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Jesse Newlon (1882–1941)

Superintendent of Denver, Colorado, schools, director of the Lincoln Experimental School of Teachers College, Columbia University, and president of the National Education Association, Jesse Homer Newlon was one of the most well known progressive educational administrators of the early twentieth century.

Born in Salem, Indiana, Newlon graduated from Indiana University in 1907. He earned a master's degree in 1914 from Columbia University, and began a series of educational appointments as teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools in Indiana, Illinois, and Nebraska. In 1920, he accepted the position for which he is best known–superintendent of schools in Denver, Colorado. In this role, Newlon had the opportunity to further develop his ideas of progressive education and administration. Whereas many academics explored the implications of progressive educational thought at a conceptual level, Newlon, more than any other educator of his generation, proved that an educational administrator could adhere to progressive ideals and, at the same time, involve himself in the community while overseeing the operation of a large school complex.

During the early 1920s in the United States, the ideals of progressive education, espoused by John Dewey and others, were inspiring curriculum reform efforts in a number of public schools. In 1922 Newlon persuaded the Denver school board to support such a project with the argument that he could make the curriculum of the Denver schools more efficient. What set Newlon's plan apart from any other curriculum reform effort of the time was his inclusion of teachers into the curriculum revision process. He believed that teachers, not school boards, should be involved in curriculum development, and he appointed teacher committees to revise curricula and courses of study. Teachers, not administrators, chaired these committees, and Newlon scheduled time during the school week for teachers to work on these revision processes with administrative and supervisory personnel. Newlon thus orchestrated official acknowledgment of the significance of teachers' collaborative participation in curriculum development.

The Denver Plan attracted considerable attention from teachers and administrators as well as community members across the country. Teachers especially applauded Newlon's insistence that the Denver school board provide support and structure for the teachers' labor outside the classroom. For example, Newlon proposed that teachers who served as members or chairs of curriculum revision committees be provided relief from regular classroom work, with a few days to a few months release time. He also insisted on the formation of a clerical staff to support all committee work, thus freeing teachers from those clerical responsibilities.

Throughout the duration of the Denver Curriculum Project, committees worked to reconstruct courses of study in subject areas at each of the three instructional levels: elementary, junior high, and high school. Newlon also secured funds to print the courses of study completed by the committees. By 1923, a professional library was completed and was staffed by a full-time librarian. According to Newlon and his committees of teachers, administrators, and supervisory staff, curriculum revision needed to be a continuous process and therefore needed also to draw on the latest educational research and theories.

Further, Newlon posited that development and enactment of the curriculum were simultaneous: curriculum was shaped not only by committees outside the classroom but also by the interactions of teachers and students who used–and therefore reshaped according to their particular situations and needs–those courses of study.

At the same time, Newlon concluded that teachers' and students' participation in curriculum development and revision did not obviate the need for curriculum specialists. During his tenure as Denver superintendent, Newlon appointed the first district-wide curriculum administrator in the nation. Some argue that because that district-wide curriculum administrator was educated in a department of educational administration (at Teachers College, Columbia University), the ensuing first generation of curriculum specialists established the bureaucratic and administrative character of the curriculum development paradigm. That administrative character finally was challenged in the 1970s by a group of curriculum theorists intent on the reconceptualization of the field.

Nonetheless, Newlon's conceptions of curriculum development and school administration attracted national attention, not only through his support of teachers and students as curriculum creators, but also through his establishment of an equal salary schedule, development of an exceptional school library system, and organization of a permanent curriculum department. These accomplishments all took place during his overseeing of the construction of fifteen schools in the Denver area.

By 1933 the Denver Plan and the materials generated by teachers, administrators, supervisors, and students were widely known, circulated, and used nationally. As a result, the Denver high schools were selected to be participants in the Progressive Education Association's Eight-Year Study (1934–1942). Although Newlon had resigned as Denver superintendent of schools in 1927 to become professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, most viewed his foundational work as the major reason the Denver schools were selected as one of the six most experimental and successful schools in the study.

From 1927 to 1941 Newlon served as professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and from 1927 to 1934 as director of the Lincoln Experimental School at Columbia. The Lincoln School, under his directorship, also participated in the Eight-Year Study. During his tenure at Teachers College, Newlon served as director of the Division of Instruction (1934–1938), and of the Division of Foundations of Education (1938–1941). He participated in the Teachers College discussion group "The Social Frontier," the Committee for Academic Freedom of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Historical Association's Commission on Social Studies.

Newlon visited the Soviet Union in 1937, and as a result of that visit, became increasingly fearful of rising totalitarianism abroad. Upon his return, he devoted himself further to spreading the ideals of Progressive education by speaking frequently about the values of democracy and the school's role in the preservation of freedom. Some note that Newlon became so distraught over the loyalty oaths and authoritarian conditions he witnessed in the schools that his health seemed to be adversely and permanently affected. He died on September 1, 1941.



PICKELL, FRANK G. 1922. Junior-Senior High School Administration. New York: Scribners.

NEWLON, JESSE H. 1923. Twentieth Annual Report of School District Number One in the City and County of Denver and State of Colorado. Denver, CO: Denver School Press.

NEWLON, JESSE H. 1934. Educational Administration as Social Policy. New York: Scribners.

NEWLON, JESSE H. 1939. Education for Democracy in Our Times. New York: McGraw-Hill.


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