Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education

Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education

by William W. Cutler

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Who holds ultimate authority for the education of America's children—teachers or parents? Although the relationship between home and school has changed dramatically over the decades, William Cutler's fascinating history argues that it has always been a political one, and his book uncovers for the first time how and why the balance of power has shifted over time. Starting with parental dominance in the mid-nineteenth century, Cutler chronicles how schools' growing bureaucratization and professionalization allowed educators to gain increasing control over the schooling and lives of the children they taught. Central to his story is the role of parent-teacher associations, which helped transform an adversarial relationship into a collaborative one. Yet parents have also been controlled by educators through PTAs, leading to the perception that they are "company unions."

Cutler shows how in the 1920s and 1930s schools expanded their responsibility for children's well-being outside the classroom. These efforts sowed the seeds for later conflict as schools came to be held accountable for solving society's problems. Finally, he brings the reader into recent decades, in which a breakdown of trust, racial tension, and "parents' rights" have taken the story full circle, with parents and schools once again at odds.

Cutler's book is an invaluable guide to understanding how parent-teacher cooperation, which is essential for our children's educational success, might be achieved.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226307930
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 298
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

William W. Cutler III is professor of history emeritus at Temple University. His research focuses on the relationship between education and American culture.

Read an Excerpt

Parents and Schools

The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education

By William W. Cutler III

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30793-0


From Adversaries to Advocates

How can he, a stranger in blood, not invited into your families, not tolerated in your society, on whom you do not call, in whose employment you scarce seem at all interested, be expected to, nay how can he feel and exercise the absorbing interest in the welfare of your children which his station demands —Anonymous, The Massachusetts Teacher

In the spring of 1840, the eminent American educator Emma Hart Willard became the superintendent of common schools in Kensington, Connecticut. The appointment was a tribute to her work as the founder and first director of the Troy Female Seminary. In a field dominated by men, women rarely rose to positions of leadership, but Willard was an uncommon woman and a great believer in the ability of all women to contribute to the cause of public education. Under her guidance, the Troy Female Seminary trained hundreds of teachers. In Kensington, she proposed to build a bridge between teachers and mothers, the two most important women in children's lives. Boys and girls need their mothers' attention at school just as much as at home, Willard thought. "But where is the mother? Where is she whose watchful eye and yearning bosom would be the surest pledge of their growing intelligence and virtue?" Mothers never visited the school or took an interest in its activities. "It is for want of this supervision," Willard said, "that the common schools are in the forlorn condition in which many of them, throughout the country, are now found."

Encouraged by Willard, the women of Kensington organized a Female Common School Association in 1841. It met once a month, assembling at the school to hear student recitations and do good works. Its members made clothing for destitute families so their children could attend school. They oversaw the refurbishment of the schoolhouse and the purchase of books for a school library. They even concerned themselves with getting extra pay for teachers. It was worthwhile work, Willard thought. These women discovered "conveniences to be provided, ... discomforts and dangers to health and physical constitution to be guarded against which, but for their personal attention, they would never have dreamed of." Such benefits notwithstanding, the teachers in Kensington may not have wanted mothers in school. After all, most of their students spent little enough time away from home. However, the school could not afford to ignore the family. For good or ill, parents affected the education of their children. "The child is a faithful representative of his home sentiments," said one contributor to The Massachusetts Teacher in 1851. For the teacher to think otherwise "is a fatal mistake; nothing can be right, nothing can be safe, unless all is right and safe at home."

But how should parents and teachers interact? Who should initiate contact? Was the home or the school primarily in charge of the education of the young? In mid-nineteenth-century America, social and economic developments were transforming the relationship between parents and teachers. Urbanization and industrialization meant less time for parents with their children. Once predominant, the family's role in the education of the young was in decline, while the school's was in ascendance. To explain and justify such an important change, educators spoke and wrote at length about the relationship between parents and teachers. They tied their image of themselves as incipient professionals to a new division of labor between the school and the home.

The Home and the School in America: A Historical Perspective

In colonial America, the school was one of several educational institutions. Children received instruction at home and in church as well as in school. The expansion of schooling in the nineteenth century transformed this situation, but the family certainly did not lose its educational function altogether. It maintained primary responsibility for the moral education of children and retained considerable influence over their cognitive development as well. A competitive relationship existed between the home and the school, characterized by blurred boundaries and shared functions. Both parents and teachers were expected to keep children from harm's way, protecting them from physical and moral danger while instilling a balanced respect for freedom and order.

