Good Stuff 22.2

By Herbert Kohl

A Schoolmaster of the Great City
By Angelo Patri 
(New York: The New Press, 2007)

The Promise of Progressivism: 
Angelo Patri and Urban Education 
By James M. Wallace
(New York: Peter Lang, 2006)

Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools 
By David C. Berliner and Sharon L.Nichols
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2007)

Angelo Patri’s A Schoolmaster of the Great City was published in 1917 and unfortunately has been out of print for over 60 years. Patri’s teaching and administrative career within the New York City public school system stretched from 1897 to 1944-47 years-and he became one of the few progressive educators who worked exclusively in public schools.

Schoolmaster of the Great City focuses on the first 36 years of Patri’s life with particular emphasis on the years 1908 to 1913 when he was principal of P.S. 4 in the Bronx. Patri was born in 1876 in a small town not far from Naples. His peasant family was desperately poor, and in 1881, they immigrated to the United States, settling in East Harlem, which at that time was known as Little Italy.

Patri’s time in Italy had a profound influence on his educational work, in particular the tradition of storytelling and throughout his educational career, Patri was known for substituting a story for harsh discipline. For him it worked with even the most difficult students.

Schoolmaster is a wonderful story itself, containing tales of progressive schooling in the New York City public schools during the development of the movement. It is striking that many things he achieved we are now trying to protect or recreate.

Patri helped his teachers develop their personal interests toward special teaching in art, athletics, dancing, festivals, music, nature study, and storytelling. Teachers made room in the curriculum for the tales of the children’s ancestors, most of whom were immigrants. Patri, his staff, and neighborhood leaders helped start a settlement house with a playground. Parents were encouraged to visit the school to see their children at work and he helped them organize one of the first Parents’ Associations in the New York schools.

As Patri said: “The school must open its doors. It must reach out to spread itself, and come into direct contact with all its people. Each day the power of the school must be felt in some corner of the school district. It must work so that everybody sees its work and daily appraises that work.”

According to James M. Wallace, who has written the authoritative book on Patri, The Promise of Progressivism: Angelo Patri and Urban Education, Patri considered it part of his mission to “democratize America and make its advantages available to all in an atmosphere of mutual respect. For urban educators in particular, this presented an ethical and pragmatic imperative to actively involve parents and communities in the life of the school and the school in the life of the city.”

The Promise of Progressivism is a moving account of Patri’s whole career. It also contains reflections of Patri as a person and is a lovely tribute to the life of a very important, though largely forgotten, educator.

Towards the end of Wallace’s book, Patri summarizes what he feels is necessary for school reform. His extended list is worth reading and studying now that we are still fumbling our way towards educating the children of the great cities of the United States.

Schoolmaster of the Great City should enter the teacher education curriculum, be read by practicing teachers and administrators and people in general who care about nurturing children rather than torturing them with high-stakes testing, teacher-proof curriculum, zero tolerance discipline and punitive evaluations. It is a breath of fresh air in a polluted educational environment.

Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, by Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner, is a fight, back book. It is a carefully documented, well-researched, and well-written weapon against high stakes testing and its damaging consequences. It should be a weapon in the armory of all educators who are opposing high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind.