History of the American education system

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December 10, 2020
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History of the American education system

There is now—and has always been—a direct correlation between education and wealth in the United States. In the beginning, even basic education was reserved for the children of the rich, and college was a finishing school for the next generation of the aristocracy. Over time, the culture changed and education became something that was recommended, then eventually required, for all children. COVID-19 widened student achievement gaps largely along economic lines, and stands as a searing reminder of educational disparities still pervasive among American students. Today, the 15% of students who don't graduate high school likely fall into the lowest-earning demographic in American society, with median weekly wages of $592, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Using sources like news reports, government data, and historical records, Stacker developed a list of 50 moments that helped to define the history of American education. It is, of course, an incomplete list. Volumes have been written just about individual Supreme Court cases that redefined the American classroom. What follows, however, is a chronology of the events that connect colonial Puritan homeschooling to online homeschooling in the age of the coronavirus.

Since knowledge is power, education has always been a source of controversy. The storylines of race, gender, economics, religion, culture, geography, and politics drove and were driven by the history of education. Along the way, generations of children learned their ABCs and times tables from teachers they would remember for the rest of their lives.

As of January 2019, there were 130,930 K-12 schools in the United States. The total includes 91,276 public schools, 32,461 private schools, and 7,193 charter schools. Nearly 51 million children get their education at those schools and another 1.69 million were being homeschooled—a number that likely climbed dramatically amid the pandemic when, even a schools reopened, many parents and guardians opted to keep their children learning from home.

Keep reading to learn 50 major moments in the history of the American education system.

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Nick Allen // Wikimedia Commons

1635: The first school opens in America’s education capital

On April 23, 1635, the Town of Boston opened the Boston Latin School for the sons of the ruling class. It is the oldest school in America as well as the country's first public school. Nearby Harvard University became America’s first and oldest school of higher education the very next year.

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Jane Stuart // Wikimedia Commons

17th century: Homeschooling is the norm

Despite the creation of the Boston Latin School, the concept of classroom teaching remained a novel concept for years to come. In most of the Puritan Northeast during the 17th century, virtually all children who were educated learned to read and write at home.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

17th century: The rich take interest in classrooms

In-classroom learning was a privilege reserved almost exclusively for boys from wealthy families of European ancestry as more schools were constructed in large, 17th-century towns. Virtually all girls and nonwhite boys were excluded. Only about 10% of colonial children went outside the home for any kind of organized education.

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Wellcome Images // Wikimedia Commons

17th century: Religion is the basis of education

Instead of academic pursuits like math and science, early schools focused on concepts like morality, family, and community. The most important subject of all, and the one that guided the teaching of all others, was religion.

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The New England Primer // Library of Congress

1690: A new book sets the standard

Benjamin Harris in 1690

published a beginning reader called the “New England Primer.” It went on to sell more than 5 million copies and remained in use for more than 100 years into the 19th century. It combined the study of the alphabet with religious coursework, including Q&As in topics like sin and punishment.

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Adolphe Yvon // Wikimedia Commons

1775: The Revolutionary War changes everything

Parents and teachers in colonial times used primers and readers that were mostly imported from England. That ended with the Revolution, when a new need for homegrown educational aids would eventually lead to the development of textbooks. The struggle to control the content and distribution of those textbooks would lead to epic political, social, and cultural battles that continue to this day.

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Jamers Herring // Wikimedia Commons

1783: Webster emerges as a visionary

Lexicographer, teacher, author, and dictionary innovator Noah Webster also pioneered early textbooks. Published in 1783, Webster’s “A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” was used in schools for more than 100 years and sold 100 million copies. The most popular book of any kind of its era, it has never been out of print.

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Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

1799: The education color barrier is broken

Washington and Lee University in 1799 admitted a man named John Chavis, the first known instance of an African American attending college in the United States. In 1823, Alexander Lucius Twilight became the first person of color to earn a bachelor’s degree when he graduated from Middlebury College. Mary Jane Patterson became the first African American woman to earn a degree when she graduated from Oberlin College, a center of the abolitionist movement, in 1862.

