This article explores the history of the United States' public education system, tracing its development from its roots in Puritan and Congregationalist religious schools in the 1600s and subsequently the availability of free elementary education thanks to the efforts of Common School reformers in the 1800s. It continues on to the dramatic changes of the 1900s, culminating in today's highly decentralized (but still very imperfect) system. It explores the impact that many figures of great importance in America's history have had on the education system, and discusses various social, legal and cultural factors that have all influenced public education. The article also touches on issues of racial and gender equality.
The most preliminary form of public education was in existence in the 1600s in the New England colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. The overriding belief on educating the children was more due to religious reasons and was easy to implement, as the only groups in existence were the Puritans and the Congregationalists. However, the influx of people from many countries and belonging to different faiths led to a weakening of the concept. People refused to learn only in English and opposed the clergy imposing their religious views through public education. By the middle of the eighteenth century, private schooling had become the norm.
After the Declaration of Independence, 14 states had their own constitutions by 1791, and out of the 14, 7 states had specific provisions for education. Jefferson believed that education should be under the control of the government, free from religious biases, and available to all people irrespective of their status in society. Others who vouched for public education around the same time were Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Robert Coram and George Washington. It was still very difficult to translate the concept to practice because of the political upheavals, vast immigration, and economic transformations. Thus, even for many more decades, there were many private schools, and charitable and religious institutions dominating the scene.
During the 20th century participation in higher or postsecondary education in the United States increased tremendously. At the beginning of the century about 2 percent of Americans from the ages of 18 to 24 were enrolled in a college. Near the end of the century more than 60 percent of this age group, or over 14 million students, were enrolled in about 3500 four-year and two-year colleges.
The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 provided federal financial support to state universities. Many land-grant colleges and state universities were established through gifts of federal land to the states for the support of higher education. Financial support was extended to the universities and this in turn led to increased research. In addition, the numbers of students attending college increased dramatically after World War II ended in 1945.
By the middle of the 20th century, most states took a more active regulatory role than in the past. States consolidated school districts into larger units with common procedures. In 1940 there were over 117,000 school districts in the United States, but by 1990 the number had decreased to just over 15,000. The states also became much more responsible for financing education. In 1940 local property taxes financed 68 percent of public school expenses, while the states contributed 30 percent. In 1990 local districts and states each contributed 47 percent to public school revenues. The federal government provided most of the remaining funds.
During the 1980s and 1990s, virtually all states have given unprecedented
attention to their role in raising education standards. A federal report
published in 1983 indicated very low academic achievement in public schools.
This resulted in states taking up more responsibility and involvement.
This report, A Nation at Risk, suggested that American students were outperformed
on international academic tests by students from other industrial societies.
Statistics also suggested that American test scores were declining over
time. As a result, most states have implemented reform strategies that
emphasize more frequent testing conducted by states, more effective state
testing, and more state-mandated curriculum requirements.
The federal government's activities in the field of education have further centralized American schooling. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 helped create vocational programs in high schools, and the GI Bill of 1944 was the first important federal effort to provide financial aid for military veterans to attend college. In addition, federal civil rights laws require all schools and colleges to conform to national standards of educational equality.
The federal commitment to improve and finance public schools expanded enormously when Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. In these two landmark statutes, Congress addressed for the first time such broad problems as expanding educational opportunity for poor children and improving instruction in pivotal but usually neglected subjects, such as science, mathematics, and foreign languages. Other federal acts that addressed educational issues in this period were the Vocational Education Act of 1963, the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1963, and the International Education Act of 1966.
During the 1950s segregation by race in public and private schools was still common in the United States. The South had separate schools for African Americans and whites and this system had been upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In the North no such laws existed, but racial segregation was still common in schools. Segregation usually resulted in inferior education for blacks. Average public expenditures for white schools exceeded expenditures for black schools. Teachers in white schools generally received higher pay than did teachers in black schools, and facilities in most white schools were far superior to facilities in most black schools.
In 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Despite vigorous resistance for many years by many southern states, by 1980 the federal courts had largely succeeded in eliminating the system of legalized segregation in southern schools.
Even after the court rulings, it was difficult to eliminate discrimination in practice. Many whites and middle class blacks had moved out of central cities by the 1970s, leaving poor blacks and rising populations of Hispanic Americans to attend urban schools. Native Americans, who had already lost all their lands to whites, also face the additional burden of poverty, which keeps them away from schools.
Most federally mandated desegregation efforts have been aimed at increasing educational achievement among African American students. However, many educators cite continued inequality in educational opportunities for Hispanic American students.
The emergence of the women's rights movement during the 1960s was a boost against sexual discrimination. Title IX of the 1972 federal Education Amendments prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that received federal aid. Educators are of the opinion that even after all these measures, women do not get equal pay in jobs. Discrimination in professional jobs still exists.
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