American Public Education: An Origin Story

Where did public education begin in the U.S. and how has it progressed?


With public K-12 education free to every child in the United States, it is hard for modern Americans to imagine a world where public schools did not exist. Yet, 150 years ago in many places throughout the country, not even elementary education was provided publicly; in fact, even by the turn of the 20th century, some young people still did not have access to free public high schools. Luckily, today, every American can get a free education and obtain a high school diploma, thanks to the efforts of our civic-minded predecessors. Let’s take a look at the developments that made this possible.

Through the 18th Century

Although formal schooling was not widely available, education was important to the early American colonists. Quickly realizing that simply teaching children to read and write at home and in church was insufficient, colonists began to establish public schools in the early 1600s, with the founding of the Boston Latin School in 1635. By the time of the American Revolution, some other colonies, like Georgia, were at least partially funding public grammar schools.

The first colonial public schools bore little resemblance to our modern system. At first, only boys attended these institutions, and their coursework seldom went further than what today we would call a grammar school curriculum. Throughout the 17th century, only women whose families were wealthy enough received formal private educations. The education of poor women was typically limited to whatever they picked up at home.

19th Century Innovation

Prior to the mid-19th century, students of all ages were taught together in one-room schoolhouses. But well-traveled U.S. educators, like Horace Mann, knew that in other countries, students were segregated by age. Building upon the Prussian system, Mann introduced “age grading” of students in Massachusetts in 1848. This method proved so successful that it quickly became the norm in public education across the country.

Another innovation introduced Mann introduced in 1837 was the standardization of public school curricula. Theoretically, this ensured that children could expect the same high-quality education from any school, district-wide. Prior this reform to model American schools after the Prussian “common school” system, public education varied dramatically between schools. Once it was instituted, the American student population, one of the most internationally diverse in the world, came one step closer to achieving equal access to high-caliber educations.

Part and parcel with homogenizing the public schools was the effort to ensure that all eligible children were present for instruction. As a result, compulsory attendance laws were passed beginning in 1852. And by 1918, compulsory attendance through elementary school was the law in each of the (then) 48 states.

Higher education didn’t become more of interest to the nation as a whole in the latter half of the 19th century when industry and information began to replace agriculture as the nation’s primary engine of economic growth. Until then, the demand for a formally educated or highly skilled U.S. labor force didn’t make college a top priority for either parents or politicians. That all changed in 1862, when Congress decided to follow the lead of states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and create “land grant colleges” for other states. These first secondary state institutions were focused on training students in the increasingly technical agricultural and engineering sciences. Some of the first federal land grant colleges included Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University, Iowa State University, Kansas State University, Purdue University, Texas A&M University and The Ohio State University.

Federally funded black colleges would not be created for nearly thirty years. Finally, in 1890, he Morrill Act did just that. This congressional move was overdue, but it did lead to the founding and funding of several famous historically black colleges like Alabama A&M University, Florida A&M University, Langston University, South Carolina State University, University of Arkansas Pine Bluff and West Virginia State University.

The end of the 19th century saw the rise of the Progressive Movement and with it came an eagerness to address the nation’s largest social ills and injustices through education reform. Hundreds of more schools were founded to serve the booming U.S. population. Furthermore, a greater focus on the need for secondary education led many communities to establish compulsory high schools. The compulsory attendance resulted in a major advance in the average level of education attained by Americans. By 1920, 30% of all Americans between the ages of 14 and 17 had attended some form of high school.

College attendance also became more common throughout this era. And as the diversity and background of college student populations grew, so did their curricula. Many college programs began to follow the pragmatic reform ideas of thinkers like Abraham Flexner and replaced classical liberal arts centered curricula with more practical coursework. Flexner had popularized this approach to higher education in his 1908 book, The American College, in which he criticized the elitist classical education of the old world and proposed that U.S. education be more experience and application based. He envisioned a pedagogical model that allowed students “time to stop, read, work and think.”

From here, the development of 20th century public education gets more complex. In order to capture this non-linear evolution, let’s take a survey of the landmark legislation and court decisions that helped form the diverse public education options we enjoy today.

The 1950s

The single most noteworthy change to the American education system during the tumultuous sixties was desegregation. Prior to the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the law held that the Constitution was satisfied by racially segregated schooling facilities as long as they were considered to be “equal.” (The insidious and infamous phrase, “separate, but equal” was a line handed down by the justices half a century before in another ruling known as Plessy v. Ferguson). Of course, classrooms were not only separate, they were also far from equal. Classrooms were cramped and facilities were poorly maintained. Course materials were dated, extracurriculars non-existent, and teachers were often under-qualified or spread too thin across too many students to be effective.

After a long struggle, and through a carefully thought out strategy, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Thurgood Marshall (who would later serve as a justice on the Supreme Court) successfully argued that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown, entered May 17, 1954, began a period of conflict across public schools in the south. Among the most violent and famous of these clashes happened outside Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Tensions were so high outside the school, that the students who were brave enough to enter needed to be escorted by federal troops. Although great strides have been made, unintentional segregation still exists, such as that created simply by housing patterns. Attempts to eradicate this segregation, such as through busing students to neighboring districts, have faced resistance.

The 1960s

As part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the U.S. Congress passed the Higher Education Act of 1965; this important legislation established a system of low-interest loans and scholarships to make college education more affordable for everyone.

The same year, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed; prior to its enactment, most school districts were independently operated and financed by local governments and initiatives. With the passage of the act, as federal monies were funneled to local school districts, local funding lost importance. Following the money came federal requirements and oversight. Today, programs such as No Child Left Behind (2002) tie the receipt of needed federal funds to student achievement on standardized tests.

The 1970s

In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments. This landmark legislation insisted on non-discrimination based on gender in educational programs and activities that received federal funds. With its enactment, equal opportunities in athletics were mandated, and sexual harassment and discrimination because of pregnancy were eradicated.

The 21st Century, So Far

Today’s schools are marked by changes as significant as the technology that populates them. In many places, particularly rural communities where populations are shrinking, school districts are being consolidated in order to stay fiscally sound while providing students with all of the necessary and desirable modern facilities. While students in these consolidated districts have longer travel times, they are also able to avail themselves of the Wi-Fi, tablets, laptops and computer labs enjoyed by students in metropolitan districts.

The hi-tech devices enjoyed by our students are fostering a digital revolution in the classroom. Enabling more engaging distance learning and bringing the world to students, digital learning is transforming modern instruction. With access to other cultures and translation devices, the woes of early eras, such as teaching the growing Hispanic population and other non-native English speakers, are eliminated with a few keystrokes.

Hand-in-glove with our faith in democracy, Americans have long believed that in order to fully participate in their government, citizens need to be educated. Our nation’s unflagging commitment to public education has transformed a nation of (mostly) poor immigrants into the world’s largest economy and greatest superpower. The continuing efforts of today’s educators will ensure that Americans continue to prosper for many years to come.

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