Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Francis W. Parker progressive school opens

This year, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the Francis W. Parker School opened to foster a child-centered, progressive philosophy. Francis W. Parker (1837-1902), a pioneer of the progressive movement in the United States, started his educational career as a village teacher in 1853, at the age of 16. His career was interrupted by the Civil War (where he served in the Union Army throughout the entire conflict), but was resumed afterwards when he found a teaching position in Ohio. A few years later, he traveled to Europe to learn more about the ideas of the famous European educational thinkers such as Rousseau, Froebel, Herbart and Pestalozzi. At home, his philosophy of education was influenced by the ideas of Horace Mann and his friend John Dewey.

In 1875, Parker had a great opportunity to put that philosophy in practice when was invited to work as a superintendent in Quincy, Massachusetts. He accepted the challenge, and developed the Quincy Plan. This was an experimental program that abandoned prescribed curricula, rote memorization of meaningless information and harsh pupil discipline, replacing them with meaningful learning and active understanding of concepts. By 1879, in order to respond to the critics of this alternative model, Quincy students were subjected to state examinations in the traditional subjects. The model was quickly legitimized as successful when the results of the test were released, and it was found that Quincy pupils surpassed the scores of other school children in Massachusetts. However, for Parker the measure of success was not just academic performance, but a humanized and respectful learning environment. In his own words, “If you ask me to name the best of all in results, I should say, the more human treatment of little folks” (cited in Rippa 1997:162).

Francis W. Parker shared with European educational theorists the need to shift from a curriculum-centered and teacher-centered education to one that had the learner at the center. But Parker differed from his European colleagues in the particular stress that they put on the democratization of educational practices in order to build a more democratic society. Indeed, Parker conceived the public school as a model community in which an embryonic democracy could be forged in daily practices, eliminating prejudice, promoting freedom of inquiry, and solving problems cooperatively. Parker firmly believed that the only way to promote the common good and freedom was the development of a more democratic society, and that the best strategy to develop a more democratic society was a democratic public schooling that took seriously the formation of responsible citizens who learn to live and work together since childhood. Francis W. Parker’s ideas and practices contributed significantly to the popularity of the progressive education movement during the first decades of the twentieth century. Parker’s proposals and school successes, together with Dewey’s research in the Chicago Laboratory School, made a large impact in shifting educational perspectives and school practices in the United States (from a traditional curriculum to a child-centered approach), and opened a fertile discussion on the possibilities and limits of education in fostering social change.

When the Francis W. Parker School opened in 1901, it had an enrollment of one hundred and eighty students.  As part of the progressive movement and the philosophy of its namesake, the Parker school opposed the drilling method. Following Parker’s ideas, the school promoted the notion that learning could be fun, and put forward a pedagogical model that held the child at its very center. Although academic development was strongly pursuit, the Parker School promoted a more holistic and social approach, following Francis W. Parker’s beliefs that education should include the complete development of an individual (mental, physical, and moral) and that education could develop students into active, democratic citizens and lifelong learners.

Indeed, Francis W. Parker asserted that the alumni of the school should use their knowledge to improve the community and to promote fairness in society, and that they should graduate as good citizens, not only with vast knowledge, but also with heart and soul. Francis W. Parker had the enthusiasm, leadership and hope of most social reformers, and managed to successfully put into practice innovative educational theories. His enthusiasm and respect for the child could be summarized in his school motto: “Everything to help and nothing to hinder.” During the remainder of the twentieth century, the Francis W. Parker School continued to grow while guided by that motto and maintained its original progressive philosophy.


Website of the the Francis W. Parker School: (accessed April 28, 2002).

Rippa, Alexander (1997). Education in a Free Society: An American History. New York: Longman.

Prepared by DS, 2002

Citation: Schugurensky, Daniel (2002). 1901: Francis W. Parker progressive school opens. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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