Listen to the ways teaching has changed over the years.
As with many other aspects of early society in the Colonies, the Puritans transferred their views and expectations for education from England to the United States. Who should be educated and the purposes of education were hot topics across Europe in the 1600s. Citizens were asking whether all children should attend school and whether girls as well as boys should attend. They were also asking what students should learn, how long they should attend school, who should pay, and whether school attendance should be compulsory.
Schools in the Colonies
Before communities built schools, children were often taught by women in their neighborhoods who established “dame schools” in their homes. Most schools were established and controlled by churches, where religion was taught along with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Locally controlled schools were first established in the New England colonies where the New England Primer was the first widely used textbook. It included the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and a list of the books of the bible. Students were asked to memorize the primer’s catechism , which was a series of questions and correct answers that taught the Protestant faith (Spring, 2011).
The Massachusetts Bay Colony is credited with first requiring all children to receive formal education. The Massachusetts Law of 1642 called for children to learn to read so they could understand the bible and the country’s laws. A 1647 statute, the Old Deluder Satan Law, established schools by requiring towns with 50 or more families to appoint a teacher and collect taxes to support schools. In 1650, Connecticut established its own school statutes. Other colonies were slower to engage with these core issues, and the South continued to resist the establishment of schools for anyone other than aristocrats.
Although the early Massachusetts and Connecticut statutes made reference to the importance of reading the Scriptures, they also implied that the state would be better off with educated citizens. This view had been championed by leading philosophers, scientists, and politicians in Europe for several centuries. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and John Locke argued in the 18th century that there was a public interest in having all citizens educated. They believed that citizens had to have skills in literacy and numeracy for a democracy to thrive and that education should be available to all children and youth (Urban & Wagoner, 2009). Most leaders in the United States agreed that a free and universal education was a cornerstone of democracy.
Around the time of the Revolutionary War, the concept of secular schools emerged. Some leaders were concerned that religious control of schools could limit political freedom and the scientific revolution. Thomas Jefferson, for one, believed that freedom of thought and beliefs was key to a republican society. This concern led to the adoption of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prevents the establishment of a state religion. The focus on freedom of ideas during this period opened the door to teaching more than religion, morals , and civil obedience. Education began to be seen as providing intellectual tools based on science that would help create a better society (Spring, 2011).
Creating a System of Public Education
That the states should be responsible for education was seen as important even before the Constitution was written. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress passed several ordinances related to the opening up of lands in the West. The Land Ordinance of 1785 required each new state to form a central government and address education as a component of its founding laws. It also required each township in the new territories north and west of the Ohio River to designate one section (one square mile) of its 36 allocated township sections for public schools. Two years later the Northwest Ordinance encouraged the establishment of schools because religion, morality, and knowledge were critical for a good government (Urban & Wagoner, 2009).
When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, it made no reference to education. Even though some of the founders wanted education to be a federal responsibility, the responsibility for education was clarified in the Tenth Amendment, which states that “(t)he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively or to the people.” State legislatures became responsible for establishing education policies and financing a public education system.
As the 1800s unfolded, school debates focused on whether attendance should be compulsory and how schools should be supported and managed. Gradually a consensus emerged that each state would set expectations for public schools, that towns were responsible for the operation of schools, and that schools would be financed through taxation. Concerns about the quality and rigor of education across the states led to a system of education that was somewhat uniform in the organization and operation of public schools. By the 1830s, children were attending public primary schools to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic in what were called common schools . Important dates in the development of a system of education are outlined in Table 6.1.
Table 6.1 Significant Events in the Development of the American System of Education
|Boston Latin Grammar School established.
|Massachusetts’s Old Deluder Satan Law required establishment of schools.
|Northwest Ordinances passed to support schools in new territories.
|United States Constitution adopted without reference to education.
|The English Classical School, the first high school established in Boston. The Troy Female Seminary first prepared teachers for certification.
|First known child care center opened in New Harmony, Indiana.
|Massachusetts law established high schools.
|Massachusetts established first state board of education; Horace Mann appointed the first secretary.
|First public normal school for preparing teachers opened in Lexington, Massachusetts.
|Quincy School, based on grades, was established in Boston.
|Massachusetts establishes first compulsory attendance law.
|Kalamazoo Decision made public high schools legal.
|St. Louis opened the first public kindergarten in the United States.
|Compulsory education required in all states.
|Elementary-Secondary Education Act (ESEA) passed.
|The U.S. Department of Education established by President Jimmy Carter.
|ESEA reauthorized as No Child Left Behind Act.
Although public schools have long been a reality in the United States, critics of today’s schools question their ability to prepare students for the global world in which we live. When asked how important public schools are today, retired teacher Marvin Kuhn replied,
It is just as important as back then. Everybody needs an education. If you don’t have the money, where else are you going to get your education but through public education? One of the things I’ve seen in the past few years is the creation of charter schools and vouchers. Even though they may be available to low-income students, charter and private schools pick who they want in their schools, and if those students do not perform at the expected level, the school does not have to let them come back.