Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Edith + Edith Again

The H. W. Wilson Company produced The Debaters
Handbook Series 
between 1910 and about 1950.

In 1907, a Minneapolis publishing executive named Halsey W. Wilson was looking for writers and researchers to work for his growing company.  Spurred by his wife, Justina, he asked a University of Minnesota professor to recommend several alumnae.  A young woman named Edith Phelps left her teaching job and came on board right away. 

In short order, Edith would become a supervisor and editor at the H. W. Wilson Company.  She wrote dozens of guides to such topics as the income tax, immigration, and the League of Nations.  

These became known as “debaters’ handbooks,” and were used by high school and college teams who sparred competitively about the social policies and laws of the rising century. 

But really, the handbooks had a larger significance.  They were particularly useful to people who lived in rural areas, with their reach extending well beyond debaters to men’s and women’s clubs, voting leagues, and adult education programs.  

In fact, making this literature widely available tied into the Progressive ideal of educating as many Americans as possible. 

Halsey W. Wilson
In 1913, when Halsey Wilson decided to move his company to New York City, Edith Phelps went with him.  For the next 40 years, she worked in the vanguard of what became known as information sciences.  In 1922, she became an officer of the company. 

Back to the other Edith.

Within several years of Edith Penney’s arrival in New York, she made her mark on one of the most innovative projects in the history of American education: The Eight-Year Study.  This experiment posed a challenge to the time-honored methods of evaluating college applicants long used by admissions officials. 

The study explored whether students’ performance in the college preparatory curriculum was the best indicator of college readiness and future success.  What would happen if students were to pursue an alternative high school curriculum in the humanities and social sciences?

That question lay at the heart of The Eight-Year Study, launched in 1930 by the Progressive Education Association.  That year, high school teachers and administrators started to collaborate with researchers and college professors to revise the traditional curriculum. 

Between 1933 and 1940, 29 public and private high schools and 200 colleges and universities participated in the experiment.

Along came more classes in the manual and fine arts, a shift from survey-style courses to electives that focused on a few texts or a historical era, and the elimination of material that students had regurgitated since elementary school.  There was a concerted effort to embrace unconventional opinions and interpretations.   

The outcomes were positive.  When it came to college the Eight-Year Study students turned out to be as successful as students who followed an established curriculum.  They also developed a wider range of interests outside the classroom.    

As a high school principal and member of two committees that directed the study, Edith Penney became committed to educational reforms that would have been unheard of during her Minnesota childhood.  

Radical as the work seemed during the 1930s, several of the ideas that emerged from The Eight-Year Study have endured.

 The Eight-Year Study was published
in 1942 in five volumes.
Professional development for teachers, testing methods that would provide more accurate and meaningful measures of students’ knowledge, and greater variety and student choice of courses were among the changes.  

High schools also began to push back against onerous college entrance requirements. 

Unfortunately, the results of The Eight-Year Study received little attention when they were published in 1942.  Some critics thought they were inconclusive while others feared change.  Regardless, by the time the war ended, school administrators were not in the mood to innovate.  Every so often, however, the study draws renewed attention.

Edith May Penney retired in 1948 and died at the age of 96 in 1974.

Edith May Phelps retired in 1948 and died at the age of 98 in 1980.

Continued from post June 5, 2019.


1 comment:

  1. You are definitely the only writer alive who has related these to Edith Mays.


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