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Power and the Promise of School Reform: Grass-roots Movements during the Progressive Era

reviewed by Vito Perrone - 1989

coverTitle: Power and the Promise of School Reform: Grass-roots Movements during the Progressive Era
Author(s): William Reese
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 0710099525, Pages: , Year:
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Efforts at school reform have tended to suffer from a lack of historical perspective. Beginning so often with a belief that their agenda is fresh, breaking new ground and asking unique questions, many well-intentioned school reformers lose valuable time and in the end credibility because they do not pursue the history of previous reform. Joseph Featherstone, historian and social commentator, suggests that reformers live too much of their lives in a “United States of Amnesia.”

Reese’s rich, well-written history of grass-roots school reform movements in the progressive years (1890- 1920) makes some of the important history accessible. It should especially aid current educational reformers in their advocacies aimed at enlarging programs of parent education, child nutrition and health, local school decision making, and schools as community centers. At a time when school health clinics, for example, are being debated as if they are nothing more than symbols of America’s post-sixties’ permissivism, it is good to know that school health clinics were advocated for and successfully established in what many want to define as the “golden years” of American education.

Further, as efforts proceed to expand school lunch and breakfast programs, and extended day and year programs, the earlier history, which Reese describes vividly, is important to know about. Educators speak with great passion today, for example, about the connection of children’s health and nutrition and their learning. Reese reminds us that in 1900 educators also insisted that “sanitation, hygiene, and the overall health of children . . . directly affected educational achievement” (p. 210). He also describes the work of the Federal Trade Council of Milwaukee on behalf of nutrition programs and their 1909 resolution calling for “immediate aid for the many children who are suffering from an insufficiency of food and [that] a civilized community should hold itself responsible for the well being of its rising generation” (p. 214). The added perspective around these issues, which remain current, is helpful. While the conditions are not absolutely symmetrical, the analogs are quite clear.

Reese’s social history introduces us to grass-roots movements involving feminists, parents of school-age children, trade unionists, teachers, socialists, and populists and “the ways these citizens shaped the world of mass schooling” (p. 238). At this time in our history, when school reform is very much a professional movement, it is good to review this early reform period, during which so much of the impetus came from people who lived and worked in local communities. We also learn a great deal in this book about “women’s clubs” and the National Congress of Mothers, a predecessor to the Parent-Teacher Association.

What I found helpful in these descriptions is the way Reese connected these education-related reform efforts to larger social and political reform. We tend too often, unfortunately, to view school reform and the larger social reform of which it is usually a part as separate. He notes in this regard:

Efficiency versus democracy, freedom versus control, respect for labor versus power for the capitalist: These were the many conflicts that citizens confronted on the shop floor as well as in the local neighborhood school. Unlike the ubiquitous school administrators of the period who viewed educational decision-making as “above politics,” most citizens realized that schools were a decidedly political enterprise. (p. xix)

Additionally, Reese’s work gives us another way to think about the revisionist and radical histories that have come to dominate thought about the growth of public education in the United States. To see public education only in terms of social-reproductive theories dominated by capitalist interests has always seemed to me as limiting and improbable. Reese makes clear that many community groups, influenced by democratic, egalitarian, and religious beliefs, kept the schools more diverse and more responsive to local interests than the revisionists have acknowledged. Local progressive groups have almost always had to be reckoned with.

In these progressive years under discussion, business and professional people may have dominated school boards but they always had to contend with parents, working-class as well as middle-class. How else would school lunches, health clinics, community education programs, and extended school programs have come? How else would the secondary schools have become more inclusive, more diverse in their curriculum, more responsive to local community interests?

Reese roots his work in four cities: Rochester (New York), Toledo, Milwaukee, and Kansas City. This is a particularly useful direction, as so much of the history of urban education has centered on cities east of the Appalachian Mountains. In the process he introduces us to a number of new names—Victor Berger, the socialist mayor of Milwaukee; Lizzie Black Kander, known in Milwaukee as having “a heart big enough to mother every child in town” (p. 37); Mary Lau, a former Toledo kindergarten teacher, who fought the establishment and demanded a place for women in school governance; and Helen Montgomery from Rochester, who helped establish the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union.

Reese provides an extensive bibliography, including many sources that have not been common in the historical literature. He has made an important contribution to our social history.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 3, 1989, p. 496-498
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 513, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:19:24 AM

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