Opinion: Those ‘frills’ and ‘fads’ are often what make schools succeed

In the early part of the 20th century, APS superintendent Willis Sutton had to fight City Hall to retain “frills” that he deemed essential to children’s well-rounded education. Here is a school group visiting the then Grant Park Zoo on a field trip. (AJC archives.)

David B. Parker is a history professor at Kennesaw State University. In this essay, the historian draws parallels between what is happening in education nationwide under the Trump White House to what occurred in Atlanta in the 1920s.

A Duke and University of North Carolina graduate, Parker teaches classes in Georgia history, the history of American religion, the Gilded Age, and research methods. Today, he writes about Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Willis A. Sutton, who served from 1921 to 1943. Sutton’s name remains familiar because of his namesake middle school in Atlanta’s Buckhead community, but his story may not be familiar.

Parker shared his piece with me. I thought it was worth sharing with you. This essay originally appeared in the History News Network.

By David B. Parker

President Donald Trump’s budget has met less than universal acclaim. In the area of education, the budget cuts over $9 billion from the previous budget, a decrease of 13 percent ($1.4 billion of which will be earmarked to expand school choice).

Some federal programs will be reduced, but more than 20 will be eliminated entirely. Among those on the chopping block are arts education, foreign language education, after-school programs, professional development for teachers, Alaska and Hawaii native programs, and others that, according to the budget, are ineffective or could be funded through other sources.

Betsy DeVos, secretary of education, attempted to defend the education budget to a House appropriations committee. From the discussion at that meeting, it is obvious that there are several huge problems with the Trump/DeVos budget—including a rollback of protection for students facing discrimination (due to disability, race, religion, or anything else) from federally funded private schools—but the program cuts call to mind an issue that has been part of the history of American education for well over a century: the expansion of the curriculum beyond the so-called three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) to include social studies, science, foreign language, art, physical education, and more. Many people (including Betsy DeVos) have seen these classes as “fads” and “frills.”

In the early 19th century, Horace Mann was a proponent of such expansion, partly because he thought of education as the “great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Later, John Dewey’s notion of “progressive education” pushed this even further. There was more to Dewey than curriculum matters, but opposition to the fads and frills of modern education is what united most of his many critics.

By the early 20th century, this was a hot issue. In 1923, a survey of New Jersey’s school superintendents showed that 13 percent favored the omission of such courses as modern languages, music, home economics, and “physical training.” The state’s education department, on the other hand, supported these courses. “The great purpose of education,” it said, “is to mold a school curriculum which will give to the boys and girls equality of opportunity, create in them worth of character, and best prepare them to meet their country’s needs.”

A couple of years later, John C. West, president of North Dakota University, made the same point: “‘Fads’ and ‘frills,’ which have been so roundly abused, may solve the problem of delinquency among our young people who will soon take over the guidance of civilization. Perhaps they will be taught to spend their leisure time to good advantage. In the absence of other agents of social control, public education must accept a new function.”

This was part of the context in which Willis A. Sutton became Atlanta’s school superintendent in 1921, a position he held until 1943. In the 1920s, Georgia’s economy was already suffering from the economic depression that would hit the rest of the nation a decade later, and the state and municipal budgets were hurting. Atlanta’s civic and business leaders pushed to cut the schools’ music, art, elementary science, kindergarten, and physical training programs as a way to save money. Sutton, a believer in progressive education, opposed retrenchment. Through the 1920s, and to a lesser degree during the 1930s and early 1940s, he fought these reductions, arguing the problem was not too many frills but too little financial support.

In 1923, William Gaines, president of the Atlanta school board, and Sutton discussed the situation with the city council. They argued while Atlanta’s city charter required the city to give at least 26 percent of its revenue to the schools, the amount could and should be more. The current level of spending worked out to $46 per student, they said, while the national average for cities of Atlanta’s size was over $66 per student. Gaines asked the mayor if he would support an increase in the school board’s share of city revenue. The mayor replied, “Twenty-six percent will be enough if you cut off the frills.”

According to The Atlanta Constitution’s report of the meeting, the mayor’s remark “brought Superintendent Sutton to his feet with a trace of feeling.” Sutton’s response is worth repeating:

The Atlanta schools have no frills. If by frills you mean kindergartens, I tell you they are not frills; they are necessities in education made so by popular demand and the conclusions of the best educators in the world. If by frills you mean music in the schools, then an expression of human emotion that antedates speech is a frill; if by frills you mean art, the kind of art we teach in the schools, then every use to which trained hands are put are frills …; if by frills you mean physical education, then the human body itself and the very perpetuation of the race are frills. Education is for more than to teach people to read and write; it is to teach them how to live, for their own happiness and for the development of all mankind.

(As the meeting ended, a city councilman said, “Public schools are coming to take the place of parents to the point of ruining the family, the most important of all institutions,” a very DeVosian statement.)

