Sesquicentennial Memories

New England's First Normal School to Become a College of Education

By Michael Smith

Sesquicentennial Memories No.5On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the re-establishment of the Rhode Island State Normal School, held in 1911, the visionary, energetic, and determined former Commissioner of Public Schools who led the effort to re-establish the school, Thomas W. Bicknell, delivered an oration entitled “The Future of the Normal School.” In his address, he made a strong case for the transformation of the Normal School to a College of Education, or as he characterized it at the time, a “Normal College.”

Nine years later, his vision became a reality when the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted a law, signed by Governor R. Livingston Beeckman, establishing the Rhode Island College of Education. The legislation stated that the major function of the College would be “the preparation of teachers, principals, supervisors, and superintendents for service in the public schools of Rhode Island.” The effective date was April 22, 1920. On that day, this institution became the first Normal School in New England to become a College of Education.

The transformation from Normal School to College was an important milestone in Rhode Island education history. Indeed, the Commissioner of Education in 1920, Walter Eugene Ranger, remarked that it was “the beginning of a new era in the education of the state.” This was for a number of significant reasons. First, it had become increasingly difficult to attract the best and brightest students to the teaching profession because the promise of higher salaries and greater prestige was leading top students to pursue other fields of study at four-year institutions. While there was an “articulation” process in place for Normal School graduates to pursue a baccalaureate degree at Brown University or at the Rhode Island State College (now URI), it was felt that completing a degree at an institution that focused entirely on teacher education would lead to a stronger cadre of teachers and school administrators.

Second, becoming a degree-granting institution would help encourage the entry of men, many of whom were returning from World War I, into the teaching profession. Associated with this trend was the growing need for qualified teachers at the high school level. Up until 1920, the primary focus of the Normal School curriculum was to develop teachers for service in the elementary schools. The 2 _ year program leading to a teaching certificate permitted two years of classroom instruction and a half year of practice teaching under the watchful eye of a critic teacher. Expanding the curriculum to four years would permit the strengthening of content-based instruction, a need that is still recognized by schools of education throughout the country.
Finally, there was the desire to elevate the teaching profession to the level of other professions, such as law or finance, and that the attainment of a degree by education practitioners would further this goal. Change would also come to the institution itself, as the title of “Principal” would be changed to “President,” and Normal School teachers would become “professors.” Upon becoming a College of Education in 1920, the institution created its first 14 professorships, of which 13 were filled. (There is no information to indicate whether the vacancy was as a result of an FTE cap.) All but one of the newly-appointed professors had served as teachers in the Normal School.

Clearly, events in the spring of 1920 were significant ones in the evolution of the College and for education in Rhode Island.

In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith, Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News. This is the fifth installment. The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Marlene Lopes, Special Collections Librarian, for her assistance with the research. Much of the information for this series is available from the College Archives, located in Adams Library 416.

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