History of education in the United States

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History of Education in the United States, often called Foundations of Education, is the study of educational policy, formal institutions and informal learning from the 17th to the 21st century.

The origins, development, and nature of the institutions and other forms of learning in the United States are closely intertwined with the overall historical development of American society at each period in its history. Three main phases of this development can be distinguished with the usual caveat that there is no sharp delineating boundary between successive phases.

In the Colonial period, in keeping with the intellectual inheritance of the Protestant Reformation, education at all levels was closely linked to the church. The teaching of basic literacy skills was undertaken on a wide front so that the individual Christian would be able to read for himself the Bible and other Christian works. The inculcation of a good Christian character was the central purpose of the enterprise. The quintessential text for young children during this period was the New England Primer which combined basic instruction for beginning readers with Church service material and a catechism.

In the years following the American Revolution a new purpose began to emerge, ultimately to dominate education for most of the 19th century. It was felt that the experiment in self-government which the new Republic represented required an educated citizenry capable of effectively exercising the rights and duties of citizenship. In keeping with the Enlightenment ideals present at the time of the Revolution, the purpose of education was now seen as the development of the intellectual capacities of the learner. It was during this period of time that the first steps were taken towards the establishment of mass compulsory schooling.

Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and extending to the middle of the latter, American education was transformed once again. Dubbed by one major writer[1] the "Metropolitan Experience", the main function of the educational system came to be seen as the preparation of the youth of the nation for roles in the rapidly developing industrial / technological society. This was accompanied by the nationwide extension of the system of mass compulsory schooling, the lengthening of the school day and year, an extension of the age limits of compulsory schooling both upwards and downwards, as well as the centralization of the entire process in large, consolidated schools.


The first American schools opened during the colonial era. As the colonies began to develop, many began to institute mandatory education schemes. In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony made "proper" education compulsory.[2] Similar statutes were adopted in other New England colonies. Virtually all of the schools opened as a result were private. The nation's first institution of higher learning, Harvard College, opened in 1636. Churches established most early colleges in order to train ministers. Most of the colleges which opened between 1640 and 1750 form the contemporary "Ivy League," including Harvard, Yale, Columbia (at first called King's), Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. In the South the leading school was the College of William and Mary in Virginia. After the American Revolution, the new national government passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside a portion of every township in the unincorporated territories of the United States for use in education. After the Revolution, a heavy emphasis was put on education which made the US have one of the highest literacy rates at the time.

There were local public schools in New England but no system existed until the 1840s. Education reformers, especially Horace Mann of Massachusetts began calling for public education systems for all, supported by local taxes, with professional teachers produced by state-sponsored normal schools (later called teachers' colleges). Upon becoming the secretary of education in Massachusetts in 1837, Mann helped to create a statewide system of "common schools," which referred to the belief that everyone was entitled to the same content in education. These early efforts focused primarily on elementary education. At the same time, Mann lobbied for the creation of state-supported teacher's colleges or "normal schools," with uniform standards; among the earliest of these were Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts (1840) and Rhode Island College in Rhode Island (1854).

The common-school movement began to catch on. Connecticut adopted a similar system in 1849, and Massachusetts passed a compulsory attendance law in 1852. By 1900, 31 states required 8- to 14-year-olds to attend school. As a result, by 1910 72 percent of American children attended school and half of the nation's children attended one-room schools. In 1918, every state required students to at least complete elementary school. Lessons consisted of students reading aloud from their texts such as the McGuffey Readers, and placed emphasis on rote memorization. Teachers often used physical punishments, such as hitting students on the knuckles with birch switches, for incorrect answers. Because the urban public schools focused on assimilation with a strong Protestant flavor, Catholics created private religious schools. In 1925 the Supreme Court ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that students could attend private schools to comply with compulsory education laws, thus ending the first serious effort to shut down parochial schools.

