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.
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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.2018 All rights reserved.