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Ella Flagg Young (1845–1918)

Superintendent of the Chicago schools from 1909 through 1915 and elected president of the National Education Association (NEA) in 1910, Ella Flagg Young attempted widespread reform in an increasingly industrialized and diverse America. During her teens, Young enrolled in a normal school in Chicago, and after graduation began teaching, receiving a series of rapid promotions eventually leading to her appointment as assistant superintendent. During her fifties, she completed her doctoral studies in the newly created education program at the University of Chicago where she wrote her dissertation under philosopher and educator John Dewey's direction and later served as a popular faculty member. When the Chicago school board could not agree on a new superintendent in 1909, they chose Young, an experienced insider, making her the first woman superintendent of a large-city school system in the country. A year later, the membership of the NEA elected her as its first woman president. Eventually Young resigned as superintendent in 1915 after a tumultuous relationship with several board members. She died in 1918 during the great influenza pandemic.

During her long and distinguished career, Young led the Chicago schools through a period of dramatic change in which industrialization rapidly dominated the economy and diverse new populations arrived. She responded to these and many other challenges by instituting a range of reforms. To ensure the quality and welfare of the system's teachers, she created school governing bodies in which all teachers and administrators discussed curriculum and logistical matters, insisting that work time be reserved for this purpose. She encouraged the formation of study groups where educators considered educational theory, and designed screening programs for students entering the city normal school. She decentralized many administrative functions, delegating greater authority to school-level, rather than central office, staff. She endeavored to change the principalship from a position of rigid accounting and paperwork to one requiring a deep knowledge of curriculum and pedagogy. She added deans to schools to help counsel students. With her leadership, the Chicago schools also added sex hygiene programs, among the first to be offered in schools anywhere.

Beyond her administrative service, Young published works on a variety of topics including peace, literature, manual training, and ethics. Perhaps her most enduring work is Isolation in the Schools (1900), where she analyzed the relationships between schools and an industrial society, and suggested that a rigidly compartmentalized educational system alienated students who then failed to find their studies personally meaningful. Essentially, she contended that schools had adopted the mechanization of industry and that the rigid differentiation of work functions robbed people of their humanity and intelligence. In schools, this differentiation appeared in such forms as schools and classes divided by student age, and also as clock-driven courses with artificially neat content divisions. She argued that both students and teachers found their capacity for independent thought diminished by a system that made little provision for it. She claimed that much as a new class of supervisors had emerged in industry to drive the increasingly hierarchical structure, new classes of administrators had arrived in schools. These administrators, she explained, were determined to make all school-related decisions of substance for those positioned below them. This reduced students and teachers to mere operatives in a larger mechanical system. She explained that an inherent problem with this system was its lack of reciprocity–that school administrators were unwilling to endure the same demands for uniformity and obedience as students and teachers. Compounding matters, she argued, administrators higher in the hierarchy became more insulated from the primary work of schools, and as such they understood less about it. This effectively isolated them and kept them from making wise decisions.

In stark contrast with other prominent school administrators of her day, Young maintained that teachers, and in turn students, needed much more power in running schools. Only when people could make significant decisions for themselves and with each other could they tap their natural intelligence and begin to develop it fully. This meant teachers and students must have the freedom and power to create and execute their own ideas. Young argued that this responsibility would attract the most talented and qualified individuals while repelling those more inclined toward rote, prescriptive, and punitive systems. To foster the deliberative process that would build school communities, she maintained that schools needed to provide time and space for teachers to engage in the intellectual, legislative, and logistical functions of running their schools. In the pages of Isolation, Young detailed this difficult but liberating vision of schools as democratic institutions. Her years of service to the Chicago schools informed the volume along with a lifetime of disciplined study of philosophy, schooling, and society. Both her writing and leadership, then, demonstrated a remarkable balance of theory and practice.

Finally, as a gifted leader during the era of women's suffrage, Young worked closely with women's organizations and provided important leadership for their causes. Suffragists regarded Young as an exemplary leader whose successes reflected well on all women. Many women, especially teachers, propelled her into a variety of leadership positions. When Young encountered opposition, they comforted her and sometimes staged rallies of support for her efforts. Young reciprocated by continually championing the causes held dear by organized women's groups. She also sought to lead in a manner compatible with her beliefs: She involved those around her in making critically important decisions; she structured time and opportunities so that her constituents could discuss and carry out their plans; and she engaged in her work with a spirit of community-building. Though this manner of leadership often proved difficult and time-consuming, she sought it as a matter of course. As a result, her relationships with organized women and the general public were intense, mutual, and ongoing. The strong support she engendered was critical to the success of many of the daring programs she established. Clearly, Young was as much a part of the women's movement as she was a national symbol of its finest successes.


DONATELLI, ROSEMARY V. 1971. "The Contributions of Ella Flagg Young to the Educational Enterprise." Ph.D diss., University of Chicago.

MCMANIS, JOHN T. 1916. Ella Flagg Young and a Half-Century of the Chicago Public Schools. Chicago: McClurg.

SMITH, JOAN K. 1979. Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a Leader. Ames, IA: Educational Studies Press.

YOUNG, ELLA FLAGG. 1900. Isolation in the Schools. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

YOUNG, ELLA FLAGG. 1902. Ethics in the School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

YOUNG, ELLA FLAGG. 1902. Some Types of Modern Educational Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

YOUNG, ELLA FLAGG. 1903. Scientific Method in Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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