Public Education in North America

Public Education in North America
Public Education in North America

Public education has undergone a process of significant change because of religion, politics, economics, and immigration. The limited educational system in America led the first settlers, beginning in the New England colonies to push for an educational system similar to that of England.

The northern, middle, and southern colonies thought about education differently. An organized and cohesive educational system was needed from the colonial period through the Industrial Revolution, in order to better the country as a whole.

The Colonies

In the northern colonies of New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, the first colonial textbooks and required reading in schools started with Benjamin Harris’s New England Primer of 1690, published in Boston. The first primer became required reading in both school and church and was used into the 19th century.

It was a combination of the hornbook (paddle-shaped boards with paper attached used to teach children capital and lowercase letters, syllables, the benedictions, and prayers) and catechism. The idea behind the primer was that it provided a combination of religion and learning so that students would gain salvation as well as knowledge.

The first public schools began in Massachusetts and eventually arose in most of the other northern colonies. Education in the north was predominately sponsored and supported by Puritans who fostered the teaching of their beliefs.

Dorchester, Massachusetts, established the first public school, Boston Latin School, funded by state taxes. By 1750 mandates were set in place for children who did not attend public schools to learn a trade under an apprenticeship.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony also required towns to set up schools, depending on their size; one elementary school in towns of 50 families or more and one grammar school in towns of 100 families or more. The other northern colonies followed with similar laws, except Rhode Island. The first state board of education was established in Massachusetts in 1837. In Boston the integration of African Americans into public schools occurred in 1885.

Horace Mann was the first secretary of state for Massachusetts’s first board of education. During his tenure he made vast developments for education— schools to train teachers, free public libraries, state aid for schools, public education supported through taxation, education mandates for every child, and secular education not supported through taxation. Efforts to establish state boards of education throughout the colonies began to spread.

The middle colonies—Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York—approached education more slowly than the north. By 1750 a child was required to be able to read and write by age 12, enforceable with a £5 fine. The Quakers founded the Friends Public School in Philadelphia, now the William Penn Charter School, to assist in educating children.

Those who were interested could attend an academy to seek further education. In 1753 Benjamin Franklin chartered a nonsecular academy in Philadelphia, which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. Academy attendance varied depending on the school; while some schools only attracted local students, others had students from many areas.

In 1834 a state-funded public system for education was set into place. Around 1840 state public education began to develop, stretching from Connecticut to Illinois, but the southern states were a bit behind. Several factors contributed to the slow development of public education in the South. First, the south was less populous than the North.

For about 100 years in Virginia, free schools had already been established, but public education did not become common in the south until after the Civil War. Puritan New England emphasized educating students about religion in the classroom, while in the south members of the Anglican Church saw education and religion as separate.

The southern elite also took in private tutors from Europe or sent their children to England to seek an education; private tutors and education in the home were commonplace throughout the colonies. Public education also posed a threat to whites; the potential existed for slaves to become literate and gain enough knowledge to organize and revolt. It was punishable by law to teach a slave to read or write.

When African Americans were educated, it was usually with the help of Anglicans, Quakers, or other religious groups. In the early part of the 18th century, French immigrant and minister Elias Neau opened the first school for blacks. In 1782 Quakers also founded the Philadelphia African School, which was a free school. In the early part of the 18th century, other religious groups sought to educate African Americans as well as other poor Americans.

Impact of the Industrial Revolution

Education in North America continued to evolve during the Industrial Revolution, which lasted from the late 18th through the early 20th century. Children often worked as cheap labor under precarious conditions. There was nothing to regulate these conditions where children were viewed as miniature adults, capable of providing for themselves and their families.

During this period, there was a rise in the growth of the middle class. From this middle class emerged reformers who pioneered the idea that childhood constituted a separate stage of development from adulthood and needed to be treated as such. Part of this treatment included education and leisure time.

During the early part of the Industrial Revolution, compulsory education was designed for work, whether in the factories or on the land, and geared toward factory work and labor. The compulsory education of early schools eventually had students who were several years apart in grade and age in one room. Students would be taught the same lessons but the instruction was differentiated and modified based upon the students’s learning needs, ability, and learning style.

In early colonial America, students wanting a university education had to travel to England to attend Cambridge or Oxford, which could be unsafe and expensive. It became imperative to establish a university system of education, much like the universities the first settlers had attended before arriving in the colonies.

With several colleges founded during the early colonial period—Harvard in 1636, College of William and Mary in 1693, and Yale University in 1701—the trend toward post–secondary education continued from the mid-18th century to the 1900s. Columbia University was first chartered as King’s College in 1754, and Dartmouth was founded in 1769. By the end of the 18th century, there were more than 350 colleges in North America.

Separation of Church and State

During the 1830s there was an influx of immigrants to North America, and by the middle of the 19th century over half of the urban populations were immigrants. Many foreigners were attracted to New York and New Orleans with new industrialization and economic opportunity.

Many issues began to arise in both the North and South around Catholic education, which led Governor William H. Seward and Bishop John Hughes of the New York diocese to become involved. At the time, the principles of Protestantism dominated North American society. Consequently, little progress was made in enabling Catholics to attend Protestant schools, ultimately leading to private Catholic education.

The private Catholic school system developed because schools only received state funding if they incorporated Protestant teachings into their curricula. Catholics refused to have their children attend Protestant schools because they used the King James translation of the Bible, a Protestant translation undertaken during the 17th century.

If Catholics were to attend public schools they would have to follow Protestantism within the school, and Catholics were afraid of losing support from the Catholic Church if they did so. Catholics eventually gained permission to open their own schools, which were not funded through state aid or taxation.

Spread of State-Funded Education

With the influx of poor immigrants to the colonies, kindergarten was started to instill the basic social needs of children between the ages of three and seven. In 1890 junior high schools began opening with the purpose of preparing students for high school by distinguishing their needs and determining what they would pursue when they went to high school.

Many educational developments were impeded during the mid-18th century up through the early 20th century because of cultural, religious, and economic differences in American society. The need for public education could not be ignored if North America wanted to have unity and prosperity, both in its economic and social conditions.