History of American Public Education


Why is American Public Education the way it is?

Our teacher sent our proposal to other educators and designers with whom he has connections.  After receiving feedback from him and other educators and designers, we needed to identify our problem more closely and explore why American public education is the way it is and how it came to be. To explore this, we conducted some research and created a mindmap detailing the history of American public education.

Sometimes, when dealing with a problem, it can be difficult to see any tiny shard of goodness amidst everything that seems to be bleak, offensive, or just wrong. Often, when I felt spiritless, fatigued, or oppressed by what or how I was learning in school, I often felt confused about why anyone would teach if they seemed to not be enthusiastic about what they were teaching, or why administration set certain requirements for students to meet that didn’t seem to bring any value to students’ learning experiences and education. However, researching the history of American public education and creating a mindmap reminded me that often the problems I was experiencing were usually failed attempts or rough spots in the first ideation of creating a product or system intended to fix a problem or serve a purpose.

When researching the history of American public education, we researched how public education began in the United States, and how it changed over the centuries.

1600s: Public education started to grow its roots during the 17th century. Schooling was important to early American colonists who largely valued education for religious purposes. Children would be taught at church and at home. According to Lawrence Cremin (American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783 (Harper & Row, 1970)), colonists educated children through traditional English aspects of education: family (children would be taught how to read and understand primary arithmetic if their parents could teach them these skills. Many colonists were literate because they felt it was their duty to be able to interpret and understand religious texts.), church, community, and apprenticeship. Actual schools in which children went to a location outside the home to learn with other children were later used primarily for socialization.

We found this aspect of school being a tool for socialization  interesting – there is recognition here that education is more than filling one’s head with facts – that there is a vital human element in it.

According to Maris A. Vinovskis, “Family and Schooling in Colonial and Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of Family History, Jan 1987, Vol. 12 Issue 1-3, pp 19-37, Literacy rates were much higher in New England, because much of the population had been involved in the Protestant Reformation and valued literacy in order to interpret religious texts. Literacy was much lower in the South, where the Anglican Church was the established church.

We also found this interesting. The early colonists (and protestants in Europe) were passionate about something so much they pulled themselves out of illiteracy. This illustrates an importance of passion in education. We always noticed that when we were excited in school our learning experiences were much more engaging and we were willing to work hard to understand more.


The Boston Latin School was opened in 1635 as the first public school. It was tax supported and run by Reverend Ralph Wheelock.

According to Sadker and Sadker of Teachers, Schools, and Society 7/e, in 1647, Massachusetts passed the “Old Deluder Satan Law” which required that a paid teacher be appointed in every town of fifty households, and that a Latin grammar school be provided by every town of one hundred households. Many other New England colonies followed this example. These schools were intended for white, male students. Few opportunities for formal education were offered for non white, or female students.

1700s: “Common Schools”, or schools in which many students of all different ages attend and are taught by one teacher, were beginning to open. More secular schools and academies were established. Some opportunities for female students arose.

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin considered schools to be a means to continue democratic principles and break away from European classicist traditions. They believed schools should serve all people, and by doing this, establish a natural aristocracy; the talented and gifted.

We thought this was interesting because this simply continues to separate classes. Wouldn’t those who are “talented and gifted” have the possibility of being more likely to acquire wealth and status, thus continuing classicist tradition? It also may cause those who may not be considered “talented and gifted” to be discouraged to learn because they may believe they simply are not able to do so. Consequently, they may believe they are not academically valuable and cannot contribute intellectually to society or can learn for their own enjoyment.

Thomas Jefferson proposed a two-track educational system, with different tracks in his words for “the laboring and the learned.” According to RaceForward.org, Jefferson said “Scholarship would allow a very few of the laboring class to advance by raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.”  Jefferson’s views and words illustrate how the European classist traditions colonists (like the United States founding fathers) were trying to leave were encouraged to persist through educational systems.

We think students still feel the affects of these views today. We have felt that in a four track system (AP classes being the highest level courses, followed sequentially by Honors, College-prep, then Academic) we are personally more valued in an AP class than a college-prep class.

1800s: During the 1800s, more public schools were opened and continued to follow the Lancasterian model of students of different ages learning from a teacher in a one room school house.

By the mid-19th century, the role of the schools in New England had expanded to such an extent that they took over many of the educational tasks traditionally handled by parents.

As more common schools began to open, support for universal education began to grow amongst the population.

In 1805, the New York Public School Society was  formed by wealthy businessmen with the intent of providing education for poor children. Schools were run on the “Lancasterian” model, in which one “master” teacher can teach hundreds of students of different ages and abilities in a single room. The master teaches a rote lesson to the older students, who then pass it down to the younger students. These schools were perfect for preparing students for the day and age in which they were made (the industrial revolution). They emphasized the discipline and obedience that factory owners wanted in their workers.

