A Relevant History of Public Education in the United States

A Relevant History of Public Education in the United States
By understanding the past, we can grasp a better perspective on the present and future state of education in this country.

Most Americans take the public education system in this country for granted, assuming that education for all American citizens is a right that has always been provided. However, the history of public education in the United States is one that dates back centuries, and it offers insight into the constantly evolving process of creating a learned society in this country. By understanding our roots in public education, it is easier to discuss the general purpose of public education in the broader scope of where the educational structure lies today.

Three Central Questions of Public Education

The definition of “public education” may vary, depending on the country to which you are referring. In the United States, as well as Australia and Canada, public education is defined at Education Bug as a “federally funded school, administered to some extent by the government, and charged with educating all citizens.” It refers to both primary and secondary schools, as well as some public institutions of higher education, although there is typically a cost to attend such institutions. Public schools have been present in America almost since the time the first immigrants landed on Plymouth Rock and called this country home.

Since the beginning, three core questions have evolved as the government has struggled to find the best methods for educating its citizens. According to a report at PBS.org, these questions include:

  • What is the primary purpose of public education?
  • Who should be able to receive the educational services provided to the general public?
  • How does the government ensure consistently high quality in the educational services it provides?

At the core of every debate and discussion surrounding public educations over the centuries since this country was founded, these three questions remain a constant reminder of where our focus in public education needs to be. However, that doesn’t necessarily make for easy decision-making when it comes to the complex public school issues of today, such as school choice and school standards.

The First Schools Come to America

Before this country officially became the United States of America, there was a need for public education. When the first settlers created the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the governing General Court created the initial education system, which consisted of public and Latin schools designed to teach children Puritan values and how to read the Bible. While much of the teaching was done in the home at that time, there were organized Latin schools for the elite social class to send their sons for formal learning. However, in 1635, the first free public school was also opened, which was supported by taxpayer dollars, according to a report at the University of Michigan.

Less than a decade after the first official public school opened in Virginia, Massachusetts created a law requiring towns with populations of 50 or more to hire a schoolmaster to teach the children of the town basic academics. Towns that had 100 or more people were required to hire a Latin grammar schoolmaster who was equipped to prepare students for higher education. At that time, the only college established in the colonies was Harvard, and that is where students attended if they could prove academic readiness for the rigors of higher education.

While numerous public schools were established throughout the New World over the next century, they were somewhat sporadic and disjointed without any centralized education system to guide them. After the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson argued that there should be a formal education system, and taxpayer dollars should be used to support it. However, according to an article at How Stuff Works, that request went unheeded for nearly a century. During that time, additional schools were established within the 13 colonies and beyond to educate a wide range of Americans. Without a formal structure in place, however, there was no system of checks and balances to ensure schools were providing the highest possible quality of education.

Horace Mann and Henry Barnard

In 1837, Massachusetts creates the first state Board of Education, after establishing the first public high school and free public school to all grades in the years leading up to the board’s creation. The movement toward a statewide public education structure was initiated by Horace Mann, a state legislator who rose from humble beginnings to graduate from Brown University and become a champion for social reforms, including public education.

According to PBS, Mann’s passion for education stemmed from his belief that education was the key to bridging social gaps, overcoming poverty and creating a more equal society overall. During his tenure with the Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann called for extending the school year to six months and fought to get better pay for teachers and more resources into classrooms. Mann believed that free schools should be available to all citizens, regardless of race or social class, as a means of building wealth within the country and providing opportunities to all Americans.

Henry Barnard came from a very different background than Horace Mann, born to wealthy parents and graduating from Yale in 1836. However, Barnard’s biography at Connecticut’s Heritage Gateway states that Barnard shared Mann’s passion for public education, which led to a near obsession over the state of education in his home state of Connecticut. In 1838, Barnard became the secretary of the Board of Commissioners of the Common Schools for Connecticut, where he worked to solve the problems he found to be inherent in the public school system. Through plenty of hard work, Barnard successfully forced districts in his state to meet minimum standards for building, teachers and classroom resources.

