the Oregon statute was unconstitutional because it did not give parents the right to choose schools for their children.

Because so much of public education was funded through local taxes, it was inevitable that corrupt politicians occasionally misused funds stipulated for public school systems. In Chicago in the early 1920s, Mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson (1869–1944) and his corrupt "political machine" illegally obstructed the work of the board of education, raided monies set aside for education, and dipped into the teachers' pension fund. Then in 1923, Thompson was "dethroned" and a more honest mayoral candidate was elected. The new mayor appointed William McAndrew (1863–1926) as superintendent of schools, and McAndrew proceeded to enact a series of reforms. Unfortunately, Chicago politics dissolved into a war of opposing factions, with McAndrew's reforms at the center of much debate. In the scuffle, the dishonest group regained control. In 1927, Thompson was re-elected mayor. McAndrew was ousted, and his reforms were reversed. During the 1920s, this type of problem plagued communities across the country. In his publication School and Society in Chicago (1928), noted scholar George S. Counts (1889–1974) brought the public's attention to the dangers of mixing questionable politics with education. As an example, Counts bravely cited the situation in Chicago.


In 1925, Professor Ellwood P. Cubberley (1886–1965) of Stanford University advocated an introductory course in education to be required of prospective teachers in all colleges, universities, and normal schools (two-year teacher-training schools). He did so to counter the growing specialization within education departments. Cubberley was concerned that students who took a very specific education course, or even several of the narrowly defined courses, would graduate without having acquired an overview or general philosophy of education and teaching methods.

Throughout the decade, teacher training grew more detailed and more challenging. The two-year normal school programs were being superseded by

John Dewey on Teaching

As a people, we profess to believe in education above everything else. We have succeeded in making ourselves believe in this profession. Critics are taken in by it, and ridicule our alleged faith as a blind religion and our devotion to schools as a cult, a superstitious mummery. But what is the test of the depth and sincerity of a faith? Only acts show whether a professed belief is living or is a form of words. In the case of education the actions which serve as a test are: First, are we willing to pay, to give, to sacrifice, to get and keep in our elementary schools the kind of men and women teachers who alone can make our schools be what they should be? And, secondly, apart from money for salaries and equipment of schools for educational work, what are we willing to do in the way of esteem, respect, social prestige, hearty backing? For neither question is the answer very encouraging, least of all for elementary schools.

Immediately after the war the shortage of teachers was such as to compel some attention to the question of adjustment of wages in the face of the rise in the cost of living. The Red Scare helped also, as least as far as high school and college teachers were concerned, since there was a fear that poorly paid 'intellectuals' would be attracted toward Bolshevism [a form of Russian communism, circa 1917, which advocated the violent fall of capitalism]. But symptoms only, not causes, were then dealt with, and that remains true today. Salaries were increased in reference to quantity and not quality. The aim was simply to pay what was demanded in order to get enough teachers to go around, such as they were; not to find out what would be required to attract and hold the best men and women within the schools.

Source: Jo Ann Boydston, ed. "What is the Matter with Teaching," in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953, volume 2, 1925–27, (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984) p. 117.

four-year programs. New approaches to education were being considered, such as those that were based on the relationship between child development and educational philosophy. In addition to the many students in education programs, certified teachers also were seeking more knowledge about their work. They flocked to lecture halls and signed up for summer training sessions to hear the ideas of Cubberley, along with progressive education champions John Dewey (1859–1952) and William Heard Kilpatrick (1871–1965) of Columbia University. From their early-century role as taskmaster, modern teachers were evolving into more complex, creative, and nurturing professionals.

Since the 1910s, the broadening recognition of the value of a progressive education was having a positive effect on curricula. Across the country, school systems gradually were branching out from the old-fashioned rote learning of the "three Rs"—reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic—to a broader range of topics: algebra, geometry, civics, American government and history, as well as industrial arts, home economics, and personal hygiene. Progressive educators felt that part of the learning process was to gain the interest of the student. They believed education prepared a student to be a good citizen as well as a productive member of the workforce.

