Education, United States

From the colonial period to the present, the question of how to properly educate and socialize children and youth has preoccupied parents, teachers, and other adults. With the establishment of more fully inclusive, free public schools in the nineteenth century, Americans increasingly made formal instruction outside of the home or workplace a significant aspect of most children's experience. Prolonged school attendance, rare before the Civil War, became increasingly common by the early twentieth century. HIGH SCHOOLS, which enrolled a small fraction of adolescents even in the late nineteenth century, soon became mass institutions. By the 1920s, there were already more students attending secondary schools in some American cities than in some European nations. Over the course of the century, attending school became an integral part of growing up in America.

Schools in Colonial America

The modern emphasis on attending school contrasts sharply with the experiences of most children and adolescents in colonial America. A wide variety of schools existed, especially in the northern colonies, but they were not compulsory or necessarily linked together in any kind of system. Most famously, the early Puritan settlers required the establishment of schools in local towns and villages; communities sometimes evaded the laws, but many established elementary schools and even a local Latin GRAMMAR SCHOOL, the latter usually restricted to a few bookish boys preparing for college. Schools paled in significance, however, compared with the authority of parents and churches. Parents, particularly fathers, were expected to teach children to read, in order to ensure their capacity to read the Bible, before they attended the elementary school, which emphasized the importance of reading, Christian morality, and to a lesser extent numeracy.

Before the American Revolution, generations of children would recite their ABCs from successive editions of the New England Primer. Every school child, whether Puritan or not, was explicitly reminded by these primers of the sacred quality of language, which Christians had long regarded as a divine gift, as well as of their own sinful nature: "A: After Adam's Fall, We Sinn'd All." School children in reading classes also recited the Lord's Prayer and memorized scripture; older boys in Latin grammar schools memorized Latin and advanced math as they prepared for their college entrance exams.

Children growing up in places with heterogeneous populations–for example, New York City or rural communities in Pennsylvania–also attended schools, and adults there similarly assumed that pupils should learn basic LITERACY, numeracy, and religious faith. Anglicans, Presbyterians, and other Protestants often built denominational schools, sometimes with a mix of public and private funds. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Quakers in greater Philadelphia established schools for their own children as well as for free black adults and children. The slave South, in contrast, with its rural, dispersed population, had fewer schools, especially outside of the cities, leading to lower literacy rates among poor whites and especially among black slaves, 90 percent to 95 percent of whom may have been illiterate at the time of emancipation.

As in Europe, colonial Americans debated the nature of children and the best ways to educate them. There was never any clear consensus on the nature of children or on how they should be educated or reared. Evangelicals often proclaimed that children were evil by nature, thanks to the misdeeds of Adam and Eve; their wills needed to be broken, which reinforced the familiar use of the switch. More moderate voices among Protestants held a more balanced view of the young, emphasizing Christian nurture, parental understanding, and the human potential made possible by free will. To most parents and educators, however, learning was widely seen as a form of moral discipline. Nearly every child who attended any school faced a regimen of study, memorization, and recitation, which was essential in learning religious truths as well as the alphabet or the rules of grammar and multiplication.

For the great majority of children and adolescents, school remained a minor aspect of life. Benjamin Franklin, while not a typical American as an adult, was perhaps typical in terms of his childhood. Reared in a large, poor family in Boston, he had some private tuition and attended the Boston Latin School, which he disliked, preferring to read on his own outside the constraints of educational institutions. Self-help long remained an attractive ideal to many citizens.

Some colonials certainly had access to schools. Modest one-room district schools dotted the New England countryside after the mid-eighteenth century, and many northern villages and towns (as well as southern communities) had private pay schools that taught such specialized subjects as French, drawing, or navigation. Other children had access to various elementary and grammar schools. But school attendance even in the North was not universal and was usually brief or irregular. The majority of children everywhere mostly learned what they needed in life at home, where girls worked with their mothers to learn the art of gardening and housewifery and boys tended animals and helped work the fields. To learn a trade or special skill, boys in particular, at around the age of twelve, were sometimes apprenticed to a master outside of the home, though such arrangements dramatically declined in the early 1800s. The modern world–with its age-graded, compulsory school systems, CONSUMER CULTURE, and linkage of jobs with educational credentials–was largely unknown during the colonial period. A tiny percentage of the male population attended colleges, nine of which existed by 1776, providing the nation with ministers, professionals, and members of its political elite.

