The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Education, the Development of the Office of School Superintendent

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Education, the Development of the Office of School Superintendent
Edition of 1920. See also Superintendent (education) on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

EDUCATION, the Development of the Office of School Superintendent. Supervision of schools by educational experts is an American idea. In ancient Athens, it is true, the teachers were to some extent under the supervision of the State. Overseers were appointed to enforce the laws respecting morality. The State, however, exercised but little supervision over the qualifications of tutors or their methods of teaching. Charlemagne visited the school of the palace and placed the schools for the education of the clergy under the care of the bishops and the parish schools under the care of the priests. They had so many other duties that they could not exercise a close oversight over the teaching in the schools which were thus placed under their care. Luther and Melanchthon visited schools and churches under the direction of the Elector of Saxony, but their time and strength were devoted to duties other than those of supervision. When the king of England and the nobility made liberal subscriptions for the establishment of a system of charity schools, in which the German children of Pennsylvania might be taught English, and thus through the instrumentality of language be attached to the English Crown, Rev. Michael Schlatter was in 1754 made superintendent of those schools at an annual salary of £100. He was succeeded by Dr. William Smith, who was outspoken in his loyalty to the British government. The former was a missionary of the Reformed Church, and the latter was provost of the university. Hence neither of them could devote much time to the work of supervising the schools under their care.

City Supervision. — The idea of appointing a person who was to devote all his time to school supervision first took shape in Buffalo, N. Y., and Louisville, Ky. In the winter of 1836-37 a law was passed by the legislature of New York authorizing the appointment of a superintendent of common schools in Buffalo. R. W. Haskins received notice of his appointment on 10 Jan. 1837. He accepted the office, but finding the law defective, he resigned before the expiration of the year, and was succeeded by Oliver G. Steele, who has always been known as the father of the public schools of Buffalo.

The city of Louisville, Ky., appointed a superintendent of schools in 1837. He was called Agent of the Board of School Visitors and began his work in the month of September. Two years later Saint Louis, Mo., and Providence, R. I., appointed superintendents. The last of the great cities to create the office of superintendent was Philadelphia.

State Administration and Supervision. — New York also led the way at a still eariier date in provisions for State administration and supervision of schools. The law of 1795, which appropriated for school purposes $100,000 each year for five years, provided for the annual election of not less than three, nor more than seven, commissioners in each town who were to supervise and direct the schools. By the act of 1787 the regents were empowered to charter colleges and incorporate academies, and to exercise supervision over them, being authorized and required to visit and inspect them, to examine into the condition of education and discipline in them, and to make an annual report thereof to the legislature.

On 14 Jan. 1813 Gideon Hawley was elected superintendent of common schools of New York and retained the office until 22 Feb. 1821, meanwhile having been appointed secretary of the board of regents, 25 March 1814, and continuing in that capacity until 1841. When he was removed by the “Counsel of Appointment” just prior to the expiration of its own life, as provided by the constitution of 1821, public indignation rose to such a pitch that the legislature promptly abolished the office of superintendent and devolved the duties upon the secretary of state. But the office has been continuous from 1812 to the present time and has been held by several of the most distinguished men of the State.

Maryland had a State superintendent in 1825, and Vermont in 1B27, but in neither was the office continuous. In Pennsylvania the duties of State school administration were, in imitation of New York, devolved upon the secretary of the commonwealth, and Thomas H. Burrows achieved lasting fame by his work for the common schools while serving as secretary of the commonwealth. Most of the time, however, the function of school administration was assigned to a clerk or deputy until 1857 when the office became independent of and co-ordinate with the other departments of the State government. Michigan created the office in 1836, and Massachusetts in 1837 with Horace Mann under the title of secretary of the State Board of Education. Kentucky came next (also in 1837), and then Connecticut with Henry Barnard under the same title as that adopted in Massachusetts. His office was abolished in 1842, but resumed by himself in 1849. Since that time the establishment of the office has been rapid, and in the newer States the office dates from the beginning of their organization, either as a Territory or as a State.

County and Local Supervision. — In 1841 New York passed a law for the appointment, by the Board of Supervisors of each county, of a deputy State superintendent of common schools for the county, except that in counties having more than 200 school districts they were to appoint two deputies. These deputies came to be known very soon as county superintendents, and the arrangement lasted until 1847. In 1843 provision was made for the election of town superintendents and this lasted till 1856. In 1854 a State Department of Public Instruction was again established, and the office of superintendent of public instruction was created. In 1904 the Department of Public Instruction and the Board of Regents were consolidated, and at the head was placed a State commissioner of education. The powers lodged in this department of the State government have been surprisingly large. Its decisions cannot be questioned and reviewed in any court or in any other place. Thus school disputes can be settled promptly and without much expense.