The Classroom of the 19th Century

During the 19th century, the classroom setting took on a very different look, as more towns began opening public schools for all of the resident children to attend. PBS describes the classroom as “sparsely decorated and furnished,” reflecting the frugality of the mostly rural times. All of the grades were taught in a single room, by a single school teacher who was typically an unmarried woman who had finished primary and secondary grades. The teacher was often younger than some of the students she taught. Studies primarily focused on reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as good manners.

Resources in the early classrooms were extremely limited, consisting of slates and chalk for writing lessons and possibly a few books for literacy. Other resources, including wood for the stove and desks for the students, were often provided by those who lived in the area or sent their children to the school. Local families also offered room and board to the school teachers that came to work in the schools.

The Establishment of the Department of Education

The federal Department of Education was established in 1867, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The original purpose of the agency was to collect information on individual schools that would help states establish their own effective public school systems. While the duties of the agency have evolved over time, this primary principle is still one that governs the department’s functions to this day.

By 1890, the Department of Education’s responsibilities expanded to include support for institutions of higher education. This duty continued to grow through the 20th century, as vocational education for college and high school was added to the mix to provide training in areas like agriculture, industry and home economics. After World War II, the establishment of the GI Bill allowed many military veterans to attend college.

Throughout the changes that have been seen in the Department of Education over more than a century, the goals of the agency remain intact. The website articulates this goal: “To promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

Reconstruction Brings Segregation

The reconstruction era after the Civil War brought more issues into the world of public education, as African Americans now rightfully sought public education. The U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, established the idea of the “separate but equal” approach that applied to everything from public transportation access to public education. Segregation was in full swing, as African Americans were prohibited access to “white” schools for many years, until the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled that segregated schools were not equal and needed to be abolished.

While the 1954 decision by the Supreme Court did not take immediate effect, it did usher in a host of new laws ensuring students throughout the United States would be guaranteed an equal quality of public education, regardless of race or income level. However, many would argue that the idea of equality in education still does not exist entirely, as schools in low-income areas do not tend to perform as well as those in wealthier districts as a general rule. Still, the work continues to ensure every student in this country receives an education that diminished the lines between race, income level and background.

How Far We’ve Come

Today’s public school looks much different than those one-room classrooms from the 19th century. Public school systems are overseen by state departments of education and by local school districts and publically-elected school boards. The federal government also plays an important role, providing information on how to improve the state of public education for all states, through the latest education data and research. Challenging educational issues may also be addressed at the federal level, if state departments of education are unable to find a solution on their own. Federal programs like the Free Lunch program are also offered to schools across the country.

School districts provide as many primary and secondary schools as necessary to offer public education to all of the students within their area. Students typically attend the school closest to their homes, although some districts allow children to open enroll in other schools within the district if there is space available. The advent of charter schools, magnet schools and other types of public schools have also provided more options for students and parents, right in their own neighborhoods. Most public schools are paid for through property taxes from state and local governments, although many also receive additional funding through fundraising and donations.

During the 1980s, public charter schools began cropping up nationwide, beginning with the establishment of the first charter schools in Minnesota. Within a decade, questions over school choice became a hot button issue, as parents grappled with how to find the best public education in their areas for their children. This debate continues to rage in school districts across the country, as educators strive to stretch their funding dollars far enough to allow families in their districts the ability to choose the best education system for their kids.

More Work to Do

Other hot topics in public education today include bilingual education and establishing standards and providing curriculum for education that work effectively for schools and students nationwide. Depending on the area where the school district is located, schools must deal with very real and prevalent problems like dropout rates, school violence and overcrowding. In an era of economic slowdown, decreased funding has also become a problem for many schools grappling with how to do more for their students with less money available. Through district boards, state departments and the federal government, all of these problems are addressed, although effective solutions are often much easier said than done.

One of the biggest issues facing the world of public education today may be the problem of finding an accurate, national assessment system that can accurately determine the quality of education at each school and recommend changes to bring underperforming schools up to the average. The No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002, was an effort to do just that, but as deadlines approach and benchmarks are missed, it appears this accountability system is not going to provide everything it originally promised.

As educators continue to grapple with the issues facing public education today, it is helpful to look back on how far we’ve come, and how much we can potentially accomplish through our public education system in the future.

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