The wide acceptance of the Dalton Laboratory Plan, or the Dalton Plan, was an indication of the growth of progressive education during the 1920s. Combining the theories of Dewey with those of Italian psychiatrist and educator Maria Montessori (1870–1952), whose work involved giving young children appropriate tools for them to learn by themselves, an experimental laboratory was established at a high school in Dalton, Massachusetts, during the 1920s. There, students worked on long-term projects. They researched topics, wrote papers, and gave oral presentations about their work. The Dalton Plan became a popular teaching approach in schools in the United States and Western Europe. A modified version of the plan was developed at the University of Wisconsin, in which the student and teacher began each project by drawing up a contract listing the grade the student wanted and the work required to achieve that grade. The Contract Plan, as it was called, also became a popular method of teaching during the 1920s.


After World War I, there was a boom in baby births. As the 1920s began, there were thirteen million preschool-aged children in the United States. Twenty-five million children were between the ages of ten and fifteen, and another ten million were between sixteen and twenty. The decade also saw a recognition of the critical need for compulsory elementary schooling, and the understanding of the importance of secondary education to help prepare young Americans to find a suitable place in their country's growing economy. Consideration of these realities led school administrators to construct new buildings and hire many more teachers. As a result, nearly eight thousand additional high schools were established during the decade, and nearly sixty thousand additional teachers were hired.

As early as 1910, the idea of the central schoolhouse for grades one through twelve was being phased out. By the early 1920s, the most prevalent plan for local school systems was the 6 to 3 to 3 division. Elementary school consisted of grades one through six; junior high school included grades seven through nine, and high school consisted of grades ten through twelve. As the teaching profession became more concerned with laboratory studies in educational psychology and philosophy, the three divisions offered a convenient means of gathering statistics by age group. For instance, studies relating to adolescent learning patterns would be conducted among junior high students.

Pupils in Public and Private High Schools: 1869 to 1930

YearNumber of Public High SchoolsStudents in Public and Private High Schools% of Students in Public High Schools% of Students in Private High Schools% of Total Population
Note: Accurate comparable figures for recent years are not available due to the rise of the junior high school and the inclusion of data for these as part of the secondary school figures.
Source: Ellwood P. Cubberley, Public Education in the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934) p. 627.
1869–70c. 50080,2272.0
1879–80c. 800110,2893.0
1924–25c. 20,000158,00091.608.4047.0
1929–30c. 22,00052.0

High schools put the emphasis on preparing young adults for industry and society. There was a dramatic swell in the number of students who were attending high school. In fact, during the 1920s, a high school education reflected upon people's social class. Earning a high school graduation certificate meant an individual could move up from the lower working class into the highly skilled labor class.


Although a federal income tax was instituted in 1913, the amount of federal funding that trickled down to support public education was small. Public school systems relied heavily on state and local taxes. In 1924, only $4 million of school support came from the federal government, as compared to $262 million from the states, and over $1.3 billion from local sources. But in 1920, when Americans spent a total of $1 billion on candy, the total spent on education was nearly $1.04 billion!

Pleas for federal funding focused on gaining more money not only for instruction, but also to create equity for all school districts across the country. As long as state and local funding was the rule, public school systems in affluent regions of the country had better-quality schools than those in poor areas. During the decade, cities in New York State with a population of more than thirty thousand spent an average of 33 percent of their local budgets on education, while schools in rural areas of the state

put aside an average of only 11 percent of their total budgets. This type of inequity also held true for the nation.

Annual Bill for Luxuries and School Expenditures for 1920

As the decade opened, very little money was being spent on education. What better way to illustrate this fact than to list the amounts Americans were spending on more "enjoyable" pastimes:

Source: Ellwood P. Cubberley, An Introduction to the Study of Education and to Teaching (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1925) p.444.
Soft drinks$350,000,000
Perfume, cosmetics$750,000,000
Theater admissions, dues, etc.$800,000,000
Ice cream$250,000,000
Cakes, confections$350,000,000
Luxury foods$5,000,000,000
Joy-riding, races, boxing and resorts$3,000,000,000
Carpets and luxury clothing$1,500,000,000
Automobiles and Parts$2,000,000,000
Toilet soaps$400,000,000
Pianos and phonographs$250,000,000
Total for Above Luxuries$21,811,000,000
Total Spent on Education$1,036,151,209


During the 1920s, an ongoing controversy in schools was the teaching of human creation. Teachers who taught the scientifically accepted theories of evolution as the origin of human life came under the scrutiny of community members who favored the biblical account from the book of Genesis. This issue gained the attention of the world in March 1925 when a popular young teacher named John T. Scopes (1900–1970), employed in a small school district in Dayton, Tennessee, instructed his high school pupils in the scientific theories of creation. Scopes's instruction went against a new Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of the evolution theories

of Charles Darwin (1809–1982) in state-funded schools. Tennessee was one of several southern states to have such a law on its books.

