Life in the Thirteen Colonies

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What were American colonial schools like?

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Early colonists were more interested in survival than education, and a majority of the settlers in the colonies had little or no formal education. Education was not always a priority, as matters of growing food, construction of homes, and establishing a framework for governance took precedence. Depending on the region,...

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Early colonists were more interested in survival than education, and a majority of the settlers in the colonies had little or no formal education. Education was not always a priority, as matters of growing food, construction of homes, and establishing a framework for governance took precedence. Depending on the region, colonial schools were small and usually housed in the local church. In the earliest times, the minister would have been the best educated in the community and would also serve as the schoolmaster or teacher. Females did not attend school, as the schools were all-male. The schools had a traditional British curriculum with emphasis on the teaching of apprenticeship, basic economic skills of the trade, and a spattering of history, reading, and rudimentary math. Math and reading were generally taught at home and were not part of the earliest curriculums.

By the 18th century, schools were two-tiered, consisting of private academies and common schools. Wealthy landowners had the choice of a private academy education, while other families were educated in small colonial schools. An example is the Boston Latin School, established in 1635. It is the oldest public school in America, but the definition of public is somewhat of a misnomer, as only the wealthiest, elite students could take time from their farming duties in order to attend. Five of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as many of the prominent leaders of the early colonies, were alumni. The school was unique in that the curriculum was classical with an emphasis on the humanities and Classical Greek culture. The Boston Latin School continues in operation today.

Common schools and church schools were often the choices of most colonists who sent their children to school. Children of any age could attend common schools. The age ranged from nine to seventeen years in the same room. Common schools were funded by parents who could supply goods and financial support. These schools taught a practical curriculum, including math and reading.

By the eighteenth century, girls attended schools, but after completion of what we think of as middle or high school, their choices for education were very limited, if available at all. Women were schooled in what was termed the domestic arts, or managing the household. The education of males was much broader; the opportunity to attend universities existed for males, but in general this was not true for females.

If you have wondered why schools in the United States take the summer months off, you can thank colonial America for that! Schools were organized around key dates related to agriculture—students did not attend school during harvest and planting seasons, which occurred from late spring through August.

Students sat on benches and wrote on boards with charcoal or chalk. Textbooks did not exist, and few educational resources were available. Most of the learning was done by memorization. In most of the colonies, education was not compulsory, meaning students could be absent without penalty. For the most part, students attending colonial schools were taught from the Bible, as it was the one book most of the colonial families likely owned.

The move to improve public education began in the late 1700s when some leaders became concerned that young people were not sufficiently educated to carry on the business and traditions of the original settlers. Though public education was mandatory in some of the northern colonies, there was a broad interpretation and uneven implementation of what public education should focus on. It was not until the 19th century that many of the academy education facilities began to be replaced with publicly-funded schools.

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