Comprehending How The Great Depression Influenced American Education

Education has always been influenced by the social, economic, and political conditions existing during various historical periods. During the 20th century, education in America was greatly influenced by changes in the economy, like the Great Depression.

The period after the crash of the stock markets in October 1929 was marked by the closure of banks, businesses, and factories. There was massive unemployment, particularly among minorities, and the markets were flooded with unemployed young people. The government’s focus shifted and placed the priority on providing relief measures and aid to the affected.

Social and economic circumstances adversely affected education. Schools closed in some instances or shortened their academic year, because districts could no longer bear the burden of teacher salaries and administrative costs. The crisis was more acute in the South and the Southwest, but by the beginning of 1934, almost 20,000 schools nationwide had been closed down. The crisis was so pervasive that students were required to bring their own supplies and, in some extreme cases, even pay for tuition.

Districts were unable to pay teacher salaries on time, and some districts resorted to issuing promissory notes instead of checks. This drastically reduced the number of teachers, resulting in increased class sizes. To manage with scarce resources, some school districts also resorted to stripping the scope of the curriculum.

Under his New Deal policy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created two organizations to assist in the work relief programs. These programs played an extensive role in federal intervention directed toward education during the Depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Youth Administration (NYA) were established in 1933. The CCC administered a temporary work assistance program, and the NYA administered two programs—the first a work relief and employment program for the needy and those out of school, the second a part-time employment assistance program for needy high school and college students. At one point, approximately 750,000 students were enrolled in the NYA program. But it slowly dawned on officials of both the CCC and the NYA that many of the participants lacked basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as vocational skills. For the first time in the history of the nation, the federal government began to offer education courses, primarily in the basic skills.

Other programs were initiated that brought some measure of relief to school districts experiencing financial difficulties. The Public Works Administration (PWA) allowed for the construction of many public buildings, including around 13,000 schools. At the same time, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) facilitated the employment of 100,000 teachers and engaged them in adult education and art education in some 1,500 WPA-operated schools. Combined, these programs educated around 1.5 million adults, including a large portion of the African American population, during the period between 1933 and 1938. The Department of Agriculture initiated a unique program of supplying surplus food to schools. This program is believed to be the forerunner of the National School Lunch Program that was launched much later.

The Great Depression was a time of massive need across the country, and changes to education reflected that. While many of the changes occasioned by the Great Depression have since faded away with the recovery of the country, many of the programs have remained, or at least provided the foundation for modern developments that you may be employing in your classroom today.

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