Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

3.1: History of American Education

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)

    Learning Objectives

    • Identify important points during the timeline of American Education
    • Explain how past events continue to affect current education and educational policy.
    • Locate and explain, by referencing examples in a Nation at Risk, the three competing goals of public education: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility.
    • Explain the Nation at Risk commission’s recommendations.
    • Identify two recommendations that affect current educational policies.
    Portrait of Noah Webster
    Portrait of Noah Webster

    In this chapter, by studying the history of education in America, a better understanding of what currently exists in the educational landscape and why can be achieved. Important innovations have occurred throughout the history of education. In contrast, not every policy or strategy resulted in better education. In the beginning, education was not very widespread and definitely not available to all children.

    Thomas Jefferson (1779) had a radical idea that every child should receive an education at the public’s expense. The education Jefferson proposed was limited in scope compared with the amount of time spent by a student currently. One of the needs in a democratic society required the ability to read and understand what was read. Jefferson’s efforts met with stiff resistance while all efforts to obtain legislative approval failed.

    After the Revolution, America needed to separate itself from Britain. Noah Webster called for the elimination of British texts. He wrote the popular Blue Back Speller that Americanized the spelling of many words. Other authors began writing texts that promoted national ideals. Education was being used to make America a unique country.

    Daguerreotype of Horace Mann

    In the early 1800s Horace Mann began the make-over of the Massachusetts school system as the state superintendent of education. Mann began visiting schools, making reports, and publicly arguing for a free education for all children. In addition, Mann argued for teacher preparation and standardized equipment. His ideas resulted in common schools that were free, had standard curriculums, were funded by taxes, and gave some local control back to the state. Shortly after Mann’s death , he was recognized as a leader in public education and Massachusetts passed public, tax supported, compulsory education.

    Slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts early, but African American children were mistreated and harassed in integrated schools leading to segregated schools. A concern about the growth of prejudice generated by segregation in schools and a resentment among African American parents over supporting schools their children could not attend led to unsuccessful petitions to close segregated schools. Roberts v City of Boston (1850) argued before the state supreme court failed because the court cited provisions had been made for the African American children to have a school even though it was segregated. In 1855 the state legislature abolished segregation in schools.

    Since the beginning of American education, the Protestant faith was a dominant influence with philosophy, holidays, and even prayers. Besides wide spread prejudice against Catholics, they did not want their children exposed to religious beliefs not supported at home. Well attended Great School Debates argued by Cardinal Hughes against a multitude of Protestant ministers occurred. Hughes wanted public funds to start Catholic schools, but the NY City School Board held the line on funding only public schools. The Catholic school system started by breaking away from the public-school system.

    At the end of the Civil War, slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment. Unfortunately, although African Americans were no longer slaves, states of the former Confederacy actively fought integration. Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877 signaling the beginning of the Jim Crow era and the erosion of black civil rights and liberties. By 1896, states had been using the doctrine of separate but equal to justify segregation. Facilities and equipment were vastly inferior for African American students, not equal. Plessy v. Ferguson had worked its way up to the US Supreme Court. Plessy argued Louisiana’s law of separate but equal violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments and that segregation labeled African American people as inferior. The Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal did not violate the Constitution.

    Brown County’s Sod High School

    As more and more people migrated to the West for opportunity, state constitutions touted free public educations. So many schools were opening that a new source of teachers was needed. Katherine Beecher established teaching as a female moral calling. Beecher’s stand allowed females to journey into the vast expanse of the western plains. With the influx of female teachers, care came into the American classrooms. Students also received moral education through the very popular McGuffey’s Readers.

    By 1890, America’s public schools were educating more students than any other nation on Earth. Unfortunately, many minorities were segregated from public education including, African Americans, Native Americans, and Mexicans. In 1896, John Dewey open his first progressive laboratory in Massachusetts. The progressive philosophy practiced hands-on learning that led to problem solving and critical thinking. Progressivism was popular until World War II.

    In 1954, a unanimous decision crafted by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the case of Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education heard before the US Supreme Court ended segregation in public schools. Cases from Kansas, Delaware, Washington, DC, South Carolina, and Virginia were combined. In Topeka, each of the students who tried to enroll in a neighborhood school were denied admission. Thurgood Marshall, a future Supreme Court Justice, was one of the lawyers who argued the case for the NAACP. The justices stated that separate facilities are inherently unequal, and that education is a right. Not much changed, the southern states resisted integration, and African American faculty of students who were integrated lost their jobs. As nine students, the Little Rock Nine, tried to integrate a white high school the Alabama National Guard under the direction of the governor prevented the students from entering the school. President Eisenhower federalized the national guard and sent federal troops to enforce the integration in 1959. Finally, when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 stipulating that noncompliance in integration would result in the loss of federal funds, states complied with the Court’s order. By 1972, 91% of students attended integrated schools.


