Author of Are You a Good Teacher? (1959); The Changing Secondary School Curriculum (1967); The Emergent Middle School (1969); and The Changing High School Curriculum (1972).
Regarded as the “Father of the Middle School,” William Marvin Alexander (19 February 1912-28 August 1996) is best remembered for his contributions to curriculum development and middle level education. Alexander championed the rights of both adolescents and teachers. He insisted that schools in the middle provide developmentally appropriate education to students. He also advocated teacher education programs for teachers who want to build the bridge between elementary and high school.
Alexander attended Bethel College, and upon graduation in 1934, settled into a teaching career in the McKenzie public schools. He had a dual position¾teaching in the elementary school in the morning and the high school in the afternoon. The walk between the schools gave the novice teacher time to reflect on the lack of communication between the elementary and senior high school¾a thought that would cause dramatic changes in school organization 30 years later.
Not yet a licensed teacher, Alexander spent his summers at the George Peabody College for Teachers. His studies inspired him to pursue a career in education. Under the guidance of Hollis L. Caswell, Alexander completed a master’s degree in history and education. When Caswell was offered a position at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1937, he encouraged Alexander to join him.
Alexander’s move was pivotal. As Caswell’s research assistant, he studied prominent public and private schools in the city. He took courses with Teachers College professors and prestigious and controversial leaders in education, including George Counts, Jesse Newlon, and Goodwin Watson. All of these men studied the relationship between society and schools and their curricula—an idea that impacted Alexander’s vision for creating middle level curriculum.
Alexander completed his doctorate in 1939 and accepted the position of Assistant Director of Curriculum for the Cincinnati (Ohio) public schools. Curriculum development in Cincinnati mainly consisted of producing printed courses of study to guide instruction, and then, of promoting these guides to the teachers. Alexander’s understanding of how curriculum should be formed was quite different. He believed that curriculum development should be a deliberate process by which teachers adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of their classrooms.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Alexander became an Office of Price Administration wartime consumer information consultant. In 1943, Alexander received a U.S. Naval Reserve commission and served in the Naval Orientation Training Program at Princeton University. He ended his tour of duty in New Haven, Connecticut, where he helped close out Yale University’s Naval ROTC at the end of the war.
Upon leaving the Navy, Alexander was named Director of Curriculum for Battle Creek (Michigan) public schools. The knowledge base that Battle Creek established for its students impacted Alexander’s work in creating courses of study geared toward the needs of adolescents. In 1949, Alexander became Superintendent of schools in Winnetka, Illinois. Although he stayed in Winnetka for only one year, he learned a great deal about school organization from the North Shore community’s school campuses that housed grades 6, 7, and 8. These schools would serve as models for his conceptualization of the middle school.
Alexander accepted a position as Professor of Education at the University of Miami School of Education in 1950. He remained in Miami for eight years before joining the faculty of the George Peabody College for Teachers. In 1963, Alexander returned to the Sunshine State to teach at the University of Florida.
In 1963, Maurice Johnson, Director of the Junior High Project at Cornell University, invited Alexander to deliver the keynote address at a conference. The title of the speech was “The Dynamic Junior High School.” As Alexander thought about his speech, he struggled to describe how junior high schools were dynamic. He looked for examples of innovative junior high schools. He found his efforts to be futile. The nature of the junior high school was static¾merely a scaled-down version of a high school. Alexander’s speech could have been a depressing report of how junior high schools were failing America’s youth. A delayed flight, however, gave Alexander the time he needed to outline a new focus and organization for the school “between” the elementary and high school-the middle school.
The content of his Cornell address would forever alter the nature of education at the middle level. Educators and citizens were receptive to creating schools that respond to the needs of young people. Alexander’s plan challenged the traditional grade organization plans—8–4 and 6–3–3—because they neglected students in the middle grades. He proposed that the middle school bridge the gap between elementary and high school, and bring continuity to the educational program. The major components of the middle school included a comprehensive curriculum plan, a home-base advisory class, team planning and team teaching, a variety of instructional plans, numerous exploratory courses, health and physical education programs aimed at adolescents, and planning and evaluation systems for teachers. The school would address issues pertinent to adolescents, give students support and guidance in their education, and allow students to engage in innovative methods of learning that would extend and enhance knowledge.
In 1966, Alexander was awarded federal funds for a National Defense Education Act Middle School Institute. The yearlong Institute enabled educators and administrators to study middle schools and formulate ideas about middle level education. While running the Institute, Alexander noted that literature on middle level education was lacking. Determined to change this situation, Alexander wrote The Emergent Middle School (1969), one of the most influential books on middle level education. Alexander published the first national survey on the status of middle schools, A Survey of Organizational Patterns of Reorganized Middle Schools (1968). This benchmark study identified and described middle schools, bringing attention to the need to restructure American education to include the middle school.
Alexander established the first middle school teacher education program in the United States at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He created the Florida League of Middle Schools, the first, state middle school organization in the United States. He conducted several national studies on middle schools, and authored more than 250 professional publications, many of which have expanded the knowledge base of middle level education. He spent a year at the University of Teheran in Iran as a Fulbright Lecturer before his retirement from the University of Florida in 1977.
Following his retirement, Alexander was the recipient of numerous awards. Alexander was named a member of Kappa Delta Pi’s Laureate Chapter in 1978. In 1981, he was honored with the John H. Loundsbury Award, the highest honor given by the National Middle School Association. The American Education Research Association recognized his Sustained Contribution in the Field of Curriculum in 1983.
Contributed by: Jessica L. Hodge, University of Texas at Austin
Alexander, W. M. 1991. Wonderings and Wanderings in Education. In Reflections: Personal Essays By 33 Distinguished Educators, ed. D. L. Burleson, 1-14. Bloomington, Ind.: The Kappa Delta Pi Educational Foundation.
Alexander, W. M., and P. S. George. 1981. The Exemplary Middle School. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
George, P. S. 2003. Telephone interview. 2 April. Kliebard, H. M. 1995. The Struggle for the American Curriculum: 1893–1958. New York: Routledge.
McEwin, C. K. 1992. William M. Alexander: Father of the American Middle School. Middle School Journal 23(5): 32–38.
Mehaffy, G. 1983. Profiles: William M. Alexander. Kappa Delta Pi Record 19 (Summer): 117–18.
Press, J. C., ed. 1974. Leaders in Education. New York and London: Bowker Company.