Category Archives: Social Foundations of Education

School vs. Society in America’s Failing Schools

We grow accustomed to easy explanations for the difficulties encountered in U.S. Schools.  Educational Researchers offer perspectives that challenge widely held assumptions.  Here is an article that provides an alternative point of view worth considering!    — Ed Prof

School vs. Society

Eduardo Porter
Published online November 3, 2015 in the New York Times —

Permalink for this article:

New York Times Website


The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor

Eduardo Porter
Published October 20, 2015

“The charge that welfare will become a way of life reproducing itself down the generations is also dubious. Before welfare reform in 1996, some four in 10 Americans on welfare were on it for only one or two years. Only about a third were on it for five years or more.”



A Little More History of Education

James Earl RussellThere was a time when all who pursued degree programs in education were required to know something about the history of education. This is no longer the case at my own institution and many other places as well.  So, in celebration of the American Fourth of July, here are a few additional quotations from James Russell.  I was pleased to find that Russell’s (1937)  Founding Teachers College is available in the Universal Library: . (Readable at no cost on kindle, iphones, ipods, as PDF, and many other formats.  What a wonder!)

Here is how Russell described the excitement of working with colleagues to create something new (Teachers College) at the dawn 20th century.

Speaking for every member of the staff during the six years evenly divided between the nineteenth century and the twentieth – years in which we were getting our own professional training and incidentally defining a new type of professional school – I declare these years to be the richest of our lives. The effect, in its fervor, enthusiasm, and spiritual uplift, was akin to a religious revival.  It inspired us with a faith that we, too, could move mountains.           

Owing to the steadily growing number of students the most pressing need was for more instructors. I knew that our teachers should be scholars, not only masters of their respective fields but also products of a wider culture, who had the gift of inciting students to scholarly endeavor. Men who combined these qualities were scarce and those in collegiate positions could hardly be expected to take a chance on an enterprise generally labeled unscholarly.  Moreover, we needed men of open minds, men not confined in the ruts of academic tradition or habituated to traditional methods of research and investigation. That suggested men, to use an Irish bull, whose future was ahead rather than behind them (Russell 1937, 51-2).

It did not all fall readily into place, however. The zest of creating something new and necessary was tempered by the resistance of those who were invested in the status quo:

Our relation to the University was still uncertain in 1903.  Within a year our loyalty was questioned by the Columbia Trustees; the head professor of mathematics had denounced the appointment of a normal school man to a professorship; the head professor of history publicly warned President Butler that the reputation of the University would be jeopardized by further coddling of this parvenu institution; the head professor of Latin aired his opposition to women students by dubbing 120th Street ‘hairpin alley.’   For all of fifteen years I sat in the University Council quite aware that for me to advocate a measure was likely to defeat it. …

Anyone who recalls the character of ‘schoolkeeping’ of fifty years ago – the deadly recitation of memorized facts from deadlier textbooks all to the tune of the hickory stick, and the joyous response to ‘recess’ and the long holidays when school ‘let out’ – must realize that ‘schoolteaching’ has been a transforming agency. In this accomplishment we have had some part.

             Probably the most decisive change has been in securing popular support the country over for professional training and a broader conception of the function of the school in public education – an ideal that unifies the best interest of the individual with the welfare of the body politic. The trend has been marked by a better understanding of the learning process, by more suitable methods of instruction and school administration, and by more sympathetic treatment of individual differences.  The problem which presents the most difficulty, and one that will be omnipresent as long as civilization advances and knowledge increases, is the selection of the best materials to implement our changing ideals (Russell, 1937, 64-66).

Russell goes on to observe that the “enormous amount of new knowledge put out in recent years, added to the accumulation of ages past, imposes a prodigious task upon teachers who are obliged to choose that which will be most serviceable for a particular purpose and to adapt it to the various grades, ages, and abilities of their students.”  (66). He asserted that teachers’ attitudes, preferences and knowledge of their subjects play key parts in all this (67). Clearly, Russell seems to imagine a powerful teacher who makes key decisions about the how and what of educational practice. And one final quote, one that I think might well pertain to those who prepare professionals in all fields:

Next to smug complacency with its concomitant self-righteousness, the greatest danger that any professional school encounters is the tendency of the specialist to become so enamored of his subject, so engrossed in its elaboration, so confident of its self-sufficiency, that he makes it an academic discipline rather than a source of professional enlightenment. Whether any professional school can realize its ideal is primarily a matter of the scope of its scholarship and the attitude of its scholars toward what is needed in professional practice (Russell, 1937, 67-8).

Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College, pays tribute to the original TC mission and the “power of ideas” while suggesting new directions for the future (For more on this, visit and ). I think it is noteworthy that she proposes that the relationships students form while at TC are as important as the knowledge to be gained from books.

From my vantage point in a public university, the tensions between the professional and the scholarly (e.g., school of education versus arts and sciences); the applied and the disciplinary, and the vocational versus the academic seem as real and as potentially problematic as they were in Russell’s day.  Should students be taught science because we need workers prepared for high tech occupations, or because knowing about the world around us, and learning how to think scientifically has inherent value for the individual?

