Lucy Sprague Mitchell:
A Pioneer in an Age of Pioneers
Lucy Sprague Mitchell came of age at a time of great changes in the United States. The country was becoming increasingly industrialized and urbanized; waves of immigrants were arriving, and poverty—especially urban poverty—was on the rise. These changing conditions inspired an intense period of social and educational reform between 1890 and 1920, led by pioneers, many of them women, who believed that the world could be changed. An age of often appalling social conditions was also an age of great optimism for people who wanted to remake the society America had built.
A graduate of Radcliffe, and the first Dean of Women at the University of California at Berkeley, Lucy Sprague Mitchell knew that she wanted to be a force for change, and shared the optimism of the reformers that change was possible. She herself saw in education the best possibility for a more just and humane world.
With several like-minded women, she established the Bureau of Educational Experiments to determine how children grow and learn by carefully studying and recording their behavior, their language, and their interactions with each other and with their environments. In 1930, convinced that the teacher was key to education, the Bureau added teacher preparation to its activities; in 1943, the Bureau was well enough known for the New York City public schools to invite staff members to offer workshops onsite in the New York City Public Schools, thus realizing a goal for Mrs. Mitchell, who knew that educational reforms that did not take root in the public schools would never be of great value. In 1950, the Bureau was chartered by the Regents of the State of New York and became Bank Street College of Education.
Today, we live in another age of educational ferment and reform. Reformers from all perspectives seek to change our schools and early education programs in order to improve outcomes for children. There are often just tiny areas of agreement in the school debates, except for the recognition of the importance of teachers and good teaching. As Lee Iacocca said: “… passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have.” That’s what our teachers and graduates do every day—pass civilization along to our children and grandchildren. Expressed that way, it is clearly a daunting task, and one worthy of the highest respect—and gratitude—our society has to offer.
And yet, perhaps because teaching is still mainly a woman’s profession, we pay our teachers—to whom we entrust our children and their future—no better, and often less well, than we pay people who perform much less critical tasks. And we accord them equally little respect. It is a challenge for all of us to find ways to compensate our teachers adequately for the vital role they play, and to restore to teaching the respect it once commanded—and so richly deserves. It is time—and past time—to join Mrs. Mitchell in understanding that teachers are the key to our children’s learning.#