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2.2: What are the educational milestones of the 19th century?

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    by Amber Showalter

    Learning Objectives

    1. Students should be able to identify the Common School Period and its goals.

    2. Students should be able to identify two of the major innovators of education in the 19th century.


    The 19th century encompassed many changes in America. One change in particular that influenced our education system was the beginning of the public school system. This movement made education available to the masses. Reformers and education innovators of the time worked tirelessly to make education public instead of private, free, and state maintained. In this article we will review the era of educational history known as the "common school movement, or the "common school period". We will also discuss two of the major educational innovators that were integral in developing the first public schools, or common schools and their curriculum.


    The years 1830 until 1872 are known as the "common school movement" or the "common school period." During this period in history, great changes were made in public schooling in nearly every state of the union. The goals of the common school movement were to provide a free education for white children, to train and educate teachers, and to establish state control over public schools (Church, 1976). Prior to common schools, the closest thing to public schools were the schools that existed in some of the northern British colonies. They often only lasted for 10 –12 weeks per year, favored boys, and were not free. As a result, race, gender, and family wealth greatly influenced education (Stone, 2001). There were many arguments in defense of the common school. As the immigrant population grew in the northern states during this period, the common school was used to “Americanize” all foreigners (Payne). Yet another argument for common schools was from advocates like Horace Mann. Mann believed that a common education for all meant that society in general would be more productive and prosperous. He once wrote that education “can raise more abundant harvests, and multiply the conveniences of domestic life; can build, transport, manufacture, mine, navigate, fortify;...a single new idea is often worth more to an individual than a hundred workmen” (Church, 1976, p. 66). A typical day in a common school would begin around 8:45 a.m. and last until 4 p.m. Usually breaks were taken for recess and for lunch. The children learned from textbooks such as McGuffey Readers and Webster’s American Spelling Book. A teacher might receive $25 a month as salary and would stay with families in the surrounding areas (Huntington, 2005).


    Horace Mann was born in Franklin, Massachusetts in 1796. His education began in a one-room schoolhouse and continued until he reached Brown University. He later studied law and found himself in the political arena. He was soon appointed to the newly formed Massachusetts State Board of Education in the position of Secretary. He served as Secretary from 1837 until 1848 (Sass, 2008). Mann became known as the “Father of the Common School” (Stone, 2001). He believed that education was a universal right for all. Everyone should have the opportunity to attend school no matter what their social class or income may be. Mann also advocated for a longer school year and the funding of schools to be the responsibility of the state instead of the individual. He helped establish laws for compulsory attendance and these laws were in every state by 1918 (Payne). Mann also advocated for a more trained and professional teacher. Training institutions called normal schools were established for teachers. The first public normal school was opened in 1839 (Church, 1976). Mann knew that the key to elevating the standard of learning was to elevate the standards in which the teachers were trained. He sought to make teaching a profession (Stone, 2001).


    One of the key problems for educational reformers during the 19th century, was the creation of a curriculum. A small publishing company called Truman and Smith played a vital role in the first textbooks for American children. Truman and Smith wanted to sell textbooks, but first they had to find someone to write these books. Their search ended with William McGuffey (Payne, The McGuffey Readers). McGuffey had already published his first reader in 1841 that introduced children to his ethical code. The book contained fifty-five lessons and the child modeled in this book was prompt, good, kind, honest and truthful (Payne, The McGuffey Readers). The child depicted in the McGuffey Readers was white and Protestant. The second reader appeared almost simultaneously with the first. It had eighty-five lessons, sixteen pictures, and one hundred sixty pages. There were lessons on a multitude of topics. Children learned about history, biology, and even table manners (Payne, The McGuffey Readers). The secular tone of the McGuffey Reader was unlike any of the other Puritan texts from that era (Sass, 2008). Reformers believed that the moral training of children occurred hand in hand with their academic training. The McGuffey Readers provided the necessary lessons in conjunction with a moral undertone. McGuffey Readers were called “eclectic readers” because they were written from a number of sources. They were considered remarkable literary works and had great influence (Payne). The McGuffey Readers have sold over 100 million copies since 1836 (Church, 1976).


    "The following stanza is copied from page 61 of the edition of 1844 to illustrate the method of presenting words:

    I like to see a lit-tle dog, And pat him on the head; So pret-ti-ly he wags his tail When-ev-er he is fed."

    (Vail, 1911, p. 6)


    The 19th century was a turning point in American education. The beginning of public schools, school reform and state funding were just a few of these changes. Innovators and reformers sought to make education available to the masses and not just to the wealthy and privileged. Innovators and reformers like Horace Mann and William Holmes McGuffey made it possible for common schools to establish themselves as the first public schools in the nation. This era and its innovators paved the way for our public school system as we know it today.



    Church, Robert (1976). Education in the United States, an interpretive history. New York: The Free Press.

    Huntington, Tom (April 2005). School days. Civil War Times, 44(1),14

    Payne, Shannon (No Date Posted). The history of education in America. Retrieved on February 4, 2009 from

    Payne, Shannon (No Date Posted). The mcguffey readers. Retrieved on February 9, 2009 from

    Sass, Edward, Ed.D (2008). American educational history: a hypertext timeline. College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University, Retrieved on February 4, 2009 from

    Stone Lantern Films (2001). School: the story of American public education. Presented by KCET/Hollywood. Retrieved February 4, 2009 from

    Stone Lantern Films (2001). School: the story of American public education. Presented by KCET/Hollywood. Retrieved February 4, 2009 from

    Vail, Henry H. (1911). A history of the mcguffey readers. Cleveland: The Burrow Brothers Co., Retrieved on February 9, 2009 from