The Creation of Public Schools

In the nineteenth century, the most important developments in the history of childhood and adolescence included the creation of public schools, first in the North in the antebellum period and in the South after the Civil War. This was an age of rising expectations for schooling, born in an age of intense evangelical Protestantism and dramatic social change, including the rise of cities, expanding commerce, and intensified industrialization. Late in the century, however, most children, even in the best financed school districts in the North, left school by the age of ten to twelve due to the primacy of work and other family obligations. The creation of free high schools, an integral part of the public school movement, also led to the decline of private academies, particularly in the North, where they had provided most secondary education before the 1870s. In the South, the public schools created during Reconstruction were soon segregated by race, and they were poorly funded compared to the North, with African-American schools routinely starved for money. As in the colonial past, regional differences remained very visible.

The evangelical as well as secular reformers who built free, tax-supported public schools in the decades before the Civil War imposed an expansive mission upon them. Reformers claimed at different times that schools could end social conflict, create American citizens, save the republic, and reduce public immorality as well as poverty. This was a tall order, and impossible to fill, but it reflected the millennial hopes of the era. Ideas about education as well as school practices remained heavily shaped by religious values, particularly nondenominational Protestantism. Many schools began the school day with the Lord's Prayer and a reading without comment by the teacher from the King James version of the Bible; this offended enough Catholics that a fledgling PAROCHIAL SCHOOL system began to emerge in some northern cities by mid-century.

Shaping children's character–by having them attend school punctually, obey authority, honor rules and regulations, and attend to their lessons–was central to the thinking behind all of these schools. By the 1820s and 1830s, young scholars typically studied the proverbial three Rs plus English grammar and some geography and history. The Mc-Guffey Readers, which became more secular and less religious in later editions, taught the values of piety and virtue, and Webster's ubiquitous spellers, as well as their rivals, emphasized the English language, uniform spelling and punctuation, and proper diction. Children studying geography learned of the grandeur of America and its material riches, and those studying history of its greatness among nations.

Boston established the first free high school as an alternative to the Latin grammar school and classical education in 1821. Other big cities in the North followed suit and similarly restricted admission to boys, a trend that was soon reversed in most communities. Separate male and female high schools remained common in the urban South and the larger northern cities, but the trend, as in the lower grades, was toward coeducation. At mid-century, whether in the ubiquitous, ungraded rural schools of the North or in the agegraded classrooms in the cities, boys and girls increasingly attended school together, even if they entered the building through separate entrances or sat in different rows within the classroom. This was seen as an alternative to Catholic and European practices, which often practiced strict gender separation.

Public high schools enrolled only a minority of adolescents in the nineteenth century. As late as 1890, only about 5 percent of all adolescents were enrolled. In most places the majority of pupils were girls, many of whom, whether or not they graduated, became elementary school teachers. Boys became clerks or white-collar professionals, and only a minority of high school pupils of either gender enrolled in college. Drawn mostly from a broad range of middle-class families, high school pupils usually maintained their family status and position through secondary education. Like children in the lower grades, students of the higher branches memorized reams of material, which they learned from textbooks and recited to their teachers. High schools also largely remained urban institutions, though northern villages after the 1850s often built larger central schools, which offered secondary classes for the more mature and advanced pupils.

Public School Expansion

Children in the cities were widely regarded as having the best educational opportunities in the nineteenth century. At least that was the point of view of most professional educators, who saw the cities, with their greater and more concentrated wealth and student populations, as model sites for educational experimentation and improvement. Cities over the course of the century increasingly hired women to teach, especially in the lower grades; had a more standardized and uniform curriculum; and added additional subjects late in the century, such as sewing for girls and drawing and manual training for everyone. Reformers who were inspired by romantic notions of the child called for more social cooperation and less competition in the classroom and demanded the elimination of corporal punishment and rote teaching methods. Most schools, however, embraced tradition and rejected these ideas as unsound and impractical. In contrast, schools everywhere seemed to catch the spirit of nationalism and patriotism sweeping over the nation in the 1890s. The nation's flag increasingly appeared atop school houses, and an early version of the pledge of allegiance became a common opening school exercise.

