The Importance of Being UrbanDesigning the Progressive School District, 1890-1940

The Importance of Being UrbanDesigning the Progressive School District, 1890-1940

David A. Gamson

Print publication date: 2020

ISBN: 9780226634548

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


The Importance of Being Urban offers several new perspectives on Progressive Era school reform by arguing that educational progressivism manifested itself differently at the local level than at the national level. This distinction can best be seen by examining how local district leaders—termed “district progressives”—embraced a variety of educational reforms considered novel and innovative. District progressives adopted curricula and instructional practices associated with Deweyan notions of pedagogy while they simultaneously implemented intelligence tests and other reforms that epitomized social efficiency and scientific management. During a period of vigorous urban planning, sweeping municipal reorganization, hastened immigration, and a shifting economic and industrial base, urban school districts began to play an increasingly prominent role in urban society, embedding themselves more and more into American urban life and taking responsibility for a much larger slice of the American childhood than ever before. Standard historical narratives tend to divide progressive educators into separate streams of thought, usually distinguishing between pedagogical and administrative progressives, but these divisions mask a more comprehensive understanding of district progressivism and obscure the ways in which districts combined reforms heretofore seen as incongruous and incompatible. By looking across multiple urban school systems, this study demonstrates that district progressivism was a common pattern, not simply representative of an isolated case or two. Moreover, the way local school leaders interpreted democratic education and assessed the potential of non-Anglo children from different national, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds reveals much about the types of schools they ultimately constructed.