The founding fathers of the United States might have been progressives and intellectuals for their time, but the average American at the birth of the new nation was illiterate and few foresaw the importance and value educating the masses would come to have in the coming centuries. As a result, education (much less a free and publicly paid for education) was never listed as a fundamental right in the constitution of the United States and as such a battle has been waged ever since over who should be educated, what should be allowed to be taught and who should be able to teach that information.
Pre-Revolution the average person in the United States would never receive an education. Save for living in a few progressive and large cities who mandated free education for white boys, the only real chance they had at getting a good education was by being born to wealthy and powerful parents. Elites, realizing the power over people and access to the world (and thus to greater opportunity) that came with being able to read and write, readily had private schools with good teachers built in their towns for their children to go to or hired qualified tutors to teach their children at home, but for the average person in the United States a life of farming, manual labor or domestic labor was their only future. In other words, realizing that knowledge was power, education was reserved by the elites for elites to preserve the status quo.
But after the Revolutionary War, politicians began to see the necessity for building a unified culture, with national ideals, and an American story that would make the separation from Old Europe complete. School was seen as a forum for making patriots and a new culture. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps motivated by more of a social conscience, felt that the United States needed to lead a crusade against ignorance to fulfill its promise of freedom through democracy. He said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be........The future of a democracy depends on the education of its people." He felt that genius was not just a product of aristocracy and that a democracy's survival hinged upon an educated public who were free to make informed decisions on their own. It was his belief that each American had a stake in the course of a democracy and thus each citizen should be willing to invest in the education of all of its citizens (save women and minorities, of course). Shedding light on the nature of the times, Thomas Jefferson thrice introduced a bill that would guarantee just 3 years of free, public education and thrice it was voted down, many claiming it was too much of a tax burden. An insightful critic noted something nearly as true then as it is today, "People have more feeling for canals and roads than for education."
It would take over a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson would get his way, but in the meantime the seeds of public education were planted in the United States and it has been evolving ever since.
Early public schools were more like local army barracks for small people rather than places of personal development and centers of knowledge for the young and growing. Often it was nothing more than a small wood building with a dirt floor where kids aged 5-15 were brow-beaten by a single teacher into memorizing passages from the bible. In the early 1800s, teachers were most often men and discipline, morality and hygiene were bigger topics of study than were math, science and literature. It wasn't unusual for teachers to have as little as a 5th grade education themselves. But, beginnings are beginnings. At least when you start you create a baseline from which you can learn and progress. And public education has seen a lot of progress since its birth.
Slowly, but surely states began to better fund and create the infrastructure for public education and more children started to go to school. In the 1840s after a series of debates in New York City over whether religious schools should be funded with public money, public education began to take a more secular path as it was realized that there wasn't enough money to go around to fund every single religion's separate school and agenda, nor was it democratic to fund institutions with public money that professed ideologies that not all taxpayers adhered to. In addition, strong arguments resonated about the divisiveness of religion in the public sphere due to the vitriolic conflicts between Catholics, Protestants, Jews and other religious groups who felt their children shouldn't have to endure the evils of a secular education. Harriet Beecher Stowe, on the side of secularists, made the case for a more secular morality, saying, "The heart needs something to rest upon. And if it is not God, it will be the world."
Around the same time, strong voices like that of Horace Mann began arguing that education was the means by which a fairer society with a leveler playing field could be created. Education, especially a free, public education was the key to freedom, excellence, social mobility and a guard against the rise of elitism, nobility, and the bourgeoisie. He also felt that public schools should be the place that civic virtue was taught and a sense of civic duty instilled as well as a place where people could build character if their family upbringing was lacking in such training. Travelling to every school in the state of Massachusetts while secretary on the first ever created school board of education, he saw the great discrepancies in funds, number of teachers to students as well as level of experience and expertise, school supplies, etc. As a result of seeing such great discrepancies in the administration of public education he called for there to be a common curriculum to better ensure that everyone was receiving a quality education. He also called for teaching as an occupation to professionalize by requiring teachers to receive more rigorous training. In addition, he fought for there to be a wider curriculum, better teacher pay to attract individuals of higher quality, and for better social conditions for he believed that poverty and prejudice prevented public education from being as effective as it could be.
