How Did We Get Here? Part III: The Birth of the American Public School
This is one of a multi-part series on the progression of education policies in the U.S. from its founding. Click here to see a list of all the posts in this series.
By Matthew Lynch
There were public schools in America as far back as the mid-1600s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony but the first truly American public schools began appearing in Pennsylvania at the end of the 18th century. Money was no object as the even the poorest of citizens were welcomed through the schoolhouse doors and offered a public education. The New York Public School Society came soon after in 1805, and by 1870 all states had at least a minimal public program in place to educate students en masse. These programs were voluntary, though.
What was taught in these early schools varied by region but was grounded in a basic set of ground rules for bringing up American students right. Public education was meant to unite American families through a common interest: raising educated children who would soon be at the helm of the nation’s future. Basic education was not something reserved for the elite. Reading, writing and basic arithmetic were necessities of living as Americans and were important when it came to guiding the young nation.
The learning resources of early America were understandably limited. It was too early to have much variety in American-made textbooks or other learning tools. Much of what was used in these schools were texts developed in England and repurposed for American pursuits. The need for purely American educational texts did exist though, and slowly but surely they began to take shape.
In the 1780s, Noah Webster set out to create a textbook that would teach children the realities of spelling in the new land. Until that point, spelling textbooks were mainly imports from England that sought to teach kids the most unusual and difficult, yet least used, words in the English language. Webster saw the impracticality of this, and set out to change it. The American Spelling Book (shrunk down by Webster from a much longer, pompous title suggested by his editor) became a staple for learning in homes and the few organized educational models that existed. In accomplishing this, Webster established the first systematic method for learning in the young country that was practical, easy to navigate and widely used. Even as late as 1866, after many other spelling books had been written and updated, Webster’s original version was still selling 9 million copies annually.
In the early 1800s, several other publishing companies followed suit, piggybacking on the idea of nationalism through learning. Popular titles included The United States Spelling Book and The American Preceptor. When it came to arithmetic, the titles were more complex but the patriotic theme remained. New and Complete Systems of Arithmetic Composed for the Use of the Citizens of the United States and Being a Plain, Practical and Systematic Compendium of Federal Arithmetic were just a few of the more popular textbooks widely circulated in the early 1800s. Using these purely American terms was still a new and exciting way to remind citizens that the country was in its infancy and that everything needed to be reinvented with a purely American spin. The idea that exists today that universal texts need the American touch was born in this era of national construction, when what was taught began to be just as important as how it was presented.
From the start, then, public education in the United States was about moving students collectively in the direction the nation wanted to go. Individualism and customized learning were certainly not common terms and the choices for education were slim. The accepted curricula for one American was good enough for another. This base learning was rooted in the need to not only obtain knowledge, but to use education as a way to build up a nation that was still teetering dangerously on the edge of failure. Parents did not encourage their children to learn spelling or arithmetic so they could have a “better life” but so they could continue to have a free one. Education was a means of survival and banding together with the same education goals, at least when it came to common people, was a way to build the entire nation up. Sure, there was some educational elitism through private schooling and university systems, but when it came to the public institutions of learning, every student deserved and earned the same set of knowledge.
As the country continued to expand, both in sheer numbers and land mass, public education became more segmented. Public schools until the 1840s were under local control, with little input from the state and virtually no federal oversight. Attendance was rising though. The U.S. Census from 1840 shows that 3.68 million children from ages 5 to 15 attended school, and this represented about 55 percent of the population in that age bracket. Around this time the idea of one-room schoolhouses took shape, with the older students acting as helpers to the younger ones. Students learned in common ways from teachers and each other. When it came to teachers, there was no formal credentialing. This is why young, single women often filled the roles. They were available, and able, so they filled the roles of educators until they became married and were needed full-time in homes of their own. As in the post-Revolutionary days, education became the responsibility of everyone in the community.
It’s important to understand how public schools started in order to reach the point where we understand WHY they operate the way they do today. Follow my series on the progress of the U.S. educational system to learn more about where we’ve been, and where we need to go, as collective educators.