Connecticut's Public Schools: A History

reviewed by Afrah Richmond - November 02, 2012

coverTitle: Connecticut's Public Schools: A History
Author(s): Christopher Collier
Publisher: Clearwater Press,
ISBN: 0578016613, Pages: 873, Year: 2009
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In order to tell the story of public schools from the colonial era to the present day, Connecticut’s Public Schools: A History, 1650-2000 covers a great sweep of time.  Christopher Collier’s work is a narrative account that details the case of public education’s growth in Connecticut.  It is richly developed and relies on archival sources such as newspapers, school texts, personal papers, journals, and letters.  Collier does not intervene in the established debates that have informed professional historians’ understanding of the development of public education. He forthrightly states, instead, that the book “is written to help the general public learn how our public schools developed” (p. xx).  With a public audience in mind, this book largely succeeds in describing the evolving political context, administrative mandates, and teachers’ role in public schools in Connecticut.

One of the clear strengths of the work is that it combines a description of the legislative changes with a discussion of teaching practices during the colonial period.  The Code of 1650 “required all towns of fifty or more householders to hire a schoolmaster, and towns of one hundred or more householders to establish a Latin grammar school,” in order to provide basic religious and literacy instruction for the general population (p. 14).  Although the colonists haphazardly enforced the law, it represented an early attempt toward educating the general population. The Connecticut effort also contributed to literacy rates in New England that reached approximately 90 percent (p. 32).  Collier also provides details of the curriculum and teaching styles during the colonial era. He states, “[r]eligion, morality, and behavior continued to be at the center of the curriculum. Learning to sit still…memorizing and reciting the catechism, and reading from the Bible and The New England Primer never ceased” (p. 66).

Collier discusses the role of women and the enduring late 1800s figure of the schoolmarm.  He states that “[m]y reading tells me that much of the stereotype rings true…They degenerated from sympathetic older sister types…to grim-faced, parched old shrews who taught by the ferule and the hickory stick” (p. 113).  In this case, Collier does not sufficiently interrogate the conclusions of the historical actors.  He does allow, however, for a slightly more complicated picture of women to emerge by quoting a mid-1900s article in the Connecticut Teacher that stated a “libelous stereotype” existed of the spinster teacher (p. 115).  In order to illuminate fully the construction of the schoolmarm, the sources must be allowed to speak for themselves through the inclusion of multiple first person accounts. The role of gender and the profession is a key theme to explore with a deft critical lens of analysis.

He also includes figures such as Charles D. Hines, the State Board of Education secretary and commissioner from 1883 until 1920, in a top down picture of administrative reform during the turn of the century.  During Hines’ tenure, the Connecticut school system benefited from “modernized schools through consolidation and state intervention...He launched a system of state-run trade schools—the first in the nation, and initiated and oversaw the establishment of three normal schools” (p. 246). Yet the influx of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe led to a rise in nativist sentiment in the public writ large and the implementation of citizenship education in public schools.  The Connecticut State Board of Education proceeded to “secure the adoption of a program of school work suited to modern conditions promoting the Americanization of the alien elements of the population” (p. 395).  The reformers used the school system to create a more universal white American identity.

Yet the move toward the Americanization in the public school curriculum also impacted the African American residents of Connecticut.  As the white identity solidified, the racial hierarchy that separated black and whites became more deeply embedded during the twentieth century.  New scholarship can explore the role of race and progressive reform. A productive avenue of inquiry would be to examine the extent to which the educational reforms solidified a more universal white racial identity that operated in contrast to a black one in the classroom and the larger community.  The development of race is a complex one and future work can also examine how the Americanization curriculum impacted both white ethnic and African American people in Connecticut.

The work continues to detail the changes in the post World War I construction of schools to contemporary times. He describes the life adjustment curriculum, rise of vocational education, spread of the public high schools, and movement of the population to the suburbs.  During the 1970s, Collier details the “fiscal impossibility of rural towns, and ultimately the largest cities, to provide educational program, facilities, and teachers equal to those of the rising suburbs” (p. 595). The inequality of monetary and educational resources between the urban centers and the suburbs would become an entrenched part of the Connecticut school system.  Over the course of this time period, there were not effective legislative remedies to correct the imbalance.

Collier dedicates Chapter Twenty-Three to African Americans, a population that was directly impacted by white flight to the suburbs. The 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling of Sheff v. O’Neill directed “the legislature to take affirmative responsibility to remedy segregation in our public schools, regardless of whether that separation has occurred de jure or de facto” (p. 643).  The court declared that the very real problem of inequality between suburban and inner city of Hartford schools was unconstitutional. Yet the victory in the court did not lead to actual changes on the ground level of classrooms.  Collier notes, “in 2007, the legislative resistance to implementing the agreement of 2003 or any other meaningful effort to break down the segregative conditions in the state’s public schools was just as firm as ever” (p. 649).

Taken as a whole, Connecticut’s Public Schools is an expansive story that details the growth of public schools.  Although Collier constructed this work to be a reference source, there are moments in the account where he could sharpen the narrative voice in order to highlight nuance and complication in regards to gender and race.  This work nevertheless remains a good source for scholars and non-scholars alike.  Collier describes the broad outlines of Connecticut public schools’ development from the colonial one room schoolhouse to the comprehensive public school system of the present day.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 02, 2012 ID Number: 16919, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 9:51:01 PM

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