At one point, according to the newspaper report, Sutton said “a campaign had been waged against ‘frills in education,’ which, he declared, was directed … against the common people through the fear that if the masses learned through the schools to enjoy art, music, and the better things in life, they would demand higher wages.”

Sutton and the board held the line, refusing to cut programs. Teachers supported him; in 1933, they even agreed to a 16 percent pay reduction rather than cutting programs. That same year, the state Legislature amended Atlanta’s city charter, requiring the city to give at least 30 per cent of its annual revenues to the schools, an increase that got the schools, barely, through the worst years of the Depression.

Historian Philip Racine held that Willis Sutton was a model of the progressive school superintendent. Racine quoted a speech Sutton made to the National Education Association in 1924 in which explained what kind of man a school superintendent should be: “He must be tactful, but it is of even greater importance that he be fearless. . . . In this age when demand after demand is being made for retrenchment in education, where plutocratic industrialism is trying to create a plutocracy among educators, when the fictitious increased cost of education is being flaunted, when men and women are declaring that the salaries of teachers must be cut, and that whole departments must be cut out, the prime essential of a superintendent . . . is the bravery to stand before his people and display an unyielding courage by demanding the best and the highest things for his teachers, his officers and supervisors, and the children of his city.”

“Plutocracy” means government by the wealthy. It seems we have circled back to where we were almost a century ago.

Facing Betsy DeVos and an administration that seems not to care for the nation’s public schools, we need superintendents who are fearless. As we look at education policies that benefit the wealthy and harm the rest, we need superintendents who will display an unyielding courage. If we are going to return to the concern in the 1920s over fads and frills, we should also return to superintendents and other educational leaders who will fight for an educational system that will benefit all Americans.

 

Reader Comments 0

29 comments
Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Ever notice on these vintage photos how well dressed everyone is?  I enjoy watching videos of Berlin in the 30's before WWII for example.  One thing that always strikes me is how clean everything is, how well mannered everyone was, and how well dressed everyone was.

Say what you want, but "modern" society leaves a lot to be desired.

Starik
Starik

Avg - You keep asking: "Did you or your kids fail?"  Again - define "fail." Fail to get an education that matches your kids' (or your) ability level? Public schools sometimes fail. In some districts they fail a lot.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Starik

In GA, fail means to not pass the standardized GA tests. Your kids working to their potential is you and your children's responsibility. I see many children with the same ability level in the same schools and classes. Some work extra hard and excel while others coast. 

Think of school as the basics - for more, you may need AP classes, dual enrollment in college classes, accelerated online classes, and extra work at home preparing for SAT and ACT.


Schools never fail - students do.

Starik
Starik

@AvgGeorgian @Starik What if the teachers are grossly unqualified? The Georgia standardized tests are ridiculously easy, and mean nothing.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Starik @AvgGeorgian

The material is still available at school and the internet will teach you all you want to know. You can learn as much as you are able if you want to work at it. It does take motivation and hard work by the parents and students. Plenty of smart students do not do well academically in "better" schools due to lack of motivation. Most exceptional kids learn by the amount of study time they put in after school, not during school.


AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Starik @AvgGeorgian

Until Georgia has higher requirements for teaching (which will necessitate higher pay) we may have some teachers who are not up to the job.

Starik
Starik

@AvgGeorgian @Starik I wholeheartedly agree. It's been a long standing problem in the South since I was in elementary school, where I was taught, among other things, that men had one less rib than women, because God used one to make Eve with. That Mars had canals. That blacks had skulls an inch thick, and were better suited to resist head injuries.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Rich people in GA appear to have their children's private school tuition paid for with tax credits from their family members and family businesses. The rest of us taxpayer's have to pay extra or do without services to make up for those tax credits. Certainly a plutocratic system.

Astropig
Astropig

@AvgGeorgian


How do you have to pay extra? The rich already pay property taxes to support local schools (sometimes on multiple properties),they pay income taxes to the state to support people that wouldn't hit a lick at a snake and they pay sales and excise taxes on everything else.


The state's tax credit scholarship program doesn't use tax money-it issues credits.No money actually changes hands.The state never takes in to its coffers the donation that the taxpayer gives to a school,so it is never public money.This has been established in court all over the country and here in Georgia.You just don't like the fact that you can't kill the program,because its perfectly legal.


The very same people that want to kill this program will greedily use the exact same scheme to pay for their snowflake's higher education.They do this with no sense of shame or hypocrisy,because they are capable of neither.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Astropig @AvgGeorgian

Your "tax credits don't reduce state revenue" is foolish. lets put it to the test. New law says all Georgians get a tax credit of all Georgia taxes to buy stuff they choose instead of state provided stuff. So in that case there would be no drop in revenue and no lessening of state services?

Care to explain?

