Being in a celebratory mood, I looked up a Wikipedia article on U.S. public education in 1776. The first public and oldest existing school, Boston Latin School was opened in 1635. The first tax supported free public school was opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1639, and all northern states had tax supported elementary public schools by 1870. Tax supported schooling for girls began about 1767 in New England, but it was not universal. It’s curious that girls were often taught to read the scriptures but not taught to write!
Horace Mann became Secretary of Education in Massachusetts in 1837 and promoted the concept of ‘common’ schools. He argued that “universal public education was the best way to turn the nation’s unruly children into judicious, disciplined, republican citizens. One room schools became age-related grade level schools. By 1918, an elementary school education was required in all states. Just think, my dad was a little boy then.
In the southern colonies it was more common to have private tutors than schools. Some churches provided basic instruction, but the first public education systems were not started until the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. By 1900, only four southern states had compulsory education laws. My grandparents were alive then.
High schools in all states were mostly for the college bound. Even as late as 1940, only fifty percent of Americans had a high school diploma. Yet, the availability of high school and post secondary education for ordinary Americans, not just the wealthy, set the U.S. apart from the world.
The pressure for expanded educational opportunities due to changes in the American economy in 1900 are echoed in the drive for school reform today. It is reassuring in a way. The struggles are the same. The need is equally strong. The public interest will survive if our nation is to survive.
Maybe all the current dissension is just growing pains. We are, after all, a young nation. When I was born, only half of Americans went to high school. Now we are arguing about who should go to college. As the nation changes, schools change. It just is not easy dealing with adolescence.