Darwin formulated his theories while he sailed around the world from 1831 to 1836 studying naturalism and geology. In his travels, Darwin noted the geographical distribution of plants and animals. He determined that species were capable of variations and that those in ecologically favorable environments could form new and distinct species. In 1859, Darwin published his seminal study On The Origin of Species. This publication led to passionate debate regarding the origin of the human race, especially by religious fundamentalists who placed the creation of humankind in the hands of a supernatural deity.

The leading citizens of Dayton invited two famous legal authorities, defense attorney Clarence Darrow (1857–1938) and prosecutor William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), to argue the Scopes case, called the Scopes Monkey Trial by the media because Darwin's theories linked human evolution to that of apes. In an atmosphere of high tension and tremendous publicity, the two forceful personalities debated the case in July 1925. In the small courtroom the temperature often rose to 100 degrees. Eventually, Darrow was defeated, and Scopes was told to pay a fine of $100; however, a Tennessee appeals court overturned the ruling on a technicality. It was not until 1967 that Tennessee's evolution law was overturned by the Supreme Court.


During the decade, colleges and universities began developing athletic programs and establishing intramural team sports (teams with players selected from among the student body who compete against one another and not against teams from other schools). Harvard and Yale set up intramural sports programs in the 1920s that included tennis, swimming, canoeing, golf, horseback riding, and badminton. Such activities were accepted as recreations among middle class and upper class society.

Physical education was added to the curricula of many colleges, and competition among school clubs was encouraged. During the decade, coaches started to teach in the classroom as well as on the athletic field. With more educated coach-teachers on faculty staffs, well thought-out physical education programs became ingrained in the upper-level American education system. Meanwhile, intercollegiate sports (contests between teams from different colleges) became so popular that in 1927, thirty million sports-minded fans paid a total of $50 million to attend college football games. In 1929 the Carnegie Report on Intercollegiate Athletics, published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, expressed outrage at the commercialism of collegiate sports and labeled the excitement at the college stadiums a "Roman Circus." Indeed, collegiate football as well as other campus sports were taking on characteristics of professional sports and attracting big-time gambling. Even so, it would be many years before reforms were instituted to protect collegiate sports from unsavory elements.


During the 1920s, as more young people began to graduate from high schools, college enrollments increased, particularly at state colleges and universities. At the University of California, the University of Georgia, and the University of Minnesota, enrollments tripled from 1915 to 1930. Private schools also gained many more students. University curricula developed programs that met the needs of a generation training to enter industry, agriculture, and the civil services, or to employ modern methods of home economics. College campuses were preparing a generation of teenagers and World War I veterans to meet the demands of the modern 1920s lifestyle.

Martha Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr

In 1922, Martha Carey Thomas (1857–1935) stepped down after serving as president of Bryn Mawr College since 1894. She had been a professor of English and later became the first woman in the United States to hold the title of dean. Additionally, Thomas helped establish the first graduate studies program at a women's college. She also was one of the founders of the International Federation of University Women and the Association to Promote Scientific Research. Thomas was a feminist and was active in the fight for women's suffrage (the right to vote).

Money was needed to allow colleges to expand and modernize curricula and facilities. Private donations increased dramatically, from $7.5 million in 1915 to $25 million in 1930. State and federal support rose from $62 million to $152 million. Of course, the stock market crash of October 1929 set the course of private donations into a downward plunge. Still, by the end of the decade 150,000 college and university degrees were being awarded each year, and the physical plant value of these institutions of higher learning totaled nearly $2 billion.

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The 1920s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1920s Education: Topics in the News