A Little History

Robert H. Bruininks

Robert H. Bruininks, University of Minnesota

Robert H. Bruninks is retiring as president of the University of Minnesota.  A graduate of Western Michigan University (WMU) in 1964, he began his career in special education.  Since 1968, he has played various roles at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis: professor, department chair, dean, executive vice president, provost, and, in 2002, president. In a recent interview, Bruininks reported that one of his important achievements during his administration was improving the quality of undergraduate professional education.  One of his most difficult decisions concerned the elimination of the University’s General College.

A few years ago, I delved into the historical record to write a brief history of a small professional association — The Society of Professors of Education (SPE), which was founded in 1902 (Armstrong, 2005).  After a few months of digging into primary sources (as time would allow), I came to a new appreciation for the work of historians of education. One of the many things I gained from this project was a renewed appreciation for the tenuous status of schools of education within universities, which are a relatively recent invention, succeeding schools of theology, law and medicine. The past hundred years or so has produced a lively discourse about the nature and consequences of our situation (e.g., Labaree, 2004).

For those of us in Education, James Earl Russell’s description of the founding of Teachers College, Columbia — Founding Teachers College—  provides a wonderful glimpse into one of our professional “origin stories.” Russell was the first dean of Teachers College, and also one of the early presidents of the Society of Professors of Education (1905-1907).  His memoir captures the difficulties he encountered as he and his colleagues fought for resources and stature in an institutional context that had little regard for the low status occupation of teaching, a job often performed by women, particularly in the lower grades.

James Earl Russell

James Earl Russell

To return to the Minnesota connection, several University of Minnesota deans and professors served terms as SPE presidents:

  • George James, 1913,
  • Lotus D. Coffman, 1918
  • Harl R. Douglas, 1938
  • W.E. Peik, 1946
  • Robert H. Beck, 1970
  • Ayers Bagley, 1983

Robert Beck and Ayers Bagley were among my teachers at the University of Minnesota many years ago. They are, therefore, a part of my professional lifenet of connections to people, places and things that have shaped my professional life over the years. I will have more to say about professional lifenets in future posts. Clearly, the “Minnesota Connection” is at work here, and indeed, as I learned more about the history of SPE, I also learned about the history of my own alma mater.  And this was interesting. Yet the people I found myself most captivated by were all of the people who were SPE members who lived their lives and did their work in relative obscurity.  Most of us are among, or will one day join their ranks, and this should keep all of us humble and mindful of how we spend our time.

My historical inquiry afforded a glimpse into the decades of effort that professors of education have put into the task of creating environments suited to the preparation of teachers and administrators, and other school employees to serve the common good.  Difficulties arise — conflicts and sometimes interpersonal animosities — because “doing what one ought to do” is a matter of judgment and interpretation. Every field generates an ongoing discourse focusing on ethics and ethical decision making. The conversation continues because circumstances change, creating new dilemmas and uncertainties. Yet some of the tensions we encounter are a byproduct of the wider institutional contexts in which we live and work. Historical study affords another way to see the terrain from a different point of view. And learning to see things anew (a modernist aspiration) is one of the many skills we need to cultivate in ourselves, as we grapple with the problem of re-creating our best qualities in the next generation of professionals.

Wishing you well — Edprof


Armstrong, J. (2005). A brief history of the Society of Professors of Education. Professing Education, 4 (2). [available online]

Labaree, David F. (2004). The Trouble with Ed Schools. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Russell, James E. (1922). The Trend in American Education. New York: American Book Company.

———. (1937). Founding Teachers College: Reminiscences of the Dean Emeritus. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Robert H. Bruininks — brief biographical sketch (Wikipedia)

Robert H. Bruininks — Western Michigan University profile.

Society of Professors of Education Website

A list of SPE Presidents is available in the SPE Library.

Handbook of Research in Social Foundations

The Handbook of Research in the Social Foundations of Education is now in print. All of the editors and the contributors who made this volume possible are to be congratulated for their work on this important project.

Maxine Greene: Special Issue

Here is a post mined from Carolyn Vander Shee’s AESA Weekly Roundup! If you have an interest in art, education, democratic life, and/or children’s drawings, see below.  — edprof

The Journal of Educational Controversy is pleased to announce that the
issue dedicated to the life and work of Maxine Greene is now online.
The theme for the issue is: “Art, Social Imagination and Democratic
Education.”  Readers can find the journal at:

The journal would like to draw readers’ attention to an innovation
that was introduced in this issue.   In place of one of the printed
articles, we are providing the reader a slide show of a child’s
artistic drawings, with the author’s voice describing to the readers
the significance of what they are viewing in the child’s work.   The
author traces the motifs found consistently in the child’s drawing
over the course of several years so the reader/viewer can gain insight
into the child’s imaginative communities, values, and dreams. Look for
the second screen on the table of contents. We invite readers to
contribute formal refereed responses to our Rejoinder Section or more
spontaneous responses on our journal’s blog at: