Volume 1, ERC EdHistory 101 Project

Ellwood Cubberley (1868-1941)

Applying industrial management theory to school leadership was the signature idea of Ellwood Cubberley, giving rise to what we experience as modern school administration.

Cubberley was born in Andrews, Indiana, and was educated at the University of Indiana and Columbia University. After brief stints as a classroom teacher, college instructor and president of Vincennes University, Cubberley became superintendent of schools in San Diego-a position that influenced his long career as professor and dean of the School of Education at Stanford University.

At the outset of Cubberley's career, school administration had little or no theoretical or scientific basis. There were no formal textbooks from which to teach educational administration. Administrators were expected to learn solely from experience. Indeed, educational administration posts were routinely political plums, requiring little, if any, formal training in education.

Relying on new industrial management science theories, Cubberley designed an “administrative” system for schools, led by a professional class of superintendents and principals. His hierarchical model professionalized school leadership at that time and became the standard.As head of the Department of Education at Stanford, Cubberley trained cohorts of administrators in the “science of school management”.                       

To some, Cubberly is a controversial figure in the history of education. He has been criticized for his emphasis on efficiency and bureaucracy to solve complex educational problems. For example, Cubberley wrote: “We should give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal and that our society is devoid of classes. The employee tends to remain an employee; the wage earner tends to remain a wage earner.”

In the 1934 edition of Ellwood P. Cubberley’s Public Education in the United States he is explicit - a statement occurs in a section of Public Education called "A New Lengthening of the Period of Dependence," in which he explains that the coming of the factory system, which has deprived children of the training and education that farm and village life once gave, has made extended childhood necessary. With the breakdown of home and village industries, the passing of chores, and the extinction of the apprenticeship system by large-scale production with its extreme division of labor, an army of workers has arisen who have little or no knowledge.Furthermore, modern industry needs such workers.”


According to Cubberley, with "much ridicule from the public press" the old book-subject curriculum was set aside, replaced by a change in purpose and "a new psychology of instruction which came to us from abroad." That reference to a new psychology refers to collectively-developing practices of European schooling particularly common to England, Germany, and France, three other major world coal-powers investing heavily in military and industrial science.

His influence extended far beyond the nature of training and certification of administrators. His writing was powerful and influential concerning what constituted the best situations and arrangements for learning from childhood into adulthood. Communities across the nation strived for decades, as a matter of public pride, to adopt the practices and systems that he espoused. 

For better or for worse, Cubberley’s influence on American schools has been deep and lasting. He is the father of professionalized school administration, and his beliefs regarding the acquired knowledge of the times and the ways to apply it to America’s citizenry influenced learners, parents, teachers and administrators through the Second World War and beyond.

Thanks to PBS School & the Odysseus Group