Ella Flagg Young, who served as superintendent of the Chicago Schools from 1909–1915, may have been the most famous and well-respected public educator of her era. Her assumption of the Chicago superintendency marked the first time any woman had risen to such a powerful position of school leadership. In 1910, a year after becoming superintendent, rapidly growing ranks of female teachers in the National Education Association elected her as the association’s first female president.
Previously, Young had been a remarkably popular professor at the University of Chicago, teaching alongside John Dewey. In this position, she authored several influential books of educational theory. Through these and numerous other forms of public service, Young deeply influenced generations of students, educators, social progressives, and woman’s suffragists who found inspiration in her life, work, and thought.
Born in 1845 in Albany, New York, N. Ella Flagg, as she was first known, joined her parents, an older sister, and an older brother in moving to Chicago so that her father, Theodore, a skilled metalworker, might find steady work in this explosively expanding midwestern city. Although Young reputedly did not attend elementary school because of chronic illness, she studied at home with her mother, Jane Flagg, reading voraciously and discussing social issues of the day. During her early teens, her lack of formal schooling notwithstanding, she enrolled in a newly created normal program at Chicago High School, quickly demonstrating exceptional pedagogical gifts. She independently established her own teaching internship so that she could further refine her skills.
In 1862, at the age of 16, she began teaching in her own classroom in a school with more than 1,300 students and located in a squalid, congested part of town. Within two weeks, Young’s mother died prematurely of an unexplained cause. Young responded to this great personal loss by investing herself even more fully in her work, a pattern that would recur throughout the rest of her life. Over the next few years, Young’s annual salary leaped upward in comparison with those of her peers.
Her reputation for outstanding teaching led the superintendent to appoint her in 1865 to serve as principal of a newly created school of practice. In this capacity, she worked with normal school students as they practiced their pedagogical skills in a fully functioning elementary school. Despite a bitter disagreement with the school board after which she resigned from the principalship of the school of practice, a brief failed marriage, the great Chicago fire (which destroyed her home), and the deaths of her brother and father, Young nevertheless continued devoting herself fully to her work during these years, eventually returning to the principalship in 1876.
In 1886, her exceptional administrative work was profiled in a nationally circulated magazine, which raised her visibility substantially. Shortly thereafter, the school board appointed her to an assistant superintendency, a position she held for twelve years. She resigned from this work in 1899 when she sharply disagreed with the superintendent on a growing number of matters. Having already taken doctoral coursework with John Dewey at the University of Chicago, Young then finished her dissertation and joined the ranks of the University of Chicago faculty.
She and Dewey jointly published a series of books on educational theory. She also worked closely with him in establishing and running the university laboratory school. Then, after sustained disagreements with university administrators, both Dewey and Young resigned in 1904. Young and her life partner, Laura Brayton, traveled abroad to study the schools of Europe. Upon their return in 1905, the Chicago school board invited Young to serve as principal of the Chicago Normal School, to which she readily agreed. Then, in 1909, after a contentious and nearly failed search, the school board unanimously selected her for the Chicago superintendency.
The announcement that Young would take the helm of Chicago’s schools prompted newspapers across the country to feature stories on this unprecedented achievement for a woman. Suffrage activists in the United States and abroad celebrated the news in newsletters and stump speeches. For the next several years, Young enjoyed broad public support and political peace on the school board as she raced to implement a host of progressive reforms, such as the creation of councils through which teachers governed their schools, significant teacher pay increases, the development of penny lunch programs, the first establishment of sex education courses anywhere in the country, the desegregation of schools, and the creation of groundbreaking programs addressing the unique vocational and social needs of girls.
She resigned briefly in 1913 when the board took a decidedly conservative turn. Massive rallies of teachers, students, suffragists, and other progressive allies prompted sufficient political pressure for the board to relent temporarily. After renewed board resistance, however, she resigned for good in 1915, this time making front-page headlines around the world. She spent the remainder of her years promoting war bonds, chiding President Wilson for his lukewarm support for suffrage, writing a book on the role of schools in a democracy, and traveling extensively with her partner. She died in 1918 during the flu pandemic.
Looking back, John Dewey regarded Young as the “wisest educator” he had ever encountered. He noted in his writings that his ideas about democracy and education were heavily influenced by her. Margaret Haley, who for decades led the Chicago Teachers
Federation, reflected that Young, more than anyone she had known, possessed astonishing executive ability in which she instantly combined theory and practice. Teachers celebrated Young’s groundbreaking pedagogical, theoretical, and administrative contributions. And suffragists everywhere found inspiration in her service and political skill. However, this very public figure saved none of her personal effects and requested that her closest friends guard the privacy of her legacy. Consequently, memory of her achievements faded over the twentieth century until a recent resurgence of interest among scholars.
1. Donatelli, R. (1971). The contributions of Ella Flagg Young to the educational enterprise. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago.
2. Goddard, C. (2005). Ella Flagg Young’s intellectual legacy theory and practice in Chicago’s schools, 1862–1917. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois– Chicago.
3. McManis, J. T. (1916). Ella Flagg Young and a half-century of the Chicago public schools. Chicago: A. C. McClurg.
4. Smith, J. K. (1979). Ella Flagg Young: Portrait of a leader. Ames, IA: Educational Studies Press.
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