In the South, public school expansion after the Civil War progressed slowly. Despite some initial success at building racially integrated schools in such places as New Orleans in the early 1870s, schools throughout the South became formally segregated, reflecting a policy of racial apartheid enshrined in 1896 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. Northern schools were also frequently racially segregated, sometimes by conscious intent, sometimes by custom; below the Mason-Dixon Line, separation was complete and legally mandated. Under this Jim Crow system, African-American schools suffered the most, and the South overall remained economically backward compared to the more urban, industrial North. In 1900, the much poorer South had twice as many children to educate as the North. Having a dual system of public education, one for whites and one for blacks, spread scarce resources even thinner.

In all regions, the twentieth century witnessed the continual expansion of the power and authority of public schools in the lives of children and adolescents. New ideas about childhood–that the young should be sheltered from the workplace; that compulsory school laws should be extended and strengthened; that the schools should offer a more diverse curriculum; and that the schools should provide more social services and welfare–also gained support. High schools, which for many decades had served relatively few adolescents, expanded dramatically and by the middle of the century had become mass institutions. In the second half of the twentieth century, schools became even more intensively linked with the job market and took on greater credentialing roles. Similarly, for different reasons, federal interest in the schools, which had historically been low, intensified in the liberal 1960s and even in the more conservative decades that followed. On the eve of the twenty-first century, few citizens downplayed the importance of a quality education for everyone, even if the rhetoric outpaced the reality and precise definitions of such an education remained unclear and contested.

School attendance in the elementary and grammar level grades became increasingly universal in the early decades of the twentieth century. The assimilation of immigrants had long been a goal of the public schools, and this only accelerated with the massive foreign migrations from central and southern Europe between the 1890s and World War I, which swelled enrollments in many parts of the urban and industrial North. In addition, a range of reformers during this period pressed for an expanded social role for the schools, including the addition of broadened social welfare services. Responsibilities traditionally regarded as the purview of the home, charitable institutions, or the workplace were increasingly assumed by the school. Locally funded school lunches, especially for the poor, were common in many cities decades before passage of the National School Lunch Act after World War II. In many cities, schools built playgrounds, gyms, and even swimming pools, as physical education grew in importance. Medical and dental inspection of children became common. The three Rs and academic subjects remained central to most schools, but the social functions of public education continued to expand by World War I. With the intense consolidation of rural schools into larger units over the course of the century, reforms that began in the cities increasingly became commonplace in most school systems.

In elementary schools, new forms of classroom organization, such as ability grouping, first found in urban graded classrooms in the early 1900s, forever changed the experience of going to school. Scientific testing, reflecting the larger fascination with scientific management in the business world, produced an array of "objective" measures to determine the academic potential and achievement of every child. Newly developed intelligence tests became popular and were used in concert with achievement test scores and teachers' reports on children's reading ability. This helped in assigning children to a particular ability group. In some schools, teachers separated pupils within classrooms into slow, average, and accelerated reading groups; in others, pupils were placed in separate classes with academically similar children. Critics then and later warned that the use of scientific, "objective" measures discriminated against poor, immigrant, and minority children. Testing also promoted the expansion of special classes for "exceptional" children, later known as SPECIAL EDUCATION classes (whose enrollments in a diversity of programs would begin to skyrocket by the 1970s and 1980s).

Elementary and especially grammar and high school enrollments in the early 1900s were given a boost with the arrival of millions of adult immigrants, who displaced older children and especially adolescents from the work force. Technological innovations–the use of the pneumatic tube in department stores and office buildings, growing reliance upon the telephone, changes in the sale and distribution of newspapers–also displaced youthful workers such as messenger boys and the newsboys on the street corner. Adolescents were especially affected by these economic changes and by competition from adult laborers. As a result, high school enrollment grew dramatically in the northern states in the early decades of the twentieth century, followed by equally impressive growth in the Jim Crow South. Nationally, about half of all adolescents attended high school by 1930, leading to remarkable changes in the nature, purposes, and character of the institution.

