Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Progressive Education and the Scientific Study of the Child: An Analysis of the Bureau of Educational Experiments, 1916-1930

by Joyce Antler - 1982

The history of New York City's Bank Street College (established in 1916 as the Bureau of Educational Experiments) is traced. The school was a laboratory for innovative teaching and fostered progressive educational practices and psychological child development research. (Source: ERIC)

I would like to thank Lawrence A. Cremin, Joseph Featherstone, Steven Schlossman, and Ruby Takanishi for their many helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper, presented at the Conference on Needs and Opportunities for Research in the History of Education, Institute of Philosophy and Politics of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, December 1978.

The Bureau of Educational Experiments, founded in New York City in 1916, remains one of the least known institutions to develop out of the progressive education movement. Yet the bureau is significant in a number of respects. In its first years, the bureau (known after 1930 as the Bank Street School and, later, the Bank Street College) conducted or sponsored a number of unusual educational experiments, culminating in the establishment of a pioneering program that combined scientific research in child development with an experimental laboratory nursery school. Several bureau members went on to hold influential positions in each of the two fields spanned by the bureaus projects: child development research and progressive, or experimental, education. A survey of early bureau projects suggests the richness, complexity, and internal dialectic of the early childhood education movement during this formative period.1

The bureaus eclecticism, in large part a reflection of the goals and background of its principle founder, Lucy Sprague Mitchell, is significant for another reason. In the programs of its first decades, the bureau attempted (and often succeeded) to integrate the methods and values of art and science in a highly original cultural synthesis. In education, generally, the tendency was toward divergence, not synthesis. In his monumental study The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957, Lawrence Cremin suggests that after World War I the progressive education movement, increasingly cut off from its connection with social reform, branched out in two separate though equally limited directions: science, on the one hand, and expressionism or Freudianism on the other.2 The bureau, however, attempted a merger of these impulses in the tradition of what Joseph Featherstone has termed a high romantic mediation.3 Like John Dewey, Lucy Mitchell was very much concerned with the proper relationship of education to science and to social reform, as well as with the place of artistic and emotional expression in the school curriculum. Eventually, the bureau worked out an educational program that combined schooling and research, expression and experience, and art and science in a fashion quite unlike the approach that prevailed in education generally. The bureaus research focus, which centered on amassing facts about children in order to fashion an appropriate learning environment, also differentiated it from the basic, rather than applied, research that characterized most child-development institutes in the 1920s.

In the bureaus first decades, a focus on researching the quantitative indices of childrens growth and behavior thus coexisted somewhat uneasily with Dewey-inspired goals of progressive education. An analysis of the early work of the bureau highlights the unusual models of education and research it developed and offers some new insights about the relationship of science to education and other cultural values during this period.


The Bureau of Educational Experiments was founded by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, her husband, economist Wesley Clair Mitchell, and her friend and mentor, Harriet Johnson. In 1916, Mrs. Mitchell’s cousin (in fact, her double first cousin―both shared the same sets of grandparents) Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge came to her with an astounding offer. In possession of a sizeable fortune due to the sudden death of her wealthy parents and her husband, Mrs. Coolidge offered to finance an educational venture of the Mitchells’ choice for a ten-year period, contributing $50,000 a year. Without hesitation Lucy agreed to comply with her cousin’s unusual conditions―put Elizabeth’s son Sprague on the organization’s board, give her no reports, and last, spend all of the money each year.4

The creation of the Bureau of Educational Experiments made possible by Mrs. Coolidge’s gift was in fact the culmination of Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s long search for a suitable career.5 Lucy Sprague had graduated from Radcliffe College in 1900 with honors in philosophy. After several years of travel and of secretarial work at Radcliffe, she became in 1905 dean of women at the University of California at Berkeley, where Wesley Mitchell taught economics. Although she was an effective administrator, she found the work unappealing. She also chafed under the limited professional opportunities for which women were trained at the universityprimarily teachingand eventually felt it necessary to leave California to broaden her own career choices.

Following the marriage of Lucy Sprague to Wesley Mitchell in 1912, the Mitchells moved to New York. Wesley Mitchell found the work situation he wanted teaching economics at Columbia University. For Lucy Mitchell, however, New York presented a bewildering variety of opportunities. She began taking courses at Teachers College with John Dewey, Edward Thorndike, and others, though she never became a full-time student, and became involved in a series of educational jobs as a volunteer worker. The first of these was as an assistant to Harriet Johnson, who was head of the Visiting Teachers project for the Public Education Association. Mitchell worked with Johnson in P.S. 3 on Hudson Avenue as a liaison between the school and the families of maladjusted children. In her second job she worked in P.S. 64 with Elisabeth Irwin, testing and grading children according to mental ability. Next she worked with ungraded classes for retarded children in the public schools.

In 1915 Mitchell organized the Psychological Survey (alternatively called the Psychological Clinic), with headquarters at the Mitchell home, to test children in public schools in four different New York communities. Elisabeth Irwin, whose experiments at P.S. 64 resulted in the founding of the privately operated Little Red School House; Evelyn Dewey, daughter of John Dewey and his co-author on Schools of Tomorrow; psychologist Beardsley Ruml, who was to become president of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM); and Frederick Ellis, director of the Neurological Institute of New York, joined Mitchell on the Psychological Survey, as did Helen Woolley, a child psychologist whom Mitchell brought in from Cincinnati to direct the organization part time. Irwin, Pratt, Ellis, and Evelyn Dewey all became members of the Working Council of the Bureau of Educational Experiments, launched the following year.6

Mitchell also began teaching nursery and kindergarten classes at Caroline Pratts innovative Play School in Greenwich Village. Introduced to Pratt’s work through Harriet Johnson, Mitchell found the fundamental ideas of the Play School―the notion that children learn by firsthand experience and that constructive play is an essential part of children’s learning—remarkably congruent to her own evolving philosophy. As dean of women at Berkeley, she had been trying to incorporate firsthand experience into the curriculum (for example, through trips to local institutions). At Berkeley, Mitchell originated the Partheneia, a pageant designed and presented by female students, in an attempt to get women students to translate their experiences into creative activity, much as Pratts young students at the Play School were attempting to do. Pratt was in the early stage of working out experimentally a curriculum of experience for little children, Mitchell recalled. The idea literally thrilled me. Here it seemed to me was a God-given opportunity to work with children along the very lines I had come to believe were educational.7

During this fumbling period of her professional life, as Mitchell called it, the range of her experiences in education was thus remarkably varied. Through the scientific aspects of her work in educational testing, the reformist concerns of the home visiting program she established with Harriet Johnson, and the artistic, creative impulses associated with teaching at the Play School, she absorbed many of the distinctive elements characteristic of the diversity of progressive education. The catholic mix of philosophy and practice Mitchell fashioned out of these experiences became a hallmark of the Bureau of Educational Experiments in its formative years.

In addition to Lucy Mitchells teaching associates, the Mitchells had many friends active in cultural and social reform circles in New York, among them, settlement leaders like Lillian Wald, Pauline Goldmark, and Mary Simkhovitch, and writers and intellectuals like John Dewey, Jacques Loeb, Walter Lippmann, Max Eastman, Hutchins Hapgood, Ernest Poole, and Thorstein Veblen. The Mitchells themselves were passionately interested in the new artistic and intellectual currents of prewar Greenwich Village. Avid visitors to art galleries and theater, they read aloud to each other nightly from periodicals such as the Masses or the New Republic, as well as from diverse authors who reflected their interests in psychology, science, philosophy, the arts, technology, and psychoanalysis.

