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John Henry Fischer (July 16, 1910– ) is a man of great talent and undeniable intellect. His clear vision on equality and freedom has changed the way education is viewed. He has been effective at various levels within the national educational field, helped advance the issues of teacher education, and led the fight for federal aid to schools and for a national advisory council on education. He has been willing to challenge the educational system and examine the way educators do business.

As a student, Fischer saw the gamut of educational systems. He first attended Baltimore City College and graduated in 1927 (Current Biography Yearbook 1960). From there, Fischer moved to Maryland State Normal School in Towson, where he received his teacher’s diploma in 1930. He received his bachelor’s degree from The Johns Hopkins University in 1940. Over the following decade, Fischer began to build an impressive professional portfolio that allowed him to continue his graduate studies. In 1949, he received his master’s degree and, in 1951, his Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also was the recipient of the Shankland Memorial Scholarship.

In 1930, Fischer took a position as an elementary school teacher in the Baltimore public school system (International Who’s Who in Education 1981). After three years, he became a junior high school teacher. He served in that capacity for two years, and, at the age of 25, became an assistant principal. Fischer proved to be a competent administrator and was promoted to principal in 1938. He was named director of special services within the Baltimore school system in 1942, assistant superintendent in 1945, deputy superintendent in 1952, and finally superintendent in 1953. Fischer served as superintendent for six years and was considered a leader in his field.

One of Fischer’s major accomplishments as superintendent was his stance on school desegregation. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation was illegal and ordered all school districts to desegregate their institutions. There was outrage from ardent segregation proponents throughout the country and, in some school districts, desegregation did not happen until the middle 1970s. Not in Fischer’s school district, however. Though he did not make a major speech or create a large scene, he simply made it known that all schools in the Baltimore school system would be open to all students. When he learned that some parents would be keeping their students home, he ordered that all absent pupils be marked as truants (Current Biography Yearbook 1960). This simple decision had a profound effect, and, in 1955, the Baltimore school system desegregated without mishap. The following year, Fischer received the Hollander Award for Contribution to Racial Relations.

Fischer later took a stance on the importance of associating schools with the democratic process. In 1957, at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of School Administrators, Fischer noted that some schools believed in but did not practice equality. He argued that schools were encountering problems “precisely because they are trying to adjust practices in public administration to historic American statements on equality and freedom of all men” (Ferrer 1962, 46). Fischer proposed true educational equality for all people, and was not afraid to follow through with his ideas.

By the late 1950s, Fischer had served in an array of organizational settings in the educational field. He also had been in the teaching arena, from the elementary level to the administrative level of superintendent. His dissertation A Plan for Reviewing and Revising the Program for the Preparation of School Executives at Teachers College, Columbia University was prophetic of his later career. All of these experiences prepared him for being an effective leader within the changing field of education and a perfect candidate for a key position in higher education administration.

In 1959, Fischer became Dean of Teachers College, Columbia University. During his tenure as dean, he made changes that carried Teachers College to another level of success. He changed the entrance level grade to the college from a B minus to at least a B average. Fischer granted few exceptions to students who did not meet the criteria. He also changed the academic standards in courses and papers, and stiffened the final oral examination on doctoral projects. All of these changes helped position Teachers College as a leader in the educational field.

One of Fischer’s goals when he assumed the presidency at Teachers College in 1962 was to give greater attention to problems in the urban education sector. He felt that not enough attention was given to urban education, and that Teachers College could assist the inner-city schools in New York. When asked what could be done for urban schools, he said, “We haven’t studied them nearly as much as we should. We must focus on such problems as how to educate children in the lower third of the I.Q. scale as we measure it. Only a few years ago, these city kids were dismissed from school at the age of 12 or 13—and from our minds. We can no longer afford this neglect” (Ferrer 1962, 47).

Fischer also served on numerous national and international educational committees. In 1963, he chaired the U.S. delegation to the International Conference on Public Education in Geneva, Switzerland (International Who’s Who in Education 1981). One of Fischer’s main causes was helping the disadvantaged. He served as member and chair of the National Commission on the Education of the Disadvantaged and the National Advisory Commission on Education of Disadvantaged Children from 1965 to 1969. He also served as trustee to the Center for Urban Education, Educational Testing Service and The John Hopkins University Institute for Educational Development. Fischer also was on the National Advisory Council for the Peace Corps, the President’s Task Force on International Education, the President’s Commission on School Finance, and the national executive board of the Boy Scouts of America. In recognition of his service to the Boy Scouts, Fischer received the Silver Beaver medal (Current Biography Yearbook 1960). He is also a member of Phi Delta Kappa and Kappa Delta Pi, becoming a Laureate in 1963.

Fischer’s ideas have been long lasting and far-reaching. He was a champion of ideas and reform at a time when schools were comfortable with the system as it was being run. He changed the standards at Teacher College to challenge students and make them excel. He was an active participant in his community and worked to be a positive change agent in a wide range of causes. He worked to make the U.S. educational system a better place for all children. Today, Fischer resides at the Fox Hill Village retirement home in Westwood, Massachusetts.

Contributed by Eric Bowles, The University of Texas at Austin

__________. 1960. Fischer, John H. In Current biography yearbook, ed. C. Moritz, 138–40. New York: H. W. Wilson Co.
__________. 1981. John Henry Fisher. In International who’s who in education.
Cambridge, England: International Who’s Who in Education.
__________. 2002. Norma Fredrick Fischer. News Bureau. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Ferrer, T. 1962. New pilot for T. C. Saturday Review 20 January: 46–48.

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