Joseph Mayer Rice, born in Philadelphia, was a pediatrician and school reformer of the 1890s who wrote a series of articles on teaching methods used in urban school systems. Educational historians describe him as a pioneer of educational measurement and the progressive movement in education. Others have argued that he is the first modern education reporter.
Rice’s interest in physical fitness programs in New York City public schools led to an interest in the schools as educational institutions. In 1888, he embarked on a career-altering journey to study psychology and pedagogy in Germany, a place known at the time as the center for such study. After his return to the United States, Rice examined the state of American education in a series of articles in the Forum in 1892 and 1893, criticizing U.S. education as unscientific and comparing it to instruction in the Middle Ages.
During a six-month trip from Boston to Minneapolis, Rice visited schools in thirty-six cities to document instructional methods, note general conditions of the schools, and investigate how schools were managed. Rice’s criteria for evaluating a school included the appearance of the room, attitude of the teachers toward children, manner of recitation, the busy-work given, the teacher’s pedagogical knowledge, attendance at school meetings, and efforts at intellectual self-improvement. Despite citing these complex variables, Rice made judgments about schools based mostly on how they used “new education” methods in place of antiquated mechanical methods, which amounted to the memorization of facts. “New education” focused on the learner, and whether interest, meaning, and understanding were being developed.
Rice’s report was highly critical, citing only four school systems, located in the Midwest, as approaching the educational ideal based on the German schools he had visited. This investigation, although rudimentary by today’s standards of educational measurement, is often considered a seminal part of the progressive or reform movement of the early 1900s because it brought the idea of reform to public consciousness, eventually leading to organization and action for this cause. Additionally, the prevailing educational theories and classroom methods of the 1800s that came under Rice’s scrutiny did little to enlighten an educational system dealing with increasing numbers of students enrolling in public schools, including many immigrants in urban settings.
Rice’s findings were published in what is often cited as the first widely read series of articles on American education. Although European educational pioneers such as Pestalozzi, Herbart, and Froebel had written about progressive education decades earlier, Rice’s work was essential to American society during a time of change in the schools’ role that emphasized the importance of education for a successful future. Educational historian Lawrence Cremin, in The Transformation of the School (1961), cites Rice as one of the fathers of progressive education.
Rice is also recognized as an originator of comparative methodology in educational research. His spelling investigation of thousands of children that began in 1895 is often considered the first full-scale comparative “experiment” ever done in schools and published. This research, described in Rice’s “The Futility of the Spelling Grind” (1897), is less memorable for its results than for its lasting impact in the world of educational measurement. The most commonly established conclusion from Rice’s data seems to be a lack of relationship between minutes per day devoted to drill in spelling and achievement in spelling.
Although Rice’s work has raised concerns with reliability, validity, and variability, his efforts to conduct widespread testing were pioneering in an era before modern statistical methodologies were available. Rice’s intuitive comments on the challenges of experimentation using school groups rather than random assignment and other insights on educational measurement came at a time when such an exercise was considered unnecessary or irrelevant. Even though Rice’s study laid the groundwork for research by Thorndike and Terman, it is clear from Rice’s later writings that he believed his mark on educational reform and measurement did not receive the recognition he felt it deserved in academic circles.
- Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school. New York: Knopf.
- Rice, J. M. (1897). The futility of the spelling grind, I and II. Forum, 23, 163–172, 409–419.
- Stanley, J. C. (1966). Rice as a pioneer educational researcher. Journal of Educational Measurement, 3, 135–139.
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