Beginning in the 1840s, the bureaucratization of formal education in America drove a wedge between the home and the school that would widen as the nineteenth century progressed. Increasingly, parents and teachers faced each other across a gap that featured systematic procedures and standardized expectations. Report cards replaced more personal forms of communication. Graded schools became the norm in lieu of less differentiated approaches to the management of instruction. The development of teachers' institutes and normal schools gave rise to the belief that esoteric knowledge made teachers uniquely qualified to oversee the education of the young. However, the reorganization of American education brought at least one innovation that helped build a bridge between parents and teachers. When elementary schools began to employ many young women as teachers, the similarity between home and school was reinforced. As mothers or teachers, women were the mentors of the young.

Gender was but one of many factors that influenced the dynamic relationship between the home and school. Region and ethnicity also made distinctive contributions to their interaction. In rural America, parents retained considerable control over educational policy and practice. Throughout the nineteenth century, they asserted themselves on such matters as the curriculum and the school calendar. They often resisted expenditures to improve schoolhouses or standardize textbooks. Rural teachers grew accustomed to parental involvement, learning quickly that mothers and fathers expected a respectful hearing at school. Their counterparts in cities were able to offer some resistance. Concentrated in large and complex systems, they sidestepped accountability by deferring to the authority of principals, superintendents, or members of boards of education.

Cultural differences were a source of friction between the home and the school. Some parents complained about the exclusive use of English as the language of instruction or religious bias in the curriculum. In San Francisco and Chicago, German families wanted their language spoken or at least taught in the classroom. Irish Catholics contested the use of the Protestant Bible in Philadelphia and New York and condemned textbooks that questioned the integrity of their church. Parents did not always defer to teachers or school directors in matters of attendance or discipline. Official complaints about truancy, for example, often went unheeded in both rural and urban homes. Some parents objected to corporal punishment or the teacher's ethical expectations, defending their prerogative to be the final authority in matters of values, behavior, and discipline. Schools often had to fight the perception that they taught children to disrespect their families and neglect their parents' needs in favor of their own.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of social class to the link between home and school. Even in the nineteenth century, middle-class families were much more likely to enroll their children and keep them in school. They brought different social skills and higher educational aspirations to the parent-teacher relationship. Compared to their working-class counterparts, middle-class parents felt less self-conscious about talking to teachers or principals. The opportunity costs associated with schooling stood much more firmly in the way of working- than middle-class enrollment and attendance. But social class was just one of several factors that affected parents' decisions about keeping their children in school. The location of the schoolhouse, the nature of the curriculum, and the status of the local economy could be consequential considerations. Class hostility did not necessarily motivate working-class parents to oppose the introduction of public high schools or withhold their children from school altogether. Equally important was the degree to which the home, regardless of its social class, believed that its opinions would carry weight with those who exercised control.

Ethnicity also was significant in determining who went to school and for how long. At least until the 1920s, immigrants from southern Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Serbia were much more likely to insist that their children exchange school for work than were their Eastern European, Jewish counterparts. High school principal Leonard Covello encountered such attitudes among the residents of Italian Harlem as late as the 1930s. But no matter who they were or what choices they made, parents were seldom indifferent to the question of attendance at school. Influenced by a rising tide of expert opinion that counseled against the overstimulation of the very young, many parents in the towns and cities of Massachusetts decided in the 1840s to discontinue sending their children to infant school. In early Chicago, on the other hand, Irish and German parents may have based their decisions about attendance on the availability of a parish school. Families in Providence, Rhode Island, often took academic achievement into account when considering whether or not to enroll a child in high school or keep him there.

In New England and New York, the first generation of school reformers and officials acknowledged the great impact of the home on the school. Teachers' institutes sometimes included evening meetings with parents to remind them of their responsibility for the character training of the young, for as Jacob Abbott explained to the American Institute of Instruction in 1834, children behave better in school when disciplined at home. Henry Barnard strongly agreed. Mothers "stand at the very fountain of influence," he said in 1840. They should visit schools and become involved in the reform of public education. Not every educator was as anxious as Barnard to bring parents into school. More than a few, including Jacob Abbott, regarded them as adversaries, as obstacles to the proper training of children. But others were willing to concede that the home and the school were not necessarily enemies; parents and teachers could collaborate successfully on the education of the young. They believed that parents should help the teacher, performing mundane chores at school while deferring to her educational expertise. By the 1890s, some educators and reformers began to argue that the home and school could be partners, each contributing significantly to the education of America's children. This message was directed especially at teachers because, knowing less about the home than many parents did about the school, they needed to be convinced that parents deserved their respect.

In the nineteenth century, the bureaucratization of public education "facilitated and legitimated the divorce of school from community and the subordination of parents to professionals," as Michael B. Katz, among others, has pointed out. However, it also opened the door to a wider range of cooperation between the home and the school by the century's end. Until after the Civil War, teaching was a temporary line of work in the United States, and most Americans did not hold educators, especially women teachers, in high esteem. But as schooling became more centralized and systematized, school boards and superintendents often expected teachers to have more education. Many states and school districts introduced training and certification requirements, and more than a few teachers, including some women, made careers in the professional culture and hierarchical structure of their changing occupation. By increasing autonomy and longevity, the work culture of the bureaucratic school improved the chances that teachers would experience job satisfaction.