In 1817, a petition was presented at a Boston Town Meeting asking for a system of free public primary schools to be established. Merchants, businessman, and wealthy artisans supported it while many others opposed it, seeking to avoid supporting it through taxes. Massachusetts makes it law 1827 for students of all ages and grades to attend school without charge.

From 1820 to 1860, the amount of people working in agriculture in the United States decreases dramatically as many people move to cities to find work in factories and as farms are purchased by larger agricultural businesses. Owners are looking for docile, obedient workers and look to public schools to provide students with these qualities.

Horace Mann becomes head of the newly formed Massachusetts State Board of Education. In 1837, Edmund Dwight, a major industrialist, believed that a state board of education was so important to factory owners that he offered to supplement the state salary with extra money of his own. He clearly saw the importance of obedience and knowledge that public schools could provide for the next generation of factory workers. In this same year, a State Board of Education in Massachusetts was formed with Horace Mann as its head.

Horace mann was a U.S. educator, head of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, and a representative in the House of Representatives. He was also an education reformer and introduced the Prussian system of education to the United States in 1840. Mann believed that all deserved an education. The Prussian model provided all students with an education and separated students by age into grades and taught everyone at the same pace. This system of education is significant because Mann’s Prussian system most resembles American public education today. For this reason, Mann is sometimes referred to as the father of public school.

In education, Mann’s six principles were 1) the public should not remain ignorant, 2) Education should be paid for and controlled by an interested public, 3) education will be best provided in schools which embrace students from varied backgrounds, 4) education should be non-sectarian, 5) education should be taught by, and have the spirit of a free society, and 6) teachers should be well-trained and professional.

Mann supported the Prussian model of education, and in 1852, Massachusetts adopted the Prussian system. Other schools followed suit around the colonies.

In 1892, a Committee of Ten educators met to create a standard curriculum for education around the country. While providing all students with an education and creating standards for schools to meet, schools also helped to aid the industrial revolution by having students learn on a factory model schedule in which students attended classes on a bell schedule.

The Prussian system and a standard curriculum were quite forward thinking for their time and a noble idea to improve education. Mann believed in the Prussian System because he believed everyone deserved a quality education. The Committee Of Ten’s goal of creating a standard curriculum was made with the intention of giving all students the chance to learn subjects they might not need occupationally. These are noble ideas. However, much of what Mann and the Committee of Ten introduced to education has remained the same today, leaving education to be stuck in the same place because the system worked. As the product worked by meeting a need of providing all with an education, not much has caused any innovations to occur in education since.

1900s: In 1932, a survey of 150 school districts shows that schools are using intelligence testing to place students in different academic tracks. In 1948, the Educational Testing Service is formed, merging the College Entrance Examination Board, the Cooperative Test Service, and the Graduate Records Office. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is passed as a part of President Johnson’s “war on poverty”. As a result of the bill, primary and secondary education are funded federally. Steps are also taken to try to lower achievement gaps between students. Eventually, the No Child Left Behind Act is passed as a reauthorization of ESEA. No Child Left Behind supported standard based education that set high standards and created a path to reach those standards. To receive federal funding, schools had to assess students with testing in order to illustrate academic progress. This first trial of a product, in this case being ESEA and No Child Left Behind, sounds as though it works well, but contained parts and requirements that were actually detrimental to student learning (such as their cause for more testing and federal funding relying on student performance). In 2015, No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act which put choices about education in the hands of the state. Under this law, states set their own goals and must show indicators of student progress.  These indicators include proficiency on state tests, English language proficiency, and some academic factor. States can also choose a fourth indicator such as student or educator engagement, access to and completion of advanced courses, postsecondary preparedness, school climate, or whatever else a state wants to choose. These three Acts reveal a progression of trial and error and improvement.

What was most enlightening to learn was that usually, schools or types of schooling were made with the intention of fixing a problem such as lack of access to education, the need for people who are comfortable under the conditions of a factory during the industrial revolution, or improving schools that might seem to be underachieving compared to other schools. Even if these goals were not always met, or made schooling worse in the process, they always were made with the intention of fixing a problem, which, usually, was kind of a noble thing to do. Horace Mann wanted to bring the Prussian System to the U.S. so that all could have the opportunity for education and that more people would have the chance to learn more. This is a really noble idea. Which is why it has stuck around so long. The products have worked but the system is stuck. None of these products, while they have achieved some of their goals, never has been able to provide a system which truly engages and empowers students by valuing curiosity, a vital element in learning. Hopefully we can design a system where rather than memorizing information for tests, students can be more engaged and passionate about their learning due to the spark of curiosity they have.










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