What American education was like 100 years ago

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September 6, 2020

What American education was like 100 years ago

Education has and continues to play an essential role in American society, and the first Department of Education—also known as Office of Education or Bureau of Education—was established in 1867 to document and promote the "condition and progress of education" in the United States.

In the early days of American history, educational attainment was seen as less of a priority than it is today. Child labor laws had not yet gone into effect, and many children were required to work, help out on the family farm, or contribute in other ways to the home. As time passed, however, education became increasingly important as a means of getting ahead financially and establishing oneself as a productive member of society.

To understand how American education has evolved over the last century, Stacker investigated historical education data and took a deep dive into a 1993 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report that documented 120 years of trends in U.S. education. The report, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait, compiles statistical data, tables, and charts from 1870 to 1990 to evaluate how education has evolved over the years.

This gallery features U.S. trends in education over the last century from 1919 to 2019 by examining how factors like race, gender, age, geography, enrollment rates, and curricular requirements correlate with educational attainment levels for various groups within the U.S. population at public and private elementary, secondary, and postsecondary institutions.

Read on to find out how special education gained prominence in policy, when early literacy became a national priority, and how spending has increased per student in various U.S. educational institutions.

You may also like: Most and least educated states in America

Percent of 5- to 19-year-olds enrolled in school by race

From 1919 to 1920, approximately 60% of white children and 50% of black children and those of other races were enrolled in school. The most recent data from the NCES revealed that in 2015, the number of minority students surpassed the number of white students in public schools for the first time.

Median years of school completed by people aged 25 and older

People ages 25 and over in 1919-1920 completed a median of 8.2 years of school. Today, 92% of the U.S. population has attained a high school diploma by the time they reach that age, while 36% have at least a bachelor's degree.

Percent of people aged 14 years and older who are illiterate

Despite general improvements to attainment and enrollment rates in U.S. education in the last century, adult illiteracy has remained stagnant over the past decade and is up from a century ago. In fact, 13% of the U.S. population is illiterate as compared to 6% in 1919-1920. Illiteracy is an ongoing problem that is being addressed by libraries and other social and community services.

Elementary school and secondary school enrollment

As the population has grown and priorities have shifted socially as a result of the Industrial Revolution and other advances in child labor laws, more students have begun to attend school regularly. In the late 1910s, 23.7 million students were attending elementary and secondary schools in the U.S. compared to 55.9 million students in 2019.

Average number of days per year attended by public school students

The students in the 1919-1920 school year only had to attend school 143 days a year; a decade later, though, the school year went up to 175 days. This is still the standard for the U.S. school year—anywhere between 175 and 186 days (or, in some cases, completing a certain number of instructional hours).

Pupil-to-teacher ratio in elementary and secondary schools

Student and teacher ratios decreased significantly since the 1920s when they were around 30 students per teacher. By the 1990s, there were 17 students per teacher. In 2015, there were 16 students per teacher in public schools compared to 12 students per teacher in private schools.

Percentage of elementary and secondary school teachers by sex

Teaching has traditionally been a female-dominated profession, with about 86% of teachers being women in the 1919-1920 school year. The number dropped to 71% by the 1959-1960 school year, but the current statistics show an increasing trend with 77% of public educators as women in the 2015-2016 school year.

Number of public and private high school graduates among 17-year-olds

There has been significant growth in the number of 17-year-olds completing high school. Back then, only 20 out of 100 17-year-olds were attaining their high school diplomas, which was still a significant improvement from the 1869-1870 school year, when only two in 100 17-year-olds completed high school—currently, more than 85 out of 100 graduate high school.

Sources of revenue for schools

In the early days, many schools relied on city and county governments to provide revenue to keep them going. Now, public school revenues are about equally likely to come from state and local sources.

Expenditures per pupil

Pupils in 1920 could expect less than $1,000 per year to be devoted to their educations. This is not the case anymore—up to $13,119 per public school student is allotted each year.

Enrollment in institutions of higher education by sex

Women have outpaced men in the rate of enrollment at higher education institutions, whereas the difference in 1919-1920 and the early 1930s favored men with a 40% female enrollment rate. Now, postsecondary enrollment percentages have flipped with women in 2015 making up 56% of students enrolled in degree-granting, postsecondary institutions.