Both the family and the school were institutions in transition in the nineteenth century. As family life became more insular and parenting more specialized, at least among the white middle class, precedent had less and less to offer those looking for guidance in the home-school relationship. More than a calling, teaching lost its affinity with parenthood, and its practitioners went in search of a new occupational identity. When they lacked the self-respect that would later come from training, experience, and organization, teachers and even school administrators found the temptation to denigrate parents irresistible. But as they became better educated and more organized in the second half of the nineteenth century, they could take a different approach. Many educators now admitted that parents had an important role to play in their children's education both at home and in the school. At the same time, teachers, administrators, and reformers came to believe that the relationship between the home and the school should not be left to chance. Like schooling itself, it needed to be rationalized, and more than a few parents agreed. Isolated at home, many middle-class mothers concluded that a more orderly and structured relationship would enhance their influence at school. Beginning in the 1880s, parents and teachers organized, forming associations to facilitate interaction and even cooperation. The original impetus came from inside the school, and rural America led the way. The recommendations of Emma Willard would now be put to the test.

The Parent in the Eyes of the School, 1850–1915

In 1853, Charles Northend published The Teacher and the Parent; A Treatise upon Common-School Education Containing Practical Suggestions to Teachers and Parents. Northend, the superintendent of schools in Danvers, Massachusetts, wrote the book for teachers more than parents. He believed that schools needed the help of families. "The full, cheerful, and prompt cooperation of parents is as essential to the prosperity of a school," Northend said, "as are the dew, the rain, and the sunshine to the growth of the vegetable kingdom." But parents often showed little interest in the cause of education. Ultimately, teachers were responsible for their own success. They should see to it that the school had a good relationship with the home.

To win the respect and support of parents, teachers had to be both qualified and caring. Command of pedagogy and the curriculum was not enough; teachers had to behave like parents or at least like friends. They had to possess common sense and a knowledge of human nature; they had to be kind and courteous to everyone and enthusiastic about their work. "While it is urged that teachers should feel an esprit de corps," Northend said, "it is also recommended that they should feel ready, with cheerful earnestness, to cooperate with others, in every suitable manner, and on every proper occasion." It was as if the personal and the professional were indistinguishable. To be in control, a teacher had to be emotionally involved and yet detached, humble as well as proud, deferential but also independent.

That men like Northend advised teachers to wear a Janus face should come as no surprise in view of the marginal status of teaching as an occupation. To be accepted, after all, teachers had to be all things to all people. However, those with any experience knew that parents were not all the same. Some lived for their children, but many others ignored them and their education. "How few parents exhibit an interest [in school] equal to that manifested in ... other concerns," Northend complained. His contemporary David Page, author of the widely read Theory and Practice of Teaching, concurred. The parents of schoolchildren, he observed, "do not always feel interested as they should." But other parents were intrusive and meddlesome. They interfered with discipline and questioned academic standards. Many parents, Northend warned, "can find nothing to their liking" at school. They were almost as troublesome as those "who are perfectly willing to throw all responsibility on the teacher, with little or no interest in the result."

Close observers of middle-class family life like Lydia Sigourney and William Alcott believed that the home was preferable to the school as a setting for moral education, especially for the youngest children. Their natural innocence was more likely to remain intact under their parents' watchful eyes. However, many educators had a very different perception. Too often, they thought, schools had to contend with ignorance and immorality brought from home or acquired in the community. Family and friends taught children bad habits or gave them misinformation that had to be unlearned. Determined teachers could overcome such obstacles, Northend thought; but they had to be patient and persevere in their work with the home. Parents could even be transformed from adversaries into allies if the school inspired them with a love of learning and involved them in the education of their children. "The teacher should consider it a part of his duty," David Page wrote, "to excite a deeper interest ... among the patrons of the school than they ever before felt." Holding meetings for parents at school gave the teacher an opportunity to enlist their assistance. But there was no substitute for knowing the home. Both Page and Northend recommended visiting families, a suggestion that must have seemed ironic to those rural teachers who were forced to board around. That such teachers might not command the respect of their students only served to enhance the importance of building a strong bond between the home and the school. After all, it was "impossible to obtain a right feeling on the part of the pupils," Northend said, "without securing a corresponding feeling on the part of the parents."


Excerpted from Parents and Schools by William W. Cutler III. Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. From Adversaries to Advocates
2. Home Rule or Ruled at Home?
3. In Search of Influence or Authority?
4. Heard but Not Seen
5. Twenty-Four Hours a Day
6. From Advocates to Adversaries
Epilogue: Recurring Themes
Bibliographic Note

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