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The History of the National Society for the Study of Education

The History of the National Society for the Study of Education – 1901 to 2008

The National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) published the NSSE Yearbooks from its founding in 1901 until its dissolution in 2008.  Since that time the Yearbooks have been published at the Gottesman Libraries at Teachers College, Columbia University, where they share editorial and production facilities with the Teachers College Record. 

In additional to becoming the home of the NSSE Yearbooks, the Gottesman Libraries also hold the archives of the National Society for the Study of Education.  These archival materials are currently under review and will become available to patrons of the Gottesman Libraries as they are organized and digitized.  Included here is a brief overview of the history of the National Society for the Study of Education.

Origins

The National Society for the Study of Education was an organization of scholars, professional educators, and policy makers dedicated to the improvement of education research, policy, and practice. Founded in 1901 by a small group of distinguished educators including John Dewey, Nicholas Murray Butler, and Charles A. McMurry, it emerged from the original National Herbart Society, which began in 1895 and which published five annual yearbooks, before being reconstituted as NSSE. Members of the Herbart Society were disciples of Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841), who could be thought of as the first voice of the modern era of psychoeducational thought. The goal of the Herbartians was to promote the scientific study of education, as well as the notion of teaching by means of a logical progression of learning, a revolutionary idea at the end of the 19th century. This organization became the National Society for the Scientific Study of Education in 1901 (the "Scientific" was dropped in 1910). The main purposes of the Society were fulfilled as members wrote monographs on important educational topics and participated in discussion of their work at regular general meetings.

NSSE endeavored to promote an educational discourse among its members, chiefly at conferences and meetings, often in partnership with other organizations. As Charles A. McMurry, the Secretary of the Herbart Society, explained the Herbartian mission in 1896:

"It is the well-matured plan of the society to secure the best papers within its reach on the most vital problems of American education. These papers are printed beforehand and circulated to the members so that they may be carefully read and weighed before the time for discussion in the [National Education Association] meetings. The publications may then be taken home and their practical value tested. This plan provides for very careful preparation of papers, thorough and complete discussion after thoughtful reading, and the later study, testing and application of the theories proposed. In this way it is believed that progress can be made toward the settlement of some of our vexed questions of education."

A "Proposed Plan of Work," included in NSSE’s first yearbook (1902) elaborated on the optimal setting for discourse:

"The best results are not likely to be attained in large assemblages of several hundred teachers where elaborate speeches are to be made, but rather in informal round-table discussions, where truth may be sought by candid interchange of opinions, by question and answer, and by simple discussion, free from oratory. It seems advisable also to hold a second meeting, for all the members of the society, where the whole subject is thrown open to popular discussion. Such has been the character heretofore of meetings of the Herbart Society, and they seem to have served an excellent purpose."

The Early Decades

Early records of the Society indicate strong commitment on the part of members to educational inquiry and discussion. Two or three meetings were held each year, and at these times members would report on their own studies. Often summaries of the work were distributed to members prior to meetings to facilitate discourse. Minutes of these meetings began to be printed at the back of Yearbooks, starting in 1904, and it is clear that the conversations were vigorous and stimulating. Indeed, M.J. Holmes, secretary of the society in 1905, noted in his introduction to Part II of the Fourth Yearbook, "Non-members should not be granted the floor unless invited. At one meeting a man who neither understood nor sympathized with the work of the Society delivered a five-minute criticism telling what the Society ought and ought not to do."

As early as 1905, it was apparent that "as the society’s membership increased and as the number of non-members attracted to its meetings also increased, the meetings gradually shifted in character, so that the formal presentation of addresses came to assume more, and the discussions less importance-a change which many members deplored, but which it has seem impossible to avoid." By 1919, over 1000 people attended NSSE’s annual meetings, generally held in conjunction with the National Education Association.

Change and Controversy

In 1924, the governance of NSSE changed radically, as the traditional president, vice-president, executive committee configuration was replaced by a six-person Board of Directors, who elected a chair among themselves. Rotating three-year terms on the Board were thought to be a way to "…guarantee democratic representation and freedom from domination by a self-perpetuating ring," according to Guy Whipple, Secretary-Treasure of the Society, in 1941.