Lucy Mitchell belonged to many education committees, including those in Greenwich House, the Henry Street Settlement, the Womens City Club, the Association for Collegiate Alumnae, and the Public Education Association. She became involved with a host of controversial educational issueslegislation regarding defective children, psychological testing, sex education in the schools, and not least of all, the Gary School Warthat reached public attention during the prewar years. Indeed it was Lucy Mitchell who, with Harriet Johnson, was sent by the Public Education Association in March 1914 to observe and report on Wirts innovations in Gary. The two women returned to talk to groups throughout the city about Wirts plan and its possibilities for adoption in New York.8 (Wirt, along with John Dewey and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, were to serve as honorary members of the new Bureau of Educational Experiments.)

About her ultimate career direction, however, Mitchell remained unfocused. In an attempt to sort out the possibilities before her, she went to Teachers College to see Dr. Henry Suzzola, whom she had known at Berkeley. Get off all those committees, he told her, as she recalled in her autobiography. Get into some direct work with ordinary children but dont get swamped in it. Your real job is to write epoch-making books. Mitchell laughed at his advice, which she thought utterly fantastic. She felt that her task was to learn and learn before I could write any kind of book. Nevertheless, she believed that Suzzolas preposterous remarks did indeed focus her thoughts on writing, and ultimately helped to determine her career goals. I would be a writer, she determined. But first I needed to know more. . . where and how could I best learn to understand children?9

The answers, she increasingly came to believe, lay in establishing a special bureau to conduct research on childrens development. Harriet Johnson and her housemate, Harriet Forbes (who, like Johnson, was a trained nurse), Evelyn Dewey, Elisabeth Irwin, and Caroline Pratt and Pratts housemate, Helen Marot (a committed Socialist who had served as executive secretary of the Womens Trade Union League of New York and who later became an editor of the Masses and worked on the staff of the Dial) were among those who met as a group with Mitchell to discuss the possibility of creating such an organization. After many sessions, the principal outlines of their plan emerged. Mitchell described it as follows:

We were to organize a group of specialists who knew children at first hand but from different anglesdoctor, psychologist, social worker, teacher, parent, perhaps anthropologistand together we were to work out ways of learning more about children, their growth, their interests and drives, their ways of learning, thinking, feeling, in different stages of development. . . . Schools were to be both our laboratories for studying and recording how children behaved under different situations and experimental centers where our findings would be used in planning for their children.10

The themes of the plan were several. The central objective was the need to combine research and schools in a functional relationship. First came the need to study, scientifically, through an interdisciplinary team of experts, the stages of childrens growth. The research was to be carried out in a school setting, since the findings were to be used to influence educational planning. Thus, research quite directly was to affect how schools were organized. The key to the research scheme and to the conduct of schools was the children themselves: Both teaching and research were to take their cues from the natural behavior of children, not from any abstract principles or theories.

Elizabeth Coolidges offer to finance an educational undertaking hastened the development of this emerging plan, and gave Mitchell the opportunity she sought to put it into effect. Mitchell decided that Caroline Pratts two-year-old Play School seemed the best place to study the growth of relatively free children and was the school most likely to appreciate and to apply careful scientific observation of children in various aspects of their development. Pratt agreed to have the Play School become the laboratory for the proposed Bureau of Educational Experiments. With a nucleus staff consisting of Pratt, Johnson, and herself, and with her husband as a trustee, Mitchell presented the plan to Elizabeth Coolidge, who gave her approval.


In October 1916, five months after Mrs. Coolidges eventful visit to the Mitchells, the Bureau of Educational Experiments (BEE) opened its offices at rented quarters off Fifth Avenue in the Village. The Play School, housed in an old stable on MacDougal Alley that adjoined the Mitchells new residence on 15 Washington Square North, began functioning as its laboratory. A common backyard served the four Mitchell toddlers and the Play School children. The Mitchells and the school remained at this location until 1921, when the Mitchells bought six brick buildings on West 12th and West 13th Streets, which were used as their own residence, the offices of the bureau, and the Play School complex. To the initial planning group, which consisted most regularly of the Mitchells, Harriet Johnson, Elisabeth Irwin, and Caroline Pratt, were added Frederick Ellis; Eleanor Johnson and Jean Lee Hunt, two women active in New York educational circles; Laura Garret, who taught experimental classes in sex hygiene and animal life; and Arthur Hurlbert, principal of a public high school in Park Ridge, New Jersey. These individuals were charter members of BEE and the first members of its Working Council, as they called their cooperative directing group. Eventually Edith Lincoln and David Mitchell, bureau physicians, and Buford Johnson, psychologist, Vida Elvin, social worker, and Mary Marot, recorder, were also elected to the Working Council.

The Bureau of Educational Experiments was officially incorporated as a private educational corporation on March 5, 1917. The document of incorporation stated that

the particular branch of literature and science proposed to be taught is the literature and science of progressive education and educational experiments; and the manner of such teaching is by conducting educational experiments, collecting and disseminating information regarding progressive education, aiding and promoting, by financial assistance or otherwise, the conduct of educational experiments and the collection and dissemination of information regarding progressive education.

Though the bureau renounced any intention of granting degrees, diplomas, certificates, or licenses, the New York State Board of Regents refused to grant it a charter, explaining that it did not approve of untried experiments.11

Mitchell recalled the first years of the bureau as the most stimulating time of her life. Bureau associates apparently shared her feeling that they were involved in an important new venturefirst, an experiment in a new method of study that combined progressive methods in education with child research, and second, an experiment in organization, whereby a group of peers attempted cooperatively to work out a program and budget, and to direct policy. Consecutive cooperative thinking became their slogan. The Working Council had no director (nor, until 1953, did the bureau have a president). Mitchell, however, played a key role, especially in the early years, as executive chairman of the council. She saw her main job as riding herd on the bureau specialists to see that they did not remain absorbed by their particular studies and lose sight of the main purpose of working out interrelationships. Her qualification for this role, she claimed, was that she herself was not a specialist, and therefore had no predisposition to view problems of education from a disciplinary perspective rather than from that of the whole child.

At this starting point, there was no particular educational theory that BEE was determined to investigate. Its concept of experiments in education was somewhat different, then, from Deweys idea of a laboratory school, specifically created to conduct planned experiments. Dewey noted, for example, that the aim of the Chicago Laboratory School was to test certain ideas which were used as working hypotheses. . . . The only place in which a comprehensive theory of knowledge can receive an active test is in the processes of education.12 Bureau members were not proposing to test a comprehensive theory of knowledge, but rather to provide a demonstration ground for a variety of unrelated projects, each of which brought to education some previously untried approach. Neither did bureau staffers have in mind a notion of educational experiments defined as a scientific situation in which the product of the experiment would be measured by its comparability to a control group. Nor at this stage did they envision the rigorous collection of data through the careful observation of a large number of cases, followed by the compilation of data and the formation of hypotheses. Though the bureau did move within a few years to a concept of experimental education that combined aspects of Deweys laboratory approach with the more detailed observation process common to Halls child-study disciples and the newer child-development researchers, for the moment educational experiments simply meant educational innovation.13

Shortly after the incorporation of the bureau, the Working Council organized four departments: Information; Teaching Experiments; Social, Physical, and Mental Experiments; and Records and Statistics. The Department of Information, directed by Jean Lee Hunt, served as a clearinghouse for reports, information, and materials related to research in child development and experimental education. It issued a series of bulletins dealing with experimental schools, psychological testing, and play equipment, and prepared exhibitson childrens toys and books, testing, and one on the Gary School systemthat were shown at its offices and at the conventions of a variety of organizations. The department also undertook special surveys: studies of experimental schools, industry and education, country activities for city children, sex hygiene courses, children and the creative arts, and one never-completed study on the organization and administration of household arts.14

At the same time that it was gathering and distributing information, the bureau began to give grants-in-aid to educational experiments outside its jurisdiction. These included the Porter Rural School at Kirskville, Missouri, directed by Mrs. Marie Turner Harvey, for the purpose of extending its work in teaching training; Pratts Play School, providing funds for a summer Play School; and the Observation Home for Psychopathic Children, a new venture being planned for New York City children. A second group of experiments to which the bureau contributed funds involved those in which it had cooperative interest, that is, in which it set the conditions of the experiment.

