Ella Frances Lynch—well spoken, thoughtful, and passionate in defining the problems with America’s public school system—refused to back down from proposed reforms. She was right and she knew it. Newspapers featured Ella’s editorials regularly, but the biggest attention-getter was a series of articles she wrote for Ladies Home Journal beginning in 1912. The title: “Is the Public School a Failure? It Is; the Most Momentous Failure in Our American life Today.”
Said Lynch, “Can you imagine a more grossly stupid, a more genuinely asinine system tenaciously persisted in to the fearful detriment of over 17 million children, and at a cost to you of over $403 million each year—a system that not only is absolutely ineffective in its results, but also actually harmful in that it throws each year 93 out of every 100 children into the world of action absolutely unfitted for even the simplest tasks of life? … The public school system is not something to be proud of, but a system that is today the shame of America.”
And she wasn’t alone in her views. Many high-profile educators were equally dismayed. William McAndrew, a New York City high school principal, wrote an article titled, “The Danger of Running a Fool Factory.” Harvard’s Boris Sidis said, “The present school system squanders the resources of the country and wastes the energy and lives of our children. The school system should be abolished. Our educators are narrow-minded pedants, occupied with the dry bones of textbooks and the sawdust of pedagogics who are ignorant of the real, vital problems of human interest.” James Russell, Dean of Columbia Teachers College, added, “If school cannot be made to drop its mental development obsession, the whole system should be abolished.”
Shortly after Ella’s articles appeared in Ladies Home Journal, she was contacted by representatives from Mountain Lakes in northern New Jersey. This was something relatively new—a planned community, looking for the latest, most-promising form of school around which to build their village. Lynch provided two teachers trained in her methods, and inside of six months, Mountain Lakes was already seeing results. More important, she had achieved success where others had failed—in a public-school atmosphere.
Ella was soon invited to Pittsburgh for the annual convention of Allegheny County school directors. With more than 500 educators on hand, she described her methods and theories of education.
The positive outcomes at Lynch’s schools, along with her editorials, articles, and lectures, led to more attention and new adherents opting for the individual instruction plan, including schools in Philadelphia, New York City, and the Adirondacks. Baltimore school officials opted to study it by sending observers to the Atlantic City school.
Ella had proved that 30 to 40 students who were taught in a schoolroom for the average day of six hours, learned more when they were taught instead for just one hour in groups of ten, and then sent to the playground while another group was taught for an hour. It sounded implausible, but the truth was, as she said, “It’s better to teach a few things well than to try to do a great many things poorly.”
Lynch’s articles to that effect also appeared in Pictorial Weekly, reaching an audience of millions. She openly criticized and attacked the systemic failures of the nation’s schools. But unlike other critics, she also offered solutions that had proved workable. Frustrated parents and educators expressed support, but there was plenty of opposition as well. When Ella wrote about “The Plague of Textbooks,” school officials who enjoyed cozy relations with the textbook companies (along with the companies themselves) defended the current system and pushed for even more centralization as the answer—which meant, of course, more textbook sales.
When the move towards rural-school consolidation appeared unstoppable, Lynch again had an answer that had been successful: home schooling. The focus of that movement was mothers, who for the most part were tied to the jobs of housekeeping and child rearing. Again, Ella had established repeatedly that a child who spent ages 3 to 7 at home with Mom, following her and assisting in daily life, and being instructed by the mother, was far better educated and far better prepared for public schooling. It was also proven true even if the mother herself had a very limited education.
It was hard to dispute her contention that teaching a large number of small children in a classroom was a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. After all, that was part of the long-standing system now criticized as an abject failure. Lynch’s system of home education, by following Mom’s daily actions and also receiving instructions on life and in basic school subjects, was a far better and much less costly one.
Her ideas gained traction, and soon book publishers were at Ella’s door. In 1914, Harper’s released Educating the Child at Home, calling it a joy for “those who distrust present methods in elementary education and complain of the barrenness of results.” As always, Ella’s writings tore into the old and failed methods, followed by clearly defined steps that ensured success no matter what level of education the parent or parents had attained.
And she stood firmly by the proven theory that for young children, school was “an exceedingly poor substitute for the home.” Instead, mothers were urged to opt for “home instruction and education in English, poetry, spelling, arithmetic, writing, drawing, observation, and the work habit.”
To battle the terrible effects that centralization had on many rural schools, Ella founded the League of Teacher–Mothers in 1916. Her very popular articles carried by many newspapers and magazines struck a chord with parents everywhere, particularly mothers, causing the organization to catch fire early on. As noted in a press release: “The number of mothers undertaking this plan of home teaching has rapidly increased … an army of mothers with vital interests in common. From the missionary in the heart of China, from the wife of the postmaster of Wrangell, Alaska, from the engineer’s mining camps of the Andes Mountains, as well as from women and men in the centers of advanced educational ideas, come the letters to tell what is being done for children by following the simple plan of teaching the child the right thing at the right time in the right way.”
The belief and proven solution was this: “The home should be the most wonderful educational institution in the world. The mother should be the best judge of what is best for the child. The mother who is not compelled to support her children should never be misled into placing them in school before they are advanced at least beyond the lowest grades.
“Daily individual instruction by the mother saves the child from the kindergarten, chart, primer, and first reader stages, and enables him to enter school prepared to profit by instruction and to advance rapidly enough to sustain his interest. Easy lessons make laggards. And,” she added, “any woman can start a club for home teaching.” For those doing so, a constitution, bylaws, and instructional methods were all provided at no cost. Thousands joined from around the world.
Ella continued to grow and evolve her system year after year. In PTA Magazine in 1922, she wrote an article titled, “The Next Revolution,” declaring that, “Our present aim is to revolutionize the school by sending to it children who are ready for instruction. It is much more important that the child should be well trained than that the teacher should be competent. Even a poor teacher can teach something to a child who has learned how to learn and therefore wants to learn. The best teacher in the world can teach nothing to the pupil who does not want to learn.
“Unless the young mind has been prepared by patient, conscientious home training, school instruction goes to waste. No use sewing the seeds of learning in ground that has not been properly prepared. The school, at its best, builds upon home instruction, supplementing and developing the teaching given by wise parents.… We must all make our own mistakes. Even children must be given the latitude to make mistakes, to get into trouble, to find out many, many things for themselves by experience.”
She also recognized that a goal of many politicians was to keep the masses ignorant. “We know that political scheming, stupid ignorance, and indifference all have a share in keeping education in New York State at its present low ebb,” said Lynch. “But we do not despair, for all these bad features can be overcome when the people begin to do their own thinking instead of saying, ‘Well, the superintendent says so,’ and let it go at that instead of looking farther and acting together for the good of their children.”
In her life’s work, Ella constantly practiced what she preached. Her editorials and articles covered not only education issues but a wide range of other subjects. Like her father, she had a great many passions and interests, freely expressing her opinions on taxes, beavers in the Adirondacks, New York’s water supply, and other subjects. And even though it was largely a man’s world in those days, people listened.
Next week, Part 3: Lynch goes international
Photos: Ella Frances Lynch (1925); Book cover; Headline (1916)