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The American Stationer // Wikimedia Commons

1801: Blackboards grow up

Before 1801, students used individual slates for chalk writing and teachers didn’t have a way to present lessons to an entire classroom. That year, James Pillans, a geography teacher and headmaster at the Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, introduced the modern blackboard when he mounted a large piece of slate on a classroom wall. A West Point instructor named George Baron was the first to use a wall-mounted blackboard in the U.S.

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slonme // Shutterstock

1820s: A literary icon changes the pencil game

Graphite was discovered in the 1820s in New England, but it was of inferior quality and smudged too much to be good for writing. Enter naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who—prior to becoming an author—worked in his family's pencil factory and was instrumental in developing a graphite hardening technique that served as the precursor to the classroom-staple #2 pencil.

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Edward E. Babb & Co. // Wikimedia Commons

1828: Dull pencils get some help

French mathematician Bernard Lassimonne in 1828 patented the world’s first pencil sharpener. The familiar hand-cranked classroom version debuted in 1896.

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Root & Tinker // Library of Congress

1828: Webster chronicles the language

Noah Webster steered and recorded the linguistic transition from British English to American English through his series of dictionaries. He spent decades compiling and defining 65,000 words while undoing the British aristocracy’s influence on spelling and pronunciation. When he was 70, Webster in 1828 published the “American Dictionary of the English Language,” the new classroom standard and one of the best selling books of all time.

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Tpdwkouaa // Wikimedia Commons

1836: McGuffey publishes his readers

Like the “New England Primer” in the 17th century and Webster’s instructional masterpiece in the 18th century, the “McGuffey Readers” defined American education in the 19th century. Scots-Irish Ohio teacher William Holmes McGuffey’s readers sold more than 120 million copies between 1836 and 1960 and continued to sell tens of thousands of copies per year after that. Found in classrooms everywhere for more than 100 years, it was the #2 best-selling book in the 19th century after only the Bible and remains one of the best-selling books of all time.

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Miss Jennie Brownscombe // Library of Congress

1837: The ‘common school’ movement takes hold

In 1837, Horace Mann became the Massachusetts secretary of education and quickly began reforming the state’s inconsistent and scattershot approach to schooling. He advocated for publicly funded “common schools” led by professionally trained teachers that were open to all children through at least elementary school. Mann’s common schools would become the basis for the modern public school system.

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1850s: The South falls behind

The antebellum South did not have an educational infrastructure anything like that which existed in the North. Much of that was cultural: Before the Civil War, the Southern tradition was for parents to educate their children, teach them morals and values, and prepare them to enter Southern society. Meanwhile, it was illegal to educate slaves. Southern leaders were additionally suspicious of primers and readers, the vast majority of which were published in the North and often encouraged students to question the institution of slavery.

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Dennis A. Waters // Library of Congress

1852: School becomes a must

Well into the 19th century, it was up to the parents to decide if their children went to school—if they happened to live near one that would take them. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to make formal schooling mandatory for all children, followed a year later by New York. In 1918, Mississippi became the last state in America to pass compulsory education laws.

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Frances Benjamin Johnston // Library of Congress

1850s: School’s out for summer

There’s a common misconception that the traditional summer break comes from farmers relying on their children to chip in for the summer harvest. The reality is that rural and city kids went to school year-round until urban centers became so densely packed that summers were unbearably hot for the metropolitan elite. Summer recess policies began emerging only when rich urbanites demanded it so they could whisk their kids away to their country homes during the hottest months.

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Frances Benjamin Johnston // Library of Congress

1857: Teachers get organized

Education associations from 10 states in 1857 formed the National Education Association (NEA) to “unite … to advance the dignity, respectability and usefulness of their calling.” The NEA was for men only until 1866, when women were taken on as members. In 1910—10 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote—the NEA elected a woman as its president.