The first of these involved an attempt to develop a new model of the program of organic education, which Marietta Johnson pioneered in Fairhope, Alabama, within the public school setting in an urban community. The experiment took place in a first-grade class in a New York City public school, the bureau paying for an extra teacher and for the services of Mrs. Johnson, who supervised the teachers and gave a series of lectures. The bureau also supported Laura Garretts sex education work (through the use of animal families). Third, in the summer of 1917, the bureau organized Camp Liberty, a farm labor camp for 25 city boys in central New York State, in response to the governments request for recruits for farm work. The bureaus intention was to demonstrate the educational value of an industrial experiment in regular school curricula, at the same time that it hoped to demonstrate the economic viability of a farm camp where labor was provided by city boys.15 The last experiment supported by the bureau in which it had a cooperative interest was a nutrition clinic, a program for the treatment of undernourished children in public schools. The experiment was supervised by William R. P. Emerson of the Massachusetts General Hospital and carried on by a local physician and several social workers.16

During this first stage, termed by Lucy Mitchell the pre-Bureau phase, BEE began to initiate several experiments of its own into the physical and moral development of children.17 The Working Council believed that provision for adequate medical care that was preventive rather than treatment oriented should be included in planning an educational program for children. Accordingly, a study of each childs physical equipment became a key element in its program, with the object that such a study would lead to provisions for the correction of defects, the instruction of families in matters of hygiene, and the effective recording of the childs developmental progress on a regular basis.

The bureau also began studies of the psychological development of children in the Play School, Marietta Johnsons first-grade class, the nutrition experiment classes, and a control group at another local public school, hoping to evolve a method whereby research results would be provided to teachers in a form that would be useful to their own classroom programs and would make their participation in psychological experiments possible. Social investigations into childrens family life by bureau social work staff were also begun. Finally, the bureau appointed an educational recorder (Mary Marot), who was directed to study the institutions evolving records with a view to devising a new method of recording childrens activities so as to help teachers evaluate their needs and abilities.

By 1919, this pre-Bureau phase of activities was drawing to a close. The experience of several years of close staff cooperation and analysis now made possible a redirection of efforts based on the articulation of a common platform of educational principles. The major aspect of this change was the termination of most of the bureaus isolated spot experimentsthose initiated outside BEEand the establishment of its own laboratory school. Most of the spot experiments had shown themselves to be of little promise. Marietta Johnsons efforts to apply her philosophy of organic education to city conditions was quickly deemed a failure. Support of Laura Garretts program of sex hygiene in the public schools, which had run into adverse criticism from teachers because of its controversial nature, was discontinued when the Working Council, though lauding the purpose of the program, decided it did not fall within the purview of essential bureau interests. Aid to programs completely outside bureau control, like that to the Porter Rural School, was also ended.

In 1919, Lucy Mitchell explained to the Working Council that all of the spot experiments conducted in an alien atmosphere like the public schools, where theirs was the only experimental approach to children, did not have a real chance to show their educational possibilities. The beliefs of bureau specialists would not carry conviction, she stated, perhaps not even to themselves, unless they could be tried out under actual working conditions in a bureau-directed laboratory school.


The statement of principles enunciated by Lucy Mitchell at the outset of the creation of the bureaus laboratory school marks the emergence of a new concept of experimental education that was to define the bureaus work over the next decade. Central to this philosophy was the idea of a laboratory school and a strong belief in scientific research. We are attempting to make an unbiased, scientific study of children, their nature and their growth, Mitchell wrote, and to work out an environment for them according to our findings.

This I take it, is what we mean by a laboratory school. Both the scientific data assembled through our research and the practical experience we gain through our experiments within the school we wish to make immediately available to other workers in the field and the general public. Furthermore, we think of all our work ultimately in its relation to public education. We wish to keep constantly in mind and to be ready to attack whenever there seems to be a real opening those unsolved social and administrative problems of the public schools which will need attacking before anything we may work out in our laboratory school can be made effective. . . . This conception of an experimental laboratory school ultimately functioning for and through the public school is . . . our conception of the Bureau.18

Though theory at the laboratory school was to arise out of ongoing scientific research rather than from a particular philosophy of education, the bureau shared with the Dewey School the intention to develop a working model, or demonstration, as Dewey called it, of the feasibility of certain principles and methods of education. Like the Dewey School and the Lincoln School, the laboratory school established at Teachers College in 1917, the bureau focused its efforts on developing within the concrete environment of a private, progressive school a model that could be transferred to public schools. Only in the 1940s was Lucy Mitchell to realize this goal.19

The laboratory school that Mitchell envisaged in 1919 as the cornerstone of bureau activities was to consist of three separate though continuous elements: a nursery school for preschool age children, conducted directly by bureau staff; Caroline Pratts Play School (during this period, renamed the City and Country School) for children aged three through seven; and an eight-year-old and possibly a nine-year-old class, taught directly by bureau staff. Mitchells plan to treat these units as parts of a continuum was facilitated by the facts that the nursery and City and Country shared adjoining quarters in the West 12th and West 13th Street complex, and that nursery children usually graduated into Pratts school.

The principles on which the bureaus laboratory school would be operated were those to which most progressive schools would have subscribed. An emphasis on growth and the developmental needs of the individual child was central. We think of a school as a place planned from the point of view of the childrens growth, Mitchell explained.

We should call a school environment good if it permitted a child to expand in accordance with what we know of the laws of growth, whether physical, mental, emotional or social. And we should call an environment “bad” if it did not give scope for such natural expansion or forced him into lines of development―by which we mean all the influences which the school brings to bear upon the children―school equipment, trips, teachers and other children. Our school environment resolves itself, consequently, into our beliefs about how children grow.20

While most progressive schools shared these beliefs, Mitchell thought that few actually put them into practice. What was to be different in the new bureau laboratory school would be the actual school set-up, the intentional environment planned by the school for its pupils, which would ensure the translation of policy into practice.

The aspects of childrens growth around which the school would be focused were severalphysical, mental and emotional, and social. Mitchell observed that knowledge and control of their bodies, like all other kinds of knowledge, would come to children only through experiencing and experimenting, which thus must remain the watchwords of the physical curricula. She hoped above all that the bureau would work out methods of translating knowledge of physical laws into educational terms, a problem with which neither medical nor school authorities had dealt. Regarding mental and emotional growth, Mitchell and the Working Council believed that emotional satisfaction and health is obtained only through self-expression. Therefore, the school should furnish the children ample opportunity for free expression. Social growth was seen in largely similar terms:

To give the children opportunity for experimenting in society so that they may work out their social adjustments underlines all our work with children. I think we feel that social growth, like physical, mental and emotional, depends upon full experiencing and free expression of that experience. What experiences will be given to them the children will in a large measure determine for themselves through their inquiries. . . . Experimentation is the basis of scientific knowledge.21

The reflection of these curriculum goals for older children was relatively simple; to work out a program of activities based on concrete experiences and opportunity for expression for younger children was another matter. How to effect the translation of these principles into an educational environment for preschool children was to be the chief object of research within the new nursery school.

