Article - History of Education in America:


The history of education in America is long and varied.  For the most part, education in the colonial days as well as the first years of the United States was primarily done at the home.  Parents taught their children to read and writer and perform basic calculations. Boys were traditionally taught more academic subjects, while a woman’s education, beyond basic reading, writing, and math, was limited to learning how to run a household.  Indeed, even well-heeled girls in private schools were rarely educated in academic subjects beyond a basic level required to function as a society lady. 

As the country became more densely populated, schools became more common, but the level of education remained the same and actual schools were all private affairs catering to the wealthy.  This was the case in 1840, when reformers from Massachusetts and Connecticut started pushing for mandatory state-funded schooling.  The efforts took hold relatively quickly in Massachusetts, which passed the first bill requiring all children to attend elementary school in 1852.  New York followed with a similar bill in 1853.  By 1918 every state in the Union had a law requiring that all children be required to attend school.

Not everyone was happy with this idea.  Catholics, for example, were not too pleased with the idea of sending their children to public school.  In a 1925 case, Pierce V. Society of Sisters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while a state could compel a parent to send his or her child to school, it could not force children to attend public schools, private schools would also do. 

As for high school, the progress has been a little bit slower.  In many cases, high school attendance is still not mandatory for those 16 and older.  Throughout the 20th century, as jobs moved from the field to the factory and eventually to the office, the demand for a more highly educated workforce took root.  This led to a massive increase in the number of high school graduates and people going to college. Over the course of the 20th century, we went from having about 6% of the population graduating from high school to over 85% of students graduating from high school. Similarly, college attendance has jumped from about 2% of 18-24 year olds to about 60% of 18-24 year olds taking some sort of post high-school course, either at a four year college or a two year community college.

Today, we live in a contentious society, with public schools often at the center of furious debates over culture, spending, economics, and religion as well as the future and direction of our country.  Tests, standards, bilingual schools, school choice, all these debates that everyone thinks are so new are old news.  People have been debating all these issues since the institution of mandatory publicly funded education. Having a country as big and varied as the United States with a cookie-cutter style education has created many problems, but people forget that it has solved many problems as well. For example, the fact that we have free schooling through high school means that the workforce is more highly educated and can handle the more technical jobs of a technology-based economy.  Schools were one of the first places to be integrated, leading to increased rights for minorities and a more egalitarian society.  

For more information on the history of education in America, please see
PBS' History of Public Schools and History of Public Education



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