The 1920 Era Three Circle Model of Agricultural Education (8/19/2022)

No, there really was not a 3-circle Ag Ed model in 1920. However, if there had been one, this Footnote hypothesizes what it would have been.

Most people in agricultural education are familiar with the three circle Venn diagram (see Figure 1) used to explain the agricultural education program. According to Barry Croom (2008) the three circle diagram first appeared in the FFA Advisors Handbook that was published in 1975 by the national FFA Organization. However, there was essentially a three circle model of vocational agricultural education in the first decade of the program, but it was different. In this Footnote we will explore the job of the agriculture teacher in the 1920s and see how that might suggest an earlier three circle model for agricultural education.

Figure 1. The current three-circle model of Agricultural Education.

The Job of the Agriculture Teacher in the Early Days

Do you really know what was expected of agriculture teachers after the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917?  According to the language of the Smith-Hughes Act (Section 10) “…such education shall be less than college grade and be designated to meet the needs of persons over fourteen years of age who have entered upon or who are preparing to enter upon the work of the farm…” and  “such schools should provide for directed or supervised practice in agriculture , either on a farm provided by the school or other farm, for at least six months per year.”

Did you get that? Vocational agriculture is for “persons over fourteen years of age who have entered upon or who are preparing to enter upon the work of the farm.” We can surmise that people “who are preparing to enter” are students in school but who are those “who have entered upon”? Common sense might tell us those who have already entered the work of the farm are adult farmers—and that would be half right.

Section 6 of the Smith-Hughes Act called for the creation of a Federal Board for Vocational Education. This Board was charged with implementing the Act and establishing policies and procedures. One of their first publications relating to agricultural education was Bulletin 13, Agricultural Series 1 Agricultural Education Organization and Administration. This bulletin was revised and updated from time to time. For this Footnote the 1930 revision of the Bulletin was used.

Bulletin 13 describes the audience to be served by the agriculture teacher. They are:

1)      All-day schools (including day-unit classes – more about that later)

2)      Part-time schools or classes

3)      Evening schools or classes

In the 1931 era book Teaching Evening and Part-Time Classes in Vocational Agriculture the authors. G. A. Schmidt and W. A. Ross compared the three groups the agriculture teacher is to serve. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. Groups to be served by Vocational Agriculture Teachers. Source: book Teaching Evening and Part-Time Classes in Vocational Agriculture, p. 147.

While there is no mention in the literature of a three circle model of agricultural education during the early days of agricultural education, if there had been a three circle model, I suggest that it would look like Figure 3.

Figure 3. A Three-Circle Model of Agricultural Education
Appropriate for the Early Days

Before we examine these three circles, it might be instructive to look at one sentence from the Agricultural Series Bulletin 17, Agricultural Evening Schools. It is stated (1934, p. 1). ”In all probability, evening class-work will be conducted, for the most part, by the all-day agricultural teacher who may be engaged during the school day with all-day, day-unit, and part-time pupils.” It is clear that the agricultural teacher has several different groups of students to teach.

Why is the FFA Circle Missing? What About the Experiential Learning Circle?

You will notice there is no FFA circle in the suggested 3-circle model because the FFA did not exist until 1928.

You might ask about the experiential learning circle (Supervised Agricultural Experience). The Smith-Hughes Act required ALL students to have a directed learning experience. No matter what audience the agriculture teacher was working with, every student, including the part-time and adult students, had to have a directed experience. It was not an optional part of the program. Figure 2 clearly identifies that all three groups of students had to have supervised practice. Thus it is embedded into each circle.  Since it was required of all students, there is not a separate circle for supervised practice.

In an article in the November 1929 issue of The Agricultural Education Magazine, Verd Peterson, state supervisor in South Carolina identified five requirements for conducting adult programs. Two of the requirements were (Peterson, 1929, p. 9) “Each person enrolled in evening class must carry on supervised practice on the home farm under the direction of the agriculture teacher” and “There must be a final report of the results of the work in the class submitted to the State and Federal Board for Vocational Education.”.

Now that we have established that supervised practice was embedded in each circle, including adult classes, let’s examine the three circles.