    In 1958, the Russians launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. America found itself behind in the resulting space race. The National Defense Education Act called for finding and educating more talent in science, mathematics, foreign languages, and technology. Monetary support was given to states and students. Vocational education received funding, also. A call for experimentation and research in media to improve the presentation of academic subject matter with training given to teachers.

    In 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to provide all students a fair and equal opportunity to achieve an exceptional education. Part of the act’s goal was to close the achievement gap between poor students and all other students. The three major titles of the act are: Title I – Financial Assistance for the Education of Low-Income Families; Title VI – Aid to Handicapped Children; and Title VII – Bilingual Education Programs, which established the federal fingerprints on education. Congress reauthorized the act in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). A major provision added testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 in reading and mathematics with each state setting their own standards. Wide spread criticism caused Congress to reauthorize the act as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. Although the testing continued, accountability was transferred to the states. States submit goals and standards with a plan on how they will be achieved. States also determine the consequences for low-achieving schools (bottom 10%). In addition, all schools are to offer college and career counseling and Advanced Placement courses to all students.


    In 1968, Mexican American students from three Los Angelis East Side high schools (Garfield, Roosevelt, and Lincoln) walked out over high dropout rates, lack of college prep courses, rundown schools, and a low number of Mexican American teachers. Student walkouts were a part of a larger scope of activism in the Mexican American community that grew out of treatment as second-class citizens. The walkouts lasted more than a week with student speeches and clashes with the police culminating with students presenting demands at a board of education meeting. The board of education granted the request for smaller class sizes and more bilingual counselors and teachers immediately. A grand jury indicted the activists, the “Eastside 13,” but an appeals court vacated the indictment in 1970. Actions taken by the students cultivated a sense of possibility in the community.

    By 1971, Detroit and its suburbs presented areas of entrenched segregation as a result of white flight, real estate policies, neighborhood associations, and town policies. A judge approved the Detroit metro plan as a remedy, but the plan failed to garner support from most of the groups involved. In fact, the plan failed to reverse segregation and did not raise the quality of education. When the Supreme Court struck down busing as a means of achieving integration in the Milliken v Bradley case, integration was deemed the responsibility of the city. Detroit is still searching for a solution to this thorny issue.

    In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments Act that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (US Congress). Title IX corrected an oversight by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which did not prohibit sex discrimination against persons employed at educational institutions. If a school discriminated on the basis of gender, federal funds would be withheld from the school. Enforcement fell to lawsuits brought by the federal government. The act resulted in the creation of public-school sports teams for girls.

    Lau v. Nicols (1974) was decided unanimously by the Supreme Court. Supplemental language instruction was denied to most Chinese students who were integrated into the San Francisco public school system; therefore, these students did not receive a meaningful education. In fact, few students throughout the country received supplemental English instruction since funding was limited and participation was voluntary. The Court stated that supplemental instruction was required because the school district received federal funds. The Court argued that a “sink or swim” policy for learning was prohibited. Subsequent decisions required plaintiffs to provide proof of intentional discrimination which weakened the Lau finding.

    In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed by Congress that required “public schools receiving federal funds to provide equal education to students with physical and mental disabilities” (US Congress). To ensure that the education provided students with disabilities closely aligned with the education of non-disabled students, students with disabilities were evaluated and an educational plan with parent input was created. Schools were required to provide procedures for parents to dispute decisions with judicial review as a last resort. The act required disabled students to be placed in the least restrictive environment with the greatest opportunity to interact with non-disabled students. Only when the nature and severity of the disability prevented education in a regular classroom were separate schools allowed.


    Contributors and Attributions

    CC licensed content, Original
    • Foundations of Education. Authored by: SUNY Oneonta Education Department. License: CC BY: Attribution
    Public domain content

    This page titled 3.1: History of American Education is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tasneem Amatullah, Rosemarie Avanzato, Julia Baxter, Thor Gibbins, Lee Graham, Ann Fradkin-Hayslip, Ray Siegrist, Suzanne Swantak-Furman, Nicole Waid via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.