History of Education in America
As far back as the beginning of our nation, early leaders emphasized the importance of education
and provided funds to create education for children from every background in our country. Thomas
Jefferson said, “ Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be extended to;
convinced that on this good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree
of liberty.” He knew the importance of education (Jennings, 1996).
In early America, there was concern for the common good and well being for all citizens in the
known United States. John Dewey, the well known educator and philosopher, once said, “What the best
and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for the children. Any other ideal
for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” John Dewey (1859-1952)
was an American philosopher and educator whose writings and teachings have had profound influences on
education in the United States. Dewey’s philosophy of education, instrumentalism (also called
pragmatism), focused on learning-by-doing rather than rote learning and dogmatic instruction, the current
practice of his day (Pergamon, 1994).
What is public education in America? How does it fit in our history? The answers to these
questions are many faceted.
In 1624, Jamestown Colony founded a flax house (a place for making linen) and guaranteed the
support of two poor children from each county to attend it long enough to master the skills of making linen.
Earlier, the colony had tried unsuccessfully to establish a grammar school. Later, a law required parents
and guardians to ensure that all children had instruction in morality and a vocation (Smith, 1994).
In 1642, the Colony of Massachusetts passed a statute requiring that children be taught to read, a
skill necessary for understanding the Bible. In 1647, a statute was passed requiring that every community
establish a primary school and that larger communities maintain a secondary school (Smith, 1995). This
1647 law in Massachusetts became known as the “Old Deluder-Satan Law”, because the settlers were
convinced that, with education, people would not be “deluded” by Satan (Smith, 1994).
Early educational experiences were planned in the hope that school would prepare young people
to become responsible citizens, improve social conditions, promote cultural diversity, help people become
economically self-sufficient, enrich and enhance individual lives with happiness, make education equitable
among everyone, and ensure a basic quality of education among schools. These goals were very similar to
the goals of today’s public education (Jennings, 1996).
As far back as the American Revolution, there was an emerging hope for common schools,
though they would not become widely established for another seventy-five years. Public education
seemed to be a hodgepodge made up of individual institutions and special arrangements. Schools could be
home schools, church schools, boarding schools, or private tutoring. According to Jennings (1996),
school was an unsystematic approach to schooling resulting in inequities. Those who did not belong to a
church were excluded from schools. Native Americans and African Americans were not educated, in fact,
it was against the law to teach a slave to read(Cremin, 1990).
Horace Mann said , “Beyond the power of diffusing old wealth, (education) has the prerogative of
creating new. It is a thousand times more lucrative than fraud; and adds a thousand fold more to a nation’s
resources than the most successful conquest.” The strength and convictions of our early leaders kept this
ideal in our forefront, that American people had a responsibility to educate all children in order to achieve
certain basic democratic goals (Jennings, 1996).
The extensive expansion of public education through the establishment of a State Board of
Education, began in Massachusetts in 1837, largely through the efforts of Horace Mann .
During the 17th and 18th centuries, schools with a single teacher for students of all ages were
common. It is only recent practice for schools to group students by age and give grade level specific
instruction. Graded schools began to develop during the last half of the 19th Century, it did not become
standard practice until well into this century. As late as 1928, sixty-three percent of this country’s 244,128
elementary schools were still one-room, one-teacher, multi-aged schools (Smith, 1994).
It has been recorded that in the