Expenditures per student in institutions of higher education

Data is not available for expenditures per student in the 1919-1920 school year. However, the earliest data from the 1929-1930 school year shows that spending was less than $3,000 per student on education. Now, depending on the type of institution—public or private—a college or university may spend between $44,000 and $56,000 on average per student per year.

Bachelor's degrees among 23-year-olds

In the 1919-1920 school year, less than 50 per 1,000 23-year-olds completed a bachelor's degree. By 2018, 35.3% of men and 34.6% of women had achieved that goal—far surpassing their century-earlier peers.

Percentage of higher education degrees conferred to women

There has traditionally been a gender gap between men and women in obtaining higher education, including bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Back in 1919, 30% of bachelor's degrees, 35% of master's degrees, and 15% of doctoral degrees were conferred to women. Now, 39.3% of the 13.1% of the U.S. population who hold a bachelor's degree or higher are women.

Libraries in schools

In the 1919-1920 school year, school libraries had just come into being. Brooklyn, N.Y. was home to the first two professionally trained school librarians. As of the 2015-2016 school year, 91% of all public schools had a library or media center.

Sources of revenue for institutions of higher education

While the type of revenue received by higher education institutions depends on whether they are public or private, it amounted to a combination of federal and state funding back in the day. Today, public institutions continue to rely on government funding, while many private colleges and universities rely on tuition and fees.

Preschool programs in the United States

Before formal education comes early literacy, which often takes place at home or in libraries and other community centers. While the first publicly funded preschool program was not created until 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, early literacy has since become increasingly important. Eighty-one percent of parents today read to their pre-kindergarten children at home; the concept that was barely a notion a century ago.

Total enrollment in public and private elementary and secondary schools

Private school enrollment has gone down in recent years. While it has always been lower than public school enrollment, it peaked in the 1960s with Catholic schools. As families moved out of cities and into suburbs, children were sent increasingly to public school: Today, around 1.8 million children go to Catholic schools; half a century ago, it was more than double that number. Statistically, percentage of private-school enrollment hovered around 11.7% in the mid-1990s and slipped to just 10% of total enrollment in the last few years. Part of the added slip has to do with the increase in public charter school programs.

Number of children participating in programs for those with disabilities

The earliest school year for which statistics are available for disabled students is 1921-1922. Then, only 23 mentally disabled students were recorded as having been served. With the 1975 passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates a free and fair public school education for students with disabilities, more students started to be identified for functional needs in schools. The percentage increased from nearly nonexistent 100 years ago to 13.2% of students in the 2015-2016 school year participating in programs for those with disabilities, including autism, developmental delays, and learning disabilities.

Average daily attendance in public elementary and secondary schools

In the 1919-1920 school year, about 16.2 million students were attending public elementary and secondary schools daily. In the 2005-2006 school year, that number of nearly tripled at 45.9 million students attending public elementary and secondary schools daily.

Catholic elementary and secondary enrollment

One hundred years ago, there were slightly more than 8,000 Catholic schools with 38 students to one teacher. Today, the numbers tell a very different story, with 6,289 Catholic schools and 12 students per teacher, allowing for more individual attention and tailored learning.

Public school enrollment in grades 9-12

As the population increases and the economy becomes more competitive, the number of students attending public secondary school (grades nine through 12) has also increased. While 2.9 million students attended high school in the 1921–1922 school year, 15.2 million students attended high school in the 2018-2019 school year.

High school graduates by sex

In the 1919-1920 school year, 16.8 out of every 100 17-year-olds in the U.S. completed high school at a ratio of 124 males to 188 females. The numbers have shifted in the last century, with an 85% completion rate and a nearly even ratio of male to female high school graduates.

Degrees conferred by institutions of higher education by race

The original report does not provide data on race and the correlation between race and completion of bachelor's and other advanced degrees. However, there has been an uptick in recent years in postsecondary degrees being awarded to students of Hispanic, black, or Native American origins in the past 15 years.

Degrees conferred by institutions of higher education by sex

Higher education data was first collected in the late 1860s when postsecondary education was limited to the well-to-do. Still, women have always been well-represented in institutions of higher education in the U.S., and in the 1920s made up 44% of the total population. Today, they make up 56% of all college students in the U.S.

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