20th Century Education: 1900-1960 A Brief Briefing

The Progressive Era began in the 1890s and continued into the 1930s. The era was characterized by dramatically increasing children’s access to education. John Dewey is perhaps the most famous figure in education from the Progressive Era. He advocated for schools to become more democratic. He also wanted students to be more active in the classroom. This led him towards what has become known as the Constructivist Learning Theory. The core of this theory states that students must individually “construct” their knowledge. In this approach, according to Professor Hein of Lesley College, “Learning is not understanding the “true” nature of things, nor is it (as Plato suggested) remembering dimly perceived perfect ideas, but rather a personal and social construction of meaning.”

Through much of the 1900s, education was segregated. Booker T. Washington played a major role in African American education. He led Tuskegee College and essentially turned an empty lot into a growing university that had over 1,500 students by its 25th anniversary. He advocated for schools that could prepare African Americans for every sphere of life: scientific, industrial, and agricultural. This meant that he was pushing not only for access to secondary education but tertiary education as well. A simple way to measure Booker T. Washington’s impact would be to look up how many places are named after him. According to Wikipedia, there are currently 26 schools and government facilities with his name.

At the beginning of the 20th century, 78% of school-age children were enrolled in school. The average rate of attendance hovered around 70%. During the early 1900s, many students’ education would end with primary or middle school, only 11% of students enrolled in secondary school. Thankfully, throughout the 1900s and into the 2000s we have been able to drastically increase school attendance. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), by 1940 nearly 80% of students who were high school aged (14-17 yrs) were enrolled in school. Wikipedia adds that 50% of adults had earned a high school diploma by this time.

This huge jump happened in spite of the Great Depression of 1929-1939. Many public schools struggled with funding as their tax revenues fell. They struggled so much that many were not able to pay teachers. President Roosevelt instituted the New Deal in 1933 to get people to work and jump-start the economy. The parts of the New Deal applying to education were focused on helping the poor. But it did not use best practices and the new schools the program built were not designed by experts. Educational best practices were largely ignored as well. This led to great angst among the education community and played a substantial role in “deprofessionalizing” teaching.

As the 1900s went on, the population increased its rate of urbanization. This reduced the number of farmers and increased the number of factory workers. The change led many parents to place more of an emphasis on their children’s education. Companies began placing more emphasis on education as well. They wanted more knowledgeable workers who were able to effectively use new technologies and analyze increasing amounts of data. The GI Bill was introduced at WWII’s conclusion. This bill made it possible for many veterans to attend college and played an instrumental role in creating a college-going culture. In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Great Society programs.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (part of the Great Society) set up scholarships and low-interest federal loans for college students. It also greatly expanded the number of community colleges. Another act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act increased federal funding for compulsory public schools. A combination of the aforementioned demands, a flourishing economy, and government intervention proved to be a boon for universities as their number at least doubled between 1950-1970.

Segregation was still legal in America until 1954. The Brown v Board of Education trial went to the Supreme Court and the justices ruled unanimously: separate but equal was not, in fact, equal, and was unconstitutional. Even though this made the law clear. Many places refused to follow it. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas illustrates how tense and angry white people were over integration. President Eisenhower took control of the state’s national guard because the governor tried to use them to stop federal integration efforts. School integration has greatly improved but is an ongoing issue in America.