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Work of the Joint Commission on Emergency in Education

by John K. Norton - 1933

SOME fifteen years ago conditions growing out of the World War caused the National Education Association to appoint an Emergency Commission. To the work of this war-time commission, of which George D. Strayer was chairman, may be traced many of the significant advances in education achieved during the decade of the twenties.

SOME fifteen years ago conditions growing out of the World War caused the National Education Association to appoint an Emergency Commission. To the work of this war-time commission, of which George D. Strayer was chairman, may be traced many of the significant advances in education achieved during the decade of the twenties.

By January 1933 the depression had brought about conditions which justified the creation of a second Emergency Commission. The presidents of the National Education Association and the Department of Superintendence appointed a Joint Commission on the Emergency in Education "to consider and suggest remedies concerning the most trying difficulties, financial and otherwise, now confronting the schools." The members of this Commission are: J. B. Edmonson, Sidney B. Hall, Mrs. F. Blanche Preble, A. L. Threlkeld, Herbert S. Weet, David E. Weglein, and John K. Norton, chairman.


Immediately following its appointment, this Joint Commission on the Emergency in Education met and outlined the following policies which have guided the program of action adopted:

1. An offensive, rather than a defensive, attitude should be taken concerning those groups and forces which are operating to undermine the integrity of the public schools and colleges of the nation.

2. The program of the Commission should first give attention to the immediate situation, taking such measures as will be helpful in connection with state legislative sessions and work on local school budgets, then proceed to the development of a program for the remainder of the depression and for the period of educational reconstruction which should follow upon the improvement of the economic situation.

3. The Commission will create as little additional machinery of organization as possible. It will work through the officers of the active national, state, and local educational organizations already in existence, and those of the various state and local school systems. It will seek to stimulate every agency, both lay and professional, which can make a contribution to education in this emergency, and to coordinate and unify the efforts of agencies already at work.

4. The administration of the program of the Joint Commission will be carried on through the Headquarters Staff of the National Education Association and the Department of Superintendence.

5. The Commission will base its program, in so far as resources permit, upon factual information and the advice of competent authorities.

6. The Commission, organized as a board of strategy, will serve as a rallying point for the forces made up of teachers, parents, and all public-spirited citizens interested in the maintenance and improvement of America's system of free public schools.

7. Practical means should be provided for encouraging a widespread appraisal of education in the light of current conditions. The Commission's battle for the maintenance of free public education is not a struggle for the maintenance of the educational status quo, but for an improved system of education adequately financed.

Arousing the country to the threatened collapse of public school systems. One of the problems confronting the Commission at the time of its appointment was the fact that the majority of the people did not realize the sacrifices which the schools were making. Hence the Commission's first job was to arouse the country to an understanding of the financial difficulties confronting education. This was done by a number of methods, such as the collection and dissemination of facts on closed schools, shortened terms, slashed school budgets, and other striking data.

This project has been aided by the United States Office of Education, which is carrying on timely studies dealing with important phases of the emergency in education. State education associations, state departments of education, and many other agencies are also active in assembling needed information.

A general survey of conditions at the close of the last school year, entitled The Schools and the Depression,1 has been the basis of much newspaper publicity and has also been quoted extensively in nationwide radio broadcasts. Other widely circulated reports, prepared under the auspices of the Commission, include titles such as the following: Schools Closed and Children Denied Educational Opportunity in 1933; Federal Pay Cuts and Their Bearing on Teachers' Salaries; Data on Closed Schools, Short Terms, and Sub-Code Teachers, 1933-34.

As part of its program of arousing the country to the seriousness of the educational problems growing out of the emergency, the Commission organized twenty-five radio broadcasts by well-known laymen and educators over coast-to-coast hook-ups, through the courtesy of the National Broadcasting Company and the Columbia Broadcasting System. Thousands of copies of these radio addresses were distributed in response to a nationwide demand.

The Commission's program of collection and dissemination of data relative to the schools is one of the factors responsible for articles on the crisis in education in great metropolitan newspapers, such as the New York Times,2 and in magazines, such as the Nation3 the Literary Digest,4 Harpers,5 Cosmopolitan,6 and of vigorous editorials in popular lay magazines, urging that rehabilitation of schools be a first claim on the resources of citizens and the government.7

It may have been one of the factors responsible for President Roosevelt's pronouncement on October 13, 1933, that:

. . . the economic depression has left its serious mark not only on the science and practice of education but also on the very lives of many hundreds of thousands of children who are destined to become our future citizens. . . . We must have the definite objective in every state and in every school district, of restoring the useful functions of education at least to their pre-depression level. . . . We need to make infinitely better the average education which the average child now receives. . . . This crisis can be met, but not in a day or a year, and education is a vital factor in the meeting of it.

