David Gamson Gives Talk Concerning History of U.S. Education System

David Gamson, associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, gave a talk titled “The Importance of Being Urban” in Paino Lecture Hall on Feb. 18, in which he discussed the historic development of and issues with the American education system, a topic he explores in his book by the same title. The event was sponsored by the American studies and history departments and the education studies initiative, as well as lecture funds provided by the college.

Gamson began the talk by expanding on his reasons for writing the book. He became interested in policy and history a long time ago, he said, which prompted his research focuses to split between the two. The book covers the progressive era, what he defines as the time period between 1890-1940, and the course of educational policy in that time period. He highlighted the fact that generally, there was a shift in the fifty-year period away from the rural, run-down schools to more urban, modern educational facilities with the ability to provide students with more opportunities.

Gamson then pivoted to focus on the early 20th century and the educational policies implemented during that specific period of time. The American educational system “is a story of pride and shame,” he said. “We’ve made huge progress. Before most other countries on the planet, we started a large educational system. But some students were left out of it. We excluded slave children, [for example],” he said. Even after emancipation, there were ways that Black children were denied access to educational opportunities, he added.

The trajectory of the American education system, he continued, did not progress linearly. Rather, it has been marred by periods of backsliding, wherein some students have been overlooked or underfunded.

After examining these periods in which certain groups of students did not achieve educational goals, Gamson posed the questions which drove him to write his book. “How do we educate so as to provide equal educational opportunity?” he asked. “Why do some children thrive in school, while others fail? Who should be educated and how?”

The second half of Gamson’s talk focused on the latter question raised as he examined how different testing systems, specifically IQ tests, were used to support the claim that only the most intellectually gifted students should be educated.

Gamson called attention to a study led by Superintendent of New York City Public Schools William Henry Maxwell in 1906 which showed that a high percentage of students were “falling behind for their grade.” “[These students] would stay in the same grade year after year after year” due to their inability to pass “rigorous” end of the year evaluations, Gamson said. “It caused these students to drop out.”

From this study the “question was asked … ‘How do we prevent students from failing and why are they failing?’” said Gamson. As a part of the progressive era, researchers believed that with enough data they could “solve all of our problems.”

“Interestingly, these education problems were not just in the south,” Gamson noted. In Wilmington, Delaware, the white population reported that 37.2 percent of students repeated their grade level. Meanwhile, Memphis, Tennessee had rates as high as 75 percent in African-American schools, the worst in the country.

Gamson argued that these metrics showcasing the failures of the education system prompted researchers to make claims about the underlying reasons. “One well known psychologist … called for high quality education that is applied to the top five, maybe 10, percent of students. The others don’t really matter,” he said, paraphrasing the psychologist’s conclusion.

Writing the book made Gamson reflect on the role of historian. The task is to use history to help us think about what we can do to “create a more ethical society,” he said.

“Sometimes the lessons of history have not been instilled … As a former social studies teacher, it hurts me to think that we haven’t done our job,” he said. The job now, Gamson declared, is to “disrupt the misleading and flawed narratives about superiority” that result in some students getting better educations than others.

He continued by discussing the history of intelligence tests. The IQ test, he said, was originally used to determine the occupation of soldiers during World War I. For example, “The least capable soldiers were often sent to the front lines.”

IQ tests also served to differentiate students, he said. The students who did not meet educational standards were left behind. At a school in Oakland in the early 20th century, teachers had insight into how students could avoid educational disparities. These teachers, Gamson argued, had “huge successes” at special schools for students who had fallen behind and was proof that mental ability was not the reason for failure, the prevailing theory at the time.

After examining this history from the early 20th century, Gamson believed he would be done seeing such prejudiced, biased views of who should be educated. He was surprised, he said, when he read an article in the scientific journal Nature that stated that the most intelligent five percent of the population become CEOs, senators, presidents, astronauts and other respected leaders. “Oh, yeah? Where are the women?,” Gamson quipped. Women make up only a small portion of those roles, so there must be something else besides mental abilities that is limiting outcomes and educational disparities, he added.

To conclude his talk, Gamson reiterated that historians and students of history must be prepared to respond to the “clever” and misguided claims like those found in Nature and those that will arise in the future.

Students expressed that the issues of intelligence tests felt close to home.

“I’ve always been interested in how the tests reflect what the students know, but it doesn’t reflect much at all. It doesn’t reflect how they learned the material or whether they had the ability to,” said David Formica ’22, who attended the talk. “I always held the belief that [standardized tests] don’t properly measure intelligence … I can’t tell you what they measure, but it is just a matter of preparing for that test.”

“Gamson discussed the challenge of conducting research on urban school districts during the Progressive Era that uncovered narratives and histories a layer deeper than official administrative records.” Margaret Werner ’21 said after attending his talk and particularly in his visit to her education class. “Having inclusive and well-maintained historical archives are crucial in ensuring all voices, no matter how large the stage they stand on, are heard in future years.”

Peter Tulloch ’22 said that studies that showed little correlation between IQ tests and intelligence surprised him. “I’ve always had faith in those tests … I was surprised that those tests had [little correlation with] actual success.”

Though worried about how schools differentiate students, Tulloch remains optimistic about the future of the American education system. “I am very optimistic about the future. We have a lot of smart people working on this issue … Gamson’s book talks a lot about how there was a universal consensus that kids should be restricted to the bare minimums of learning. Kids weren’t able to move in class. [From] that standpoint, we’ve definitely moved forward,” he said.