The History of Public Education in the U.S.

How the state-funded, public school system came to be:

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With the most educational U.S. history poster out there, we decided to share with you the history of education in the U.S!


Initially, education in the American colonies was the same as it had been for centuries. Children from upper class families were really the only ones to get an education. Most of their education was oriented towards developing skills so that the boys could act as an owner over the family land and that the women could fill a role as wives and mistresses.

Children from poor families took on an apprenticeship that would last anywhere from 3 to 10 years in the attempt to help them develop a useful skill.

In 1642, one of the first compulsory education laws was put into place by Massachusetts that required parents and teachers to ensure that children knew the principles and laws of religion and government. The law was put into place because people that knew and understood the law would be more likely to keep it.

The law of 1647 was built upon the previous law. If the parent or guardian neglected to teach their children the laws and principles of the land, the government would have the right to take the child and place them somewhere where they would learn it. The law also required that in every town of 50 families, a schoolmaster be hired to run an elementary school and teach children. This was the beginning of compulsory, public education.

Horace Mann

In 1774, public schools hadn’t really caught on and the schools that existed weren’t part of a collective system… at least not until the 1840s.

In 1837, a former Massachusetts politician by the name of Horace Mann came into the picture as one of the most influential education reformers. Mann was appointed the secretary of the board of education of Massachusetts and performed his duties with a lot of effort. He went to every school in the state to inspect the grounds, started various school systems, and wrote reports on the benefits of a school education to society.

He also tore down the secular nature of the Massachusetts school system, claiming that the “public schools are not theological seminaries.” Although he wanted a system based on morals and on the basis of religion, he knew the system needed to be more welcoming of diverse religious opinions. His views of stopping corporal punishment in the classroom were also eventually adopted.

When speaking of Horace Mann, historian Ellwood P. Cubberley wrote, “No one did more than he to establish in the minds of the American people the conception that education should be universal, non-sectarian, free, and that its aims should be social efficiency, civic virtue, and character, rather than mere learning or the advancement of sectarian ends.”

Schools spread nationally

As the 19th century passed, education reformers continued to push for free elementary education that would be funded by public funds and compulsory education laws for children. Kindergartens were in most school programs by 1910 and by 1918, school attendance was required of children in every state.

Finally, in the 20th century, the state education systems became inclusive of everyone. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared that separate educational facilities are unequal and unconstitutional, which struck down segregation in schools with a single blow. Following World War II and the Baby Boom that would happen, schools grew in staff and population sizes. Free education for handicapped children was required in 1975. During the 80’s and 90’s, the state education boards became involved in raising standards through state testing and curriculum requirements.

Here at US History Poster, we enjoy sharing the history of what happened with you. If you’re interested in having our nation’s history on your wall, check out our site!

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