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The history of formal education in the United States goes back at least to the colonies. Founded in 1635, for instance, Boston Latin School is older than the republic, in addition to being the oldest existing school in the country and the first public school.

Dorchester, Massachusetts made history in 1639 with the first free taxpayer-supported public school on the continent, the Mather School. Colonial era education taught both girls and boys to read, but only boys to write. Accessibility and pedagogy have changed, at times dramatically, over the last four centuries, and their history lends context to our contemporary approaches to education.

Early Schoolbooks

Colonists in the 17th century had to import schoolbooks until Boston printers began issuing The New England Primer in 1690. This textbook differed from the English Protestant Tutor in little more than title, and it featured an emphasis on rote memorization and Calvinist theology.

A century later the ascendant popular textbook in the country was Noah Webster’s “blue backed speller,” which would remain in widespread use until the appearance of McGuffey Readers in 1836. The concern with moral comportment runs through each of these textbooks, but the latter two move from the overtly religious toward greater themes of civic responsibility.

Webster’s Speller set a standard of American textbook design still recognizable today, arranged both to facilitate teaching by breaking complex systems into smaller parts and to advance from the mastery of one element to its subsequent phases of learning.

A College to Teach Teachers

Samuel Reed Hall founded the country’s first training school for teachers in Concord, Vermont in 1823, which was followed by the first public normal school in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1839. The idea of a college to teach teachers goes back at least to St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle’s École Normale founded in 1685, though the American approach was far more likely to focus on primary education.

Many of today’s state universities were founded as Normal schools. These two-year teaching colleges established norms of curriculum and pedagogy and were well-suited to an increasingly industrialized society. They also complemented Horace Mann’s influential commitment to the “common school” model of universal, free access to non-sectarian education championed in the mid-1800s. The Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890 spread agriculture and engineering education.

Literacy Rates Improve

With Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau opened schools for African-American children in the southern U.S. as well as educational initiatives for adults. By the 1870s, every state in the union offered tax-subsidized public elementary schools. Literacy rates were among the best in the world, and rural areas began to see an increase in school access.

One-room school houses accommodated a range of ages and ability levels by relying on older children to help instruct younger ones, through what is known as “mutual instruction,” the “Bell-Lancaster Method,” or the “Monitorial System.”

Leveling the Playing Field

From 1810 to 1917, the federal government subsidized Native American boarding schools to promote assimilation, but the Department of Interior’s 1926 Meriam Report recommended abolishing the Euro-centric “Uniform Course of Study” and educating younger students in their home communities.

Schools across the country were legally segregated by race until the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Special education reforms were legislated in 1975’s Education for All Handicapped Children Act and extended in 1990 with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Online Program Covers History of Education

Teachers interested in a chronological approach to the history of education in the U.S. from 1607 to the present can learn more in the Mississippi College online M.Ed. in Elementary Education program’s aptly named course “History of Education in the United States.”

Learn more about the MC online M.Ed. in Elementary Education program.


Boston Latin School: BLS History

American Quarterly: Literacy Instruction and Gender in Colonial New England

National Archives: African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau

National Indian Law Library: Meriam Report: The Problem of Indian Administration (1928)

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