Book Review: The Chicago Schools by Mary Herrick
Review by Jim Vail
Mary Herrick taught high school from 1922 to 1965 and was actively involved in the Chicago Teachers Union movement. She was president of the Federation of Women High School Teachers from 1933 to 1936 and served as VP of the American Federation of Teachers. She was also the first editor of the Chicago Union Teacher newspaper and today there is a CTU Scholarship named after her. She wrote a great history of the Chicago Public Schools called The Chicago Schools published in 1971.
What makes her book a great read is her research into how the schools first began in the early 1800s during the pioneer days when Chicago was only marshland along the Great Lake. She then details the dirty politics and the Chicago machine that used the schools to enrich themselves at the expense of the children’s education which was constantly being shortchanged because the union did not play politics.
She also details some incredible school superintendent stars who helped build up the public schools despite the challenges, including William Wells for which Wells High School is named after, and Ella Flagg, who also has an elementary school named after her.
The stories are engrossing and powerful. You would never expect that the leaders of the schools would have done so much to build up these schools when today it seems they only want to tear them down. Think Arne Duncan, who called the public schools failures and implemented the Turnaround model to fire everyone inside buildings mostly in impoverished neighborhoods, followed by a string of political appointees trashing the public schools and the union: Jean-Claude Brizard (Rahm’s first choice to lead Race to the Top), Barbara Byrd-Bennett (who went to prison after she closed a record 50 schools), and Forrest Claypool (a political hack from the Park District who tried to fire activist teachers).
The history of the Chicago schools is fascinating and powerful and we should know this history.
However, where Herrick falls flat is when Mayor Richard J. Daley takes control of the Chicago Machine and his fight to keep the schools segregated and the union under heel. She writes very little critical analysis from 1950 - 1970. Perhaps being a union leader prevented her from using her research and analytical skills to paint an accurate picture of these years.
Here are some fascinating facts and information from her book which I still recommend all teachers and lovers of history and our city public schools to read:
-The first school building the city owned was at the corner of Madison and Dearborn built in 1845 with 843 students but 1,000 students were turned away.
-Chicago businessmen had no interest in the public schools in the beginning except for William Ogden (a Chicago mayor who helped build up Chicago via his speculation - has a school named after him!), John Wentworth (school named after him) and Richard Hamilton (school with his name as well).
-Chicago settlers were indifferent to education and benefited from child labor “schools always been an afterthought for most Chicagoans in money-making bustle”
-William Wells was one of the most effective administrators in the early history of the schools who had educated himself and fought to increase teachers' pay.
-In 1859 the average primary class size was 81 students, while in St. Louis it was 60 and NY 50. Some Chicago schools had 200 small children with one teacher in one room!
-First high school and first teachers training college was opened in 1859
-Superintendent Wells wanted to decrease corporal punishment and prevent military training during War. Teachers loved him!
-Mayor Wentworth in 1862 attacked the bankers who he called the robbers of school funds.
-In 1850s male high school teachers made 4x as much as female teachers
-In 1867 prisoners helped clean the schools.
-Prior to WWI German was taught in the public schools because Germans were one of the biggest immigrant groups.
-The gap between the rich and poor grew after the Chicago Fire of 1870 with ‘railroad kings and capitalist press’
-Another great Superintendent Albert Lane (Lane Tech High School) expanded vocational training, pensions for teachers after 8 years of service, and set up a teacher training college.
The Chicago Tribune was very hostile to working class public schools, arguing against ‘fads and frills, cut down on pie-making’ = to cut foreign language classes, music, art, etc. NY Times argued against teachers unions.
-1898 City mandated playgrounds for each school.
-1895 the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund set up with 1% teacher contributions
-1899 the school budget was based on property taxes. George Pullman of the Pullman Rail Car Co. paid no taxes.
-Chicago Tribune was ‘flagrant offender of school money’ was against re-evaluation of property and the Board of Ed said it lost $15 million because of the corrupt Tribune lease of property. Mayor Ed Dunne in 1905 appointed Activist Jane Addams as trustee to the Board of Education and wanted the Tribune lease deal declared illegal. Tribune engineered a lease deal until 1985 (sounds like the parking meters scam when an investment consortium bought meters at grossly undervalued price for 99 years to screw Chicago tax payers!).
-Press against Chicago Teachers Federation - first teachers union set up in 1890s - because “character and citizenship could not be taught by a teacher in a labor organization which taught hatred of other classes.” Tribune attacked CTF a lot when it urged the Board to re-evaluate its lease.
-CTF worked to elect mayors and aldermen. They supported Mayor Edward Dunne in 1905 who supported municipal ownership of utilities, stronger pensions and tenure and to re-evaluate school land leases.
-Chicago Teachers Federation felt Jane Addams sold out to businessmen. Carl Sandburg wrote book about leader Margaret Healy
-Teacher sick leave introduced in 1916.
-1925 debate between commercial training (vocational ed) v. classical training (academics) modeled on the German system.
-Corrupt Mayor Big Bill Thompson supported Loeb rule to prevent teachers from joining a union and 5,000 teachers protested at City Hall in 1915. Thompson had looted the schools from 1919-23 - non-existent companies got big contracts, principals got calls from board members to order unwanted equipment at quadrupled prices.
-In 1916 teachers got tenure after 3 years and recommended board trustees be elected to six year terms thanks to Chicago Federation of Teachers lobbying.
-In 1924 set up system of junior high schools
-CTF Healy supported corrupt mafia mayor Thompson who ran on ending prohibition and pro-immigrant (alcohol) and anti British (teetotallers) and said schools should teach immigrant heroes like German, Irish and Polish in schools.