The High School as a Mass Institution

By the 1920s and 1930s, as the high school became a less socially and academically selective institution, it increasingly became part of mass public education. Historically, elementary and secondary schools were fairly distinct institutions, poorly articulated with each other. Most children before the 1920s had never attended high school, but it was now a more common experience, whose social functions, like that of the lower grades, changed dramatically. As the GREAT DEPRESSION further eliminated many job opportunities for TEENAGERS (the term itself was coined in the early 1940s), the high school became a more custodial institution, one that tried to meet a rising demand to educate everyone. By the 1950s, expectations rose even higher, as more Americans increasingly thought that everyone, perhaps, should graduate.

In response to a larger and more diverse student population, the curriculum of the typical high school correspondingly became more diversified. Unlike their European counterparts, who differentiated pupils at an earlier age for separate academic or vocational secondary schools, American policymakers favored the comprehensive high school. Increasingly common by World War I, the comprehensive high school had separate curriculum tracks, or streams, under the same roof. This was seen as democratic in the sense that pupils attended the same school, even though they were enrolled in different programs, presumably to match their academic achievement and potential (as determined by previous grades, IQ test scores, etc.) and likely destination in life. Academic subjects were directed more toward the high-achieving students, especially those aspiring to college, whose enrollments were growing and would dramatically expand in the 1960s. The high school had always been academically oriented, but the academic curriculum increasingly became synonymous with college preparation. Vocational courses of study, which disproportionately served the lower classes, were typically less prestigious and academically weaker, but they contained a breadth of offerings. These included commercial subjects (such as typing or shorthand) and home economics for girls, and classes such as carpentry, leather craft, and automobile repair for boys. The college and non-college bound alike thus found a niche in the comprehensive high school.

The expanding array of courses, programs, and pupils in the high school blurred its academic mission, which was further clouded by a dramatic rise in nonacademic activities, collectively known as the extracurriculum. Just as the diversified curriculum presumably addressed the varying intellectual needs and potential of youth, so too did the appearance of an increased number of social activities that promised to appeal to the now less-than-selective student body. Competitive SPORTS, for example, became enormously popular. By the 1920s, complaints about the excesses of high school BASKETBALL in Utah and Indiana and football in Texas were already heard in the national press. School-based student clubs proliferated, from academic specialties like the French club or honor society, to the radio club, ukelele club, Future Teachers of America, and Future Farmers of America. Still other pupils worked on the school newspaper or yearbook staff or served in STUDENT GOVERNMENT. After studying community life in Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd concluded that the local high school was a "social cosmos" unto itself. It was no longer simply an academic institution, but a social world whose parameters seemed to know no bounds. This troubled some taxpayers and parents, and complaints about the subdued attention to academics echo to this day.

In a nation as diverse as America, high schools, like elementary schools and JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOLS below them, remained very diverse, even though they were all shaped by the same general trends. In some major cities in the North, specialized high schools focused on the sciences or the arts, and they remained academically elite, with admission guarded by competitive admission exams. The American high school was a study in diversity. High schools within the same town or city could differ enormously, reflecting the makeup of particular neighborhoods or which children were assigned to particular institutions. Some high schools were a cross-section of their communities, while others overrepresented particular ethnic, racial, or social classes. In many small towns, high schools became an important way for people to identify with their community. Some citizens cared more about athletic success than academic programs; others counted the ever-expanding number of high school graduates as a sign of progress, while naysayers assumed that the academic quality of the high school had been unduly sacrificed along the way. Although adults frequently argued among themselves about whether academics counted for much in high school, alumni by the 1940s and 1950s probably remembered, for good or ill, its social side–dances, friendships, peer cultures, and athletic events–more than what they learned in algebra or shop.

Reform and the Role of the Schools

Traditional teaching methods were occasionally altered in some schools in the first half of the twentieth century, adding to the diversity of classroom experiences. A variety of Progressive educators called for a more experimental approach to teaching and learning, usually involving a more active role for the child in an assault on teacher- and subject-centered classrooms. Such ideas found expression more in the lower than the higher grades. This was accomplished through more group work on school projects, learning by doing, field trips, or other innovative approaches. Some of these ideas bore fruit, but mostly in affluent suburbs such as Winnetka, Illinois, in the 1930s; even there, however, flexibility did not come at the expense of mastering the basics. For most children in most elementary schools, the traditional emphasis on academic subjects, especially on reading and math in the early grades, remained common, and textbooks and their new allies, workbooks, were ubiquitous. Progressive educators despaired over the traditional ways of the high schools, where subject matter and teacher authority had long reigned supreme, and critics discovered that even shop teachers lectured or read to pupils out of textbooks. The curricula of high schools had undergone important changes with the rise of vocationalism, but teachers often ignored pleas for a more student-centered pedagogy.

