09/07/2015 08:53 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2016

Welcome Back! A Brief History of Education in the United States (Part 1)

Introduction: As schools reopen this fall, I thought it would be interesting to put together a brief history of education in the United States. One thing that stands out to me is that education is never either an independent force in American society or a principle agent for social change. It is a reflection of the basic debates talking place in the broader society.

During the colonial era literacy was to promote religious orthodoxy. In the revolutionary era when colonials overthrew monarchy and established a new republic leaders were concerned with building an educated citizenry, though their vision was limited to White male property-holders. In the early industrial era the expansion of public education was a response to the transformation of society from agricultural to industrial and urban. In this era and in the age of mass Eastern and Southern European immigration from 1880 to 1924 education was also about the assimilation or Americanization of new groups. Zero tolerance disciplinary practices in schools in recent decades followed zero tolerance policing practices, mandatory sentencing, and three-strikes policies in response to the crack epidemic and fear of urban crime.

In each of these periods education was also about mechanisms for social control in a society undergoing cultural and demographic change. In the 1950s expanded educational funding and opportunity was part of the Cold War. Today educational "reform" is a major part of both the debate over how the United States should respond to globalization, computerization, and deindustrialization and also again over what to do about a new wave of both documented and undocumented immigrants.

From the Puritans to the Age of Immigration

The first schools in the original British North Atlantic colonies opened in the 17th century and were to prepare boys to read the Bible. The Boston Latin School was founded in 1635. The first tax-supported public school was in Dedham, Massachusetts. In the 1640s the Massachusetts Bay Colony made basic education compulsory and similar statutes were adopted in other colonies. Originally schools were only for boys and instruction was by rote memorization. Schoolbooks were initially brought from England, however in 1690, Boston printers were republishing the English Protestant Tutor as their own The New England Primer. In 18th century common schools, which were generally financed by a combination of local allocations and fees charged to families who had children attending the school. All students were taught in a single room by one teacher. Anything beyond a basic literacy and numeracy required attendance at a private academy. Boston finally started the first public high school in the United States in 1821.

New Netherland already had elementary schools in most towns when the colony was taken over by the British in 1664. These schools were connected to the Dutch Reformed Church. They emphasized religious instruction and prayer; instruction was in Dutch. The new British rulers of the colony closed the Dutch schools and did not replace them. German settlers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland also sponsored elementary schools closely connected to their churches.

The Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula founded the first North American school for girls in French New Orleans in 1727. By the 1740s upper-class women also received some formal education in Philadelphia. Tax-supported education for girls started as early as 1767 in New England, however education for girls remained optional and was not offered in many towns.

Slavery and Race

While it was illegal to teach enslaved Africans to read and write in the South during the colonial era and after independence, in the North religious instruction and basic literacy were sometimes encouraged. In New York, the Church of England and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts made a concerted effort to convert the enslaved African population to Christianity. The first Anglican school for New York's Black population opened in 1703. In 1711 Governor Robert Hunter issued a Proclamation ordering slaveholders to permit enslaved Africans to attend religious instruction.

The Constitution of the United States does not mention education as a specific responsibility of the national government. As a result, under the 10th amendment it remains an area of responsibility reserved to the states. Most states traditionally assigned direct responsibility over education to localities. In Philadelphia and other cities starting in the 1820s workingmen's organizations campaigned for public education that would elevate the economic condition of their members.

For much of its history, education in the United States was segregated by race, first in the North and after the Civil War when Blacks were permitted to attend school, in the South. An early racially integrated school, Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, was destroyed by local Whites in 1835 and eventually reopened as an all-White school. In 1848, the daughter of Frederick Douglass, the leading Black abolitionist in the United States, passed entrance exams and was admitted to the prestigious Seward Seminary in Rochester, New York, however she was kept segregated from the White students and eventually withdrew from the school.

In the American South slavery interfered with the development of public education for all children. Generally the planter class hired tutors to educate their children or sent them to private schools, sometimes in the North and sometimes in Europe. It was not until post-Civil War Reconstruction when the Freedmen's Bureau opened 1,000 schools serving 90,000 former slaves and their children that public education expanded in the South and it has remained underfunded to this day.


In the 19th century teaching was basically a temporary job, for women until they married, or for men until they entered a profession or found other work. Teachers had limited educations and there were no formal credentials. This started to change in 1823 with the creation of two-year normal or teaching schools, but in many parts of the United States teaching did not require a four- year college degree until after World War II. Despite these and other issues, by 1870, all states had free elementary schools and the U.S. population had one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Horace Mann in Massachusetts was a major 19th century proponent for educational reform. As Secretary of Education Mann championed a statewide system for preparing professional teachers and compulsory school attendance laws. By 1900, 34 states had compulsory school attendance laws, but only four Southern states. Thirty states required school attendance until at least age 14 and by 1910 three-quarters of American children attended school. By 1918, every state required students to complete elementary school. However educational opportunity was not equal across the country. In 1912 the Southern states with 34% of the United States population allocated only three percent of the education funding.


Probably less than five percent of American teenagers attended public high school in the immediate post-Civil War era. However from 1880 to 1924 there was explosive growth in secondary education that paralleled the arrival of new Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Approximately 200,000 students attended high schools in 1890 and almost 2,000,000 by 1920, an increase from 7% of the 14 to 17 year old population to over 30%. During the 1890 to 1924 period there was increasingly sharp conflict over the purpose of high school. In 1893 the Committee of Ten, a panel comprised of leading university educators, proposed that public high schools emphasize liberal arts education. During World War I, as the country grappled with how to Americanize millions of young people with roots in countries at war with the United States, the National Educational Association's Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, issued a call for more diversified education including vocational and commercial tracts.

Vocational offerings actually had started to expand about 1910. By 1920 most urban high schools offered four high school tracks: college preparatory, commercial (which mostly prepared young women, for office work), vocational (industrial arts for males and home economics for females), and general (which offered a diploma without any training or credentials). In 1910 about 9% of Americans had a high school diploma. This increased to 40% by 1935 and 50% by 1940, although the rapidness of the increase is misleading. Many young men and women stayed in school during the Great Depression because there was no work. During the twentieth century the percentage of teenagers who graduated from high school increased from about six percent to about 85%.

African Americans

Booker T. Washington was a leading African American educational figure in the United States at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. Washington accepted racial segregation and argued Black improvement would come through agricultural and vocational education. Washington, however, did not anticipate a changing 20th century economy with new work demands. His main opposition within the Black community came from W.E.B. DuBois who challenged Jim Crow and proposed improving conditions for the Black masses by investing in the education of the Black elite, the talented 10th. De Jure or legal segregation was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Because African Americans largely lived in the South where there were few African-American secondary schools. As a result Blacks trailed behind the rest of the nation as high school education expanded in the first half of the 20th century. In addition, in most of the North residential segregation and economic barriers produced de facto racially segregated schools.