The Commission's continuing survey of what is happening to the schools shows the progressive breakdown of school systems in increasing areas. In November 1932 only forty schools in the nation were actually closed. Enrolled in these schools were barely one hundred children. By April 1, 1933, these figures had grown to 5,825 closed schools, enrolling nearly a half million children. It is now estimated, on the basis of a nation-wide county by county survey just completed by the Commission, that by April 1, 1934, there will be 20,300 schools closed, which means that they will have had less than a six months' school term. These schools enroll more than 1,000,000 children. More than 100,000 of them will not have attended school at all; more than 30,000 will have attended less than three months; and more than 900,000 less than six months.

During the current school year, 209,500 teachers will receive less than $750, that is, one teacher in every four in the United States will receive a wage which is lower than the minimum fixed in the industrial codes for unskilled labor. It is estimated that more than 80,000 teachers will receive annual salaries of less than $450.

Undoubtedly the country now recognizes that there is an emergency in education. People are coming to have a keen appreciation of the harmful forces which are menacing schools and colleges in many communities.

Survey of the critics and the friends of public education. The preliminary groundwork has been laid for an investigation of agencies favorable and unfavorable to free public schools. It is too early to draw any conclusions from this study, except that the depression has tended to rouse a variety of forces critical of as well as antagonistic to public education or to expenditures for public education. The value of having this material on hand is that it indicates how far these agencies unfavorable to the schools represent opposition to the principle of public education, how far they represent mere objection to educational expenditure, and how far they represent more or less justifiable criticisms of educational procedures.

It is the plan to use this material in eliminating opposition to the schools which is based on false information, in planning offensive action against those out of agreement with the idea of free public education, and in discovering the shortcomings of the schools. Many thoughtful people look at the schools to-day and see things which they cannot approve. We should profit by their criticisms. We must admit, for example, that too often the schools have been absorbed in obsolete subject matter of a past day, and too little concerned with living problems which confront us to-day and which will confront us to-morrow.

Activities to maintain morale and to encourage unity of action. A board of 700 regional consultants has been appointed to work with and advise the Commission in the development of its program. These consultants, who are officers of national, regional, and state educational organizations, of state and local school systems, of parent-teacher organizations, and of school board associations, are being called together in a series of regional conferences. These conferences offer those on the firing line an opportunity to advise the Commission as to its program; permit the pooling of ideas concerning constructive action aimed at emergency problems; and permit the discussion and dissemination of printed material concerning the crisis in education. Regional conferences have been held in Kansas City, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Detroit, Hartford, and Birmingham. As long as emergency conditions exist, these regional conferences will be continued. They are proving to be indispensable as a means of maintaining morale, pooling ideas, and developing and carrying out the program of the Commission.

A bimonthly news-letter is sent regularly to all regional consultants. These letters transmit statistical information as to the effect of the depression on school programs, legislative developments, reports of the Commission, and other material of particular significance in the current crisis. For example, the first five news-letters presented succinct reports from fifty city school systems and sixteen states as to the effect of the depression upon the schools and the adjustments individual school systems were making, such as administrative reorganizations, changes in the curriculum, increase in pupil-teacher ratio, and effective plans for securing public support for the school program. These news-letters are meeting the demand for up-to-date news on the way schools are being affected by the shortage in public revenue.

State teachers' associations are cooperating with the Joint Commission in its activities. The journals of these associations contain an article each month by the chairman of the Commission.

Promoting constructive economies. Regardless of the amount of money available for schools, there are efficient and inefficient ways of spending it. There is a vast difference both in theory and practice between arbitrary slashing of school budgets and a sound policy of securing the utmost value from the expenditure of school funds. Economy is a concept inseparable from efficiency. If reduced expenditures mean lowered educational efficiency, there has been no economy. In the first regional conferences held by the Joint Commission, attention was given to the pooling of ideas on constructive economies and to exhibits of bulletins prepared by state and city school systems showing the application of sound professional judgment in making fiscal adjustments. One leaflet of the Joint Commission was entitled "Before You Cut That School Budget."

