Common Schools

The term common school refers to the predecessors of the public schools and systems of the United States. Common schools were quasi-public, originally mandated by colonial, and subsequently state, governments, though they were run locally. They offered an elementary level of schooling, were increasingly coeducational, and frequently were haphazard in instruction, curriculum, and duration.

The importance of schooling in a republic was a persistent theme among writers in the early national period. Citizens needed to be literate, moral, and industrious, reflecting the dominant Protestant ideology of the elite, and it was, ideally, the responsibility of the state, under the control of that same elite, to provide the means. Free schools, as Pennsylvania reformer Walter Johnson put it, were essential in order "to give every member of American society a portion of knowledge adequate to the discharge of his duties as a man and a citizen of the republic" (p. 2). But with few exceptions (New York and Connecticut especially), support and control of schools were mainly left to the localities, and, as communities grew in size, the number of school societies also grew adding to the fragmentation.

Considerable variation was the norm, with rural schools generally doing a better job than urban schools. Duration of the school year was uncertain, frequently not lasting more than a few months, and attendance was even more episodic. Common schools provided elementary instruction, the methodology was characterized by rote learning, harsh DISCIPLINE was common, and patriotic and Protestant messages were delivered insistently. All schools were crowded and ill-equipped, teachers served for brief periods and were illprepared, and the duration of the school term depended on the level of support from the community. Teachers were mostly men, who served brief terms, although women often taught in the summer terms. By the 1830s, however, women began to dominate the classroom. Some support was provided by the states, more by rates paid by local communities, but parents were expected to share in the cost of educating their young.

The so-called Common School Revival began during the third decade of the nineteenth century and flourished during the post–Civil War period. This movement emphasized the social and political role of publicly supported schools. During a period of incipient capitalism, increasing urbanization, and rapidly rising rates of immigration, political leaders turned to the schools to buttress the social order. The movement was strongest in the northern and midwestern states and was led by men such as James Carter and HORACE MANN in Massachusetts, Henry Barnard in Connecticut, John Pierce in Michigan, and Calvin Stowe in Ohio. The reformers had some allies in the southern states, but the movement never succeeded in that region prior to the Civil War.

The overriding goal of the reformers (who were mostly of the Whig persuasion) was the provision of schooling for all, or as Henry Barnard, the first U.S. commissioner of education, was wont to put it, schools which were good enough for the rich and cheap enough for the poor. Tax support for public schooling was crucial, and well-built and suitably furnished school houses, graded classes, common textbooks, and clearly defined procedures for attendance and reporting were constantly recommended. Most important was the emphasis on teacher training, either in short-term institutes or in state-provided normal schools. Supervision was to be a state responsibility. Hence, the movement provided the basis for the systemization of schooling. Underlying the entire reform platform was the dominant Protestant, middle-class, capitalistic ethos, which the reformers saw as truly American.

Opposition to these reforms came not from those opposed to schooling, for there was consensus on that matter, but from advocates of local government and opponents of increased taxation. Members of ethnic, national, and religious minorities also objected to the exclusionary aspect of the movement. Thus, the seeds of controversy still prevalent today were sown in this period. Nonetheless, the Common School movement laid the foundation for the system of public education and for the myth of commonality that remains an American belief.

See also: Compulsory School Attendance; Grammar School; Literacy; Parochial Schools.


Cremin, Lawrence A. 1980. American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876. New York: Harper and Row.

Glenn, Charles Leslie. 1988. The Myth of the Common School. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Johnson, Walter R. 1830. Remarks on the Duty of the Several States in Regard to the Public Education. Philadelphia: W. Sharpness.

Kaestle, Carl F. 1973. The Evolution of An Urban School System: New York City, 1750–1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kaestle, Carl F. 1983. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780–1860. New York: Hill and Wang.

Katz, Michael B. 1968. The Irony of Early School Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reprint, 2001, New York: Teachers College Press.