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Ellwood Cubberley (1868–1941)

Education and Career, Contribution

An influential educator in the field of educational administration, Ellwood Patterson Cubberley helped guide the teacher education curriculum in the early twentieth century through his edited textbook series. His account of educational history set the historiographical tone for the first half of the twentieth century.

Education and Career

Cubberley was born in 1868 in Antioch (later to be named Andrews), Indiana. He graduated from Indiana University in 1891 and showed special promise in science and mathematics. His ambition was to become a geologist, but teaching eventually overcame that early goal. Before graduation, he spent a year teaching in a tiny country school in Rock Hill, Indiana. After graduation he taught briefly at Ridgeville College (Ridgeville, Indiana), before moving to Vincennes University (Vincennes, Indiana), where he soon became president. During this period, he married his second cousin Erla Little.

In 1896 he moved to California and became superintendent of the San Diego Board of Education. There he battled local politicians over the appointment of qualified applicants.

In 1898 he left San Diego and took a severe pay cut to accept a teaching position with Stanford University and its fledgling two-person Department of Education (which would later become the School of Education). He would spend the remainder of his career there. On leave from Stanford, he received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1905 and was named full professor at Stanford in 1908. He assumed leadership of Stanford's School of Education in 1917 and proceeded to expand vastly the scope of its activities. Throughout his career, Cubberley remained deeply involved in shaping national policy on issues from teacher certification to textbooks. He retired in 1933.


Cubberley was perhaps the most significant educational administrator of his day. At the outset of Cubberley's career, school administration was thought of as a set of general principles without any conception of theoretical or scientific plans. There were no formal textbooks from which to teach educational administration to students. Educational administrators had no place to learn better practices and, as such, learned solely from experience. Indeed, educational administration posts were often political plums requiring little, if any, formal training. Most universities lacked education departments.

In Changing Concepts of Education (1909), Cubberley laid the foundation for public schooling in America. He asserted that universal education was indispensable to democracy and was an appropriate exercise of state power. Cubberley refocused school policy to include not just teaching children but also to advance public welfare and democratic institutions. For educational policy to improve, Cubberley sought to free educational administration from technical ignorance and external political pressures. He advocated giving power to technically trained educators. He also urged improved teacher training.

In his landmark Public School Administration (1916, followed by second and third editions in 1929 and 1947), Cubberley called for increased social efficiency in schools. He extolled the use of tests and measurements as techniques to measure educational efficiency and to provide scientific accuracy to education. He analogized the educational process to industrial production, in that schools should strive to maximize efficiency and product. Tests and measurements could continually serve as efficiency indicators, providing a basis for reorganization, hiring and firing, and assessing student performance. He further advocated the reorganization of public schools and the appointment of experts as administrators.

Cubberley pioneered the use of the school survey as an instrument to improve education, in his reports on the Baltimore, Maryland; New York City; Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; and Salt Lake City, Utah schools. In conducting surveys, he applied an integrated theory of organization, administration, and teaching, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of individual schools. He used the latest statistical and quantitative methods. His surveys were significant steps down a new road toward improving school functions.

Additionally, Cubberley edited a series of textbooks for Riverside Press that sold more than 3 million copies. This textbook series helped form education's knowledge base and included seminal works on such important concepts as I.Q. In his textbooks, he advocated autonomy for school administrators. Although school boards might set policy, they lacked expertise to run school systems and Cubberley believed they should give way to the administrator's expertise in day-to-day operations.

Cubberley's Public Education in the United States (1919), perhaps his greatest work, set the historiographical tone for educational history for more than forty years. Adopting an instrumentalist approach to education, Cubberley portrayed education as the main tool of America's progress. He saw the rise of universal public schooling as a triumph of democratic forces. Cubberley saw educational systems as continually improving, and he associated the rise and refinement of education with America's continued progress.

Cubberley's legacy has been decidedly mixed. Since his death in 1941, Cubberley's celebrationist historical account has been attacked, perhaps most memorably by Lawrence Cremin's The Wonderful World of Ellwood Patterson Cubberley (1965). Historiographically, some academicians have used Cubberley's methodology as a cautionary tale and termed his approach anachronistic and evangelistic. In a similar vein, Cubberley's administration stances have been attacked as sexist and autocratic. Regardless, Cubberley's historical account was a Promethean achievement, in light of the then-existing state of knowledge. And, without a doubt, Cubberley's views on empirical research in education and increased efficiency in public schools have remained dominant paradigms in contemporary public education.


CREMIN, LAWRENCE. 1965. The Wonderful World of Ellwood Patterson Cubberley. New York: Columbia University.

CUBBERLEY, ELLWOOD P. 1909. Changing Conceptions of Education. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

CUBBERLEY, ELLWOOD P. 1919. Public Education in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

CUBBERLEY, ELLWOOD P. 1920. The History of Education. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

CUBBERLEY, ELLWOOD P. 1929. Public School Administration. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

NEWMAN, JOSEPH W. 1992. "Ellwood P. Cubberley: Architect of the New Educational Hierarchy." Teaching Education 4 (2):161–168.

SEARS, JESSE B., and HENDERSON, ADIN D. 1957. Cubberley of Stanford and His Contribution to American Education. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


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