Essay: The History of Public Education in the US

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  • Published on: July 15, 2019
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  • The History of Public Education in the US
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The History of Public Education in the US can be broken down into three phases in order to trace the different developments and changes that have happened and shaped public education as it is at present. Public education in the US has largely been shaped by the political and social events and movements which have taken place in the country over the years. These events have by and large have defined what structure the schools will take, what is taught, who is taught and who oversees the public schools. The three main phases in the history of public education in the US are the Colonial Era, The Federal Era, The 20th Century and the 21st Century.

The notion of public education in the US began in the colonial era in Boston, Massachusetts in the 17th Century. The first school which still serves as the first public school and the oldest existing school in America was the Boston Latin School which was established in 1635. In 1639, the first free public school which was supported by taxpayers money was also established in Dorchester Massachusetts. However, much of the education responsibility was in the hands of the parents and the content largely focused on religious teaching and instruction after learning to read and write. The New England colonies had higher literacy levels compared to the south because much of its population was made up of Protestants who needed to read scripture and a working class who could not afford the private tutors that were used by the plantation settlers to teach their children.

In 1642, the colony of Massachusetts Bay passed a law making it compulsory for all children to get a proper education. This at the time referred to learning to read and write, getting religious instruction and understanding the laws of the land. However, the cost of the education and responsibility fell not on the state or the local authority but on the parents. Where they did not heed they were fined and the local authority could take the child to a master to get instructions. Other colonies in the are adopted the law and in 1647 Massachusetts again led the way by passing legislation that required all towns with more than 50 families to hire a teacher or master to provide the children with instruction and those with more than 100 families were required to have a grammar school to teach Latin in preparation for the children to join Harvard College in Boston. This was the first American College and had been established in 1636. The grammar schools were the precursor of the high school stage in the modern education system. These early legislations were the first pieces of government and state involvement in education policy and control.

The public schools at this point were funded by parents through tuition bills charged to the families. There was also the emergence of private schools which soon took over most of the grammar school’s and became known as preparatory schools for their role in preparing the students to join Harvard and other colleges which had emerged. The teaching and founding were largely based on a Christian denomination. Most of the curriculum was limited and professions such as Law and medicine were largely learned in England or Scotland or through apprenticeships similar to those offered in other trades. Some of the early universities include The College of William and Mary founded in 1693 and associated with the Anglican Church, Yale College established by Puritans in 1701, Princeton University set up by Presbyterians in 1747 and Rhode Island College later known as Brown University established in 1764 by the Baptists.

After the American Revolution, the Federal Era began and saw a number of changes in public education in America. For example, by 1870 all states had a form of the tax subsidy for the elementary schools. By 1900 34 states had compulsory for education requiring children up to the age of 34 to attend school until the age of 14 or higher in some states. The Northern states placed much emphasis on education compared to the southern states and they largely contributed to the high levels of literacy that were in America compared to other countries. However, the education was largely in one room and based on the Bell –Lancaster method where students of different ages and aptitude would be instructed from one room by one teacher and the older or better students will help the teacher in the instructing of the students behind them. Teaching was largely done by female teachers since most educated males and learned people fell it was beneath them. It was thus a career path for middle-class unmarried women. The content taught varied from school to school and the teachers were not trained in teaching and curriculum.

All these changed with the Mann Reforms named after their pioneer Horace Mann who became the secretary of education in Massachusetts in 1837. He introduced the concept of two-year normal schools aimed at training high school graduates to become professional teachers and provide standard education to all schools in the state. He also introduced the grading system that finally saw students grouped according to age and going from one grade to another and upon completion they were awarded a certificate. These became known as common schools and in 1852 a law was passed in Massachusetts making it compulsory to attend them. This model was quickly adopted in different forms by other states laying the foundation for the present system.

The federal era also saw the improvement of the education instruction offered to women which now went beyond literacy and religious instruction to include arithmetic, different languages and sciences. It was also the period in which it became lawful for blacks newly freed from slavery to get an education. Much of their education was handled by the Freedmen’s Bureau which employed teachers and established the schools especially in the south where most of the blacks were located. The churches and abolitionists groups also helped fund the education and the period saw the establishment of a number of black universities and colleges. The federal period also saw the emergence of recreational activities in public high schools.

The 20th Century period is also known as the progressive period and it is the period leading to the contemporary structure of public education we have today. During this period there was a nationwide movement which saw a rethink in the purpose of education led by progressive minds like John Dewey. It also saw the curriculum especially that in public high schools and colleges changed to match the industry needs. it was also a period which saw the larger separation of church and the federal government from the education and curriculum which became the role of the increasingly powerful district boards. Teachers training was increased and they also organized themselves into trade unions; The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. This period also resulted in the adoption of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act by the Congress to make free and suitable education available to students with disabilities. It is also the period where the fight for integration of all public schools was had and won leading to long and mostly painful process to get rid of segregated public schools and institutions of learning.

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