In the second half of the twentieth century, about 90 percent of all children and teenagers were enrolled in the public schools. The exodus of teenagers from the workplace during the Depression was somewhat reversed with the rise of the service and fast food industry, but after-school jobs did not diminish the centrality of the public high school in the lives of most young people. As high school attendance increased, it provided a basis for the booming expansion of college enrollments of the 1960s, fueling fears from some parents and citizens that the schools were not academic enough. The launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 had convinced many citizens that the Soviets had superior schools; America's schools, they said, should raise standards and return to the basics in the interests of national defense. But the 1960s also inherited a quite different legacy from the Eisenhower era: the prospect of racial integration and the schools. In a landmark 1954 decision, BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled segregated schools to be unconstitutional, leading to rancorous debates that again focused attention on the place of schools in the lives of children and adolescents; these debates live with us still.

Thanks to the rise of the civil rights movement and the Great Society reforms of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1960s, the importance of public schools in American society remained evident, as liberal activists attempted to make them part of a wider campaign for social justice. Federal monies poured into elementary schools to try to improve the academic success of underprivileged children, and numerous programs at the high school level reached for the same lofty goal. HEAD START grew out of this liberal moment but over time gained bipartisan support. Bicultural and BILINGUAL EDUCATION programs, less popular with conservatives, gained more ground and federal support. After the 1960s, as liberalism faded and conservative views gained popularity, the role of public schools in American culture would be the subject of heated public debates, but these schools continue to serve the vast majority of children and adolescents and continue to play an important role in their socialization and education.

In the 1960s, liberal policy makers emphasized the importance of federal programs to promote greater equality, opportunity, and racial and economic justice in the schools. Since the 1980s, more conservative policy makers in Washington, as well as many on the state and local levels, have emphasized the importance of setting high academic standards for the nation's schools. They have also reemphasized the traditional notion of civic education, character education, and the importance of training the young to become productive workers. The standards movement reflected revived support for free market, competitive values, the reorientation of the economy away from heavy industry and toward the service industry and technology, and the spread of an economically integrated global economy. Since the Reagan years, presidents and governors of both major parties have regularly endorsed proposals to strengthen the academic character of the public schools, with mixed results. At the same time, the experience of attending school continues to reflect their many and varied social purposes.

In many communities, despite various movements for reform, the local public school often continues to have a blurred academic purpose. Special education programs, with a diverse student population, have proliferated, making universal academic standards difficult to set or at least impossible for every child to meet. And the great diversity of schools–in inner city northern ghettos, southwestern barrios, rich suburbs, small towns, and everything in between–ensures that having common intellectual outcomes in such wildly different environments remains a utopian goal. Some schools continue to enroll many poor and minority pupils, many from families where English is a second language, and many who qualify for a free school meal. For very poor children, a free breakfast and lunch or a safe haven from violent streets may be as important as high standardized test scores are for upper-class parents living in gated suburbs.

The drive for more testing in academic subjects became irresistible in the early years of the twenty-first century, as exemplified by the requirements in President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation. After some success at building more racially integrated schools in the 1970s, a trend toward resegregation has become apparent. How schools are to construct a more uniform curriculum in a multicultural world, where assimilation is not unquestionably accepted, also remains a heated issue. The fairness of common, even high-stakes, tests for everyone when disparities in school funding from district to district remain so wide similarly leads many to wonder whether testing will have much impact on school improvement. And finally, despite all the joys and importance of learning academic subjects, for many children the schools still remain to an important degree part of a social experience. In addition to their intellectual functions, schools have evolved as key social institutions, a place where friendships are made and broken, where social skills are taught if not always learned, and where learning about academic subjects competes with other human needs. The intellectual aims and social purposes of schools will remain in tension in the lives of children and adults into the foreseeable future.

See also: Coeducation and Same-Sex Schooling; Compulsory School Attendance; Education, Europe; Progressive Education; Urban School Systems, The Rise of; Vocational Education, Industrial Education, and Trade Schools.


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