Looking at the record, it is clear that not everyone agreed that such a system worked. The April 1931 minutes recount a "protest meeting" instigated by Dr. Harold Rugg at a recent NEA conference, at which “the National Society and its Board of Directors had been criticized as being ultra-conservative and unwilling to give proper representation on its Yearbook committees and on its programs of Yearbooks to the ‘progressive cohorts’.”

February 1940’s minutes record a communication from a member who felt "he could not honestly vote at all on the names presented on the final ballot because he believed that the Society should have the benefit of at least one Director with the teacher’s practical point of view." (In response, the Board voted to change the wording of the annual ballot to reflect association with a particular position rather than with an institution.)

Research and Practice

The relationship between researchers and practitioners was an enduring concern of the Society, particularly as it played out in the impact of the Yearbooks.  Stephen Corey, board member and chair of NSSE at its 50th anniversary, observed:

"I hesitate to say so, but I believe that we pedagogues tend to exaggerate greatly the amount of change in educational practice that results from reading what other people say should be done…I would like to feel that one of the major purposes of the yearbooks of the National Society is to provoke large numbers of teachers and administrators to go about their own work more studiously and more scientifically. One way of working toward this objective would be not only to describe in the yearbooks the results of studies conducted by educational experts, but to go beyond this and suggest how teachers and administrators and supervisors themselves might study the problems they are facing that involve reading, or vocational education, or the community school or methods of teaching. Reading the results of scientific investigations conducted by somebody else is quite different in its implications for learning and change from applying the scientific method to a study of one’s own activities…"

The relationship of the Society to the larger world of educators was a concern surrounding the selection of topics for the Yearbooks.  Ernest Horn noted in a 1951 address commemorating NSSE’s first fifty years that "Sometimes the need for a yearbook is suggested to the Board by a member or group of members of the Society. This has not happened as often as it should, due no doubt to the fact that, with the increase in numbers, the members have tended to become readers rather than active participants." NSSE archives hold a number of letters to the Board that over decades reveal at least some perception of the Board as a rather closed organization. One board member noted, as late as 1997, that her students thought NSSE had "an incredibly low profile-almost like a secret exclusive organization, which you only know exists if you are a graduate student at the very good research university."

Many early NSSE Yearbooks were actually the result of committees created to study a particular issue; findings were then written up and published. The Committee on the Economy of Time in Education (17th Yearbook), the Society’s Committee on Silent Reading (20th Yearbook), and the Society’s Committee on Arithmetic (29th Yearbook) were among those formally named; others did not label themselves committees as such, but nonetheless undertook serious investigation of educational issues. Proposals came from Board members, members at large, and educational figures not associated with the Society in a formal way. The most noted scholars in relevant fields were recruited by a yearbook committee’s chair; a sum of money was allocated for committee meetings and other expenses; and work commenced.

In 1963, the title "chairman" was replaced by "editor," marking a shift in the organization of yearbook work away from committee-led efforts. In the 1970s, the yearbooks began to be organized more as a group of authors contributing chapters under the direction of an editor who tended to be recruited by a Board member. The Society never seemed to have a difficult time persuading well-known scholars and practitioners to contribute to yearbooks, judging from the names associated with them.  Authors and editors have included John Dewey; E.L. Thorndike, Carleton Washburne, Ralph W. Tyler, Robert J. Havinghurst, John Goodlad, Ann Lieberman, Milbrey McLaughlin, Ruth Strang, Jeanne S. Chall, Harry Broudy, Benjamin Bloom, Lawrence Kohlberg, Urie Bronfenbrenner, Jerome Bruner, Kenneth Strike, Michael Scriven, Elliot Eisner, Bernard Spodek, Rudolf Arnheim, Jeannie Oakes, and many other distinguished educators and scholars. Subjects of yearbooks have been far ranging, from teacher training, curriculum, and assessment to the teaching of geography, juvenile delinquency and the schools, the courts and education, and service learning. Along the way, the Society sought not only to disseminate information through its yearbooks, but also to promote discussion and analysis of the research through a variety of venues

