Elisabeth Irwin


Elisabeth Irwin is born New York on August 29, in Brooklyn 1880 Brooklyn

1899 – 1903

Elisabeth attends Smith College from 1899 to 1903, studying languages, philosophy and economics and working in community service activities. Smith’s President Sellye had a goal in mind for a new kind of higher education for women. He used the term “the new woman,” and his program encouraged women to step outside their traditional roles and dream big about the possibilities opening up to them in the modern world. The Smith Community was organized with a view to dissolving distinctions of wealth and status, which diversity brought with it, and to sustaining a respect for individual differences, which would become core values of the culture of LREI. Similarly, there was an emphasis on service to the community, and a curriculum that emphasized the new social sciences.


Elisabeth returns to New York and enrolls in the recently established New York School of Philanthropy, the nation’s first professional school in the emerging field of social work. She considered her training there, where she worked alongside the leading figures in the new profession, as essential training for her subsequent work with children and a core value of the social mission of progressive education.

1904-05; 09-10   

Elisabeth joins the College Settlement on Rivington Street, on the Lower East Side, founded by Smith College Alumna Jane Robbins in 1886. Her major responsibilities included assisting recent immigrant families in the surrounding neighborhood, working with children in understaffed  schools and supervising programs at the Hester Street Playground. 


Elisabeth Irwin’s career in education begins as she joins the professional staff of the Public Education Association. Established in 1895 following the previous year’s election of reform Mayor William R. Strong, the PEA advocated for:

  • compulsory education, 
  • construction of safe and sanitary school buildings, 
  • expansion of kindergartens, 
  • programs addressing disparities in school readiness among the largely poor immigrant populations in many neighborhoods of the City, 
  • programs dealing with the physical and mental hygiene of students and 
  • promoting a wide range of curriculum reforms including programs in the arts, nature study and sex education. 

Elisabeth Irwin makes her mark as a member of the PEA’s Committee on Special Children and through that work as a combination visiting teacher and field researcher with the Board of Education’s Bureau of Ungraded Classes. 


The Bureau of Ungraded Classes: The Public Education Association funds Elisabeth’s position assisting Elizabeth Farrell, head of the Board of Education’s Bureau of Ungraded Classes, one of the earliest programs designed to address the challenges facing our public schools in a period of educating New York’s rapidly growing and increasingly diverse student population. During the next decade, Elisabeth would work on approaches to dealing with the increasingly diverse student enrollment and widening disparities in school readiness. These issues included chronic absence, truancy, student failure and retardation, “overageness” where students repeated the previous years curriculum in the same grade level, often for two or three consecutive years. In some districts, this policy affected up to 40% of NYC students each year. 

Elisabeth wrote eloquently about the emotional, and social damage to children’s confidence, self-esteem and personality development and prospects for their future lives. For her work with Farrell’s Bureau of Ungraded Classes, Elisabeth visited schools throughout the City, worked with parents, teachers, and school guidance personnel, evaluating students for the program, and in setting up the Ungraded Class. She wrote influential monographs describing this vicious cycle including “Truancy” in 1915. 


The Bureau of Experimental Education (BEE): Launched by progressive educators led by Lucy Sprague Mitchell along with a Working Council including Elisabeth Irwin, Caroline Pratt, Margaret Naumburg, Harriet Johnson and Evelyn Dewey. The Bureau, later The Bank Street College of Education, included two private experimental schools: Pratt’s City and Country, and Harriet Johnson’s Nursery school, and supported many programs including Irwin’s landmark experiment at P.S. 64. The guiding mission of the BEE was developing methods which could be scaled up for adoption of the public schools. The BEE conducted a range of experiments involving classroom methods and culture and curriculum to be introduced into the public schools. The paramount purpose of the Bureau was reform and improvement of the nation’s public schools. In that same year, the most ambitious program designed to achieve his purpose was Elisabeth’s experimental work within the public school system itself at P.S. 64 


P.S. 64: the PEA and Board of education introduce progressive education into a New York City public school for the first time.    

P.S 64 was one of the largest schools in the City, located on the Lower east Side of Manhattan. It enrolled 3000 boys in grades 1 through 8. It was there that Elisabeth Irwin conducted the first large-scale educational experiment to be introduced for evaluation of its progressive methods and their value in addressing the myriad of challenging issues that New York’s teachers faced. 

Her experiment involved grouping students into compatible classes, using a number of criteria, an approach begun by her principal Willliam E. “Bill” Grady to address a number of issues facing the public schools. Elisabeth would add to Grady’s criteria through her pioneering use of the new science of mental measurement, which complemented her emphasis on the mental and physical and hygiene of students.  The results were classes designed for the strengths and weaknesses of each grouping and the ability to handle the large class sizes, up to fifty students, and less hopelessness and stigmatization of those children dismissed as chronic failures. As a result of this work, Ungraded Classes were established in  hundreds of schools around the City. 

William Grady left mid-way through the experiment to become Deputy and then Associate Superintendent of public schools. He was followed by Lewis Marks, who himself would leave PS 64 in 1922 to become head of the school system’s Board of Examiners. The two men would become important allies of Elisabeth Irwin in the public system.  Grady was president of the Society of Experimental Educators in New York. As early as 1913, he had introduced new grouping techniques, using a variety of criteria correlated with physical stature and factored in issues of adolescent development to achieve a social placement based on interest, attitude and maturity in order to address the problem of retardation. Elisabeth would add to these criteria by introducing the new science of mental testing and mental hygiene as a framework for child guidance in public education.

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