In Massachusetts there have been several great epochs in the development of the policy of school supervision. The ordinance of 1647 obliged all towns of a given number of householders to provide and support schools. The law of 1789 authorized the employment of a school committee to look after the schools. In 1826 such oversight was made obligatory by law. The people of Massachusetts have always been jealous of their rights and correspondingly slow to delegate power to persons in office. The high-water mark of democracy and the low-water mark of the Massachusetts school system was reached when prudential committees and district committees began to be in collision or collusion. The law of evolution under which the people gradually demand the best in education for their children brought on the period of supervision by experts. At first school committees appointed one of their own number to inspect the schools. The school committee of Cambridge in 1836 and of Gloucester in 1850 delegated to one of their members certain supervisory duties and designated him superintendent of schools. The first instance of the appointment of a superintendent other than that of a member of the school committee in Massachusetts was in Springfield in 1840. He remained in office but two years. The first permanent appointment of such an official was made in Boston in 1851. The experiment was successful, and in 1854 a law was passed (amended in 1857 and 1860} authorizing towns and city councils to require the school committee to appoint a superintendent who should have the care and supervision of the public schools. The cities and large towns, one after another, adapted the plan until in 1879, 25 years after the permissive bill was passed, 35 cities and towns employed superintendents for full or nearly full time. In 1888 a law was passed permitting the employment of a superintendent by two or more towns, the expense therefor being largely borne by the State. Permissive measures were followed by mandatory laws, and the legislature of 1900 passed an act obliging the school committees of all towns and cities to employ a superintendent of schools after 1 July 1902, the towns having a valuation of less than $2,500,000 to be governed by the law under which two or more districts could join in the employment of a superintendent. New York and Massachusetts are typical States, and their example was followed elsewhere, especially in the Northwestern States and in Pennsylvania. In the latter State the office of county superintendent was created in 1854. Popular indignation rose to so high a pitch over the creation of so many new offices that it helped to defeat Governor Bigler when he came up for re-election. But his successor. Governor Pollock, took a bold stand in favor of school supervision, and the superintendent of schools whom he appointed, Henry C. Hickok, made it his chief aim to show the people that they would get more in return for their school taxes if the schools were placed under the supervision of men fitted for the office by literary and professional qualifications. The law in Pennsylvania has always been a schoolmaster of public opinion, and in no long time the advantages of school supervision were recognized, and the policy of electing county superintendents at a convention of school directors specially called for the purpose has been left unchanged although the term has been lengthened to four years. The requirement that the superintendent must possess literary and professional qualifications in order to fill the office has been adopted in other States.

Ohio created the office of county superintendent in 1914. He is elected for a period of from one to three years by a county board of five members who are themselves elected by the presidents of the district boards.

Salary. — The higher compensation which the superintendent receives, as compared with the teachers under him, has raised in the public mind the question: "How does the superintendent earn his salary?" To answer the question the school system may be likened to a manufacturing establishment whose operating expenses exceed the income by $20,000. The deficit caused the stockholders to employ a more efficient superintendent, who by organizing the workmen, rearranging the work and saving the waste or raw material not only prevented this loss but made a profit of $50,000 by the end of the next year. Did the new superintendent earn the $5,000 salary which he received? To ask the question is to answer it. But in school work there is waste far more serious than the waste of raw material. The most valuable asset of a commonwealth is brains, and this goes to waste through inefficient teaching. The time and effort of pupils is too valuable to be wasted during the most plastic period of human life. It is the function of the superintendent so to organize and oversee the work at school that the people may get the largest return for the taxes gathered for educational purposes. The results of school supervision have established in public favor the office of superintendent and the policy of school supervision in every State of the Union.

Duties of the Superintendent. — Various functions are assigned to the superintendent. If he is to be held responsible for the efficiency of the schools he must have a voice in the selection, suspension and dismissal of teachers, the promotion of pupils, the making of the course of study, the selection of the textbooks, the purchase of apparatus and the location, erection, and condemnation of schoolhouses. In smaller towns difficult cases of discipline are referred to him for adjustment; in the cities and larger towns such cases go to the principal who then assumes many of the functions of a supervisor. Where a superintendent's powers are based upon statute it is easy for him to exercise these functions. When he must exercise them through committees the situation becomes very complex and requires the greatest tact and personal force.

Methods of Teaching. — The superintendent is everywhere expected to improve the methods of teaching. Hence he is charged with the duty of conducting teachers' meetings, and in some States he has charge of the annual teachers' institute. He makes reports to the Board of Education, stands between the schools and the newspaper reporter bent on mischief, between the teacher and the unreasonable parent, as well as between the schools and the ill-advised reformer. It is also the duty of the supervisor to protect the child from over-pressure in school work and from other unreasonable demands on the part of the teacher. He may, by ill-advised and too frequent examinations, ruin the methods of teaching and unnecessarily worry the minds of teachers and pupils. It is now recognized that children have rights as well as duties, that one of these rights is the right to be happy at school, that children cannot be happy unless the teachers are happy in their work, and that no teacher can be happy if he or she is constantly annoyed by rude or unreasonable demands from the superintendent. Hence the educational leaders of America have insisted that the superintendent shall be courteous in manner, always pleasant to parents, teachers and pupils and capable of sending them away satisfied, even when he must refuse their requests.

Assistant Supervisors. — Where the administration of schools absorbs most of the time of a superintendent it has become imperative to appoint supervisors who take charge of special lines of work, like drawing, music, manual training, primary instruction. In the selection of these assistants it is important to get experts who can get things done. Mere inspection for the purpose of reporting what is done falls far short of the real purposes of school supervision.

From the nature of the case, county superintendents cannot exercise as close supervision as is possible in cities and towns. Various duties have been assigned to them in different States, namely, to examine teachers, issue certificates, visit schools, conduct the annual institute, make reports to the Department of Public Instruction, see that the schools are kept according to law, that the State school appropriation and other school funds are wisely expended, and that schoolhouses unfit for use are replaced by modern structures. The preparation of questions for the examination of teachers and the employment of talent for the annual institutes has in many States been delegated to the State superintendent and his assistants.

The Selection of Superintendents and Public Opinion. — Of the various plans for the selection of State or county superintendents, that by popular vote is least satisfactory. Nominating conventions are apt to select candidates for geographical reasons or political services and not on the basis of fitness for the duties of the office. This may be prevented by public opinion. The superintendent has no duty more important than that of creating educational sentiment. The schools cannot be made better than the people want them to be, nor will they be allowed to lag far behind the demands of public opinion. See School Supervision.

Nathan C. Schaeffer,
Superintendent, Department of Public Instruction, State of Pennsylvania.