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Carleton Washburne (1889–1968)

Superintendent of schools in Winnetka, Illinois, from 1919 to 1943, Carleton W. Washburne is most notably connected with the Winnetka Plan which he developed and promoted. Washburne also served as president of the Progressive Education Association (1939–1943) and on the faculty of Brooklyn College (1949–1960).

Early in his career Washburne was a protégé of Frederic Burk, president of the San Francisco State Normal School which, under Burk's leadership, had gained wide recognition as a center of Progressive education before World War I. Burk and his faculty had launched an attack on the traditional pedagogical practice of classroom recitation and the lockstep system of holding all students to the same pace at each grade level. At the San Francisco State laboratory school, self-instruction booklets were developed in various studies to allow students to progress at their own pace under the "individual system." These booklets garnered wide demand nationally despite Burk's policy against promotional marketing. It was a time when the traditional basis or common essentials were being seen by Progressive educators as "tool studies," denoting the basic skills as instrumental for further learning through practical application as opposed to meaningless and mechanical rote learning.

On Burk's recommendation, Washburne was appointed superintendent at Winnetka where he instituted a plan whereby the school day at the elementary level was divided into two parts–at least half being devoted to common essentials and from one-third to one-half to group work or social-creative activities stemming from the social studies, literature, art, music, and dramatics–involving discussion, projects, and reports. Washburne's extensive writings, however, were centered more on the development of objective tests for the common essentials (multiple choice and fill-in items), and self-instruction booklets with self-correction exercises linked to specific objectives. Pupils were to proceed at their own rates until mastery was demonstrated subject-by-subject. Demonstrated mastery in basic subjects did not usually lead to an individual's promotion to the next grade, but allowed additional time for work in weaker areas and enrichment. A pupil failing to achieve mastery in a subject was usually not held back at the time of class promotion to the next grade, but would continue instructional exercises in the next grade until mastery was attained. Washburne held that nonpromotion was wasteful and it was virtually eliminated under the Winnetka system.

Although Washburne's self-paced program was promoted as individualized instruction, the only factor individualized was the rate of correct items completed and time of testing to certify achievement. Other problems with the Winnetka Plan were raised by William H. Kilpatrick and fellow Progressive educators, who questioned the division of the curriculum into two disconnected and unequal parts, and the designation as the common essentials those subjects that most readily conformed to mechanistic self-instruction exercises and objective items. Further, at the time curriculum-making was moving toward correlation and integration of subjects, a trend supported by mounting research that showed not only positive outcomes when various subjects were articulated, but also when the skill studies were made meaningful through the widest applications in all studies. The Progressive movement in curriculum development had turned to units of work, projects, enrichment and exploratory studies, and, at the middle-school and secondary level, block-time teaching and a correlated core curriculum in place of the separate subjects.

Nevertheless, Washburne had anticipated the rise of programmed instruction, mastery learning, and the increasing use of the multiple-choice test in determining achievement. By his own account Washburne laid claim to the evolution of his self-instruction booklets into "workbooks," which became a perennial pedagogical instrument in the traditional classroom from that day onward. Few Progressive educators would ally themselves with the workbook then or now.

The widespread interest generated by the Winnetka Plan stemmed in no small measure from its being seen as an answer to the incessant and mounting allegations leveled at Progressive education for neglecting the essentials. Under the dual plan, school administrators could lay claim to embracing the new education while simultaneously giving proof that at least half of every school day was being devoted to the essentials. At the same time they would not be encumbered by the onerous process of developing an articulated curriculum and the task of convincing parents and the wider public of the need for departing from the traditional separate subject curriculum.

Overlooked in accounts of Washburne's work was his establishment of nursery schools in the Winnetka schools and his required course for middle school students and junior high students in family living, which involved laboratory work in the nursery schools. He also engaged leading international architects, who worked in full cooperation with teachers, to build a school described in Architectural Forum as the prototype of the modern elementary school.


KILPATRICK, WILLIAM H. 1925. "An Effort at Appraisal." In Adapting the Schools to Individual Differences, ed. Guy Montrose Whipple. Bloomington, IL: Public School Publishing.

TANNER, DANIEL, and TANNER, LAUREL. 1990. History of the School Curriculum. New York: Macmillan.

WASHBURNE, CARLTON W. 1925. "Burk's Individual System as Developed at Winnetka." In Adapting the Schools to Individual Differences, ed. Guy Montrose Whipple. Bloomington, IL: Public School Publishing.

WASHBURNE, CARLETON W. 1927. "The Philosophy of the Winnetka Curriculum." In Curriculum-Making: Past and Present, ed. William Chandler Bagley. Bloomington, IL: Public School Publishing.

WASHBURNE, CARLETON W. 1953. What Is Progressive Education? New York: Day.

WASHBURNE, CARLETON W., and MARLAND, SIDNEY P., JR. 1963. Winnetka: The History and Significance of an Educational Experiment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


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