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Education Examined: Unfolding the State of Education in America


Major Events in the History of U.S. Education (with Primary Sources)

Major Events in the History of U.S. Education (with Primary Sources)




First public grammar school established for privileged sons who were destine for community leadership roles.

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John Lock publishes An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and Some Thoughts Concerning Education outlining his belief that the human mind is a blank slate at birth, filled with knowledge through experience.  These ideas greatly influence American education.




Christian von Wolff promotes the concept that the mind can be developed through "mental discipline" (drills, repetition). This idea held great influence in the American Education system in the 19th century.

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Thomas Jefferson writes often on the education of the people, proposing a two-track educational system, differentiating instruction for "the laboring and the learned." He supports scholarship for a limited number of students from the laboring classes might allow for "raking a few geniuses from the rubbish."




The Land Ordinance of 1785, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 divides western territories and new states into townships, requiring that a portion of each be set aside for the "maintenance of public schools."




The US Constitution and the Bill of Rights do NOT address education.  This function is, therefore, "reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people."




Boston establishes the first free public primary schools.




Boston establishes the first public high school.




Massachusetts passes a law making all grades of public school open to all pupils free of charge. High schools are required in all towns larger with more than 500 families.

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Like most other southern states Alabama bases laws forbidding the education of slaves.
READ: 1833 Alabama Slave Code (specifically sections 31-33)




Horace Mann's theories regarding free and public education begin to circulate.




Massachusetts Reform School opens, beginning a long tradition of combining education and juvenile justice systems.

The ratified Constitution of the State of Wisconsin includes, in Article X, provisions for the Common School Fund, designed to ensure free and equal access to resources for students across the state via school libraries and public museums.




The first kindergarten is started in Watertown, Wisconsin.

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The First Morrill Act (also known as the Land Grant Act) donates public lands to states, the sale of which would support the endowment of state colleges.




Congress makes it illegal for Native Americans to be taught in their native languages. Many children are removed from their homes to be educated in Bureau of Indian Affairs off-reservation boarding schools.




The Freedmen's Bureau was established are established to provide assistance to African Americans in the wake of the Civil War. Some of that effort was focused on the creation of schools.




The U.S. Department of Education is created.




The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified, becoming the basis for future educational equality rulings by the Supreme Court.




The first correspondence school is created in Boston to encourage education of women.




The Michigan State Supreme Court rules that municipalities may levy taxes to support public high schools.




The Civil Rights Act of 1875 is passed, banning segregation in public facilities. The U.S. Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional a few years later.




Reconstruction comes to an end and states are quick to enact formal systems of segretation and discrimination.




The Committee of Ten, formed by the National Education Association, recommends a college-oriented high school curriculum. READ:  The Secondary School Programme by Nicholas Murray Butler (essay, 1890)

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The US Supreme Court upholds Plessy vs. Ferguson, establishing the principle of "separate but equal" in school segregation.

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Booker T. Washington publishes Sowing and Reaping. In Chapter 7, he lays the groundwork for differented education based on race/social class.




Mother Jones leads the "Children's Crusade," to get children out of mills and into schools.




The U.S. Supreme court requires California to extend publication to the children of Chinese immigrants.

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The Wisconsin Idea uses the extension division to bring universities to communities. Charles McCarthy later wrote about this in  Chapter Five of his book by the same name.

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The Negro Problem is published, including essays from leading African American philosophers. It includes The Talented Tenth by W.E.B. DuBois and Industrial Education for the Negro by Booker T. Washington

John Dewey publishes How We Think, initiating a debate about both the methods and missions of education in American society.




Edward Lee Thorndike's theories of "connectionism become the leading educational psychology.

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John Dewey publishes Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Phillosophy of Education




The Smith-Hughes Act passes, providing federal funding for vocational education. It is repealed in 1997.

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All states have laws requiring mandatory school attendence for elementary students.

The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education  (synopsis here) reports the conclusions of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education.




All states have laws providing funds for school transportation.




The 19th Amendment is ratified, giving women the right to vote. This has significant impact on social issues regarding children.




The US Supreme Court rules that children can attend private school in lieu of mandatory public schools.




Jean Piaget's The Child's Conception of the World is published. His theory of cognitive development becomes an important influence in American developmental psychology and education.

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Eleanor Roosevelt writes Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education.




California courts forbit the placement of Mexican-American children in separate "Americanization" schools.




It is estimated that three quarters of American schools are using so-called intelligence testing to place students in different academic tracks.




The Works Progress Administration puts people to work constructing hundreds of new schools.

Economic concerns dominate discussions about education. READ: Contributions of Our Secondary Schools to Better Business and Industrial Conditions by Edward A. Filene (speech, 1935); Education and the Social Welfare by Glenn Frank, UW (speech, 1936); Industry's View of Education by B.D. Kunkle (speech, 1938)

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Fair Labor Standards Act sets a minimum age for working and limits hours and types of employment for older children.