The Suggested 1920 Era Three-Circle Agricultural Education Model Explained

The All-Day Schools

According to Bulletin 13 from the Federal Board all-day schools could be a separate vocational school or a department in a high school.

At the time the Smith Hughes Act was written several states had stand alone vocational agriculture schools such as the district agricultural schools in Georgia, county agriculture schools in Massachusetts such as Essex, Bristol, and Norfork , county agriculture schools in Wisconsin such as Menomonie and Wausau, and state schools of New York and Minnesota. Typically there were several agriculture teachers at these schools.

The more common approach to providing agricultural education was to add a department of agricultural education to an existing high school. Students would take one class of agriculture in addition to the normal academic subjects. Typically there were 1-2 teachers of agriculture and the classes were for the entire school year and met on a daily basis.

The Day-Unit Classes

Often one will find a reference to a day-unit class in the literature. It is hard to explain what these were as they varied greatly from state-to-state. These classes were different from the year-long agricultural courses that met on a daily basis in a high school or vocational school.

Today, we might call day-unit classes mini-courses or short courses. When the Smith-Hughes Act was enacted, there were thousands of very small schools in rural communities across the county. The schools had rural students who desired instruction in agriculture, but the schools were too small to have a vocational agriculture program. The agriculture teacher from a larger neighboring school would travel to such schools once or twice a week and teach a class. Or at times, there would be one teacher who would travel from small school to small school teaching agriculture classes. In Bulletin 13 this approach to providing instruction in agriculture was known as the “circuit school.” (p. 14).

In 1930 Verd Peterson, state agricultural education supervisor in South Carolina, reported on a nationwide study he had conducted regarding the day-unit approach to agricultural education. The opening paragraph (p. 39) reveals the challenge of describing the day-unit program:

Ten states have some of their [all-day] teachers… teaching day-unit work. Three states do all of their day-unit work with full time men teaching only day-unit classes. Pennsylvania has 13 such men. Five different states employ some full-time men on day-unit work. Eight states do no day-unit work in high schools having all-day departments, while five states have day-unit classes in schools along with all-day departments. Seven states report that all their day-unit work is done in high schools. Five states report a part of the work is done in elementary schools. One state, Alabama, reports all the work done in junior high schools.

Are you confused yet? Peterson also reported that in eleven states the day-unit classes met from 1-3 days per week. In Alabama the day-unit students met one day a week three-fourths of the time and then five days a week for the other one-fourth of the time. In Utah day-unit classes met one day a week with the agriculture teacher and at other times with the school principal.

So what is the purpose of the day-unit classes? In most states it was to prepare students to enter farming directly. In eight states the day-unit classes were considered to be a recruitment conduit to prepare the students to enter all-day departments later. Regardless of the purpose, day-unit students were required to have supervised practice.

The bottom line regarding day-unit classes as reported by Peterson (1930, p, 39) was “All states say day-unit schools should be promoted for reaching pupils in rural schools that cannot maintain all-day departments.”

Part-time Classes

During the 1920s and 30s high school attendance was not like it was today. In rural America attending high school was not a priority. The 1920 U.S. Census revealed that only about half of sixteen year old boys were attending school. When the depression hit during the 1930s this number dropped even lower.

Figure 4. School Attendance in 1920, Source: United States Census Bureau. 1920 Census Monograph 5.

Because of the large number of school age boys who were not in school, part-time agriculture classes were taught. In the book Teaching Evening and Part-Time Classes in Vocational Agriculture that authors state (Schmidt & Ross, 1931, p. 143):

The National Vocational Education Act of 1917 [Smith-Hughes] provided for systematic instruction in agriculture of less than college grade for the farm youth who was out of school as well as the farm boy in school and the adult farmer. Public attention was definitely focused for the first time on a hitherto unserved army of young farmers who had left school prematurely and had started to carve out a future on the farm while educationally unequipped for the task.

Within recent years, many communities served by a high school department of vocational agriculture thus realized the existence of an additional educational responsibility. The responsibility is that of providing systematic instruction in agriculture by means of part-time vocational agriculture classes for farm youths of school age who are not attending regularly the all-day school.