Thus Mitchell, like Dewey, was much concerned with correlating school experience with the stages of childrens growth. The growth stages she outlined started with infants and ran through age eight. (Deweys three stages began with the kindergarten years and ended at age 13.) According to Mitchell, infants and toddlers learned through their muscular and sensory experiences; schools should therefore provide them with opportunities for these kinds of explorations. At the next growth level, ages three to seven, children needed a program of experiences through trips and within the classroom, and means of self-expression through constructive play. In the last stage of growth, the transition period of ages seven to eight, children needed satisfaction through work rather than play as their social awareness grew rapidly. The experience curriculum for this group would thus rely on practical work, while the opportunities for self-expression would have to be richer in technical and social possibilities than before.

In this early statement of principles, most of the features that made the childrens school of the Bureau of Educational Experiments a characteristic institution within the progressive education movement, yet one that was distinctive and in many ways unique, are apparent. The emphasis, first, on childrens growth rather than on learning a particular curriculum resembles the rebellion of many progressive educators against traditional methods. Like many progressive schools, second, the bureau stressed growth that was not primarily intellectual, but blended elements of development that were physical, emotional, and social, as well as mental. In other words, the whole child, rather than its separate elements, was to be emphasized. Third, in the bureaus equation, growth was to be stimulated through two complementary processes, neither of which could promote development unless accompanied by the other. These were the processes, first of all, of experiencein an educational sense, providing children with activities through which they could relate to the world firsthand; and second, expression-reflected educationally by providing the means and media by which children could freely express aspects of the experiences they had encountered. Many progressive schools adopted the notion of a curriculum of experience as an essential feature, while others leaned more to a focus on creative expression through art, or a more psychological variant of this self-expressive urge. But rarely were these two elements blended. Mitchell always insisted that firsthand intakeexperience, experiment, inquirywas essential to true learning, but that first-hand outgoexpressionwas equally required.22 She criticized some experimental schools because they neglected to provide the facts and experience from which all self-expression was derived. Creativity, she believed, could not take place in a vacuumin the educational circles of her era, it was an overworked word.

The fourth distinctive element outlined in the bureaus 1919 statement of principles is the focus of stages of growth and the attempt to categorize growth norms through careful, regular, quantitative measurements that aimed to correlate physiological development to behavior. The Dewey School had related curriculum practices to stages of childrens growth, as did some later progressive schools, but at none of these schools was there a concentrated attempt to apply active, ongoing research conducted within the school setting to measure stages of growth, both physical and mental, and to relate each aspect to the other and to school programs. At the bureau, the creation of an environment that would allow maximum opportunity for growth required conscious planning, and was to be preceded by continuous scientific research into the nature of the stages of growth, research that was conducted within the school, not isolated laboratories.

For the bureau, this relationship between schooling and scientific research was fundamental. We sought to give our children from the youngest up, a full life of rich experiences and an opportunity to function in and through these experiences. The problem, Mitchell recalled, was to find out what a full life is, physically, mentally, and emotionally, all the way up the age scale. The primary educational objective, therefore, was a study of the learning process at different ages in order to plan an environment that would provide opportunities at each stage for intake and outgo, experience and expression, which processes Mitchell understood as the key to learning.

From the research angle, explained Mitchell, we asked ourselves: What can we find out about childrens growth, physical, mental, emotional, and social? What are the interrelations between different kinds of growth? And, in particular, how is growth which can be measured, such as physical growth and the growth measured through the new psychological tests related to behavior?

From the school angle, she continued, we asked:

How can this knowledge concerning childrens growth be used in planning an environment suitable for their growth needs? What opportunities for functioning does our immediate environment and the world environment hold for children in different stages of growth?

Schooling and research were thus to be integral aspects of the bureaus laboratory experience.

We were working on a curriculum, checking it by our growth records; and working on how to record growth, evaluating our records by the childrens reactions to our planned environment. . . . We were perforce recording growth of parts of children; but we were living with whole children as that each half of our thinking constantly served as a check for the other half.23

Before the bureau staff could tabulate interrelations between various types of growth, it had first to assemble data on each type of development, since with few exceptions, no norms had been established. The first goal, then, was to develop a physiological scale against which to observe childrens behavior, as well as a psychological and social scale. In the period 1919-1930, scientific measurement of various aspects of growth in a large number of children taken over a consecutive number of years thus became the primary experimental focus of the bureau.

This strong emphasis on scientific measurement, to be described more fully below, distinguished the bureaus laboratory school from most other progressive experiments. Indeed, while in the twenties the goal of most progressive schools was to liberate childrens creative potentialities through expressive (artistic) or psychological means, the bureaus research focus, grounded securely in the quantitative instruments of science, was curiously aberrant. In this unusual direction the bureau seemed to have been influenced only indirectly by educational currents, including those that sprang from the child-study movement and that prompted the growth studies of such individuals as Dr. Arnold Gesell. More central to the bureaus own researches was the new quantitative methodology then shaping economics, sociology, psychology, and other social sciences. Wesley Clair Mitchell, cofounder of the Bureau of Educational Experiments and a key mover in the establishment of the New School for Social Research (1919), the Social Science Research Council (1923), and the National Bureau of Economic Research (1920), was an instrumental figure in this burgeoning movement.24 Throughout this period, and indeed until his death in 1948, Mitchell championed the use of quantitative information, systematically collected by groups of investigators, as necessary to understanding human behavior, and thus as the basis of theory and philosophy itself as well as the key to scientific and social progress. The interdisciplinary nature of this effort, and the need for active cooperation among all the social sciences, was a canon of Mitchells faith, and became so to Lucy Mitchell as well.

In Two Lives, Lucy Mitchell focused on the similarity of their purposes in economics and education, a similarity based on their scientific approach to the problem of social reform. From the beginning, she wrote,

he and I had the same broad end in mindthe betterment of social organization. And we both believed in the same means of accomplishing that enda scientific study of human beings and their behavior. . . . His work and that of his co-workers was to try to change socially harmful cultural patterns within our money economy, and to change them in the light of new knowledge about human beings and their behavior, that had come from scientific investigations. . . . I [was] a member of a widespread group of pioneers who were working on a scientific approach to social reorganization in the field of educational research. In details and in responsibilities, our work was separate. But our common aims and common methods made us share each others work to a high degree.25

Though Lucy Mitchells high hopes about the promises of social statistical methods cooled more rapidly than those of her husband, the Bureau of Educational Experiments, their joint creation, reflected the buoyant mood of social scientists in the early 1920s as they set out to solve the nations social problems through carefully designed research in their respective disciplines.


With the opening in 1919 of its nursery school for children from fourteen months to three years of age, and the elaboration of its program of experimentation within the new nursery and the City and Country School, the second phase of the bureaus growth began. To make thoroughgoing and scientific attack upon the study of children we feel we must begin as early as possible, Mitchell explained.

It is highly probable that a study of babies and their environmental set-up would give us new insight into the nature of children and the way they grow which would modify our procedure with much older children. By the time the children reach . . . 3 years of age, their physical, mental and emotional habits are pretty firmly established. How modifiable are they? What forces have produced them? How far are they a natural growth and how far an imposed? We hope to make a beginning at answering these vital questions concerning mental and emotional growths through our work in the nursery school.26

The bureau was probably the first such preschool in the United States, followed in rapid succession by Columbia Universitys Nursery School in 1921, the Ruggles Street Nursery School of Boston and the Merrill-Palmer School, both founded in 1922, and numerous others.27 As opposed to the English nurseries and the American day-nursery movement, both of which were established to meet an economic and social need for child care, the bureaus school was established in response to a need that was educational: to study the educational factors in the environment of small children and to gather scientific data concerning their growth.

The bureaus nursery school and the City and Country School provided the environment for an elaborate series of interdisciplinary research projects into the growth of children. The principal component of this research was conducted by the nursery school staff itself, which collected several kinds of records: first, an outline daily record of each child, including his or her physical habits, emotional upsets and their causes, and relations to other people; second, a diary of daily activities, containing outstanding events, group projects, and specific uses of equipment; and third, once monthly, a full days record of individual children, including verbatim speech records and descriptions of all activities.

