History of Education in the US

posted in: Schools and Education | 0

Question: What are the differences and similarities between the educational systems before and now in the 21st Century? Please reply.



I received the above question inquiring what schools used to be like and how they were both different and similar to our current school system. With school starting back over the next month in most areas, this seemed a great time to address the question.

So, let’s look at the evolution of the school system in the United States.

By the time the pilgrims were immigrating to the new world, free grammar schools were common in England, where most of the early pilgrims came from. While these schools were theoretically open to all, many poor children were unable to afford to attend school. Laws were also passed that a mandatory seven-year period for work and study be undertaken before being considered as a master.

For the poor, education was often taught in the home. Many families relied on the Bible and oral traditions to teach their children.

The first school of the 13 colonies was the Boston Latin School which opened in 1635. The school continues to education students today and is the oldest public school in the United States. Currently the school operates as a high school.

In 1639, the first free taxpayer supported public school opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The English methods of training were taught at this time. The early public schools did not focus on academics as we think about them today with math, science, reading and writing. Instead the early schools taught the virtues of family, religion and community.  Textbooks were brought in from England for the pupils.

Early Colonial style building

As new colonist came over from England, the northern colonies required towns to set up schools. These schools were all male and all white. There were few facilities for girls to be educated. “By 1690, Boston publishers were reprinting the English Protestant Tutor under the title of The New England Primer,” which was built on rote memorization.

In 1693, the College of William and Mary was founded by the Virginia government. Yale College was founded by the Puritans in 1701 and relocated to Connecticut fifteen years later.

More colleges began to slowly form. “All of the schools were small, with a limited undergraduate curriculum oriented on the classical liberal arts. Students were drilled in Greek, Latin, geometry, ancient history, logic, ethics and rhetoric, with few discussions, little homework and no lab sessions. The college president typically tried to enforce strict discipline. The upperclassmen enjoyed hazing the freshmen. Many students were younger than 17, and most of the colleges also operated a preparatory school. There were no organized sports, or Greek-letter fraternities, but many of the schools had active literary societies. Tuition was very low, and scholarships were few.”

By the late 17th Century, common schools were established. This was when all the students, regardless of age, attended one schoolroom with one teacher. Students were often charged a “rate bill” or tuition to attend.  Doctors, lawyers and other trades were learned through an apprentice system before 1800.

Noah Webster’s blue blacked speller was the most common textbook used in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

One room school house

During the Colonial Era many sent their sons to England or Scotland for education.  In these early days the southern

Inside a one room school house

states would send their sons north for education, until proper schools began to open.

In the south, public schools were not common during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Girls were taught to read, especially the Bible, but not to write during this time. This is one reason women would make their signature with the mark of an X. Families that could afford a tutor hired these teachers to educate their students. Public schooling in the south did not become widespread until after the American Civil War during the Reconstruction Era.

The first school for girls were the Catholic schools with Ursuline Academy in New Orleans founded in 1727. The school graduated the first female pharmacist and was also to teach the first “free women of color, Native Americans, and female African-American slaves”.

By the 18th Century, private high schools began to open. These schools would become the major feeders for the Ivy League colleges that would become popular. However, these schools did not become coeducational until the 1970s.

Public schooling in rural areas, especially in the south, did not extend beyond the elementary grades, which was known as “eighth grade school”. Only after the early 20th Century, did high schools start to be established. Only after World War II ended, did most southerners attend school past the 8th grade.

Boston began the first public school in the United States in 1821. Public secondary schools also began to grow and by the end of the century outnumbered private ones.

In 1837, Horace Mann was voted secretary of education in Massachusetts. He began to work on reforms. “Prussia was attempting to develop a system of education by which all students were entitled to the same content in their public classes.”

During the 19th Century, most teachers did not have a formal education, having passed an exam to teach. Women could teach until they were married. In 1823, two-year teaching {or normal} schools were created. However, a four-year college degree did not become the standard until after World War II.

Each state began to pass laws in the 19th Century to make school a requirement. The first state was Massachusetts in 1852 and the last state was Mississippi in 1917. By 1900, 34 states had schooling laws that students had to attend at least until fourteen years of age. Half of the 72% of students on the 1910 census attended one room schools. By 1918, laws required that every student complete elementary school.

With the increase of immigrants, came the demands and changes on the classroom and teachers. Before World War II, German was the second language taught in schools, after England. Rote learning was encouraged as principles and superintendents began to develop.

John Dewey wrote of progressive measures that encouraged schools to not only teach students knowledge but life skills.

Schools took a major hit with the Great Depression and relief was a long time in coming from the government.

ideas began to evolve and expand in the educational system

During the early 20th Century, rural areas began to build high schools and by the eve of World War II at least 50% of young adults had a high school diploma.  Options for vocations also began to expand during this time with more training and apprenticeships being offered.

After the end of the war, an emphasis began to be placed on higher education and obtaining a college degree. A greater emphasis also began to be placed on creativity in children during this time.

In 1946, the National School Lunch Act was passed to provide lunch for low income students.

By the 1960s, segregated schools {especially in the south} began to integrate into one combined school.

Between the 1960s-1980s an emphasize was placed on developing standardized test to measure what students were learning. By the 1980s, the emphasize on creativity was reversed.

Laws were passed in 1975 for handicapped children and in 1990 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 marked a new direction. “In exchange for more federal aid, the states were required to measure progress and punish schools that were not meeting the goals as measured by standardized state exams in math and language skills.”

By the turn of the 21st Century the options for homeschooling also grew into a larger option than what was available during the growth of the public-school system of the 20th Century.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.