Secondary education progressed much more slowly, remaining the province of the affluent and domain of private tutors. In 1870 only 2 percent of 14 to 17-year-olds graduated from high school. The number rose to 10 percent by 1900, but most were from wealthy families. The introduction of strict child labor laws and growing acceptance of higher education in general in the early 20th century caused the number of high schools and graduates to skyrocket. Most states passed laws which increased the age for compulsory attendance to 16.

Higher education

At the beginning of the 20th century, fewer than 1,000 colleges with 160,000 students existed in the United States. Explosive growth in the number of colleges occurred at the end of the 1800s and early twentieth century. Philanthropists endowed many of these institutions. Leland Stanford, one of The Big Four, for example, established Stanford University in 1891.

Many American public universities came about because of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890.[3] During the rapid westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century, the federal government took control of huge amounts of so-called "empty" land (often after forcing the previous Native American residents into reservations). Under the Morrill Acts, the federal government offered to give 30,000 acres (121 km²) of federal land to each state on the condition that they used the land (or proceeds from its sale) to establish universities.[3] The resulting schools are often referred to as land-grant colleges. Founded in 1855, Michigan State University is the pioneer land-grant institution. Other well-known land-grant universities include Pennsylvania State University, The Ohio State University and the University of California system. Some states have more than one land-grant institution, one often being an historically black university. Three states, Alabama, Massachusetts and New York, designated private universities as one of their land-grant institutions. Respectively, these are Tuskegee University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell University.

Following World War II, the GI Bill paid for the college education of many former service men, and helped to create a widespread belief in the necessity of college education and damaging the belief that higher education was only for the wealthy.[4] Attendance at institutions of higher learning has grown enormously in the years since, and the results have had a profound effect on the American public. However, in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, rapidly increasing tuition at both private and public institutions, along with a decline (relative to inflation and tuition) in Federal financial aid, has had a significant dampening effect on this trend.

Segregation and inequality

For much of its history, education in the United States was segregated (or even only available) based upon race. For the most part, African Americans received very little to no education before the Civil War. In the South, where slavery was legal, many states enacted laws to forbid teaching slaves; in practice white playmates taugfht the children of house slaves. During Reconstruction the Southern states created their first public school systems, available to both races. The systems were underfunded, but white missionaries and philanthropists opened dozens of private academies and colleges for blacks. The Freedman's Bureau had an active education program in the late 1860s.

After the end of Reconstruction, all southern states enacted "Jim Crow laws" which mandated racial segregation between blacks and whites. The Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 legalized the segregation of races as long as each race enjoyed parity in quality of education (the "separate but equal" principle). However, very few black students actually received equal education, often with low funding, outmoded or dilapidated facilities, and deficient textbooks (often ones previously used in white schools).

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s helped overturn such laws; in 1954 the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education unanimously declared separate facilities inherently unequal and unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964 further helped end the period of segregation. Integration itself was a long and drawn out issue; although required by law, the first integrations of minute numbers of black students met with intense opposition across the south. In 1957 the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas, had to be enforced by federal troops; this was after President Dwight D. Eisenhower had federalized the National Guard, which the governor had called in to prevent integration. Throughout the 1960s integration continued with varying degrees of difficulty, including a period of forced busing, popular during the administration of Richard Nixon.

Although full equality and parity in education would take many years (many school districts are technically still under the integration mandates of local courts), technical equality in education had been achieved by 1970.[5] The actual equality of education, however, is still often the subject of dispute. It may also be argued that the transformation of the Pal Grant program to a loan program in the early 1980s has caused the gap between the growth rates of European and African American college graduates to widen since the 1970s.[6]


  1. Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: the Metropolitan Experience, 1876-1980
  2. Massachusetts Education Laws of 1642 and 1647. History of American Education.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Primary Documents in American History. Library of Congress. URL accessed February 19, 2005.
  4. 1944 GI Bill of Rights. History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century. URL accessed on February 18, 2005.
  5. Madison Desegregation Hearing To Be Held Tuesday. TheJacksonChannel.com. URL accessed on February 14, 2006.
  6. Adams (2001)