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Summarize the growth of the American education system and Horace Mann’s campaign for free compulsory public education.


Topics on the Page

Visual Images of Schooling in American History

Schooling in Colonial America

Views from Historians

Common Schools and the Common School Movement

Women Teachers and Reformers

African American Educational Developments

Normal Schools

Horace Mann and Free Compulsory Education


1790 Schoolhouse, Monroe, Connecticut
1790 Schoolhouse, Monroe, Connecticut

primary_sources.PNGBack to School Statistics Fall 2014 from the National Center for Education Statistics

Visual Images of Schools in American History


School Houses in the United States on Wikimedia Commons

A Visual History of School Desks from EdTech Magazine (October 2011) shows classroom furniture from the late 1800s to the present.

Some St. Albans Schools Over the Years. . . from the St. Albans Vermont Historical Society.

Sacramento County (California) Schools During the Early 1900s from the Sacramento County Office of Education.

Photographs of Schools in West Virginia from West Virginia Archives & History.

An Indian Boarding School Photo Gallery from Modern American Poetry


Focus Question: How did the American education system develop from colonial times to the Civil War?

timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for a multimedia timeline of the history of teaching from the PBS series, Only A Teacher.
Boston Latin School House 1748-1810 on School Street Boston MA.
Boston Latin School House 1748-1810 on School Street Boston MA.

rotating gif.gifLink to Grade 5.13 for more on education in colonial America

Schooling in Colonial America

The earliest public schools were in Puritan New England: Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, and featured a curriculum focused on religious values and learning from the bible.
  • The Boston Latin School, founded in 1635, is the oldest school in America.
  • The Puritans formed the first formal school in 1645, called the Roxbury Latin School.
  • Four years later, Harvard was established as the first American college.
  • Children aged 6-8 attended a "Dame school" where the teacher, who was usually a widow, taught reading.
  • The Massachusetts Bay Colony, passed a law in 1657 requiring a community of 50 or more families to hire a schoolteacher.
  • However, the concept of public education in Puritan New England did not spread; private schooling was the norm throughout the colonies.

Schools in early New England were "small, their curriculum uniform, and their students homogeneous, they could work for the individual preparation of Puritan saints" (James Axtell, The School Upon A Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England, W. W. Norton, 1974).

  • From colonial times to the late 18th century, most schoolteachers were men in their 20s, many of whom used teaching as a stepping-stone to careers in law or the church.
  • Women did run what were called "Dame Schools" in their homes for young children, and women in rural areas managed groups of students during the summer when men were farming.
  • Schools were only open a few months of the year when children were not needed to work at home or in the fields.
Boston Latin School, 2008
Boston Latin School, 2008


primary_sources.PNGOld Deluder Satan Law of 1647 was one of the first pieces of education legislation in Massachusetts. It required that towns of 50 or more families must provide an elementary school, and towns of 100 or more people needed to have a grammar school. The schools would teach reading, and writing using the Bible.

primary_sources.PNGBesides the Bible, the first book used in schools was The New England Primer. The New England Primer followed a tradition of combining the study of the alphabet with Bible reading. It introduced each alphabet letter in a religious phrase and then illustrated the phrase with a woodcut.
external image McGuffey_Reader.jpg

Both the Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 and the New England Primer focused directly on the moral and religious education of the young.

Multimedia.png Watch this YouTube video which details early education, specifically dame schools and the types of questions that would be asked of young children, titled "Education in America: 17th and 18th Centuries."

Rotating_globe-small.gif Teachers, see this page for lesson planning ideas focused on colonial classrooms. It provides several ideas for colonial education-related activities that would work best in either elementary or middle school classrooms, including the creation of hornbooks, phonics lessons, and colonial arithmetic.

Female_Rose.pngRead about female education during the colonial period.

Views from Historians

  • As Lawrence Cremin has noted in American Education: The National Experience, 1783-1876 (Harper and Row, 1980, p. 2), the founders believed
    • "the laws of education be relative to the forms of government; hence, while monarchies needed an education to status that would fix each class of the citizenry to its proper place in the social order, republics needed an education to virtue that would motivate all men to choose public over private interest."
  • Thomas Jefferson advocated for creating a public school system, free from religious bias, under the control of the government, and available to people regardless of social status.
  • According to historian James Axtell, the nature of schools both changed and remained the same in the New World:
    • "The elite Latin curriculum for well-to-do boys was gradually replaced in most local schools by a comprehensive English curriculum for children of both sexes drawn from families of a greater range of socioeconomic standings" (Axtell, 1974, p. 286).
  • At the same time, schools continued to play the role they had played in England, "that of guardian of the social order for an increasing proportion of the youth group" (Axtell, 1974, p. 287).