With the coming and going of the Civil War, education became a symbol of freedom especially because denying people the right to an education was a key element in maintaining their bondage. Important figures like Frederick Douglass articulated that it was knowledge that brought the realization of the absolute immorality of slavery upon them. It was an education that made them aware of the in-humaneness and manipulations of others and gave them the courage to fight injustice. Frederick Douglass, a man who ran to freedom pre-Civil War said, "Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.......once you learn to read you shall forever be free." In his autobiography he talked about the time he finally realized that education was the key to empowerment and freedom. Ironically, it was the man who was exploiting him who revealed the power of ignorance in controlling people, "Learning would spoil the best [expletive] in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that [expletive] (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. (6.3)
With some progress made, post-Civil War,for some minority groups in America, yet another oppressed class began to find its voice......women. Catharine Beecher and many other women and supporters of women's rights began to take on the prejudiced views that held that women were intellectually inferior to men and incapable of being employed in any serious occupation because of their fragile, emotional natures. Beecher went to school, but was mostly taught domestic arts and manners rather than any intellectual subjects. Undeterred she taught herself math, latin and philosophy and became determined for life that women should receive a more intellectually rigorous education. Catharine Beecher paved the way, against great opposition, for women to gain access to an occupation traditionally held by men, teaching. Arguing that men were too harsh and prone to corporal punishment to be effective communicators of information, and that because women were mothers they were the most qualified to be the nurturers and teachers of the next generation. Her efforts to raise awareness for the need for educators in the frontiers, and that women could best fill those positions, led to the archetypal woman teacher arriving in some small western town to exorcise it of ignorance. This allowed many women to escape the trap of unwanted marriages and to attain some level of autonomy and respect within their communities as single women or working women. Additionally, the women's rights movement of the late 1800s also advocated for and won many more public dollars for the education of girls and women in public schools
In 1870, the USA had 7.6 million students enrolled in public schools and taxpayers spent $63 million a year on them. In 1890, there were 12.7 million enrolled with a public expenditure of $141 million. At this point America had more children in school and spent more money on education than any other country in the world (probably contributed to the rise of America's power, don't ya think?).
With the constant evolution of public education to incorporate disenfranchised groups and the greater belief in the mass's ability to be educated, the theory of public education also evolved a more powerful rationale. Alfred Adler argued that public schools should help people overcome their backgrounds and equalize access to opportunity. One's family, culture, sex, appearance, socioeconomic status, etc. should not be the pre-determinants of one's future. Public education became a symbol for creating a utopian meritocracy where one's destiny was not determined by their past, but by their efforts. It was argued that taxpayers should not just take an interest in the welfare and future of their own children, but in the welfare and future of all of society's children.
By 1900, about 50% of children aged 5-18 were in public schools and they received an average of 5 years of schooling. It was around this time that Thomas Jefferson's wish was finally granted and compulsory, publicly-funded, primary school became law in the United States. It coincided with the Progressive Era when sentiment was running high to abolish many forms of child labor. In many ways, compulsory education replaced child labor. John Dewey advocated around this time for a more child-centered education, believing that every child had talents that could make a meaningful contribution to society. He was also a big believer in the capacity of science to enlighten and experimentally-based education to help people be more reality-based in their world outlook and approach to problems. On education he remarked, ""education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness; and that the adjustment of individual activity on the basis of this social consciousness is the only sure method of social reconstruction". Dewey strongly felt that education should be interactive....not passive. And that public schools should be centers for raising social awareness and letting people experiment with movements.
Because the late 1800s and early 1900s were a time of great industrial development in the United States and also a time that saw great unrest and protest amongst exploited laborers, it was also a time during which there was the definite influence of the worker's movement in the curriculum. It was thought that public education should make scholars out of workers and workers out of scholars. It also became more common for public schools to focus more on training people to get a job rather than on educating them to more intellectual pursuits. This correlated with the introduction en masse of intelligence tests that were often misused as ways to fast track people to their "career." If your IQ was low, you were on the fast track to becoming a tradesman. If your IQ was high, you were on your way to becoming an engineer. This IQ railroading introduced an intellectual caste system where people of "high intelligence" deserved the best pay and to become doctors and lawyers, whereas those of "low intelligence" deserved low pay and to work in the more dangerous arenas of unskilled or skilled manual labor. Such simplistic diagnostics that determined the fate of individuals so early on didn't seem to trouble enough people for attitudes to change about the legitimacy of such test results for decades to come. And there was a definite undertone of racism about the results which tended to fast track many minorities to low pay, manual labor jobs, not because of lower intelligence, but because of language and cultural barriers as well having to start from a position of disadvantage in American society because of prejudice, socioeconomics and a general lack of opportunity, exposure and support. It was around this time that progressive educators began to realize that factors such as low self-esteem due to the effects of social stereotypes and prejudices as well as coming from the stressful background of poverty and disempowerment could result in lower performance without necessarily having any bearing on the true intelligence of the individual.