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Frances Benjamin Johnston // Library of Congress

1850s-60s: Curriculum controversy

School curriculums have always been a source of controversy—but never more so than in the subjects of science and history. That controversy ignited a raging blaze in the mid-19th century when Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of the Species” in 1859 and the American Civil War became the bloodiest conflict in history. From then on, geographic location largely determined whether students learned biblical creation or evolution in biology class and whether slavery was taught as the central cause of the Civil War instead of states’ rights and Northern aggression.

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Otto E. Laroge // Wikimedia Commons

1867: Education grows up

President Andrew Johnson in 1867 established the first Department of Education, a predecessor to the Cabinet-level agency that emerged more than a century later. In response to concerns about the department’s influence over local schools, it was scaled back to the smaller Office of Education the following year.

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Frances Benjamin Johnston // Library of Congress

1896: School segregation begins

In 1896, “all men are created equal” lost out to “separate but equal” when the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to uphold Louisiana’s segregation laws in public transportation. The standard set by Plessy v. Ferguson soon spread beyond trains to public schools. Classrooms—like virtually every other social institution across the South—would soon be segregated by law instead of just by custom.

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1900: The standardized test era begins

The earliest coordinated efforts to track student progress began in the late 1830s, but the widespread use of standardized tests first emerged at the turn of the 20th century. Between 1900-1932, 1,300 achievement tests hit the market, as well as nearly 100 vocational tests, high school tests, and standardized measurements of athletic ability.

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rich701 // Flickr

1901: Colleges get picky

Around the same time, colleges began requiring applicants to take standardized tests as part of the admissions process. College entrance exams were first proposed a decade earlier in 1890, but in 1900, the College Entrance Examination Board was established and made it official.

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Pierson & Co. // Wikimedia Commons

1910: School structure changes

The one-room schoolhouse dominated education through the 19th century. There, a single instructor taught children in first through eighth grades in the same class at the same time. By 1910, that model had all but disappeared in favor of the six-three-three system, which called for six years of elementary school, three years of junior high, and three years of high school.

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Bain News Service // Library of Congress

1916: Teachers join the working class

In 1916, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union was formed and joined the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It fought for things like higher wages and better working conditions, same as all the other unions that were springing up at the time, but also for academic and intellectual freedom. That freedom would be threatened time and again, most notably during the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era.

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1925: The Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ highlights a division

In 1925, education found itself at the center of an epic battle between science and religion that dated back to the time of Charles Darwin and that still reverberates today. That year, a 24-year-old teacher named John Thomas Scopes was arrested, tried, and found guilty of breaking Tennessee law by teaching evolution in school. The subject of the Oscar-nominated movie “Inherit the Wind,” the Scopes Monkey Trial” was a media sensation and a pivotal moment for the ongoing fundamentalist-modernist rivalry in education.

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NARA // Wikimedia Commons

1930s: Schools decline during the Depression

With millions of Americans out of work, property tax payments—and therefore school budgets—plummeted during the Depression. Schools fell into disrepair or were closed, teachers were fired or had their salaries reduced, and the children who did attend were often hungry and/or traumatized by difficult home lives. With legions of Americans on the road looking for work, a generation of schoolchildren became transients.

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1944: G.I. Bill brings college to the masses

College was mostly reserved for the wealthy prior to World War II. But the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—known as the G.I. Bill of Rights—allowed millions of returning servicemen to pursue an education instead of entering the workforce. At peak enrollment in 1947, veterans made up 49% of college admissions and by the time the original G.I. Bill ended in 1956, 7.8 million World War II veterans—nearly half of the 16 million who served—had participated in education or training.

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Arthur Rothstein // Library of Congress

1944: But not all the masses

Although the G.I. Bill’s language was race-neutral, most colleges and universities excluded nonwhites either by policy or by practice. It didn’t matter that the federal government would have paid the tuition for Black veterans who were never going to be admitted to a college in the first place. Just as redlining did for the G.I. Bill’s other great promise—guaranteed home loans backed by the VA—racial realities on the ground kept many Black vets from enjoying the benefits they earned through their service.