Whether the Society should support specific efforts or initiatives through its selection of topics was an ongoing question. NSSE walked a fine line between advocacy and neutrality, given that it represented a varied membership. Historically, it sometimes came under fire for being too cautious in its choices. A few examples: George S. Counts led an attack on NSSE’s "conservatism" in 1931 (and managed to get himself elected to the Board, though he failed to attend meetings once elected and eventually resigned). Proponents of progressive education felt that their philosophy was not recognized by the Society all throughout the 1930’s, and let NSSE boards know. And the February 1945 minutes include a report on a proposal for a yearbook on the "Education of Minority Groups." The decision to reject the proposal reads, in part:

"…inequality in education among racial and cultural groups is recognized as a significant problem. There are factual findings on the psychological aspects of the problem which contribute to an understanding of the problem… The effort to formulate a reasoned plan for remedying the situation would raise questions of social theory which are more or less controversial in many social situations and so highly controversial in particular localities that a yearbook committee would likely encounter great difficulty in dealing with the problem effectively."

The Closing Decades

Concerns about membership, both in terms of numbers and in terms of active involvement, are a theme throughout NSSE minutes starting in the 1930’s. This went hand in hand with concerns about the financial stability of NSSE, given that membership dues had always been a significant portion of the operating budget. Serious financial concerns began in the 1960s, as membership declined after a high of about 5300 in 1959. 1960s-era minutes reflect another new concern: how to attract and keep younger members, and how to involve them meaningfully.

From very early on, NSSE participated in national conferences hosted by organizations such as the National Education Association, the American Educational Research Association, the American Association of School Administrators, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The new yearbooks were presented and questions and discussion followed. Some of these associations diminished over the years, although presentations at AERA continued, and there was a renewed interest in playing a role at national conferences as well as NSSE-sponsored forums in the closing years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century.

Other possible venues for NSSE presentations were explored. In 1983, having local meetings on current educational issues on university campuses around the country was suggested, and these did take place at Ohio State University and Teachers College. 1985’s minutes detail a discussion during which one board member encouraged NSSE to "envision its yearbooks as being prepared in the context of ‘combative scholarship.’ If there were broad interest in yearbook topics, meetings [with other organizations] could be planned to allow for genuine discussion of various points of view. .Perhaps a group of "firebrands" in [organizations other than NSSE] could be identified [to take part]." These intriguing possibilities unfortunately competed with the demands of producing two high quality volumes every year, along with the processing of memberships and other related administrative duties, that occupied significant amounts of time for the one person who has always lived with NSSE on a daily basis, the Secretary-Treasurer.

For the last decade of the twentieth century, the number one topic on NSSE board agendas was the future of the Society. Aware of the imminent retirement of its long-time Secretary-Treasurer, Ken Rehage; the elimination of the Education Department at the University of Chicago, leaving NSSE homeless; and declining membership, NSSE officers truly were at a fork in the road. Most felt there were three courses of action: dissolution, continuation of yearbook production only, or an overhaul of the organization with a clear mission and unique purpose above and beyond publishing.

NSSE’s Board made a commitment to the third option. While reaffirming the importance of continuing to publish an annual two-volume yearbook, the Board engaged the members of the Society in ongoing discussion of other options.  Activities to revive and expand the Society included renewed outreach to other educational organizations, new attempts to facilitate a members network, and a program of town halls meetings at which NSSE members discussed major educational topics of the day.  These activities occurred in addition to publication of new Yearbooks.

After years of attempting to revive and expand membership in the Society, in the spring of 2008 the NSSE Board concluded that it had become financially untenable to continue as a staffed organization with a governing board and membership obligations.  The Board of Directors voted on May 30, 2008, to dissolve the Society and transfer the rights for publication of all forthcoming Yearbooks (as well as the remaining assets of the Society) to the Teachers College Record (TCR), at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.  The Board arranged to dissolve the NSSE by the end of 2008.

Copyright 2012 Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.
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