Detailed physiological records were also kept. Routine examinations, including measurements of height and weight, were provided all nursery and City and Country children. (Wesley Mitchell, a skilled carpenter, in fact built a special measuring board for physicians to use on nursery babies.) Supplemental examinations, including annual stool and urine tests as well as eye tests, electrocardiograms, chest X rays, schematograms of posture, measurements of wrist spans, and studies of teeth were also given. It was the hope of the bureau physician, Edith Lincoln, that she could ultimately determine the physiological age of a given child by amassing and analyzing these physical details over a period of years.

Psychological testing and record keeping were also elaborate. Johns Hopkins-trained psychologist Buford Johnson and her assistant, Louise Schriefer, conducted personality tests on individual children in the City and Country children, which included age-level tests, such as the Stanford revision of the Binet scale, and the Pintner-Patterson performance tests, as well as specific tests of motor coordination and associative processes. Special studies in such subjects as fears, fatigue, and the development of muscular coordination (through moving pictures, a pioneering approach) were also conducted. Since many of the routine tests and specialized studies involved preschool age or young children for whom no normative standards of performance had been established, part of the bureaus effort was to develop such norms, or modify existing ones. As Lucy Mitchell remarked, the bureaus laboratory findings threw as much light upon the tests as they do upon the children.28

Social records that included information about each childs early developmental history and present social and physical environment were gathered. Full family histories were also developed with those parents interested in cooperating in such an effort. The aim was to secure a developmental history of each child (as well as its siblings), which would include hospital measurements at time of birth, an account of the childs summer and winter home environments, a personality study of parents (to include occupations, interests, and social affiliations), and records of grandparents health and racial-genetic histories.

At various times, specialists were called in to give advice about the technical aspects of research. Anthropologist Franz Boas came as a consultant to interpret all physical measurements, while psychologist Robert Woodworth joined the staff to advise the bureau on the relationship of physical to psychological measurements. Dr. Milo Hellman was called in to help organize a report on the records of teeth.

Few other progressive schools organized such detailed record keeping and observational research, joining specialists in medicine, psychology, and social behavior with classroom teachers in an all-out research effort.29 In this respect, the bureaus study of childrens growth paralleled the efforts of university-sponsored child-development research in the 1920s more than it did progressive school programs. Indeed, the bureaus measurement focus seems to recall G. Stanley Hall and his disciplines more than Dewey, though Dewey was an adviser to BEE and its inspirational light, and its members considered themselves much closer to the progressive education group than to child-study people like Arnold Gesell. Gesell, a student of Hall, had begun his research at Yale into norms of development in children from one month to five years of age in 1918.

Other child-research programs followed rapidly. In 1921, the Iowa Child Research Station, established in 1917, inaugurated a laboratory school to study the psychological development of preschool children. In 1922, the Merrill-Palmer School opened a preschool nursery for the purpose of training women in the care of young children but also to conduct research about child development. The movement received its greatest impetus when in 1924, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial established the first well-funded university-based research center on childrens growth at Teachers College, Columbia University, supplied major funding to Iowas Child Welfare Research Station, and started similar institutes at Berkeley, Toronto, and Minnesota. By the end of 1925, LSRM had spent over one million dollars to foster child development. In this, its purpose was to promote scientific research on child life, but an equally important aim was to train practitioners to disseminate this information to parents (particularly mothers) on the grassroots level.30

Yet there clearly was a difference between the bureaus efforts and those of these research centers, a difference that went beyond the fact that many of these programs studied only the preschool period, while the bureaus research extended to school-age children. We covered a field not touched by the other laboratories, Lucy Mitchell wrote in 1925 to the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. Mitchell went on to distinguish the bureaus research approach from that of comparable institutionsGesells Yale clinic, Baldwins Child Welfare Research Station in Iowa, and Helen Woolleys Merrill-Palmer School in Detroit.

We differ from Gesell in that we are not primarily interested in testing children. We are primarily interested in observing natural behavior in situations planned for childrens development. . . . Our situation for observation has been much less invaded than has Baldwins, that is, it is more adequately educational. . . . His school, as far as it has a consistent philosophy, stands for training. . . . The Detroit school is organized for the training of mothers and teachers; the study of growth is incidental. With us, the working out of a consistent environment giving children the fullest possible opportunities for development is paramount. . . .31

Only the bureau, thought Mitchell, aimed to study childrens growth scientifically and to use the data thus collected to scientifically plan the school environment, not to train parents or children. Growth as Mitchell defined it was not to be discovered solely by testing, nor could it be correlated with training. Rather, growth, both in terms of research and schooling, related to observing and fostering natural behavior. Indeed, Mitchells conception of science overall was much more naturalistic, organic, and, ultimately, qualitative than those of many child researchers during this period. An anecdote she employed many times reveals this tendency.

The early institutes were organized to follow methods that had been used in the physical sciences, that is, to take exact measurements of children, and what could not be measured was simply left out. They began with physical measurements since these seemed the simplest to make. Even here they ran into difficulty. One instance was really very strikingwhen the research institute in Iowa wanted to measure childrens physical growth, the children wiggled and they would appear to grow one day and shrink the nextso the research staff put the children into casts in order to measure them. They knew the children wiggled, but wiggling seemed unimportant because it couldnt be measured. And they knew that it was an emotional strain for the children, but you couldnt measure that, so that was disregarded. Science ought to be obeyed, and science has measurements. Now, we cared, really, more about the wiggle and the emotional strain than we care about the physical growth.32

This is not to say that the Bureau of Educational Experiments did not spend a great deal of effort undertaking quantitative measurements of physical and mental growth, as discussed above. In her unpublished autobiography, Mitchell admitted that bureau psychologists in fact shared the measurement fervor of the time. One psychologist, for example, counted the number of times a child raised his or her hand, regardless of what he or she raised it for. The chief bureau psychologist, Buford Johnson, was less rigid in this regard, Mitchell believed, yet she, too, was inclined to measure what was quantifiably measurable and let the rest go. The point perhaps is that Mitchell and Harriet Johnson constantly questioned the measurement approach, while their own studies provided an antidote to the anthropometric tendencies of other bureau members. Before launching the bureau, Mitchell had spent a year giving Terman revisions of the Binet-Simon tests in a group of public schools, growing steadily more skeptical of the value of the I.Q. test and similar intelligence ratings. Still, at the time the bureau was founded, she and Harriet Johnson shared to some extent the enthusiasm of other educators at the promise held out to school programming by the new wave of scientific testing.33 But despite the regular regime of measurement and testing that went on at the bureau schools, Mitchell and Harriet Johnson insisted on an atmosphere of warmth and emotional responsiveness to children, rather than impersonality. While they respected the scientific method, they were most interested in the unquantifiable, unmeasurable wiggle, as Mitchell had put it. Mitchell was later to include in her summary of the Bank Street credo the principles that it is more important to know if a child is growing than his exact measurements in body, I.Q. and social adjustments, and that qualitative analysis of behavior is as scientific as quantitative measurementstatements that fully accorded with progressive education gospel.34

In her writings and reports, Harriet Johnson also attempted to explain how the bureau school differed from other child-research nurseries. The various experiments now being carried on with preschool children (at other institutions) have been organized as laboratories rather than as schools, she wrote.

