|Support our unique educational system
The American public education system differs significantly
from those of other Western societies in a number of key ways,
- our belief education can address social problems,
- our commitment to providing all students education to
at least age 16, and
- our dedication to local control of schools.
These differences hearken back to our democratic roots. Soon
after the American Revolution, our founders argued education
was essential for our nation's survival and prosperity. Thomas
Jefferson became the first American leader to propose a publicly
supported system of free schools for all persons.
The Common School movement
However not until the 1840s did an organized system exist.
Education reformers like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, working
in Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively, helped create
statewide common-school systems. These reformers sought to
increase opportunities for all children and create common
bonds among an increasingly diverse population. They also
argued education could preserve social stability and prevent
crime and poverty.
Common-school advocates worked to establish a free elementary
education accessible to everyone and financed by public funds.
As such, they advocated public schools should be accountable
to local school boards and state governments. They also helped
establish compulsory school attendance laws for elementary-age
children. By 1918, such laws existed in all states.
Introducing secondary schools
Yet only a small number of teenagers pursued a secondary
education. In 1900, only 10 percent of adolescents attended
high school, even though an 1874 Michigan Supreme Court decision
established public financing for secondary education.
But the 20th century dramatically changed this. Strict child
labor laws and an increasingly urban and industrialized society
encouraged additional education. Most states enacted laws
extending compulsory education to age 16, and the American
high school was born. Its goals remain to educate students
for their place in society and to provide them opportunities
to rise above any social or economic disadvantages into which
they were born.
Learn more about American Education Week and our educational
The following resources can help you plan events for this
week-long celebration or share more about the history of America's
schools with students.
Early American Education and the influence of Horace Mann -- An integrated unit of study with all resources provided
-- The Story of American Public Education is the companion
site to the PBS series and includes a look at current problems
-- History of American Education Web Project is a site created
and maintained by college education students.
-- The Old Rural School as I Remember It offers the recollections
of a rural school teacher.