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1954: School segregation meets its match

In 1954, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall successfully argued that even in the rare instances where resources were distributed equally to Black and white schools, segregation itself taught inferiority to Black students and favored white children. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that separate is inherently unequal and declared segregation in American schools to be unconstitutional.

[Pictured: Nettie Hunt and her daughter Nickie sit on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court after the high court's ruling in the Brown Vs. Board of Education case on May 1, 1954.]

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1950s-60s: Education gets a boost

Two major events triggered large increases in education spending in the early 1960s. First, the 1957 launch of Sputnik and the ensuing space race fueled spending in science and technology education through the National Defense Education Act. Second, President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty included major funding for poor students and schools at all levels across the country.

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1950s-60s: Classrooms become battlegrounds

After Brown v. Board, schools became battlegrounds for integration and the Civil Rights movement in general. The National Guard had to quell school integration riots in Tennessee, paratroopers from the 101st Airborne had to shepherd the Little Rock Nine to their classes at Central High School in Arkansas, and trailblazing students like Ruby Bridges and James Meredith became icons.

[Pictured: Nine Black students attending Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, are shown leaving the school under the protection of National Guardsmen on Oct. 9, 1957.]

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1962: Prayer in school ruled unconstitutional

The modern culture wars can largely be traced to the Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision in 1962. The court ruled 6-1 that the longstanding practice of schools adopting an official Christian prayer and encouraging or mandating its recitation by all violated the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause.

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1962: The school voucher concept is born

In 1962, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman published “Capitalism and Freedom,” which outlined his proposal to give poor children government vouchers that were redeemable for tuition at private schools. He argued that free-market forces would eliminate underperforming schools and allow good schools to thrive while giving needy families a choice. It was the beginning of the school voucher program, which remains highly controversial today.

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1963: Education gets a second language

English-only education was the standard either by custom or policy throughout the first half of the 20th century. In 1963, Dade County, Florida, adopted the first bilingual education program to accommodate its enormous increase in Cuban immigrants. It became a model for the modern English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

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1963: The trades get formal training

In 1963, President Johnson signed the Vocational Education Act. The legislation dramatically increased funding for non-college training and education in the trades, particularly for in-demand jobs. Later amendments would extend funding to specific demographics like women, minorities, and people with disabilities.

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Everett Collection // Shutterstock

1965: New legislation expands access to college

President Johnson also signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, which expanded funding to colleges and universities. It was specifically designed to improve access to higher education for middle- and low-income families and to support smaller schools with fewer resources.

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Spencer Grant // Getty Images

1971: School busing becomes a painful solution

By the 1970s, schools across the country were still segregated, often because neighborhoods were segregated and kids went to whichever school was closest to home. In 1971, the Supreme Court approved the strategy of busing children to more distant schools populated by students of the other race. It was a traumatic time that revealed widespread racism in major Northern cities, most notably Boston—the birthplace of school—where a series of ugly and violent protests erupted.

[Pictured: Accompanied by motorcycle-mounted police, school buses carrying Black students arrive at formerly all-white South Boston High School on Sept. 12, 1974, the first day of federal court-ordered busing.]

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1972: Title IX squashes the athletic boys club

Title IX was a great achievement for civil rights, women’s rights, and equality in education. Part of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX banned discrimination based on sex and opened doors for girls and young women to participate in the same school athletic programs as their male counterparts.

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Barbara Alper // Getty Images

1974: The charter school concept emerges

In 1974, UMass Amherst education professor Ray Budde proposed a model that allowed private schools to receive public funding if they entered into state-sanctioned charters. To this day, charter schools remain controversial, with their detractors saying the model robs public schools of funding and its supporters saying it offers academic freedom and choice. In practice, the performance of charter schools is wildly uneven since the framework varies so much from state to state.

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Denver Post // Getty Images

1975: Special education has its moment

Although real efforts at increasing access to education emerged in the early 1960s, the modern special education movement began in 1975. That year, two pieces of landmark legislation launched a movement: The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Because of the legislation, millions of children with special needs who would have otherwise been shut out now attend the same public schools as their peers.

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Lambert // Getty Images

1976: For-profit colleges trade degrees for dollars

Although education had been for sale since colonial times, the for-profit college industry as it exists today started in 1976 with the founding of Phoenix University. Back then, just 0.2% of college students pursued degrees at for-profit institutions but today it’s more than 12%. Most for-profit colleges are run by large, publicly-traded corporations, many are not accredited, and shady operators often overcharge students for worthless degrees.

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Barbara Alper // Getty Images

1977: The paddle remains

In 1977, the Supreme Court upheld the use of corporal punishment—spanking, paddling, or other punishments that inflict physical pain—in schools as constitutional. Despite the fact that corporal punishment has been banned in military training and as a criminal sentence, 19 states still allow teachers and administrators to physically beat students. Where it is allowed, it’s almost always used disproportionately on boys, disabled students, and especially on African American students.

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Barbara Alper // Getty Images

1979: Education gets a Cabinet agency

By the end of the 1970s, the radical changes and growth in education had become too immense for the Office of Education to manage. In October 1979, the Department of Education Organization Act created the DoE as a Cabinet-level agency.

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1980s: Big banks see dollar signs

Historically, higher education was mostly free thanks to philanthropic efforts and large grants distributed to the states. That began to change in the 1970s as the federal guarantee system was eroded, enrollment rates soared, and rising tuition costs forced prospective students to seek private loans to pay for college. Wall Street stepped in to fill that void, and today, tens of millions of students and graduates owe a combined $1.6 trillion in student loan debt.

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Larry W. Smith // Getty Images

1999: A tragedy changes mindsets

The 1999 Columbine High School massacre left 12 students and one teacher dead and gave rise to the era of school shootings. The tragedy brought the age-old and long-tolerated issue of bullying—like the kind suffered by the pair of outcasts who became murderers at Columbine—was brought to the forefront of the national discussion.

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2000s: Schools get police officers

After Columbine, armed, uniformed police officers began replacing hall monitors as the issue of school security took center stage. As school resource officers became standard, stories emerged of children being hustled through the criminal justice system for childish misbehavior that might have warranted a trip to the principal’s office before. The term “school-to-prison pipeline” emerged and—just like corporal punishment—minority students became much more likely to be turned over to law enforcement for in-school infractions.

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2002: No Child Left Behind defines a generation

No Child Left Behind was the name of President George W. Bush’s signature education legislation that governed K-12 education from 2002-2015. The law aimed to hold schools accountable for the performance of their students—the yardstick used to measure success, however, became a source of heated controversy. Its detractors believed that the law’s focus on standardized testing forced educators to “teach the test” instead of just teaching—or risk their school being penalized.

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2018: Texas relents

Because of its sheer size and number of pupils, Texas gained an outsized influence on American education as it became a national hub of textbook publishing and distribution. The powerful and conservative Texas State Board of Education had enormous sway over what was included and excluded from those textbooks, with subjects like evolution and historical race relations causing controversy well into the 21st century. In 2018, Texas finally relented and amended its curriculum to acknowledge that slavery—not states’ rights—was the central cause of the Civil War.

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2020: America revisits its Puritan roots

Change usually takes place slowly over time, but 2020 delivered some of the most immediate and drastic changes ever experienced in America’s education system. From kindergarten to college, schools were thrown into turmoil, teachers learned how to be online educators, and administrations scrambled to come up with coherent policies. For moms and dads across the country, however, the coronavirus forced a return to the earliest Puritan schooling model—parents teaching their children at home.

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