Posted in Miscellaneous

A Brief And Eclectic History of American Education

“Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” –Thomas Jefferson


As we commemorate our independence and the birth of our nation at  this time of year, I thought a brief jaunt through history in terms of education in the United States would be appropriate.


imgres-1With the arrival of the Puritan pilgrims and the creation of Plymouth Colony, the stage is set for educational thought and practice in New England. Beginning in 1635, Latin grammar schools are established as institutions to train young men for leadership positions in the church and state.  In the religious tradition of the day, the Massachusetts Bay School Law is passed in 1642—it requires parents to ensure their children know basic religious principles and the laws governing the commonwealth.  Leading out with educational legislation, Massachusetts passes a law in 1647 that requires towns of a certain size to hire a schoolmaster.


The Bill of Rights essentially leaves the issue of educating the citizenry to the states by virtue of omission.


Horace Mann
Horace Mann

The invention of the modern blackboard marks the beginning of the century. In 1821, Boston English High School—the first public high school—opens.  Horace Mann, later known as the “father of American public education” becomes the secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education.  Massachusetts, ever the leader in educational matters, institutes the first compulsory attendance laws in 1852.  Wisconsin (my home state—yeah!) initiates the first kindergarten in the U.S. in 1856.


The first junior high school opens in 1909 in Columbus, Ohio.  At the onset of WWI, mental aptitude tests are developed to screen recruits—these become the basis for standardized testing later.  (So now we’re using means developed in war-time to “promote” education during peacetime, really? But, I’ll save the editorial about that for another time.)  In 1926, the first SAT was administered; the first ACT followed in 1959.  Still leading out, Massachusetts passed legislation in 1993 requiring common curriculum and statewide testing.  Whiteboards take over and replace blackboards beginning in 1994.  And in 1995, Georgia becomes the first state with a ubiquitous preschool offer for all four-year-olds whose parents elect to enroll them.


The new millennium kicked off with President George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002.  A few years ago in Seattle, a group of high school teachers were reported to have refused to give district-mandated tests, thus protesting the overuse of standardized testing.  Changes are still happening in education constantly—just earlier this year, President Obama announced a plan to grant two years of free community college to all American students.

Most of these tidbits and factoids are from an interesting (and quite detailed) timeline of the history of education in America—both before and after the states united.  The full timeline can be found here.

Happy Independence Day!




I love to write. I love to teach. I get to write about teaching. Lucky me.

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