Gazette Article by William Meuer & Jan Tubergen, 1998
Updated July 2022
This is a three-part series on Carleton W. Washburne, renowned educator and Winnetka Superintendent of Schools from 1919 to 1943. Part I chronicles Washburne’s early life and career before arriving in Winnetka. Part II describes his innovative Winnetka Plan and how it changed education in the community. Part III discusses the scope and importance of his legacy.
Carleton W. Washburne was a world-famous, progressive educator who played a major role in the history of education in Winnetka.
A host of early school experiences, personal beliefs, and family values shaped his educational philosophy. Washburne was born in Chicago in 1889. His father was a prominent obstetrician, and his mother was a writer and lecturer with a keen interest in child development. Washburne attended the Frances Parker School in Chicago, where he first experienced a child-centered approach to education. He completed his elementary education in a more traditional school, however, when his family moved to a seven-acre farm in Elkhart, Indiana.
After beginning high school in Elkhart, Washburne went to live with his grandfather in Chicago to attend John Marshall High School. In An Autobiographical Sketch, Washburne wrote, “My own lifelong interest in philosophy and religion and in the origins of words came directly from Grandpa Foster.”
When his family moved to Elgin, Illinois, young Carleton rejoined them and completed his senior year of high school there. After graduation he enrolled at the University of Chicago as a premedical student. After two years, however, Washburne realized he had no interest in a career in medicine. He transferred to Stanford University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1912.
That same year, Washburne married Heliuz Bigelow Chandler, an art student from Philadelphia. Looking for his first job, Washburne responded to an advertisement. He later explained, “I had never thought of becoming a teacher, but since I had to do something and was trained for nothing, I thought it worthwhile to find out what the agency might have to offer; so I went in. I learned that in those days in California anyone with a bachelor’s degree could be certified for teaching in rural elementary schools or small towns.” He took a job teaching fourth through eighth grades in a 35-student rural school. Washburne taught drama, gardening, and nature studies, enriching academics with art, games, stories, and physical activities. He also created a school library, introduced a sex education course, and provided programs based on the different educational needs of individual students.
The following year Washburne taught 17 children who had been removed from school because of their special needs. He adjusted, modified, and developed programs geared to each child’s interest, ability, and understanding. By the end of the year, many of his students had advanced enough to return to mainstream education.
After Washburne’s success in designing student-centered curricula and providing individualized instruction, he was hired by revolutionary educator Frederic Burk, president of San Francisco State Normal School. Washburne spent the next five years on the faculty there, working with educators, developing individualized curriculum programs, and learning more about teaching. He also began his doctoral studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
In Winnetka at this time, residents were taking an active interest in the public schools. Although many people were satisfied with the traditional methods of teaching in the village, some parents wanted a system that was more responsive to their children’s needs. A number of these parents had attended Eastern schools and feared that their children’s education might be inferior to their own.
This concern precipitated the search for a new superintendent of schools. Gertrude Lieber, a member of the Winnetka Board of Education who had read about Frederick Burk’s progressive philosophy, suggested that the board seek Burk’s advice. He recommended Carleton W. Washburne.
On January 9, 1919, the board agreed to hire Washburne, and at the age of 29, he accepted the position of superintendent of schools in Winnetka. Thus began the progressive, innovative tenure of an administrator who would leave his indelible mark on Winnetka’s schools. Washburne’s work here would lead to his—and Winnetka’s—prominence in the field of child-centered education. He would go on to institute significant changes and leave a lasting legacy to the community.
When Carleton W. Washburne became Winnetka Superintendent of Schools in 1919, he quickly embarked on what became known as the “Winnetka Plan” of education.
One of the hallmarks of the plan was to provide individual curriculum materials for children in the areas of spelling, language, math, and reading—the “Common Essentials.” Washburne believed that every child should have an opportunity to master these subjects on his own terms. He recognized learning differences between students and believed that not every child could achieve mastery in the same length of time, with the same amount of practice, using the same learning materials.