They seem to be dealing with certain physical factors in growth, such as nutrition, all manner of behavior problems from tantrums to stealing, and to concern themselves with the childs adaptive response to certain controlled conditions and to training methods; but nowhere do we find studies of behavior which take place in an environment where activities are self-initiated and concerned with materials they can control. This then is our special contribution.35

Johnsons statement accurately described the crucial difference between the bureau nursery school and many other preschool experiments. Numerous examples can be cited. At the Merrill-Palmer School, director Helen Woolley explained that while the preschool program served as a laboratory for research into childrens development, the schools greatest achievement lay in the realm of habit formation and the correction of undesirable forms of reaction.36 At the Institute of Child Welfare Research at Teachers College, Columbia, attention was focused on the development of an elaborate inventory of the habits of preschool children, which could be used to score and rate their performances.37 The experimental preschool of the Detroit Teachers College also established a long list of habits to be formed, for example, we must have clean hands before handling books; we must handle books carefully, as paper tears easily.38 This approach was antithetical to Johnsons nursery school, where self-initiated play activities were the rule. We are not concerned with training children, Johnson wrote in Children in the Nursery School. We are not attempting to build up distinct patterns of response to specific situations. Instead, the bureau wanted to foster a dynamic method of acting . . . characteristic of the creative, dynamic personality.39 One consequence of this focus on self-initiated activities was the relegation of adults and adult social conventions to the background. We are trying to create an environment in which children shall find and share growing opportunities for their play interests, Johnson explained. Insistence upon techniques, that is, habits or behavior which do not present such opportunities seem to us irrelevant. . . . We do not make conventions of any sort a part of our curriculum. Precisely because young children were so adaptable to adult social forms, Johnson insisted on placing inhibitions on the part of teachers in her classroom, though she saw a role for them in directing energies into deeper channels, and providing experiences that will furnish content and information for further activities.40

In rejecting the behavioristic tendencies of 1920s preschools, the nursery school of BEE became in concept a fully child-centered institution. As Harriet Johnson explained it:

It must be remembered that the physical, social and economic environment which surrounds children is administered by beings whose background, interest and standards of conduct are totally foreign to those of children. They succumb to adult demands and take on adult standards because they are plastic material, but, also because of this plasticity, they escape from control and grieve or shock their guardians by going native when it is least expected. The nursery school is an attempt to scale civilization down to the child level in its behavior demands and to open up wider opportunities for active exploration than an adult world can afford.41

Nowhere is this approach better illustrated than in Lucy Mitchells own work with language. After the establishment of the bureau, Mitchell gave up teaching a regular class at the City and Country School and became a special teacher there and at the nursery school. Teaching, working with bureau staff, and bringing up her four small children made an ideal situation, she believed, for the study of childrens language. Mitchells approach to language was imbued with the child-centeredness that characterized Johnsons direction of the nursery school. She complained that teachers and parents alike listened to childrens language and attempted to improve it by making it conform to adult linguistic correctness. Mitchells questions about childrens language began instead with the other endnot with the adult product. . . but with what impulses led a young child to use language or pre-language sounds.42 Mitchell spent several years watching and listening to her own children and to her pupils, keeping records of their language and the kinds of situations that evoked varying content and forms of language. Through this work, she came to her discovery that childrens language was essentially an art form (and thus to be respected) wherein meaning and content were heightened by the childs play with rhythm, sound quality, and pattern.43 The result of her research was the publication, in 1921 under bureau aegis, of The Here and Now Story Book which presented stories for children, by age level, based on her research. In the introduction to the book she stated her theory: that the content of stories for children must spring from the here-and-now world that children directly experience and with things and people in which they are interested, while the form of childrens stories should correspond to their own play with words and sounds, that is, these stories must be highly imbued with rhythm, pattern, and interesting sound.44 The Here and Now Story Book was the bureaus most successful publication. Critically acclaimed by reviewers as a revolutionary and even epoch-making book, its first printing was immediately sold out. Eventually the book was translated into several languages.

The distinctive child-centered dimension of the bureau illustrated by Mitchells work with language and Johnsons nursery school program provided the framework around which its scientific studies of the growth of children were conducted. In spite of continuing efforts at quantification, measurement, and testing, the child as a total organism, developing on many levels, was never to be lost from sight. At BEE, the scientific study of the childthrough careful observation and the amassing and evaluation of large quantities of datawas a means to the larger end of school reform, designing an improved environment that allowed children to maximize their development. Mitchell and her colleagues maintained their faith in science, but it was not a science divorced from thought, feeling, and experience. Science was to be integrated into the organization and design of schooling, into the curriculum, and into the approach and perspective of teachers. Yet the means and processes of science were not to be confused with educational endsthose enshrined by the progressive school movementthat bureau members championed. In this synthesis of scientific method with the cultural values of progressivism, the bureau attempted to lay new educational ground.


With the consolidation of its research program in childrens growth, the Bureau of Educational Experiments abandoned all experiments that did not directly pertain to this focus. By the early twenties, as discussed above, the bureau had discontinued its spot experiments. As the range of bureau projects grew narrower, its general clearinghouse function seemed less necessary, and the Department of Information was disbanded. Future public relations of the bureau, it was decided, would concern its own activities rather than those of other experimental groups. Mary Marots appointment as recorder was also terminated, since the Working Council, while acknowledging the importance of the work she had published, came to believe that few schools were equipped to undertake the kind of record-keeping methods she had devised. The bureau also ceased having any special connection with the older school groups at the City and Country School (the eight- and nine-year-olds), which it had financed in earlier years, since Caroline Pratt, a dominating personality, had not allowed the bureau any role in programming these classes.45 The nutrition experiment was also terminated, bureau staff observing that although a contribution had been made to defining the problem of nutrition within the school, the next steps toward resolving the problem required larger, more controlled experiments that did not lie within the primary research areas of the bureau. Retrenchment was a product of changing financial circumstances, but also of an awareness that the scope of bureau operations would have to be limited if a realistic contribution was to be made to basic objectives.46 Hence, not only were peripheral operations eliminated, but the very breadth of the bureaus comprehensive research program was called into question. In 1925, Lucy Mitchell expressed for the first time the growing concern that perhaps research and educational functions ought not to occupy an equal place among the array of bureau concerns.

There has emerged, I believe a sense that the Nursery School is primarily an educational endeavor, as the City and Country School has always frankly been and that a Nursery School run by the group which constitutes the present Working Council would always be. . . . Whether this educational setting of Nursery and City and Country School affords the research staff the best opportunity they can obtain for the study of growth which is the chief endeavor of every member of all the groups is a question which must be clearly and definitely answered. . . . If it is answered negatively, some new line-up of work may seem wiser, splitting off certain research aspects which might ally themselves with other and differently organized research.47

Reassessment of bureau priorities involved questions about the relationship between data developed separately by specialists. The Working Council came to feel that the bureau was gathering material faster than it could digest it. Thus, while it approved the continuation of routine physical and psychological exams, it canceled any future special laboratory studies in these areas and called instead for concentration on material already assembled.

By this time, bureau specialists had gathered massive amounts of material about children in its schools. For about 65 children, for example, there were consecutive five-year records detailing social behavior, physical and psychological measurements, language usage, and so forth. In many instances, case studies of individual children ran at least 1,000 pages. Before further work of this magnitude was undertaken, it was not unreasonable to begin to reexamine the original premise of the BEE undertaking: Could specialists working together in a scientific reappraisal of the varied aspects of childrens growth develop age-related standards or norms of growth that could be translated into the educational environment?