Axtell's interpretation is based on a view of education as the "self-conscious pursuit of certain intellectual, social, and moral ideals by any society that wishes to preserve and transmit its distinctive character to future generations" (Axtell, 1974, p. xi-xii).

Common Schools and the Common School Movement (1820s to 1830s)


Noah Webster
Noah Webster

primary_sources.PNGThe American Spelling Book Noah Webster began publishing this book in 1783.

game_icon.svg.pngSearch for words in Noah Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. This is the second most popular book published in English.

  • Webster introduced American words, some of them derived from Native American languages, including: skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory, opossum, lengthy, and presidential, Congress, and caucus (quoted in Writer's Almanac, April 14, 2014)

Biography icon for wiki.pngFor a short biography of Noah Webster, go to the West Hartford Historical Society.

For a picture book, see Noah Webster and His Words (2012).

The Common School Movement (Mid to late 19th century) spread from the Northern states to the Southern states, changing education in America from an exclusive to an inclusive system.
  • Schools and teaching began to change in the 1820s and 1830s with the arrival of the Common School, an early version of today's public school.
Massachusetts_state_seal.pngMassachusetts education reformer Horace Mann (see below for more about Mann) proposed common schools as the means to a system of:
  • free, universal, non-religious-based schooling.
  • Funded by taxes and special fees paid by parents
    • common schools would provide education for all children, regardless of religion or social class.
  • These schools would teach basic literacy and arithmetic and a philosophy of sound democratic citizenship.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read an essay about the victory of the Common School Movement.

primary_sources.PNGThe McGuffey Reader was the most popular school book of the 19th century.

Click here to read an overview of the Education Reform Movement, including views from excerpts from Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird about education.

Multimedia.pngClick here to view a 5 minute video about the Common School Movement, and Horace Mann.

Could Have Passed 8th Grade in 1895? Take this test with questions in arthritic, US History, Geography, Grammar, and Orthography (spelling).

School Houses:
  • Click here to see a one room schoolhouse in Exeter, RI, in used from 1766-1952.
  • Click here to see another one room schoolhouse in West Virginia.

Women Teachers and Reformers:


With the changes regarding inclusion in the American public school system as a result of the Common School Movement, girls were able to attend school with their brothers and other boys their age.

womens history.jpgEarly College Women in America: Determined to be Educated

The emergence of common schools created the need for more teachers, and to meet this demand, women were hired and paid 1/3'rd of their male counterparts. By the 1850s, a majority of the nation's teachers were women. Today, about four out of five teachers are women.
Female_Rose.pngCatherine Beecher was a social and education reformer who believed that women should have greater power over their own lives and domestic affairs. She also believed that higher education should prepare women as teachers, a natural extension of their roles as mothers and caregivers.

Female_Rose.pngDorothea Dix began her career as a teacher before becoming a reformer and advocate for better treatment for the mentally ill.
Dorothea Dix
Dorothea Dix


Female_Rose.png See this article from 2007, written by Casey Rekowski of Bridgewater State College (MA) (now Bridgewater State University) titled "Horace Mann's Vision in Action: Bridgewater Normal School's Female Teachers." The article is a portion of Ms. Rekowski's Honors Thesis, which was accepted by and presented at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research in 2007. This resource would be best implemented by an AP American History classroom.

Female_Rose.pngClick here to view a timeline of female education in America.

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngHistorian Michael B. Katz (The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts, Beacon Press, 1968) saw the modern public school movement as a conservative response to rapid industrialization.
  • In his view, the idea that public education was a triumph for the working classes was a myth.
  • Comparing the education reform movements of the progressive era and the 1960s with those of the 1840s and 1850s, Katz argued that goals of both movements "stressed the needs of society and the economy."
  • In both, "goals were formulated with scant regard to the indigenous culture, even the aspirations, of the working-class groups to be reformed."

African American Educational developments from the Colonial Period to after the Civil War:

  • During the early colonial period in America, it was encouraged to educate slaves for religious purposes.
  • During this time, many slaves converted to Christianity, and used the teachings in the Bible to refute slavery in colonial America.
  • In 1740, South Carolina passed the first law prohibiting slaves education (specifically not being able to learn how to write) following the Stono Rebellion.
    • Out of fear for the power that slaves were gaining due to their education, many other southern states passed similar laws banning education for slaves.
    • During the antebellum period, some slaves would learn to read and write in secret from other educated slaves, or from 'benevolent' slave owners or slave owning family members.
    • Unfortunately, it is believed that only a small percentage of slaves were able to read and write.
  • After the Civil War, many educators promoted education for former slaves and their children, and schools were set up for African American children.

The Education of African Americans after the Civil War

Rotating_globe-small.gifMilestones in African American Education
Rotating_globe-small.gifRoberts vs. The City of Boston 1848-49 This was an early court case that established the basis for the basis of the "seperate but equal" principle that was in use until the Board v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Click here to view a digital history of African American education during Reconstruction.

The Quest for Education: Separate is Not Equal.
rotating gif.gifSee United States History II.9 for African Americans' post-Civil War struggles for freedom and United States History II.25 for more on the Board case.

Multimedia.pngThe History of African American Education by Rebekah Grayson on YouTube.

Normal Schools

Normal schools were established to provide training for teachers. They were intended to ensure a norm for every teacher (the reason for the use of the term normal). The first state-supported normal school opened in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1839, though an earlier normal school may have been established in Vermont in 1823.

According to the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1988 Edition):

"Normal Schools derive their name from the French phrase ecole normale. These teacher-training institutions, the first of which was established in France by the Brothers of the Christian Schools in 1685, were intended to set a pattern, establish a "norm" after which all other schools would be modeled. The first normal school in America was established in Vermont in 1823. The name fell out of favor toward the end of the 1920s, when the influence of Columbia University's Teachers College became paramount in the field of public education. Most such institutions changed their names to 'teachers colleges' during the 1930s. Now that the 'progressive education' teachings of the Columbia group have been discredited, the Progressive Education Association itself has disbanded and most colleges have dropped 'teachers' from their names. Thus we find that the normal school of grandfather's day became a 'state teachers college' during father's youth, but today's sprout are attending 'state colleges.'"

For more on the above quotation, see this page from James Madison University on it's progression from "The State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg" in 1908 to "James Madison University" in 1977.

Focus Question: Who was Horace Mann and what was his campaign for free compulsory public education?

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngHorace Mann (1796-1859) has been called the Father of the Common School. A social reformer who was born and lived in Massachusetts, Mann "comprehensively surveyed the condition of the state's schools, establishing training institutes for teachers, increased the length of the school year to six months, and gathered support for more funding for teacher salaries, books and school construction" (School: The Story of American Public Education, PBS). A timeline of his life follows:
external image Horace_Mann.jpg
  • 1837: Secretary of Massachusetts Board of Education
    • Believed that all children should get an education paid for by taxes
    • Also believed that education was the basis of political & social success
    • “Public schooling was central to good citizenship, democratic participation and societal well-being."
  • Founded The Common School Journal in 1838.
    • Click here to look inside the archives of the journal.
  • Member of Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1827-1833.
    • “Realizing the need for public support and public awareness of the educational problems of poor teaching, substandard materials, inferior school committees and pupil absences, Mann campaigned throughout the State. This campaign was eminently successful. The schools were improved everywhere in the State.”
    • Campaigned for free libraries; thought they would improve education
    • Petitioned for educational funds: doubled teacher salaries, increased state aid, classroom equipment and resources.
  • American Revolution sparked the idea of schools created by the government
    • Many did not like the idea of public schools because it would increases taxes
    • Proponents of public education thought that it would better quality of workers, the lives of young Americans & increase patriotism.
      Portrait drawing of Mann
      Portrait drawing of Mann
    • Education activists argued a public education would decrease crime.
  • 1852: Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws; 16 states have them by 1885
  • Late 19th century: free elementary education for all children
  • 1821: First public high school, Boston English High School
  • 1827: In Massachusetts, all towns of 500+ families must have a public school
  • 1829: What is now known as Perkins School for the Blind (Newton, MA) opens; first school in American to open for children with sight problems.
  • 1856: First kindergarten opened in Watertown, Wisconsin

Multimedia.pngClick here for a short video about Horace Mann from Boston History.

Biography_icon_for_wiki.pngClick here for a biography of Horace Mann and his involvement in the Common School Movement.


Works Cited

  1. http://www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/horace.html
  2. http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agexed/aee501/mann.html
  3. http://www.pbs.org/kcet/publicschool/
__4.__ http://www.cloudnet.com/~edrbsass/educationhistorytimeline.html#1800
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_during_the_Slave_Period