The September 1933 issue of the Research Bulletin of the National Education Association was given over to the subject of "Constructive Economy in Education." It includes such pertinent topics as: Basic principles of economy; An efficient staff, a prerequisite for economy; Economy and school organization; and Economy in the management of school supplies, in school insurance, and in the management and protection of school funds.


Activities of the Commission which aim deeper include the improvement of our state systems of school finance, the interpretation of modern school programs to the public, broadening the vision of teachers in service, and the cooperative appraisal of the purposes, scope, and procedures of education by educators and laymen.

Improving the systems of state school finance. One of the major planks in the platform of the Commission has to do with the financing of education. Accordingly, much consideration has been given not only to the economical expenditure of school funds but also to the problem of remedying the current financial difficulties of the schools. These difficulties are due to two major causes: (1) the general economic paralysis which has prevailed for the last four years, and (2) the inefficient and inequitable means by which education is financed in the United States.

The Commission recognized that educators are but one of a large number of groups which must intelligently and actively cooperate with the national administration and other agencies if general economic rehabilitation is to be achieved.

The improvement of our state systems of school finance, however, is a problem which an intelligent and courageous educational leadership can immediately do something about. Early in its deliberations the Commission agreed upon the need for a charter of school finance, a concise statement of guiding principles which would help any state in revising its system of financing public schools and colleges.

To assist in the preparation of such a statement, the Commission organized a National Conference on the Financing of Education, which met at Columbia University from July 31 to August 11,1933. A grant from the Carnegie Corporation helped to finance this Conference. Thirty state and city superintendents of schools, tax experts, and students of school finance, representing every section of the nation, attended the Conference. These leaders brought not only a knowledge of best theory and practice relative to the financing of public education but also broad practical experience. Particularly valuable, for example, were contributions of Paul R. Mort, who has served as associate director of the National Survey of School Finance and as adviser and director of numerous state surveys and educational finance commissions, including those of New York, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Michigan, Oklahoma, Ohio, and New Jersey, and who gave generously of his time to the Conference. Other members of Columbia University and Teachers College staffs who actively worked with the Conference on the drafting of its Report,8 which successfully distills from a vast amount of research and experience the essentials of a modern school finance program, were William F. Russell, George D. Strayer, N. L. Engelhardt, Eugene S. Lawler, and Carl S. Shoup.

A leading educator, commenting on the School Finance Charter drafted by this Conference, said: "It heralds a new day in American education." These are among its most forward-looking pronouncements:

Universal education. Funds to provide every child and youth a complete educational opportunity from early childhood to the age at which employment is possible and socially desirable. This right to be preserved regardless of residence, race, or economic status, and to constitute an inalienable claim on the resources of local, state, and national governments.

Lifelong learning. Educational opportunities at public expense for every adult whenever such opportunities are required in the public interest.

Effective teaching. In every classroom competent teachers maintained at an economic level which will secure a high quality of socially motivated and broadly trained professional service.

Equitable taxation. For the adequate support of all governmental activities, including the schools, a stable, varied, and flexible tax system, providing for a just sharing of the cost of government by all members of the community.

Equalization of educational opportunity. For every school district, sufficient financial support from the state to permit the maintenance of an acceptable state minimum program of education and to relieve the local property tax when this tax, upon which local initiative depends, is carrying an unfair share of the cost of government.

National interest in open schools. For every child deprived of education by emergency conditions beyond the control of his own community and state, immediate restoration of these rights through assistance from the federal government to the state concerned.

The detailed consideration which was given to every important phase of the problem of school finance is illustrated by the fact that the Conference made eleven specific recommendations relative to the educational enterprise to be financed; eight specific recommendations as to the financing of a minimum or foundation program of education; thirteen relative to the organization of local school districts, and the safeguarding of local initiative; ten concerning taxes for school support; seventeen relative to the state and constructive economies in education; and three specific recommendations concerning the Federal Government and education.

The Federal Government and the emergency demands of the schools. Members of the Joint Commission have been active in the development of a program concerning the relation of the Federal Government to the present educational emergency. The Commission, at the outset, emphasized the role of the locality and the state in dealing with current educational problems. It will continue to work along this line.

In recent months, however, it has become Increasingly clear that local and state boards of education are fighting a losing battle in a growing number of communities. Education is as helpless as banking, as industry, and as agriculture proved to be in the face of the financial chaos generated by the depression. It is rapidly being recognized that the Federal Government must provide emergency aid to education as it has already provided emergency aid to these other great enterprises.

The Commission cooperating with the National Council of State Superintendents and Commissioners of Education has worked to secure administrative interpretations of the various Recovery Acts which would permit the assistance of hard-pressed schools and colleges. It is encouraging to report that the federal administration has been cordial to approaches made along this line.

It is a fact that money made available under the Public Works Act is being allocated for the construction of needed school buildings. It is a fact that interpretations of the Federal Emergency Relief Act have permitted the allotment of funds to the payment of unemployed teachers to open closed schools. These funds are also being used to organize practical programs of adult education for unemployed workers.

The Tennessee Valley Project is being developed as a great social (and educational experiment as well as an economic recovery and public works project.

In recent months, a variety of factors have operated to demonstrate that existing federal legislation will not permit necessary emergency action affecting the schools. First, we have had the progressive Breakdown of the schools in increasing areas. Second, there has been a growing realization that this breakdown cannot be halted except by the Federal Government. Third, it has become increasingly clear that the mass of the school people of the nation, as well as growing numbers of outstanding citizens in all sections of the country, are agreed to the inevitability and justification of federal emergency action designed to keep the schools open and operating on an efficient basis. The recent resolution of the convention of school board members of New York State is a case in point.

The Commission has recently been actively cooperating with the representatives of governmental agencies and organizations concerned with education in the development of a program of emergency legislation affecting education. It is the aim to develop measures which will meet the current crisis in education, and which will enjoy the united support of professional and lay organizations concerned with the maintenance of educational opportunity. This legislation will be introduced at the next session of Congress. What will happen to it cannot be predicted at this time. It appears certain, however, that a carefully thought out program of federal legislation to meet the current educational crisis will be completed before Congress assembles.

Keeping the public informed. The Joint Commission on the Emergency in Education is vitally interested in the problem of educational interpretation. Before the general public will vote taxes for the continued support of the various phases of a modern educational program, it must have an appreciative understanding of the value of this program. Unfortunately, many of the most promising efforts of the schools to meet the needs of the changing social order, such as continuation schools, differentiated courses for non-college preparatory groups, guidance and counseling services, vocational courses, health services, and various activities designed to prepare pupils for the wholesome use of leisure time, were not understood by the public—they were even called "extras" by some school people. Hence, when retrenchments had to be made, these newer activities, which in terms of present-day life are fundamental, were the first to be curtailed or eliminated. In this fact, the Joint Commission recognizes the need for better programs of educational interpretation. To meet this need, a chapter on "Helping Citizens to Know Their Schools" will be included in the 1934 Yearbook of the Department of Superintendence, which will be entitled Critical Issues in School Administration,

At the regional conferences of the Joint Commission, changing educational ideals and procedures are frequently discussed, as well as the ways and means of helping teachers to adapt them to local situations and to interpret them to school patrons.

As a further means of promoting educational interpretation, the Commission aided in the development of plans for a more extensive and meaningful celebration of American Education Week, November 6 to 12, 1933, when thousands of parents visited schools and gained first-hand information about what present-day schools are doing for their children. Plans for interpreting the present critical situation to the public should be put into operation during American Education Week and should be systematically carried out during the remainder of the year.

Broadening the vision of teachers in service. Early in its deliberations, the Joint Commission unanimously agreed that school people cannot disclaim any responsibility for the evils which now beset the nation. To do so would be to proclaim that the school is a futile organization. It is true that we have done the best our vision would permit. But our vision may have been too short.

The Commission has accordingly interested itself in several projects designed to bring about a better understanding of the implications for education of the characteristics of contemporary civilization. Recognizing Recent Social Trends9 as a unique description of contemporary life, the Commission arranged with the publishers of this study for the printing of a special one-volume edition for the particular use of teachers. Recent Social Trends may now be purchased from the National Education Association in a one-volume edition for less than half its original price.

Appraising the schools. Another project, which is fundamental in its potential possibilities, aims to encourage the widespread appraisal of education in the light of current conditions by educators in cooperation with lay leaders. As has already been pointed out, the Commission's battle for the maintenance of free public education is not a struggle for the maintenance of the educational status quo, but for an improved system of education adequately financed. The task of educational reconstruction is more than a mere replacement of the educational situation which existed in 1929. To the extent that present educational disintegration is due to weaknesses within the educational system itself, the problem of reconstruction becomes one of redesigning the pattern of the American educational system rather than merely restoring budgets, teachers' salary schedules, school terms, and portions of the curriculum.

The Commission recognizes that substantial revisions in the purposes, scope, and procedures of many schools are needed to bring them into harmony with present life demands. These revisions should not be made by educators working alone, but in cooperation with other groups of socially-minded citizens. The Joint Commission proposes that through the press, the radio, and in open forums education shall be made the subject of thought and discussion by great numbers of the American people. This project rests upon the proposition that the principles upon which free public education has been developed will bear scrutiny even in a time of economic depression, and that education has much to gain from an appraisal of its purposes, scope, and procedures. We frequently talk about interpreting the schools to the public. We need interpretation, but even more we need lay participation.

As a practical means for encouraging widespread appraisal of education in the light of current conditions, a bulletin entitled Evaluating the School Program has been prepared under the auspices of the Joint Commission. It has been developed with the cooperation of and through the financial assistance of Phi Delta Kappa, which has offered the Joint Commission indispensable help in its activities.

This publication gives practical suggestions concerning the organization of open forums and background materials for leaders and participants. A thousand preliminary copies have been issued and are being tried out in selected cities. On the basis of this tryout, revisions will be made, following which the bulletin will be widely distributed. Among the topics included for discussion are these: At what point should education at public expense begin? Where should education at public expense stop? What curriculum values are pertinent to-day? What personal, academic, and professional standards should be required of teachers in a modern school? The Commission believes that mandates from parents and from the rank and file of citizens on questions such as these are the best defense against proposals made by certain groups, under cover of the depression, which strike at the very roots of the principles upon which free education has been developed in this country. A second outcome should be the development of wider interest on the part of the general public in the purposes and procedures of public schools and colleges.

The publication Evaluating the School Program is the first of a series of fundamental approaches which the Commission proposes to make in furthering the development of a more dynamic program of public education.

The administration of the program of the Joint Commission on the Emergency in Education is being carried on through the Headquarters Staff of the National Education Association and the Department of Superintendence. This staff, in spite of reduction in resources due to the depression, is graciously and efficiently performing the large amount of additional work which the program of the Commission requires.

The Commission is encouraged by the nation-wide cooperation which it is receiving from educators and interested laymen. Heartened by this response and resolved to do all in its power to protect the American ideal of equality of educational opportunity, the Commission will continue to act as a board of strategy. It will serve as a rallying point for the forces made up of teachers, parents, and other public-spirited citizens interested in the maintenance and improvement of America's systems of free public schools.

1 The Schools and the Depression: A State by State Review, Prepared for the Joint Commission on the Emergency in Education by the Research Division of the National Education Association, Washington, D. C., May 1933.

2 "Survey of U. S. School Situation," New York Times, Section 2, No. 7, July 3, 1933.

3 Langdon, Eunice, "Teacher Faces the Depression," Nation, Vol. 137, pp. 182-85, August 16, 1933.

4 Parrish, Wayne W., "The Plight of Our School System," Literary Digest, Vol. 116, p. 32, September 23, 1933.

Parrish, Wayne W., "The Crisis in Our Public School System," Literary Digest, Vol. 116, p. 35, September 30, 1933.

5 Carlson, Avis D., "Deflating the Schools," Harpers Magazine, Vol. 116, pp. 705-14, November 1933.

6 Bennett, Helen Christine, "The Little Red Schoolhouse Is in the Red," Cosmopolitan, pp. 56 ff., November 1933.

7 These editorials are typical: "Going Back to School," Good Housekeeping, Vol. 97, p. 4, September 1933. "The Assault on the Schoolhouse," Nation, Vol. 137, p. 173, August 16, 1933. "The Raid on the School," Woman's Home Companion, Vol. 60, p. 2, October 1933.

8 Report of the National Conference on the Financing of Education, Washington, D. C. National Education Association, 1933, 78 pp. Price, 25 cents per copy.

9 Recent Social Trends in the United States. The President's Research Committee on Social Trends. McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1933.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 35 Number 3, 1933, p. 179-191
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 7313, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:43:59 PM

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