The question was, in fact, whether relationships between physiological and mental data and behavioral material would emerge merely because experts from disparate disciplines were studying the same children. The Working Council directed psychologist Frederick Ellis to conduct a special study of how various records collected over the course of the bureaus first decade could best be integrated and used as a fulcrum for educational planning. The council also formulated a five-year plan of research, providing for three years of data collection and two of assessment, the result of which was to be the formulation of a model of relationships between physiological age and behavior. Thus, until a decision could be reached as to whether the bureau school provided the best opportunity for studies of growth or whether some new line-up of work might seem wiser, research work was to be continued, but on a diminished scale. Unfortunately, annual reports of the bureau for 1926-1930 are not available, so we do not know how the Working Council evaluated the outcome of the Ellis study or the five-year plan. In Two Lives, however, Mitchell indicated that she believed the bureaus long-term effort to establish norms of growth ended in failure. The bureau did succeed in constructing a developmental chart of physical growth of children from fourteen months through 11 years, but Mitchell always felt that the product was unsatisfactory. One of the problems was that physical growth, which had first seemed to be most measurable, proved in fact as unquantifiable as social and emotional behavior. While bones and teeth yielded satisfactory growth sequences, the growth of organs and digestive and nervous systems could not be subjected to even gross measurements, and were not of primary importance in cross-reference with behavior records. It was a very limited and unsatisfactory picture of physical growth that emerged as a background to relate to other kinds of growth, Mitchell admitted. The bureaus work seemed to support the theory of segmented growththat the greatest growth impulse appeared successively in different parts of the bodybut this hypothesis formed merely a hazy background, Mitchell believed, in the bureaus thinking.48

Psychological indices of growth also appeared to suffer from substantial deficiencies. Mitchell revealed in her memoirs that Frederick Ellis spent years analyzing how individual children for whom the bureau had intelligence records over a span of years earned their scores. While his analysis showed what took place in terms of growth of mental power, Elliss perfectionist standards caused him to abandon the whole five-year project and no results were ever published.

It was not until Barbara Biber came to the bureau in 1928, as one of the three psychologists working under EllisBiber on a study of childrens drawings, the others on studies of block building and childrens languagethat Mitchell believed progress was finally made in determining psychological relationships between age and behavior. Dr. Bibers contribution was to group drawings of children in stages of development with accompanying descriptive analyses. Bibers methods made it possible to handle materials that could not be translated into numerical terms and allowed for more realistic depiction of maturity levels. At last THE CHILD became a small person interacting with his environment, Mitchell wrote, a complex organism behaving in certain characteristic ways. . . as he passed through stages of his development.49 After Biber, who has remained the dominant intellectual influence in Bank Streets child development research, bureau psychologists were no longer simply measurement-minded, but as Mitchell explained it, used laboratory tests to illuminate and clarify the behavior which they had themselves observed and recorded in the classroom.50 The bureau had finally evolved a technique of studying growth as a series of progressive stages that could be described in qualitative terms, though they could not be measured in numerical ones. The delineation of specific growth norms by age was disbanded.51

Thus, by the end of the 1920s, the bureau was ready to abandon its faith that quantitative measurement could provide the functional indices of childrens growth that could guide educational planning. Quantification, in the sense of correlating physical with mental and emotional growth, turned out not to be amenable to statistical treatment. Moreover, Mitchell came to fear that the very formulation of exact standards of normal growth might in fact distort individual variation in development and lead to the promulgation of mechanistic, uniform norms, which if applied as educational guides could deaden rather than enhance childrens impulses to learn. Such a tabulation, furthermore, was not essential, as she once believed it was, to the formation of a creative educational environment. Ironically, just as the bureau was rejecting a research model based on quantitative techniques, most of the new child-development institutes funded by LSRM were organizing along these very lines. Locating their roots in academic psychology rather than in the amateurish science conducted by child-study parents and educators, child-development researchers sought to distinguish their work from the so-called pseudo-scientific techniques of Halls earlier child-study movement through research based on precise observation, controlled and rigid evaluation, and careful quantitative techniques.52 By mid-century, however, many of these researchers were asking themselves the same question Mitchell had posed a quarter century earlier: Was the tabulation of growth norms for children feasible, and more important, to what end should these be put?


Though the original research purpose of the bureau remained a continuing and fundamental emphasis, it was now to be focused in a new division of Studies and Publications staffed by Barbara Biber and like-minded colleagues rather than the anthropometric specialists of the twenties, signaling a change in direction that was significant. With the recognition that education rather than science would be its main fulcrum came the sense that the bureau could have a wide influence if it used the experience accumulated in its research and school work for the training of teachers. Many of the newer experimental schools had asked the bureau to take on such a role, and in 1931 it established the Cooperative School for Student Teachers (later called the Cooperative School for Teachers, designated here as CST), to train nursery, primary,, and elementary school teachers for work in schools of a progressive character.

A few years earlier, the bureau had ended its affiliation with the City and Country School, whose director, Caroline Pratt, then resigned her membership in the bureaus Working Council. Now most of the bureau nursery school children continued at the Little Red School House, where Lucy Mitchell taught special classes. The break with City and Country and the need for additional space to conduct the new school for teachers led to the bureaus move in 1930 to large new quarters at 69 Bank Street in the Village. (Though the bureau did not officially become the Bank Street College of Education until 1950, the appellation Bank Street quickly became the preferred title, no doubt a relief from the polysyllabic intimidation, as Wesley Mitchell put it, of the bureaus longer name.) Concomitant with the move, the bureau altered its nursery program to serve children from two years to five years, increasing enrollment substantially to an average of sixty to seventy children per year.

It was in this location that the Cooperative School for Student Teachers began to operate. The school was the joint creation of eight experimental schools, including the bureau nursery school, the Little Red School House, and the Woodward School from New York City, as well as Mount Kemble, in Morristown, New Jersey; the Rosemary Junior School, Greenwich, Connecticut; the Spring Hill School, Litchfield, Connecticut; Carson College, Flourtown, Pennsylvania; and the Manumit School of Pawling, New York, for the purpose of meeting their common need for teachers trained to teach in experimental programs. The bureau conducted the school with a central staff composed of bureau personnel and the directors of the eight cooperating schools. Student teachers were placed in these schools from Monday through Thursday, and came to Bank Street from Thursday afternoon to Saturday noon for intensive workshops, seminars, and discussions throughout the one-year program. In the early years of the CST, cooperation among the schools was indeed a reality, with directors of the schools participating actively in curriculum design and teaching, while Lucy Mitchell and her Bank Street associate Jessie Stanton acted as advisor to all eight schools. After some years, however, the bureau found it impractical to have student teachers in distant schools, and by the 1950s the cooperating schools were limited to the bureaus nursery (renamed the Harriet Johnson Nursery School after the death of its first director in 1934), City and Country, and the Little Red School House.53

As recognition of the bureaus expanded scope and significance, in 1931 the Regents of the University of the State of New York granted it a provisional charter for the purpose of maintaining and operating a progressive experimental nursery and primary school and to engage in experiments and research work relevant and pertinent thereto.54 The provisional charter was amended in 1935 to include authorization of the bureau to engage in the education of teachers, and in 1938, the bureau received official certification from the state education department, authorizing its graduates to serve as teachers in the states public elementary schools. In 1950, the bureau was given the right to give the degree of Master of Science in Education to graduates of the school, and was officially renamed the Bank Street College of Education.

In Mitchells view, the approach that characterized the bureaus earlier work also influenced its methods of teacher education. That is, she explained, we approached it as an experiment to be conducted as far as possible through scientific methods and worked out through joint thinking.55 The reliance on experience and expression, Mitchells intake and outgo, as the key to the learning process in children became the centerpiece of the new schools philosophy. Mitchell elaborated the dual goals of the institution in the first catalog of CST.

Our aim is to help students develop a scientific attitude towards their work and towards life. To use this means an attitude of eager, alert observations; a constant questioning of old procedures in the light of new observations; a use of the world as well as of books as source material; an experimental open-mindedness: an effort to keep as reliable records as the situation permits in order to base the future upon actual knowledge of the experience of the past.

