As a prominent urban school superintendent and U.S. Commissioner of Education in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, William Torrey Harris defined and addressed problems facing public education and in doing so helped establish the framework for educational administration as a profession.
Born into a prosperous Connecticut farming family in 1835, Harris attended Yale College for 2 years before moving west for an uncertain future in St. Louis. He accepted a teaching position with the St. Louis public schools and soon became an elementary principal and then assistant superintendent. In 1867 he was elected superintendent, a position he held until he resigned in 1880.
During his years as superintendent, St. Louis grew rapidly. Harris's lengthy, well-written annual school board reports using statistical data to describe district issues, support policy, and create pride in the St. Louis public schools set a new standard. They were read not only by St. Louis residents but also by educators and citizens across the country.
Harris led the way in creating the role of the urban superintendent as an instructional supervisor who could delegate administrative tasks to others. He helped create the role of the superintendent as a professional educator distinct from the board of education, which he thought should limit itself to policy decisions.
His use of educational statistics, including student data, provided a method for describing his district and demonstrating its problems and needs. He was a major proponent of the survey movement for studying and comparing school districts. His scientific approach to the study of education helped organize and systematize it as a social science.
Harris viewed public education as a means of developing individual talents and abilities that in turn would lead to the creation and support of a democratic state. An advocate of compulsory education, he supported the use of a common curriculum for all students rather than a differentiated curriculum based on social and economic class. Since he believed public education should lead to the development of character and self-control, corporal punishment occurred infrequently during his superintendency.
In order for the public schools to help create equal opportunity for all students, including those from poor and immigrant families, Superintendent Harris implemented the first public kindergarten in 1873 with Susan Blow as teacher. By 1877, 41 kindergarten centers served more than 3,000 children, including those from middle-class families. In 1877-1878 he oversaw the opening of kindergartens for African American children.
Harris's ideal organizational structure for an urban district was Grades K-8 and 9-12. He supported public secondary education at a time when the use of public funding for high school education was controversial. Although he encouraged the use of a curriculum that included Latin and mathematics for all high school students, he accepted multiple courses of study. Nonetheless, high school was not meant to provide employee training for business and industry.
Harris used his position as superintendent to modernize instruction and personnel policies in the St. Louis public schools. He wanted teachers in all grades to teach understanding of subjects rather than rely on rote learning. He supported the use of textbooks rather than oral instruction. Realizing the need to professionalize teaching, Harris supported opportunities for teacher professional growth, including study groups and Saturday institutes.
During and after his years as superintendent he regularly served as a spokesperson for the National Education Association. He helped strengthen its Department of Superintendence and was elected president in 1875, which led to making him even more nationally prominent as an advocate for public education.
He was not only exceedingly knowledgeable about education, but also a scholar of Hegelian philosophy. In 1867 he established the Journal of Speculative Philosophy and served as its editor. Over his lifetime he wrote hundreds of articles and books on education and on philosophy. In 1880, when he resigned as superintendent, he traveled in Europe for a year before joining the Concord School of Philosophy.
In 1889, President Harrison appointed Harris as the U.S. Commissioner of Education, a position he held until 1906. His stature as a scholar and effective school administrator enhanced the reputation of the Commission. Rather than base his decisions and recommendations on speculation, he used educational statistics to determine issues that needed to be addressed. His highly regarded annual reports on U.S. education contributed to the development and organization of modern school systems and were read across the United States and in Europe. Despite overseeing this federal office, he continued to support local control over education.
When Harris retired in 1906, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provided him with a pension in recognition of his efforts to improve public education.
Committee of Ten, Compulsory Attendance, Eliot, Charles W., National Education Association (NEA)
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