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Joseph Mayer Rice (1857–1934)

Physician, journal editor, education critic, and originator of comparative methodology in educational research, Joseph Mayer Rice is recognized, along with Lester Frank Ward and John Dewey, as a major figure in the Progressive education movement in the United States.

Rice was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Mayer and Fanny (Sohn) Rice, natives of Germany who immigrated to America in 1855. Rice attended public schools in Philadelphia and New York City, where his parents and older brother, Isaac Leopold Rice, relocated in 1870. He attended the City College of New York, and in 1881 received a degree in medicine from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. Rice, having established a successful private practice in pediatrics in New York City, became interested in the physical fitness programs offered by the New York City public schools. His research into these programs led to an interest in the schools as educational institutions.

In 1888, Rice traveled to Europe to observe the school systems of various countries. He settled in Germany for two years to study psychology and pedagogy at the universities of Jena and Leipzig. Although specific reasons for his decision to remain in Germany for these two years remain speculative, Rice's studies paralleled other American academics and educators who traveled to Germany during this time to learn the rudiments of empirical research and foundations for scientific pedagogy.

Rice observed the first laboratory of experimental psychology, directed by Wilhelm Wundt at the University in Leipzig, and studied Herbartism as it was conceptualized and enacted at the University of Jena and its laboratory school. The theories of German educator and philosopher Johann Freidrich Herbart, known as the originator of the science of education and of modern psychology, focused on the development of a cultured human being who strove to discover as well as be guided by the highest ethical values. Education, then, was a moral enterprise for Herbart. Although the corpus of Rice's writings extend well beyond this particular focus, Rice returned home from Germany in 1890, greatly influenced by his studies and with strong ideas about ways to improve elementary education in the United States.

An interview with Rice, focused on his school reform ideas, ran for three issues in the New York City weekly Epoch in July 1891, and the weekly published another series of articles by Rice from October through December of that same year. The Forum, a monthly magazine owned by Rice's brother, also published an article in 1891 in which Rice proposed two essentials for the natural development of the child: proper training of the teacher and a curriculum based on sound psychological principles. Rice maintained that these could be assured only when those who managed educational systems were themselves trained educators.

At the time, the Forum was edited by Walter Hines Page. Under Page, the monthly had published articles on education and social reform. Page was intrigued with Rice's ideas about pedagogy; thus, in 1892, under the sponsorship of the Forum, Rice conducted a six-month tour of thirty-six cities in the United States, visiting six to eight urban public elementary schools in each city. During this survey, Rice spent the school hours of every day observing actual classroom events. He talked with approximately twelve hundred teachers, met with school officials and school board members, interviewed parents, and visited twenty teacher-training institutions.

Rice devoted the summer of 1892 to the analysis of data from his survey of schools. From October 1892 through June 1893, the Forum published a series of nine articles by Rice, where he reported tedious, pedantic teaching in traditionally structured schools, unassisted superintendents responsible for the supervision of hundreds of teachers, and board of education reports portraying deplorable conditions of schools. As anticipated by Page, Rice's study generated outraged reactions among a public that heretofore had assumed a fully functioning and effective educational system. Rice's articles earned him a reputation (not a pleasant one among many professional educators) for bringing the topic of schooling into the public's eye, and, in effect, introducing muckraking to the field of education.

In the spring of 1893, Rice undertook a second survey of schools. This five-week tour focused on those schools said to represent new (Progressive) education. He visited schools in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, St. Paul, La Porte (Indiana), and Cook County (Illinois). These were schools that had expanded their curricula, as recommended by Herbartian theory, beyond the traditional "Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic," and had encouraged an integrated approach to curriculum and pedagogy. This study was reported in The Public-School System of the United States (1893) along with the nine original Forum essays, and continued Rice's critique of the public schools and their inadequate pedagogical knowledge.

Rice returned to the University of Jena in the summer of 1893. Upon his return, he was determined to further document his conviction that the wider curricula of the Progressive schools enhanced rather than detracted from students' overall achievement. Thus, Rice embarked on another Forum-sponsored tour of classrooms in 1895. This time he was armed with the first comparative test–a school/student survey–ever used in American education or psychology. During sixteen months of study, Rice administered his survey to nearly 33,000 fourth-to eighth-grade children, and he carefully tabulated modifying conditions such as age, nationality, environment, and type of school system. The survey focused, in part, on the pedagogy of spelling. Rice found no link between the time spent on spelling drills and students' performance on spelling tests. His study was far ahead of its time, not only methodologically but also pedagogically, as he pointed to "the futility of the spelling grind."

Rice served as editor of the Forum from 1897 through 1907. He retired in Philadelphia in 1915, the same year that he published his last book, The People's Government. He had married Deborah Levinson in 1900; they had two children. He died in Philadelphia, June 1934.


HOUSTON, CAMILLE M. E. 1965. "Joseph Mayer Rice: Pioneer in Educational Research." M.S. thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

RICE, JOSEPH M. 1893. The Public-School System of the United States. New York: Century.

RICE, JOSEPH M. 1898. The Rational Spelling Book. New York: American Book.

RICE, JOSEPH M. 1913. Scientific Management in Education. New York: Hinds, Noble and Eldredge.

RICE, JOSEPH M. 1915. The People's Government. Philadelphia: Winston.


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