According to Federal Board Bulletin 13 several assumptions were made regarding part-time classes. These assumptions were

  1. a)“…the persons who are to take the work have quit the all-day school and are engaged in a farming occupation or agricultural pursuit” (p. 22)
  2. b)“Pupils in attendance will usually be between the ages of 14 and 20.” (p.23)
  3. c)Based on the 1920 census ”there are over 1,200,000 farm boys who are eligible for part-time instruction.” (p.23)
  4. d)“Usually all-day teachers will be called upon to do this work.” (p.23)
  5. e)“The directed or supervised practice for part-time pupils need not vary in any particular essential from that set up for all-day pupils.” (p. 25

Shelby Jackson, the state supervisor of agricultural education in Louisiana, declared in 1933 that one of the most important developments of the year was the organization of part-time classes in vocational agriculture. In 1933 over fifty percent of the vocational agriculture programs in Louisiana started part-time classes (Mitchell, 1959).

The start of World War I basically decimated many part-time classes as young men enrolled in the military.

Evening Students

The term “evening students” typically means adult farmers. These are classes conducted at night for the farmers in the community. These people have already “entered upon” the work of the farm. Some scholars in agricultural education have noted this phrase precedes “preparing to enter upon” in the Smith-Hughes Act. So, does this mean adult education is more important than teaching the all-day students?

Federal Board Bulletin 13 (p. 27) says adult education could be offered at any time but “Much of this instruction for adult farmers has been given during the evening, which is usually the farmer’s leisure time; hence, the term “evening schools” has come into common use.”

Bulletin 13 (p. 27) even contains a table comparing the differences between teaching the all-day program and the evening agricultural school because “…in many cases day-school instructors will be the ones who will give the evening instruction.” The Federal Board wanted teachers to understand there was a difference in the two groups and to teach accordingly.

In a 1928 Pacific Region study of state supervisors and teacher educators eighty-nine percent (89%) of those surveyed indicated that the “Percentage of all day and day unit teachers of vocational agriculture doing evening school work” should be a criteria for agricultural programs. Some of the written comments about this item were “Important that teachers do evening class work”, “Most important part of vocational agriculture program”, and “Indicates energy and work on part of teacher.”

The importance of conducting an adult program was stressed by state supervisor Verd Peterson in a 1929 article in The Agricultural Education Magazine. He stated that all but two White programs conducted adult classes in South Carolina during the 1928-29 school year. Mitchell (1959) reported that approximately 85% of the vocational agriculture in Louisiana were conducting adult evening classes in 1957-58.

In the first half century of agricultural education, conducting evening classes for adults was common and highly encouraged.

Concluding Remarks

When one examines the literature and research from the 1920s and 30s concerning the operation of vocational agriculture programs one constant is the mention of all-day programs (including unit-day programs), part-time programs, and evening classes. It is clear that in the first two decades of vocational agriculture teachers had three major responsibilities – teaching and supervising the projects of all-day, part-time, and evening students. Thus the suggested three-circle model for the early days of agriculture would be appropriate.

However, a question for today – should agriculture teachers be expected to work with these three groups of learners? Today there would be little need for part-time programs. However, there could be benefits to teaching all-day students and some evening classes. Think about it!


Croom, D. Barry (2008). The Development of the Integrated Three-Component Model of Agricultural EducationJournal of Agricultural Education Volume 49, Number 1, pp. 110 – 120 DOI:  10.5032/jae.2008.01110

Mitchell, John H. (1959). Development of Vocational Agricultural Education in Louisiana. Doctoral Dissertation. Louisiana State University.

Peterson, Verd (1929, November). South Carolina’s Evening SchoolsThe Agricultural Education Magazine, Volume 1, No. 11.

Peterson, Verd (1930, March), The Day Unit SchoolThe Agricultural Education Magazine, Volume 2, No. 3.

Schmidt, G. A. & Ross, W. A. (1931). Teaching Evening and Part-Time Classes in Vocational Agriculture. The Century Company, New York and London.