Education and Schools

Free common schools were established in Pittsburgh in 1834 and the Catholic church also provided parish schools. The Pittsburgh Survey conducted fieldwork in  1907 and 1908 to study the educational conditions in Pittsburgh. This study was motivated by lack of data about education and some glaring problems in the schools. The results of the education survey were written up by Lila Ver Planck North in 1909. The following are some key findings and results of the survey.

Lack of Data
At the time, the law required children age 8-14 to be in school but this was not enforced. Pittsburgh did not even know how many school-age children were in the city that it should be educating. In 1909, the total enrollment was 56,651 in public schools, and an additional 18,000 in Catholic schools. Many of these children, however, did not attend school every day, and there were an unknown number of additional children not even enrolled in school. The Pittsburgh Survey pointed to the existing lack of data about the schools and schoolchildren even while it went some way to alleviate it. In 1912, the city conducted the first reliable census of school age children, which found 86,331 children age 6-16 in Greater Pittsburgh.

Fragmented School Leadership
The Pittsburgh public school district had 46 sub-districts each with its own board of directors. There was no consistent quality or vision for schools across the city. The fragmented leadership of schools led to incompetence and corruption. The survey recommended a central school administration. Pittsburgh was forced to adopt this recommendation by the Pennsylvania School Code of 1911 which abolished ward school boards in favor of city-wide school boards under a state board of education. A significant portion of children attended Catholic schools which were run by the church. Catholic schools focused mainly on confirmation and religious education, so regular academics in Catholic schools were not up to the standards of the public schools. The survey recommended that the city government exercise more supervision over parish schools.

Poor School Buildings
School buildings were often unsanitary and lacked proper plumbing. The buildings were dilapidated with fire safety issues. There were no facilities for physical activity or recreation, and the buildings had inadequate light and ventilation. Unsanitary conditions exacerbated health conditions that jeopardized the education of many children. (A 1907 examination found that over 40% of schoolchildren had defective vision or enlarged glands and over 10% had skin diseases, defective hearing, or malnutrition.) School buildings were maintained by local sub-district property taxes so there was much inequality in building funds across sub-districts.

The Survey called for better school buildings with space for physical activity and libraries.  The buildings should be well-maintained, safe, and clean. School buildings could then also be used by the community for recreational activities and evening classes. The central school administration should ensure minimum standards for school buildings across poor and wealthy neighborhoods. This recommendation was implemented in the years following the survey as new modern school buildings were built.

Unqualified Teachers
Many teachers were unqualified. Public school teachers were often relatives of sub-district board members. Catholic school teachers were nuns who sometimes were forced into teaching by the church despite lack of interest or qualifications. Many of the Catholic school teachers were themselves recent immigrants, so that the Catholic schools were often “taught and managed by people distinctively non-American in training and ideals and sometimes determined to remain so.” (North, 234) All teachers, almost exclusively female, were underpaid. Men held the better-paid administrative positions.
The survey called for better training and pay for teachers, and the recruitment of qualified lay teachers for Catholic schools. The 1911 state school code standardized the curriculum and gave more power to professional educators.

Diversity of Students
Classes were incredibly large and diverse, which made teaching almost impossible. Only about 7% of the school children themselves were foreign-born, but about 46% had a foreign-born father. Schools struggled to accommodate the different languages and cultures of immigrant children. Class sizes usually ranged from 60 to 100 children  Children often did not start school at a standard age and there were no kindergartens for younger children. Whenever children did start school, they were just put in the beginning first grade class. As a result, the first grade class might have 80 children ranging in age from 4 to 16. About 45% of children were “overage” for their grade in Pittsburgh – the second highest percentage in comparison with other industrial cities.

Not surprisingly, few children completed grades 1-8. The 8th grade enrollment was only about 20% of the 1st grade enrollment. Even fewer children attended high school. High school enrollment was only about 6% of total school enrollment. Pressure to go to work to earn money led many children to drop out of school.

The survey recommended the creation of kindergartens to serve younger children, and enforcement of child labor laws to keep older children in school until at least age 14, or older if they were not yet literate. The survey asserted that older children should also be provided with training in domestic and vocational skills that would prepare them for life after leaving school. These recommendations were implemented with reforms mandated by the 1911 state school code.

Reactions to Education and Schools
The condition of schools in Pittsburgh at the turn of the twentieth century was shockingly bad, as it likely was in many cities at the time. However, it was gratifying to learn that the 1911 state school code implemented many reforms. As much as we complain about the quality of city schools today, they have greatly improved in the last 100 years.