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Astropig @AvgGeorgian "The very same people that want to kill this program will greedily use the exact same scheme to pay for their snowflake's higher education.They do this with no sense of shame or hypocrisy,because they are capable of neither."

These people are not using tax credits to purchase a private good over a fully government provided college education. Tax credits still have the same effect but it is not a similar program-makes a poor comparison model.


Astropig
Astropig

@AvgGeorgian @Astropig


The money never goes in to state coffers.Not once,not ever.That's why courts are forced to allow this program to exist and expand.This is settled law.


Sorry,but the eduacracy will just have to forget getting their mitts on this money.

Astropig
Astropig

@AvgGeorgian @Astropig

Its the exact same thing: The parent pays the school (college),then takes a tax credit on their federal taxes for a part of the cost.I've done it myself three times.It is the same thing-except to hypocrites.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Astropig @AvgGeorgian

Tax credits are always tax credits. Your comparison is worthless because with private school tax credits the money goes to buy a private replacement good for a "free" public good.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Astropig @AvgGeorgian

I understand truth and difficult questions are uncomfortable. If you want to avoid them in the future, you may want to refrain from posting.


So to summarize, you can't/won't defend your position and statements.


That leaves only the idea that you want other peoples money to pay for stuff you could afford but don't want to spend the money on - because you think you are special.

DrProudBlackMan
DrProudBlackMan

@AvgGeorgian @Astropig  His wife couldn't hack it as an educator and he has been extremely butt hurt since. As for his ad nauseam use of terms such as 'snowflake' and 'buttercup'...nothing more than projection.

mgunter
mgunter

We've spent more money on Education than any country in th world! Yet our Public Education system is terrible, especially inner city schools. Might be time to look at what we're doing and make changes!

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

How could I have omitted this one by Jefferson?


"The liberty of speaking and writing guards our other liberties."

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Pertinent words of Thomas Jefferson:


"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day."


"Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press and that cannot be limited without being lost."


"The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government."


"I have never been able to conceive how any rational being could propose happiness to himself from the exercise of power over others."


"Difference in opinion is helpful in religion."



alt.AJC
alt.AJC

If David Parker understood and had respect for democracy he'd accept he won't always be in the majority. As he apparently wasn't when Georgia's November votes were counted.

His Never Trump attitude reeks of disdain toward voters and the federal government thirty of the fifty states elected.

Astropig
Astropig

@alt.AJC


Agree. The Trump presidency is a test of democratic self government.For all of his warts and flaws,Trump was duly elected.If he isn't allowed to govern and set his own budget priorities,then we don't self govern in America-we're ruled by an elite that imposes its priorities on us.


He and every other president should be answerable to the voters-not the press and certainly not the think tank parasites that take public money and use it to demand more public money.


Politics being what it is,Trump's enemies will rue the day that they decided to go the route of trying to delegitimizing his election rather than put forth better policies to counter him.They are martyring the guy and ensuring that someone worse will seize his political mantle down the road.It's only their insatiable lust for power that keeps them from realizing this.

BRV
BRV

The same people who voted for Trump voted in large numbers against Deal's school privatization amendment. Education is never a decisive issue for voters in federal elections and often isn't in state-wide elections. People can support Trump in general and simultaneously oppose his education policies. If his education budget were enacted as currently written (it won't be because of Republican objections) many rural voters would be outraged. They'll likely end up angered anyway as DeVos tries to shove crappy online schools down their throats and tries to starve their schools of badly needed Title I funds. My guess is that rural voters will continue to support Trump but that the policies that DeVos is trying to incentivize states to adopt are likely going to cause some headaches for state and local Republicans.

Rural voters aren't demanding online charters and further defunding of their schools. They're more concerned with more prosaic issues such as having enough money to operate their public schools five days per week instead of four.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"Education is for more than to teach people to read and write; it is to teach them how to live, for their own happiness and for the development of all mankind."

------------------------------


Bravo, Professor Parker.


I want to repost my thoughts from another thread on this blog, here, in agreement with the thoughts of Professor Parker:


"It is becoming more obvious to me that most people will project onto others (living and the dead) their own level of consciousness.


That is how we elected Donald Trump as our president.  I am convinced that the primary way out of this cesspool that Americans are now engulfed within is through education that will raise the consciousness of America's citizens.  When that elevation of consciousness happens, then, at least, citizens will project onto others a higher order of awareness and of reality than exists now.  For-profit public schools will never raise consciousness to that level, and even service public school must work, without undue influences, to raise that level of consciousness in students.


It begins by citizens' recognizing that liberal arts are probably more important to the survival of our species and the planet than even science and math.  Unless we place sufficient emphasis on raising the consciousness of our citizens through understanding human nature in depth via literature, art, music, history, and psychology, we will continue to see others only through having our own limited consciousness looking back at us."