Beginning here is the story of an unknown but truly remarkable woman, an educator from Adirondack history. But first, some related information is helpful for perspective. For starters, here’s a sampling of complaints about our educational system: low graduation rates; undeserved diplomas; graduates lacking in real-world skills; students woefully unprepared for college; students without self-discipline, and more. Those are all issues today, but the very same items were also cited in 1970.
Since that time, our spending on education has risen by about 85 percent, but we’ve improved very little, still stymied by the same problems. In the meantime, we’ve fallen far behind many other countries, while still spouting that we’re the greatest country in the world. If we don’t find the answers soon, the hollow ring of that claim might well become deafening.
Since 1970, we’ve improved just about everything: civil rights, technology, weapons, communications, you name it—but in educating our youth, we’re failing over and over in so many ways. Sure, there are good kids, smart kids, geniuses, and prosperous citizens coming out of our schools, but consider a few shocking numbers that provide some balance.
It was recently (April 29) celebrated that the American high school graduation rate reached 80 percent—following a decade-long effort that started at 70 percent. We improved to the point where 2 of every 10 students fail to graduate (they mostly drop out). In New York City, that number was 60.4 percent in 2013—4 of every ten students. Those numbers are hard to fathom. Yes, improvement is great, by when did we begin accepting such failure as the norm?
It gets worse. In New York State, only about 77 percent graduate, and only 35 percent of that group (27 of 100 students overall) are actually ready for college. Of those, Hispanic students were at 15.7 percent and black students at 12.5. Statewide, 58 percent of black and Hispanic students graduated in four years. For white students it was 85.7 percent. In school districts deemed “high need,” the graduation rate is an abysmal 65 percent. In “low-need” districts it was 93.9. Clearly, many factors are involved.
And remember—many of those terribly low numbers reflect improvements. That’s the kind of “progress” America has made in the past 40 years … nearly none. Our colleges may be the world’s best, but we lag far behind in pre-college education.
A century ago, many of those same shortcomings of our educational system were the target of a very persistent Adirondack woman. Against great odds, she worked tirelessly at effecting change in the United States and around the world.
Ella Frances Lynch was born in the Essex County town of Minerva in November 1878. For all her successes in life, Ella credited a wonderful home environment and two very attentive parents. Her mother Margaret provided guidance and instruction in daily activities. Her father Daniel, often referred to as “a far-famed surveyor,” was a close friend and associate of Verplanck Colvin. A fan of life-long education, he learned a new language when he was 83. Daniel’s obituary called him a surveyor, mineralogist, lumberman, astronomer, philosopher, poet, and literary critic. Ella benefited from such a learning-friendly atmosphere.
After attending area schools and receiving home instruction from her mother, she began teaching in local schools. In 1899, looking to further her own education, Ella enrolled in Moriah’s Sherman Collegiate Institute, a quality prep school. Two years later, during a stint teaching at Aiden Lair in her hometown of Minerva, Lynch’s willingness to speak out became apparent when she took a pay dispute all the way to the state level at Albany—and won.
She enrolled in Plattsburgh Normal School, and after graduating, taught at North River. In 1905 she attended the Washington County Teachers’ Institute before beginning work as a math instructor at Salem’s highly regarded Washington Academy. She was well liked and successful at Salem, but having recognized during the previous seven years the shortcomings of the educational system, Ella wanted more.
After teaching math in the Atlantic City, New Jersey public school system, she founded (in that city) the First School of Individual Instruction. Ella’s theories and methods of teaching were based in part on the work of John Dewey, a man notable for many things, including educational reform and what it should accomplish. Democracy, he said, could function effectively only with informed voters, collectively consisting of average citizens, experts, and politicians. And an informed electorate could only result from proper schooling, which itself was based on learning through doing. Dewey’s ideas coincided with Lynch’s own beliefs.
Instead of just having students repeat facts in the classroom, Ella set about teaching children how to learn, fostering a lifelong love of inquisitiveness and self-education.
She soon began lecturing on the terrible weaknesses of our public schools, a system that exacerbated many social ills, particularly poverty and crime. As longstanding issues, those sad facts were no surprise to anyone—but rather than just bemoan the situation, Lynch offered solutions.
When the expected backlash came, Ella was prepared. She knew and dared to say publicly what many didn’t understand: public education had become big business. Most city schools performed poorly compared to country schools, where individual attention was the norm (“individual” meaning small enough classes wherein a teacher could meet everyone’s needs). Instruction in city schools focused on textbooks, which were sold by the millions as “necessities” of a proper education. Textbook providers earned huge profits, and soon identified a potential new source of income: consolidation of rural schools.
The Adirondacks and North Country were typical of rural America, where one town might have a dozen to two dozen schools, mostly of the one-room variety. Despite the excellent education provided by that system, centralization began in earnest, often against the taxpayers’ wishes. In some towns, centralization was voted down by 4–1 margins, but it was ordered by officials anyway.
With all of a district’s children pooled together in one central location, classroom sizes became unwieldy. Individual attention was reduced dramatically in favor of the big-business solution: textbooks. Instead of using successful ideas from rural schools to help fix urban schools, the city-school methods began permeating the countryside.
Next week, Part 2: Ella Frances Lynch rises to national prominence.
Photos: Ella Frances Lynch; Ad for Lynch’s Atlantic City School (1915)