History of Public Education in the U.S. Research Paper Starter

History of Public Education in the U.S.

Public education in America in large part was the product of historical movements that swept the nation, including national incorporation, widespread urbanization, and modern industrialization. Public education began during the 17th century when the Massachusetts Bay Colony instituted compulsory education laws. The 19th century saw the establishment of specialized schools for the mentally and physically handicapped, the expansion of compulsory education laws, and the establishment of freemen's schools. As the country became increasingly industrialized, child labor laws were coupled with further compulsory education laws, and new educational theories were developed. During the 20th century, a number of court cases and legislative initiatives brought about the end of segregation, prohibited prayer in public schools, and improved educational opportunities for disabled and disadvantaged students.

Keywords Apprenticeship; Compulsory Education; Dame School; History of Education; Hornbooks; Public Education; Public Schools; Segregation


Public education in America has a history dating back nearly to the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Although the first public school appeared well before both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the small, independent public schools of centuries past bear little if any resemblance to the system of universal public education now in place in the United States. The factors which led to the inception, growth, and development of public education in America are numerous, and they include not only the pursuit of learning, but also, perhaps more importantly, the development of the nation's philosophy of who should teach and who should be taught.

Public education in America in large part was the product of historical movements that swept the nation, including national incorporation, widespread urbanization, and modern industrialization. In order to glean an accurate understanding of the history of America's educational system, each of these eras in our country's history must be studied in turn.

While these factors constitute a timeline in American educational history, they cannot be fully understood apart from a concurrent examination of the development of educational philosophy, the changing understanding of the purpose and aim of public education, and both the impetus for and impact of legislative decisions and judicial rulings affecting public education.

Therefore, a comprehensive portrayal of the myriad factors that constitute the development of American education requires an examination of 1) the philosophical roots of early-American education, 2) the growth and development of 19th Century public schooling within the newly-formed nation, 3) the impact of urbanization and the industrial revolution on the evolution of public school attendance in the latter half of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, and 4) the increased involvement of government in public education.

Further Insights

Colonial Era

Education in Puritan New England

The first public school in America was established in 1635 in Boston, Massachusetts, in the home of Philemon Pormont. Attendance at the school was free and open to all children. Founded by New England Puritans, the school, called the Boston Latin School utilized religious instruction in the Bible as a launching pad for the study of Latin and Greek classics. It is important to note that, during the colonial era, religion formed the basis for American life, and the local church or meetinghouse was the focal point of each community. To many people, the primary purpose of learning to read was to gain the ability to obtain religious instruction from the Bible.

The year following the opening of the Boston Latin School witnessed the establishment of America's first college, Harvard College, whose founding purpose was to train preachers. Hence, for those fortunate to attend, the college would be an extension of the religious instruction received in local schools.

In addition to local schools, during this period Dame Schools were popular. These schools were for young children ranging in age from 6-8, although often younger. Taught by women, often widows, Dame Schools usually met in the instructors' homes and focused on teaching reading skills rather than on mathematics and writing. Although titled a "school," it was not uncommon for Dame Schools also to function as early day care facilities for colonial children.

Apprenticeship programs were also primary sources of specialized education in colonial America, particularly among the poor. Through apprenticeships, young boys, and by the mid-17th Century girls as well, were paired with a skilled tradesman. The apprentice would spend several years working at his mentor's side, and upon completion of the apprenticeship, it was expected that the student would possess the requisite knowledge and ability to begin working on his own. Beyond teaching only the trade, however, mentors, or "Masters" were also expected to train their apprentices in matters of good moral behavior (Barger, 2004).

In these early American schools, a very common method of instruction was the hornbook. Dating as far back as fifteenth-century Europe, the hornbook was a small wooden paddle on which was mounted a sheet containing lessons. A piece of horn from oxen or sheep and later from materials such as leather or metal, covered the sheet to protect the lesson. Oftentimes, a hole would be placed in the horn handle, and this enabled pupils to fasten these early textbooks to their clothing or carry them around their necks. Standard studies contained on hornbooks included the alphabet, formations of vowels and consonants, and the Lord's Prayer.

In colonial America, education was deemed the responsibility of the family. Parents were ultimately responsible for the rearing and training of their children, and there was an absence of reliance upon government institutions or entities to provide quality education for the young. Nevertheless, in this early colonial world, one can identify the roots of today's compulsory education laws.

As early as 1642, Massachusetts passed a law that required that children be instructed in religious education as well as in the laws of the colony. Yet, the expressed onus for doing so fell not to the state or local communities, but rather to parents and apprenticeship masters. Negligence in either of these areas was punishable by fine. Furthermore, the law stated that parents and masters must "catechize" their children in the principles of religion, or if they were unable to do so themselves, that they must provide for it. The 1642 legislation also stipulated that if parents or masters failed to perform the duties outlined in the law, local authorities could remove the children and place them with masters who would properly instruct them. Although the Massachusetts Law of 1642 stopped well short of establishing a formal school system, its importance as the first piece of legislation to require schooling cannot be underestimated.

Soon after, the Massachusetts Law of 1647 required that every town comprised of 50 families or more hire a teacher for the purpose of instructing the town's children in reading and writing. Moreover, towns of 100 families or more were also required to have a Latin instructor in order to prepare students for entry into Harvard College. Although schooling was still considered a local family responsibility, at times the colonial government would fund payment for these teachers.

Education in the Middle

Education in the Middle Colonies differed slightly from that in New England. While schools in New England were primarily Puritan, schools in the Middle colonies were often developed by Mennonites or Quakers. It was German immigrant, teacher, and Mennonite Christopher Dock who, in 1710, penned the first book on pedagogy printed in America. Dock's work, Schul-Ordnung, or School Management, outlined a series of rewards and punishments aimed not at teacher dominance but at gaining student trust and affection (Sass & Ruth).

In the middle colonies, although the primary focus remained religious instruction for the formation of moral character, schools also incorporated a level of practical instruction as well. Among those involved in the development of middle-colony schools was Benjamin Franklin who helped to establish the Academy of Philadelphia in 1751. This Academy later grew into the University of Pennsylvania (Penn in the eighteenth century).

In the southern colonies, too, public education was taking root. Even before the establishment of Roxbury and Harvard, Virginian Benjamin Syms passed away and bequeathed in his will a plot of 200 acres with clear instructions that it was to be used for the establishment of a free school. Another Virginia school soon followed, and by the close of the seventeenth century, public schools could be found in northern, middle, and southern colonies (Tyler, 1897).

Early National Legislation

As government took an increased interest in requiring and providing for the...

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