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Public Schools in Hard Times

Public Schools in Hard Times

The Great Depression and Recent Years

David Tyack, Robert Lowe, Elisabeth Hansot

ISBN 9780674738010

Publication date: 01/01/1987

In the first social history of what happened to public schools in those “years of the locust,” the authors explore the daily experience of schoolchildren in many kinds of communities—the public school students of working-class northeastern towns, the rural black children of the South, the prosperous adolescents of midwestern suburbs. How did educators respond to the fiscal crisis, and why did Americans retain their faith in public schooling during the cataclysm? The authors examine how New Dealers regarded public education and the reaction of public school people to the distinctive New Deal style in programs such as the National Youth Administration. They illustrate the story with photographs, cartoons, and vignettes of life behind the schoolhouse door.

Moving from that troubled period to our own, the authors compare the anxieties of the depression decade with the uncertainties of the 1970s and 1980s. Heirs to an optimistic tradition and trained to manage growth, school staff have lately encountered three shortages: of pupils, money, and public confidence. Professional morale has dropped as expectations and criticism have mounted. Changes in the governing and financing of education have made planning for the future even riskier than usual.

Drawing on the experience of the 1930s to illuminate the problems of the 1980s, the authors lend historical perspective to current discussions about the future of public education. They stress the basic stability of public education while emphasizing the unfinished business of achieving equality in schooling.


  • The appearance of Public Schools in Hard Times…marks the opening of a frontier in the historiography of American education… [It] is a brilliantly crafted work… An important and extremely useful introduction to education in the Great Depression.

    —Jeffrey Mirel, Educational Studies


  • David B. Tyack (1930–2016) was Vida Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus, and Professor of History, Emeritus, at Stanford University.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • Harvard University Press

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