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)


Ella Flagg Young, first female superintendent of a major city school system

On July 29, after five months of deliberations in which six candidates were interviewed, the Chicago Board of Education unanimously elected Ella Flagg Young as superintendent on the second ballot. Her appointment was supposed to bring an end to a decade of intense conflicts between the Chicago Board of Education and the increasingly powerful teachers' organizations.

Ella Flagg Young (1845-1918) was a bright and perseverant woman who devoted her life to improve democracy and progressive education. The third child of working-class parents, Young stayed home until the age of ten. When she was nine, after she taught herself how to read and write, her mother finally allowed her to go to the nearby school that her older siblings attended. A few years later, she entered high school but dropped out after a few months, partly because she was not encouraged by her parents to continue, partly disappointed by the lack of intellectual challenge. When she was 15, a friend who was going to take a teacher certification examination asked Ella to go along. Ella took the test too, and passed, but was told that she was too young to teach. She then enrolled in a teacher training school, and during her second year of training, her mother told her that she would never become a good teacher because she was too hard on herself and would be the same way with children. Rather than giving up, Ella found a good teacher and arranged to assist her, creating her own practicum experience and using it to test her potential in a real classroom. After graduation, Ella worked as a classroom teacher in a Chicago ghetto school, and later as the head of practice-teaching classrooms, as a high school math teacher, and as a principal in the largest Chicago school.

Her emotional life was not easy. When she was 27, her husband, her parents, her brother and her sister had already died. Widowed and without any close relatives, she devoted herself entirely to the cause of education. By 1887, at the age of 42, she became assistant superintendent, a newly created position in a rapidly expanding school system. Young encouraged teachers to have a voice in the curriculum, and from the meetings held to that effect emerged the Chicago Teachers' Federation (CTF). The most important leader of this organization, Margaret Haley, was highly influenced by Young's democratic leadership style.

At the end of the century, at age 55, she left her work at the school bureaucracy (the new superintendent was too autocratic and his policies too conservative) to pursue a Ph.D. under the supervision of John Dewey, who said that he took more educational ideas from her than from anyone else. Her dissertation, "Isolation in School Systems," reflected an educational philosophy based on experiential learning, social freedoms, and democratic school communities. After graduating, she served as a professor at the University of Chicago, and later as the principal of the Chicago Normal School.

In 1909, when she became superintendent, the school system was characterized by divisiveness, factionalism, and intense confrontations between teachers' organizations. The Board of Education was anxious about the increasing power of the Chicago Teachers' Federation, whose last legal victory was to force tax dodging corporations to pay fair taxes, which in turn were used to improve teachers' salaries. At that time, however, teachers were disappointed with their only ally in the Board, social reformer of Jane Addams. Although her sympathies were with the teachers, Addams tended to align her vote with the rest of the Board.

Teachers had great expectations with Young's appointment. Most of the 6,000 teachers in the system had met her personally, and she was able to remember their names. As soon as Young took office, she declared that her administration would be characterized by "democratic efficiency," removed the secretive performance evaluations, introduced more relevant curriculum subjects, increased salaries for all teachers, and began to involve them in the decision-making process through a system of teachers' councils. In 1910, she was elected the president of the National Education Association, becoming the first woman to hold the leadership of this male-dominated organization.

Young's continuous support to teachers and teachers' organizations was not well taken by the conservative members of the Board, who launched successive attempts to destroy her reputation and force her out of the superintendency. In spite of being the target of intense political intrigues, the encouragement and support of parents, teachers and progressive politicians persuaded her not to present her resignation. By August 1915, when she was away on vacation, real estate magnate Jacob Loeb, an influential member on the board, presented a motion --supported by business groups-- forbidding teachers from belonging to unions. When Young returned, this clause, known as the "Loeb rule," had already been approved. The following year Young retired, and the Board finally had no opposition to dismiss a great number of CTF teachers.

During the last years of her life, even in retirement, Young was still active in education and politics. In 1916, she was going to present a paper at the NEA convention. When she heard Loeb, who talked before her, reiterating his attacks on teachers unions, Young discarded her prepared presentation and instead responded to his criticisms. At one moment of her speech, alluding to the fact that Loeb's children attended private schools, she contended that people who were not sending their children to public schools should not be allowed to serve on the board of education. After a half-century commitment to furthering democracy in the educational system and in society at large, Ella Flag Young died in October 1918. The flags in Chicago were flown at half-mast. In a tribute published in the Chicago Tribune, Jane Addams wrote of Young: "She had more general intelligence and character than any other woman I knew."


Smith, Joan (1979). Ella Flagg Young: the portrait of a leader. Ames, Indiana: Educational Studies Press.

Smith, Joan (1994). Ella Flagg Young. In Maxine Schwartz Seller (ed.). Women educators in the United States 1820-1993: A bio-bibliographical sourcebook. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 553-563.

"Ella F. Young Dies," Chicago Tribune, October 27, 1918.


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