Our aim is equally to help students develop and express the attitude of the artist towards their work and towards life. To us this means an attitude of relish, of emotional drive, a genuine participation in some creative phase of work, and a sense that joy and beauty are legitimate possessions of all human beings, young and old. We are not interested in perpetuating any special school of thought. Rather, we are interested in imbuing teachers with an experimental, critical and ardent approach to their work. If we accomplish this, we are ready to leave the future of education to them.56

As Bank Street developed in the 1930s, the merger of science and art, of an experimental open-mindedness with the emotional drive and relish of the creative artist, reached its most complete synthesis. Students of the first few classes at the Cooperative School for Teachers recall the intense excitement of their workshops in dance, music, and art, often taught by leading performers; the trips they took to such places as the Fulton Fish Market at 5:00 A.M. or to a striking Teamsters local; as well as the annual long trip to the rural South, where they met with coal miners and other Appalachian residents.57 To understand children, Lucy Mitchell believed, teachers must adopt the childs ways of seeing and knowing, must experience the exploration and playfulness that marked childrens learning. They also had to be stirred to encompass societys struggles, to integrate knowing and feeling about the world with the task of teaching. This would help create an experimental, critical and ardent approach to their craft as Mitchell announced in the first CST catalog, and develop that scientific attitude, as well as the attitude of the artist, which she believed were the keys to excellence in teaching. Mitchell did not neglect the need for teachers to receive a thorough grounding in child development, based on current research findings, for this area remained a major curriculum emphasis. Bank Street staffers were themselves encouraged to conduct research about child development. After the 1920s this research increasingly took on a psychodynamic emphasis, focusing on the positive forces of growth and development that affected children, especially their inner lives and feelings. Bank Streets Research Division, under the leadership of Barbara Biber, remained an integral part of the institution, complementing the work of its teacher training division and its school for children. As the research staff continued its scientific studies into the stages of childrens growth, now focusing on emotional, psychodynamic elements rather than on physiological and mental measurement as did bureau researchers in the 1920s, the School for Children maintained the bureaus original intent of providing an educational environment designed around childrens growth stages. Since 1968, the term developmental interaction has been used to describe the schools approach: developmental referring to the imperative that the curriculum be individualized in relation to each childs stage of development; interaction applying to the premise that children learn through interaction with adults and each other in a skillfully designed learning environment.58 Though the relations of the teacher training arm, the research section, and the childrens school have not always been smooth, throughout its history Bank Street has recognized the need for the complementary functions of each. Thus the original goal of the Bureau of Educational Experimentsto unite under one roof research into childrens growth and experimental teachinghas continued to guide Bank Streets programs. Since 1943, furthermore, with the initiation of its workshop program for New York City public school teachers, Bank Street has fulfilled Mitchells goal of serving as a laboratory for the public school system. After Mitchells retirement in 1956, Bank Street continually expanded the scope of its influence, becoming in fact a national laboratory of innovative teaching. Through its participation in such projects as Follow Through and the Parent-Child Development Program, it helped foster the education of low-income children through out the country.59


Under Mitchells leadership, the Bureau of Educational Experiments came to occupy a unique place at the intersection of the progressive education and child-study movements. Drawing both from Dewey and from Hall, from progressive education and child-study techniques as well as from the trends in anthropometric and psychological research of the 1920s, it molded an institution that had much in common with leading progressive schools and the main currents of child-development research. Yet in its entirety, in its synthesis of basic and applied research, of quantitative and qualitative measures, of knowledge based on cognition and knowledge derived from feelings, of science and art, it resembled neither. As in most progressive schools, the primary objective of the bureaus educational program was to stimulate the development of the whole child, one whose physical, emotional, social, and intellectual faculties would flower creatively and harmoniously. Yet the scientific and research aspects of the bureaus program were unusual among progressive schools. Positing a strong faith in scientific rationalism, the bureau conducted extensively detailed research into the dynamics of child development, which it hoped could be used concretely at the school level to enhance childrens growth. The notion of science employed by bureau researchers differentiated it, however, from that being implemented in mainstream child-development research, research that eventually seemed to bureau members overly measurement-oriented, behavioristic, and instrumental.

The bureaus distinctive hybrid position is highlighted by the fact that individuals who had been associated with the early bureau played leading roles in both movements. Gertrude Hartman, a member of the bureaus staff in its first years, became the first editor of Progressive Education, a position she held from 1924-1930, while bureau psychologist Buford Johnson became first editor of Child Development, serving from 1930-1938.60 Beardsley Ruml, president of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, had also been associated with the bureau. But it was Rumls assistant, Lawrence K. Frank, who deserves credit for masterminding and implementing the memorials strategies to promote child development and parent education. Frank, an economist, had worked for the New York Telephone Company and then for the New School for Social Research before coming to LSRM. Through his work at the phone company on business cycles, Frank came to know Wesley Mitchell, the founder of American business cycle theory. Frank joined Mitchell on the War Industries Board in 1917; and later, with Mitchells intervention, came to his new post as business manager of the New School. It is likely that Mitchell and his wife recommended Frank to Ruml and LSRM. In his shift from economics to education, Frank was greatly influenced by Deweys writings, but also by Lucy Sprague Mitchell. Milton Senn, who interviewed Frank at length, claims that the influence of Lucy on Frank was even more remarkable than that of her husband: It was profound, lasting and vital. Frank shared both with the Mitchells and with many other social scientists in the postwar period a burgeoning faith in scientific research as the key to social progress, but it was Lucy Sprague Mitchell and the experience of BEE, no doubt, that led him to value research into childrens growth as the lynchpin of social betterment. Frank sent his own children to the bureau nursery school and was to maintain close relations with Bank Street for the remainder of his life.61

The mix of educational and research styles that characterized the bureau in its first years was eclectic and distinctive, a reflection, perhaps, of the drive for cultural synthesis indicated in Deweys writings and other social movements of the period. Part of the explanation, however, may come from Lucy Mitchells leadership. In an unusual fashion, Mitchell herself blended the qualities of scientist and artist, of cognition and feeling, indeed, of a rational style of endeavor usually thought of as masculine with a more intuitive, feminine approach. Certainly Mitchells pre-Bureau experiences working with quantitatively grounded psychological testing experiments as well as with the expressionist currents of Caroline Pratts Play School affected the way in which her working style and theories of education combined diverse elements. The influence of Wesley Clair Mitchell was also profound. But it is likely that Mitchells mediation of the dualities in education go beyond this background to the deepest layers of personality. From each of her parents, for example, Mitchell absorbed distinctive patterns. From her merchant-industrialist father, Otho Sprague, a leading figure in Chicagos cultural life, came promptness, orderliness, thrift, industrious. ness, and general pervasive conscientiousness.62 From her mother, who possessed an extraordinary musical talent and the temperament of an artist, came gypsy gaiety, recklessness, and an almost delirious pleasure in color and music and poetry.63 The qualities of rationalism and emotion, of science and art, that formed so large a part of Mitchells educational theory and practice were thus a product of her background and heritage.

While the bureau did have a significant influence on early child-development research, ultimately its major and continuing impactthrough its publications, its teacher training program, its writers workshop (started by Mitchell in 1938) and other special projectslay in progressive education.64 A review of the bureaus early history demonstrates, however, the important linkages between these two movements. Further analysis of the spectrum of approaches followed by various progressive schools, child-research institutes, and such hybrid institutions as BEE might suggest a typology of early childhood education that will tell us much about how education was perceived in relation to broader cultural goals regarding science, art, and social progress during this important period.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 83 Number 4, 1982, p. 559-591
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 737, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 7:00:16 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Joyce Antler
    Brandeis University
    Joyce Antler is assistant professor in American Studies and director of the Women's Studies Program at Brandeis University. She is co-author of Year one of the Empire: A Play of Politics, War and Protest, and has written various articles on the subject of women in education. She is currently at work on a biography on Lucy Sprague Mitchell.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue