The History of American Education

Education has taken many turns throughout its fairly short history in America. Although nothing has been entirely drastic, the changes made have chiseled and shaped the foundations of education and formed what we have today. The early nineteenth century saw the first beginnings of an interest and development in schools which has since led to the large and diverse public and private school sector we rely on to educate our children today.

During colonial times the big boom for a basic education began. Originally all teaching was done by the parents of the child and much of that education passed on was dedicated to learning the techniques and skills needed to man the house. For girls that meant candle making, sewing, and soap making; and for boys that often meant farm work. However, as the period progressed the need and desire to better educate the youth of society grew into the very early and modest beginnings of public education. A law in 1647 ordered all towns of fifty families or more to hire a school master to teach reading and writing; if the town consisted of 100 or more it was required they hire a grammar school master that would be able to prepare the students for Harvard. The former school masters would teach only reading and writing with modest if not primitive tools. This gave way to next step in education in which religion played a massive role.

The first real schools weren’t at all like those of today; instead they held their philosophical roots in religion, more specifically, Protestantism. Churches controlled much having to do with the educational system and deemed it their mission to educate the children in proper ideals and morals. This particular movement in which the church took more control over education was called the Common school movement; a movement which aimed to educate the children of the growing immigrant population so as to ward of their parents ideals. In addition, this movement sought to promote development of tax supported public schools, train teachers, and establish state direction. This was a direct change from the earliest school systems which were separately owned and operated, and in which funding came from many different sources.

During this time schools that were once only for charity or low income families began to see centralization under state authorities. This centralization, although a good change and one that has carried over into today’s society, was done so that immigrant parents wouldn’t have a say in schooling issues. This centralization succeeded in creating the free, tax supported public schools. However, such a successful mission was not without its bias, most of these schools were religious, and the funding they won for their schools was often barred from sectarian schools.

Within this steady development from separate schools in which the parent had to chose where and how the child would learn to a unified public school system several principles were developed and hold true today within our education system. One, the family is primarily responsible for their child’s education; two, there are many different schooling options to chose from; three, the availability of public and private schools; and four, cooperation between the public and private sectors. With these four traditions in place the school has become a solid place for education in which families and students have many places to turn, and are guaranteed an education should they not have financial means to afford it.

The organization of schools, besides the historical reasons aforementioned gave locals the control over public schools in order to assure public education at a given standard. In addition this supported the idea of federalism, and kept education in the hands of trained professionals who could make sure students received a decent education. These were the beginnings of a more sophisticated education and the goal was that everyone would benefit from it.

Over time, as the school systems changed and evolved from one form to another, the role of the teacher did as well. Originally the teacher was a very simply role taken on by parents or a hired tutor that would teach the very basics of reading, and writing. Although these existed, so much of a child’s education was centered on the work of running the house. With the 1647 law ordering towns to hire school masters this all changed. School houses were opened and teachers planned and implemented their lessons of reading and writing often using a hornbook and a New England Primer.

As the colonial era passed and the Common school movement kicked in teachers began to take a larger role in student lives. No longer were reading and writing the only subjects that a teacher was responsible for. Instead, as the church took a larger role in education and immigrants became an issue, teachers had to take on the role of primary role model. They were thought to be the way children would learn the social norms and develop into decent moral adults. As such they were evaluated, interviewed, and hired by church officials who made sure their values were in line with what they “should be.” Most of the power of what students should learn was in the hands of the church and teachers had little influence over it.

However as time passed and the way in which school were run evolved into a working community of officials and authorities, educators formed a union called the American Teacher Federation in 1916. With the introduction of principles and superintendents teachers were losing their right to run their own classrooms using the curriculum and material they deemed most fit. During that time educators had begun introducing the concept of greater freedom within the classroom, putting emphasis on group work and letting children learn at their own pace. The Federation advocated that teachers should be able to have a say in school policies and programs. To this day such a federation is still working for teacher rights. In 1980 teachers advocated for smaller class sizes and tougher grade requirements. States adopted academic standards and began administering standardized tests to hold teacher accountable for student education.

Many changes have caused education and the rights of teachers to evolve into what they are today and what the education system is today. Teachers now must follow a rigid set of curricula set by state and national standards; however teachers have a good deal of freedom in choosing the means by which to implement such standards. Books, activities, and other educational options are open to the teacher and their style. In this way teachers have become more versatile in means to deal with the needs and learning styles or disabilities of their students.

In this age of ever expanding knowledge the need for a good education has never been more pertinent. Our historical roots and philosophies support or ideals and fundamentals now, and the battles of educators throughout the years has created a more free and adaptable system to cater to the needs of society. It will be interesting to watch the education system continue to grow, and hopefully new and more effective means of teaching will develop.

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