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Rachel Remmel on the Graded School in 19th Century Boston

Rachel Remmel on the Graded School in 19th Century Boston

This article represents part of my larger book project, which explores why, in 1847, Bostonians developed the graded school, which divides students by age and ability into small, individually taught classrooms. This model is so ubiquitous and familiar within the United States that it is difficult for many to envision that there were ever alternatives. Yet the graded school was not inevitable, and the first half of the nineteenth century was a time of widespread experimentation with school organization. In order to understand the success of the graded school, it is important to understand what problems Bostonians thought it solved and what drawbacks the alternatives presented. The failed reforms of 1830-1832 represent a clear snapshot of both the problems Bostonians perceived and the drawbacks of one alternative reorganization.

As an architectural historian, I am particularly interested in the spatial aspect of this episode. The article centers on spatial collisions between space as imagined by the school board and other kinds of space: the physical space of actual buildings, the space of lived experience, and space as imagined by other groups (parents and teachers). These collisions produced fascinating outcomes, such as the school buildings themselves seemingly taking on the agency to disrupt the school board’s plans through their physical immutability, or the interior organization of school buildings being inseparable from their geographic location.

At its heart, though, the central question of the article is why Boston’s school committee persisted in reviving this failed reorganization plan again and again for the following fifteen years; why was this school organization model so attractive in the school committee’s spatial imagination? My answer revolves around questions of cost, sexuality, staff hierarchy and accountability, efficient use of resources, gender, and class.

From a historiographical standpoint, it is interesting to see how my focus differs from that of historian Stanley Schultz, whose 1973 book The Culture Factory included an account of the 1837 revival of the original 1830 plan I discuss in my article.1 Writing in the 1970s, Schultz focused on the conflict between centralized school administration and neighborhood schools, as centralized vs. neighborhood control was a hotly contested issue in the 1970s. Empowered by the civil rights movement, racial minorities were challenging unresponsive centralized school boards by advocating for the neighborhood control of schools. Schultz attributes the 1837 failure of the revived plan to a centralized school board that did not yet have the legal authority to enforce its will on neighborhoods. While I see the themes of scarce resources for public schools, elite control of state power, and attempts to use state power to regulate sexuality and to ensure teacher accountability as the dominant themes that emerge from the historical record, certainly these themes reflect my own historical moment, as all four themes are significant in contemporary American culture.


1. Stanley K. Schultz, The Culture Factory: Boston Public Schools, 1789-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 114-125. William J. Reese mentions the 1830 battles in relation to his theme of testing, likewise a theme drawn from the present, although one that fits the historical evidence less well than that of Schultz. Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 45-47.

About the Author

Remmel is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. Her research focuses on school architecture and museum history, both institutions intended to transmit and shape values. Her book project is The Origins of the American School Building: Boston Public School Architecture, 1789–1860.

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