Then and Now: American Education Through the Ages

The era of blackboards and the disciplinary cane is a distant memory.

Today, schools are a cornucopia of technology and fierce competition. With a staggering 75.2 million students enrolled in schools, America proudly boasts one of the most effective education systems in the world. 

But how did we reach this pinnacle? Let’s take a look at the interesting journey through American education.

1635 – America’s First Public School

Before America was even known as the United States, the boys-only Boston Latin School was created. The year was 1635, and the institute was modeled after an existing school in Boston, England. 

Latin and Greek were taught as languages in addition to humanities studies. The Boston Latin School has relocated but is still functioning today.

1636 – America’s First University

Just one year after the first official public school was established, Harvard University was founded, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

The institution was officially called ‘New College’ until 1639, when a clergyman named John Harvard donated his book collection and funds. As a result of his generosity, the school was renamed in his honor.

America’s Growing Educational Demands

The first official schools focused on raising boys to lead in the church, politics, or business. There was little focus on the arts, medicine, and the plethora of degree options students can access today. 

However, Benjamin Franklin opened the University of Philadelphia in 1765, whereupon students attended anatomical lectures. It became the first Medical School in America. 

A Male-Dominated Environment

In the late 1800s, female education did not extend far beyond ‘dame schools’. These institutions were predominantly in the form of at-home childcare, where a woman would teach very young children basic literary skills. 

Until 1840, when the Common School Movement began, women in America remained largely uneducated.

1840 – The Common School Movement

The Common School Movement was the first introduction to education as we know it today. 

Led by Horace Mann, secretary for the Massachusetts Board of Education, the initiative was intended to open schooling to all, regardless of gender, social class, religion, ethnicity, or country of origin. 

Mann saw this as a positive step towards a stronger nation, and today, over a century later, his vision has been validated. 

1870 – The Insurgence of Female Education 

By 1870, thirty years after the Common School Movement began, females were surpassing males in public schools, both in enrollment numbers and test results. 

Moreover, as a result of their educational success, young women began taking more jobs in schools and universities. 

American Concerns Regarding Female Job Opportunities

This led to concerns raised by traditionalists, who worried that women were beginning to usurp men’s jobs. Unable to argue that women were less intelligent, many expressed concern that the expended energy toward education would affect a woman’s fertility. 

1896 – Legal Segregation

The Plessy versus Ferguson Supreme Court case was a landmark moment in the history of American education.

Plessy, an African-American man, challenged segregation by sitting in a ‘whites only’ railcar. Judge Ferguson presided over the case. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling established the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, permitting racial segregation but promising equal treatment. The decision initially applied only to railcars but soon extended to schools and other institutions.

1920 –  Public Schooling Made Compulsory

In an effort to depower Catholic private schools, multiple movements were established in the 1920s to encourage public school attendance.

The most famous among these was the Smith-Towner Bill, which worked to provide national funding to public schools. While school enrollment had previously been mandatory, attendance was now more heavily observed. 

1954 – Segregation Deemed Unconstitutional

Decades after legalizing segregation in daily life, the US Supreme Court unanimously declared such separation unconstitutional.

This decision was met with rioting and distaste, and it took many more years before mixed schools became considered the norm in America.

1965 – The Elementary and Secondary Education Act

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law in April 1965. This aimed to make education accessible to all, doing so by providing large amounts of funding to all local institutions. 

The extra funding allowed schools to support lower-income families, covering the cost of students’ books and other educational necessities. 

1999 – The Columbine High School Shooting

The principal of Columbine High School, Frank DeAngelis, described the school’s notorious shooting incident in 1999 as his “worst nightmare.” While it was not the first school shooting in America, it was certainly one of the most tragic and highly publicized at that point. 

The incident began when two students, aged 17 and 18, brought an assortment of weaponry to their school. Over the course of just 20 minutes, the armed students shot 15 people dead. 

Their victims included classmates, a teacher, and ultimately, themselves. A further 21 people were injured. 

Officials later found two propane bombs that the attackers had planted in the school’s cafeteria. Had they detonated, they would have caused immense additional damage to human life.

2001 – No Children Left Behind Act

Now, moving into the 21st century, the American education system has firmly cemented itself as a fundamental cornerstone of society. 

Building on the foundations laid by the Elementary and Secondary Act from years earlier, President George W Bush signed the No Children Left Behind Act, which laid out comprehensive guidelines for testing students’ proficiency in their subjects. 

The legislation’s goal was to bridge the gap between poorer students and those with greater financial stability.  It meant that students would ultimately be offered and evaluated at similar educational levels, irrespective of their upbringing. 

2010 – The Common Core Standards Initiative

With a schooling environment similar to that we know now, the Common Core Standards Initiative was introduced in 2010, a follow-on from the No Children Left Behind Act. 

The Common Core Standards, which are still in use today, define the expectations for students in America, specific to each grade. This initiative aimed to ensure national cohesion throughout the education system. 

Gun Safety and School Shootings

As education bled into the 21st century, school shootings became more frequent. In 2005, the Red Lake Shootings made headlines, as did the Sandy Hook Elementary Shootings in 2012.

These incidents brought wide debate around gun laws and gun safety to the fore, a divisive social conversation that continued into President Donald Trump’s term.

In 2018, he promised more rigorous background checks and better mental health screening for owners of firearms.  

READ NEXT: “Deeply Offensive”: School Told Native American To Cut Long Hair And Comply With Grooming Policy

Where Does That Leave Us?

Education in the United States has grown significantly in size and scope since its formal introduction in Colonial America. 

Where once there were small schoolhouses for little boys to learn foreign languages, now there are vast and profitable institutes. Schools are now prepared to educate American students of all races and denominations in a wide variety of subjects. 

Good Education = Good Country

The education system has worked tirelessly over the years to unite America into the nation it is today. It has produced millions of intelligent individuals who have subsequently contributed to the growth of America’s workforce. 

Benjamin Franklin strongly believed that investing in education was among the wisest choices one could make. Given America’s remarkable success, it seems his opinion was indeed well-founded.


This article was produced by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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