Washburne encouraged children to develop special interests. He believed that stimulating creativity gave students a sense of belonging, group identity, and social responsibility, and enhanced their problem-solving skills. Creative group activities were offered through committees, clubs, and electives. Student corporations were formed to provide practice in service, leadership, economics, and decision-making. They focused on the social and political needs of the larger society. Examples include a livestock corporation in which students raised rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and chickens; a public ownership bureau which raised bees and sold honey; a dishwashers’ union whose members serviced the school cafeteria; and a student credit union.
Many of these initiatives survive today at Washburne School, providing a rich legacy of elective programs, active advisories, and service clubs whose motto is “to serve is to achieve.”
Washburne believed in research as a barometer for measuring students’ success, for program and curriculum evaluation, and a tool in the teaching/learning process. This led to the establishment of the Department of Educational Research.
Research generated by the department had a direct impact on Winnetka’s educational programs and inspired an ever-changing and evolving curriculum. The department measured intelligence and adolescent emotional development, correlating the results with academic success. It also investigated the relationship between the time spent teaching a given concept and student mastery, determining when children are most ready to learn particular concepts.
Washburne placed a high priority on staff development, creating opportunities for leadership, recognition, and professional growth. In 1929 he implemented a summer school for teachers and established the Graduate Teachers College of Winnetka in 1932. With the cooperation of Perry Dunlap Smith of North Shore Country Day School and Flora Cooke of Francis Parker School, Washburne developed a forerunner of the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program.
Washburne also created the Department of Educational Counsel. Its mission was to help each child gain confidence, realize his full potential, and achieve success. The department consisted of psychologists, social workers, speech clinicians, and nurses.
Recognizing students’ individual learning differences and the importance of mental health concepts, Washburne established a progressive, child-centered approach to education. Viewing the school as a tool for improving society, he introduced a new era in Winnetka education. Washburne achieved world-wide prominence, bringing recognition to the community’s schools and leaving a legacy that continues today to influence education throughout the country.
As superintendent of Winnetka public schools from 1919 to 1943, Carleton W. Washburne created a model of education that received worldwide recognition.
Children everywhere who use workbooks and textbooks with answer keys for self-checking, who sit at desks and tables designed in graduated sizes for their comfort, who have sinks and counters in their classrooms for projects, who, even as kindergartners, can reach the drinking fountains, who climb on playground equipment like a jungle gym, who can join clubs and service organizations at their junior high schools, probably have Carleton Washburne to thank for innovating or popularizing these concepts.
Washburne was recognized as a force in the educational community early in his career. In the 1920s, while he was developing his progressive education methods in Winnetka, Washburne’s findings were published in more than one hundred articles in national and internationally recognized education journals. Many educators copied his methods and curriculum materials. “His schools became the representative progressive system of the 1920s,” according to the Encyclopedia of Education.
Washburne continued to write, produce materials, and lecture extensively during the depression. In his book, The Remakers of Mankind (1932), he gave hope to the American people who looked to education and educators to lead them into a better society.
During the 1930s Washburne spent his summers lecturing in the education programs of colleges and universities throughout the United States, and in 1936 he addressed the World Conference on New Education in England. Of course, The Winnetka Graduate Teachers College, which he helped to found, also spread his ideas and influence.
When Washburne’s “dream school“—Crow Island—opened in 1940, educators everywhere were watching. More than 10,000 visitors and 30 national magazine articles quickly spread its concepts. Many school districts, rushing to accommodate the baby boom generation, copied the innovative features that were part of his vision for a truly child-centered school. Separate wings for different grade levels, self-contained classrooms with activity space, and child-scale fixtures and furniture all became commonplace. Although the jungle gyms on the playground were designed by another Winnetkan, Theodore Hinton, it was their use at Crow Island that spread their popularity.
Crow Island School was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, in part because of the reputation of Carleton Washburne. The school still generates much worldwide interest in the fields of education and architecture.
After Washburne resigned as superintendent in 1943, he accepted a commission in the U. S. Army to reopen schools and universities in Italy and rid them of fascism. He remained overseas until 1949 when he became Director of Teacher Education at Brooklyn College. In 1961 he joined the faculty of Michigan State University, College of Education as a distinguished professor. Despite the fact that “progressive education” fell out of fashion in the late 1940s, Washburne continued to write and enjoyed an international reputation until his death in 1968.