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Public School Possibilities

( Originally Published 1924 )

THE question is often raised whether such advances as freer handling of classes, the study of individuals and the adaptation of school methods to their needs, cooperative government, more complete responsibility for the child and his development, are possible and practicable in the public schools.

If not, their discussion, while vital to the many thousands of children in privately controlled schools, remains academic in respect to the millions who must be educated in the public schools.

As a matter of fact, anything can be put into the public schools if it proves worth the price in effort and money. The secondary schools were private academies a few years ago. Now no public-school system is complete without at least one high school. The value of high-school education was so clearly demonstrated in the private schools, and the demand for schooling beyond the elementary years became so insistent, that the public accepted the addition of high schools and now pays the consequent greatly increased cost of education as a matter of course. In fact it is no longer considered unusual when a city spends a million or more dollars to house one such school.

In the same way, if public opinion finally realizes that genuine developmental work is most difficult to accomplish with from 35 to 50 pupils to each class teacher, smaller classes will become the rule instead of the exception. Public-school classes of from 40 to 50 are now common, of from 50 to 6o are not rare, and I have known of one teacher's being asked to care for 90, another for uo. A high-school teacher recently asked me how he could be expected to study the characteristics of his pupils when he met over 300 different children a week and had an entirely new set each half-year !

It is hard to understand how the public can tolerate, year after year, as it does in many of our cities, such inadequate facilities, with consequent overcrowded classes, often to the extent of forcing part-time schooling for many of the children.

Add faculties of, on the average, mediocre calibre, because of an inadequate supply of those of fine personality and satisfactory training, and it definitely lowers the efficiency of national education, and increases the difficulty of keeping abreast of educational advances.

Nevertheless, despite these handicaps, despite the unfortunate political influences that often juggle with our schools, despite the inevitable inertia and conservatism of large systems, and particularly despite the difficulty of getting public support for what is different, and therefore dangerous ! the public schools are working along these various lines of improvement, and are accomplishing much that gives great hope for the future.

The experts in the departments of education and psychology in the colleges, themselves often experienced teachers from the lower schools, are continually experimenting, putting their results in practical form, and so pointing the way to the schools. An increasing number of private schools are acting as scouts for the main army. Those used by the colleges as demonstration or experimental schools have contributed greatly; others, organized and owned by groups of parents and supported for their public purpose as well as for the sake of the children they educate, are proving equally useful. With their flexible conditions, such schools can originate or adopt improvements with a minimum of effort or danger, and can pass on their experiences for the benefit of the larger field.

But the public schools not only are going to other sources for that which they can adopt or adapt for their own uses, they are also, from small towns to large city systems, experimenting and originating in their own classrooms and administrative departments. They probably have a larger direct share in progress than ever before in educational history.

That this is so is a wonderful tribute to the teachers and executives whose vision and love for children persists through all discouragement's. I know one public-school principal who even raises each year, by his own liberal gifts and those of his friends, a fund of about a thousand dollars with which to make possible some of the developments that he knows his children need, but which he cannot get through the regular school channels.

I cannot pass this point without emphasizing the fact that the teachers of the whole country, underpaid as they have been and still are, often working under conditions that make it difficult to bring a smiling face to the morning's work, so often limited in their opportunities for self-improvement and therefore in their breadth of vision and outlook, nevertheless, as a whole, give conscientious, even loving, service to the children. And throughout this army of teachers there are scattered very many with real inspiration. There are sparks of it everywhere, centres in schools, departments, or cities, occasionally those of such vision and leadership that their influence is reaching far and wide, inspiring others to carry on.

I heard one such leader speak something like this : " It is often discouraging. What one builds up is so often torn down by stupidity, by autocracy, by false conservatism. Sometimes I wonder whether it is worth while to struggle so long and advance so little. Then I see a little girl coming down the stairs ; she has a smile on her face and a song on her lips, and I know that as long as I live I'll never stop fighting for her and those other children."

Yes, the public school can be a happy place, a free place, a place where each child has a chance. There isn't a thing mentioned in this book that is not being tried, and tried successfully, in public schools. Many city systems have, or are building up, departments of research whose one business it is to study the children of the city, their degrees and types of intelligence, their success in their studies, their possibilities for after school years. Wide-awake principals and superintendents are trying out methods of adapting the work to the individual children as they are analyzed by such surveys. This is sometimes done by putting together children of approximately the same intelligence, sometimes by introducing greater flexibility into the handling of each group, sometimes by adopting methods by which each child may work ahead by himself if he is able, sometimes by freer transfer from class to class in various subjects, sometimes by combinations of these and other methods.