In 1900, only 6% of people had a high school diploma. In 1940, about 40% did. In 1950, only 28% of people with disabilities were enrolled in school. The slow evolution of public education continued. It got a boost in terms of support and funding with the start of the Cold War and the Eisenhower administration's National Defense Education Act which prioritized the need for a well educated public as essential for National Defense. But it was really the Civil Rights Movement that saw the next dramatic shift in the aims and philosophy of public education. For too long, in a country that espoused freedom and equal opportunity as it ideals, there were great inequities in access to education and opportunity and thus freedom and quality of life enjoyed. Public education was segregated, not equitably administered and was not the equalizing factor that it had set out to be. The poor, the disabled, the disenfranchised, minorities and women were still waiting and fighting for their chance to fulfill their potential.
The Civil Rights Movement was a stride forward for all people in terms of quality of life, equality of treatment and access to opportunity as well as public education. The Civil Rights Movement also changed the curriculum towards a more socially aware and culturally diverse one where people of all kinds, shapes and colors were recognized for their contributions and achievements. In 1950, only 13.7% of African Americans received high school diplomas. By 1980, about 51.4% did. In 1950, only 0.0095% of medical and law degrees were awarded to women. By 1980, 30% were. In 1950, the average adult in the USA had 9 years of education (8th grade). By 1980, it was 12.5 years, almost all school-aged children were enrolled and there was an 80% high school graduation rate.
The Civil Rights Movement was the culmination of a 100 years of struggle for rights since the Civil War and one of its major achievements was the passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was the strongest and most sweeping legislation yet passed to promote taxpayer funded education for everyone. It was a statement that all people in a society have a stake in the future of everyone's children because the it a well-educated public that promotes a just and fair democracy that ends up improving everyone's quality of life. The bill established the federal government's role in funding primary and secondary education for everyone, especially the disadvantaged. It aimed to shorten achievement gaps by providing fair and equal opportunities to achieve an exceptional education. It provided funding for the disabled, minorities and the poor. It provided funding for bilingual education programs which helped children who didn't speak English as their first language not get railroaded to manual labor jobs against their will. Too often these children were considered non-intelligent and unfit for any occupation but low-wage, unskilled labor, when the real issue was the cultural and language gap......not a lack of intelligence. Acknowledging that student achievement decreases as school poverty increases and that poverty in general leads to lower student achievement, the bill sought, through taxpayer funding, to overcome these disadvantages by allocating more funds and materials to fulfill the American promise of equal access to opportunity.
Starting with the 1980s there was a move away from public education towards homeschooling, charter schools and private schools. The people of the world were becoming connected, motivations were becoming more business-driven/profit-driven; education began to see more pressure from the bottom line; concerns moved toward the economy and away from social progress; competition became an ideal and the marketplace was crowned king. Due to the perceived, overriding importance of economics, the Ronald Reagan administration began to emphasize the importance of standardized testing for measuring the quality of education going on at public schools nationwide. Such grading of public school performance by standardized testing, resulted in the federal government being able to withhold funds if there wasn't improvement. Of course, this gave a mixed results as schools began teaching students "to the test" so as to avoid financial hardship. This logic was counter to that as found in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act because it sought to punish failing schools with more austerity rather than to provide more funding so that struggling schools could invest in better material and teachers. Financial punishment for not performing has led to less funds, the lay off of teachers and the reduced capacity to invest in materials for many schools who would benefit from such investments. There was also the rise of the school voucher system which supported "choice" in the education market with more private schools, charter schools and homeschooling.
In 2002, the number of students in public schools was at 47.8 million, but the percent of children enrolled in public schools had fallen to ~90%. Today there are about 98,817 public schools, 6,187 charter schools, 7,110 catholic schools and 33,366 private schools in the United States. There are about 3.3 million full-time, public school, primary and secondary level teachers, 72,000 charter school teachers and about 0.4 million, full-time, private school, primary and secondary level teachers. There are about 54,876,000 students enrolled in K-12. 49,484,181 attend public schools; 1,941,831 attend charter schools; 1,508,000 are home schooled; 2,031,455 attend catholic schools; and 5,488,000 attend private schools. The total funding of public education costs about $597,485,869,000 with the following breakdown.
- Federal: $75.99 billion (12.7% of total)
- State: $259.8 billion (43.5% of total)
- Local: $261.7 billion (43.8% of total)
Soon, I hope to write another installment of this blog, talking about more modern issues and debates surrounding public education using the historical backdrop I've outlined here.
School: The Story of American Public Education. Film Series. Films for the Humanities. Sarah Mondale and Sarah Patton.
The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession. Dana Goldstein. 2014.