Willard Beatty was awarded a B. S. degree by the School of Mechanical Arts of the University of California in 1913.
After graduation Beatty was hired as a teacher of drawing at Oakland Technical High School. Beatty's collaboration with two progressive educators, Frederic Burk and Carleton Washburne, shaped his views on education. From 1915 to 1920, while serving as head of the arithmetic, civics, and history departments and as director of teacher training at San Francisco State Normal School, he worked closely with Burk, who had developed the concept of "motivated individual instruction. " After two years at the Presidio Open Air School in San Francisco, Beatty was hired as the principal of Skokie Junior High School and assistant superintendent of schools at Winnetka, Illinois, a wealthy Chicago suburb, under the leadership of Washburne.
Both Beatty and Washburne were educational disciples of Burk, and further developed their mentor's child-centered approach in an experiment that became nationally acclaimed as the "Winnetka technique. " Each child was encouraged to advance at his or her own pace and each teacher was responsible for helping and supervising on an individual basis. Because of the success of the Winnetka technique, Beatty was appointed superintendent of the school system of Bronxville, New York, a wealthy suburb of New York City, in 1926.
Besides his continued emphasis on individualized instruction, he developed units to foster racial tolerance; wrote a curriculum for the seventh and eighth grades that related mathematics to real, not abstract, situations in the pupils' own lives; introduced sex education as early as the seventh grade; stressed civics education to promote a better understanding of the American political system; and redesigned the physical environment of the classroom to promote learning. This "Bronxville experiment" aroused considerable attention, and the General Education Board in 1931 appointed Beatty to undertake a survey of all progressive schools.
His appointment, his writings on educational reform, and his conducting of summer institutes made Beatty a political force in the Progressive Educational Association. As president of the organization from 1933 to 1937, he faced the crisis in education caused by the Great Depression. It was also a time when the association was strongly divided into radical and "child-centered" factions. In January 1936, Beatty left Bronxville to become director of education in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In sharp contrast with his earlier experiences, he had to administer a much-maligned agency responsible for the educational needs of more than 80, 000 poor Indian children.
During his most innovative years as director, from 1936 to the outbreak of World War II, he established more day schools, in place of boarding schools, on reservations; began in-service summer teaching programs to inculcate Bureau of Indian Affairs teachers with a common progressive educational approach; held curriculum planning conferences on reservations for teachers and administrators; decentralized educational administration by setting up regional staffs in order to attempt to satisfy individualized Indian and tribal needs; and launched Indian Education, a newsletter. Working closely with anthropologists, educators, and linguists, Beatty encouraged the development of a new curriculum, some of it bilingual, for Indian schools. Special pamphlets on tribal cultures, the Indian Life series, were written by Bureau of Indian Affairs personnel, translated and illustrated by Indians, and employed to meet the special needs of students. Beatty's attempt at bilingualism proved ahead of its time, largely because there were too few teachers capable of Indian-language instruction.
World War II and its aftermath virtually wiped out Beatty's prewar innovations. In the cost-conscious era bilingual experiments ended; boarding schools were resurrected; in-service training disappeared; and cultural relativismand cross-cultural educational ideas were abandoned, replaced by a philosophy of assimilating Indians into the mainstream of white culture. Beatty was also faced with overcrowded schools, the deterioration of school facilities, the loss of most of his innovative personnel, and an educational crisis situation among the Navajo, a tribe that had only one-third of its children in school in 1945. Despite the significant accomplishments of his Navajo Special Education Program, begun in 1946, which attempted to provide the equivalent of twelve years of education in five, Beatty's contribution to Indian educational improvement was largely over by the end of the war.
Faced with new political and economic realities, he increasingly emphasized that Indian schools should be vehicles for cultural change and integration into off-reservation life. In 1951, after the powers of the director were further curtailed in a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Beatty resigned to become the deputy director of education of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a post he held until 1953. In the last years of his life, he served as executive vice-president of Save the Children Federation and, in 1959, was appointed a member of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian Arts and Crafts Board. He died in Washington, D. C.
Willard Beatty was president of the Progressive Educational Association (1933-1937); deputy director of education of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (1951-1953); executive vice-president of Save the Children Federation; a member of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian Arts and Crafts Board.
On December 13, 1913, Willard Beatty married Elise Hersey Biedenbach; they had two children.