With increasing frequency public schools are being equipped with movable furniture and are encouraging movable children ! This is especially true in the younger classes, but it is influencing the entire school. There is constantly increasing use of the so-called "problem method," "project method," "socialized recitation," and so forth, which are simply different names for putting the child into the middle of real situations, and making the classroom a place for self-activity.

The other day I visited a public-school class of children about eleven years old. It was too large a class, there were over forty children, neither room nor equipment met the ideal for physical conditions, there was a sparsity of interesting and inspiring material, yet the class was doing really "progressive" work. A child was presiding, and the teacher sat back among the pupils. The chairman called another child to the front of the room and that pupil told the story of a recent experience of his that he thought might interest the others. His talk was followed by a short discussion. Then another pupil was asked to contribute. They were having "oral composition," but, by whatever name, it was thoroughly constructive practice in the use of language in spoken form, besides contributing other important by-products.

Visit the Natural History Museum, in any city that has one, on a school day, and you are likely to find it thronged with classes that are violating their precious schedules to learn by seeing the actual objects that illustrate their lessons. All over the country classes are going on excursions to places where there are real things from which they can learn. The day may even come when such schedule-destroying trips may succeed in almost obliterating subject-hours and subject-lines, so that children will live their days in important activities, getting much of the subject matter by use rather than by dissociated drill.

One city, at least, is having a large part of its school furniture, such as bookcases, teachers' and office desks, chairs, and so on, made by its pupils in its shops. The pupils principally concerned are those whom tests have shown incapable of doing academic work but able to attain manual skill. They are receiving the education that is adapted to their needs and is most likely to keep them self-respecting members of the community. Other cities are working along this line with varying degrees of completeness. Unfortunately the number of such children is so great that they need more facilities than any school system can yet give them.

One city recently officially adopted the "natural order" multiplication; and inquiries at several important normal schools that train teachers for public schools disclosed the fact that only "shop" subtraction was being taught in them.

Dramatization is finding an increasing place in public schools. Pageants are helping on this movement, and experience with their benefits must automatically increase the impetus. Greater use of visualization and more opportunity for investigation are also quite common. Pupils even paint large-scale maps on the asphalt pavement if they have no place to dig them in the earth on the school grounds; they undertake investigations of local geography, history, plant life, or industries; they help in community projects, from "clean-up" campaigns to investigations of the water-supply.

In moral training and preparation for citizenship there is also real progress. To obtain individual cooperation and participation in a school with thousands of pupils is no easy task. Yet it has been done with remarkable success. It succeeds whenever faith in children is combined with common sense and a reasonably clear idea of child psychology.

Mention of advances in public-school education must be extremely sketchy where such a vast territory is to be covered.

Even such a brief mention of actual advances would be incomplete, however, without a word of the remarkable community-service being given by some of the public schools. Through classes for adults, extension work, lecture courses, and other such means, many of them are markedly improving the public itself, as well as improving its attitude toward schools. This may be done through a state or city system, or by a school or even an unusual teacher. It points the way to a closer relation between the people and their schools, and to a more complete use of existing educational facilities.

All in all, it is not too much to say that the remark-ably successful humanized school-work being done in some of our public-school classes challenges comparison with the best being done in private schools having better conditions for such development.

Despite this bright side of the picture that public schools can do, and that some place or other there is being done, everything worth while that is known it must not be forgotten that as a whole the public schools are not able to meet present-day needs or to accomplish what their thinking leaders believe they must do to be really adequate. Three main factors hold them back : that part of the public that will not pay the cost, or that fears changes how-ever promising; those executives who are the servants rather than the leaders of the public so may not dare to offend it, or who are themselves afraid to leave the track by which they have reached advancement ; those teachers who also have learned how to do things in one way and fear to change. Each of the three groups is being leavened with progress, but each exists.

A teacher, having taken courses in improved methods of teaching at one of the college summer-schools, which, by the way, are doing a tremendous amount of the leavening, wrote to a friend about as follows: "Of course I shall not be allowed to use any of the things I have learned as long as I teach in but perhaps I won't always have to stay there." A principal said, when some of his children made the natural noise that accompanies busy people, " If one of the superintendents heard those pupils making that amount of noise he would report that the discipline of the school was poor, and that the principal didn't even care."

So, while the signs of progress are present, there is a tremendous amount still to be done. It has been proved that the best things can be done in public schools. It rests with the public to decide whether they shall be done there.

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