B.F. Skinner publishes publishes Behavior of Organisms (review here) that repopularizebehaviorist classroom models.

F. T. Spauling delivers his speech, Secondary Education Problems.

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The report Education for All American Youth restates perspectives of Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education and declares "no aristocracy of 'subjects'" including science.

The G.I. Bill of Rights is established by the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944.

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General Education in a Free Society report emphasizes general education that integrates broad elements from all modes of thought.

Science: The Endless Frontier calls for science education reform in order to promote the development of new, talented scientists and engineers.

The Schools Should Retain Our Workers by Beaman J. Frank (Saturday Evening Post, 1943)




The National School Lunch Act is implemented.

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Talcott Parsons publishes The Social System (outlined here) in which he defines the role of education as one of maintaining social equilibrium and ensuring social order.




The U.S. Supreme Court rules that "seperate educational facilities are inherently unequal" on the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, overturning Plessey v. Ferguson and ending legal segregation.

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Milton Friedman publishes The Role of Government in Education, introducing the idea of school vouchers. 




Benjamin S. Bloom introduces his taxonomy of cognitive domains.




Federal troops enforce integration at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.




The ACT Test is first administered.

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James Bryant Conant publishes  The American High School Today, Slums and Suburbs, claiming that the goal of education is both social and intellectual, calling for the tracking students based on their abilities.

Jerome Bruner publishes The Process of Education (reviewed here).




Miami establishes the first bilingual school in the United States.




The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin.

Can Our Schools Bridge the Gap by Mary Conway Kohler and Andre Fontaine (Saturday Evening Post, 1964)




The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is passed as part of Johnson's "War on Poverty." It provides federal funding to support programs such as Title I and Project Head Start.




Jerome Bruner publishes Toward a Theory of Instruction, popularizing the cognitive learning theory as an alternative to Skinner's behaviorism. Paulo Frere publishes The Pedagogy of the Oppressed exposing biases that are inherent in curriculum.




The Bilingual Education Act (Title VII) is passed (repealed in 2002).




Herbert R. Kohl (not Senator Kohl) publishes The Open Classroom. The book promotes open educaiton in a student-centered classroom. This is opposed by the conservative movement.




Ivan Illich criticises traditional schools, calling for an end to compulsory school. Jean Piaget writes The Science of Education, promoting discovery-based learning.




Federal courts rule that students with mental disabilities are entitled to a free public educaiton.

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The Indian Education Act establishes a new "comprehensive approach" to meeting the needs of native students.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex in all aspects of education. Enforcement is slow. READ: Women's Education: To Discover Ourselves as Women by Betty Littleton (speech, 1975); Sex Equity in American Educaiton: Documenting Discrimination by J. Wirtenberg, S. Klein, B Richardson, and V. Thomas (Educational Leadership, 1981)

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Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act guarantees civil rights and requires accommodations for people with disabilities in any federally funded institution.

Educational reformers debate the need for textbook revisions to reduce stereotyping in American schools. READ: Do Instructional Materials Reinforce Sex Sterotyping (1973), Textbooks as Brainwashers (1975)




The US Supreme Court requires school districts to provide English language instruction to students with limited English skills. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act is subsequently passed to prohibit discrimination in schools and requires schools to take action to overcome barriers to equal protection.

The US Supreme Court rules that schools may not be desegregated across school districts, effectively segregating students by urban/suburban domicile.

Court ordered desegregation through busing results in a civil unrest.

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The Education of All Handicapped Children Act becomes federal law.

Newweek's article, Why Johnny Can't Write, sparks debate about national literacy and propels a conservative "back to the basics" movement.




Apple II (and IIe) become popular in schools.




The homeschooling movement is propelled by John Holt's book Teach Your Own.




Madeline Hunter publishes Mastery Teaching.

The US Supreme Court rules that denying access to public education for undocumented school-aged children violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Ammendment. See events in 2011.

The US Supreme Court rules that books can't be removed from a school library because an administrator deems content offensive.

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A Nation at Risk is published, calling for sweeping reforms in public education and teacher training.




The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act is passed.

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The Individuals with Disabilities Educaiton Act (IDEA) is passed, mandating transition services for students with disabilities.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice program is initiated. In 1999, Alex Molnar of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reviewed the research and controversies surrounding this program.




The first charter school opens in St. Paul, Minnesota.




Jacqueline and Martin Brooks publish In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, arguing that learning best occurs through active construction of knowledge rather than its passive reception.

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The first graphical web browser (Netscape) is released, free to individuals and non-profit organizations, including schools.

Georgia implements universal preschool for four-year-olds who elect to enroll them.

James Banks publishes Multicultural Education: Transformative Knowledge and Action, reviewed here.



  California's Proposition 227mandates 1 year of English immersion. Arizona, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts and Texas follow suit.
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Diane Ravitch writes Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, as a criticism of progressive educational policies. Read the first chapter here.

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The No Child Left Behind Act is enacted, holding schools accountable for student achievement levels based on standardized test scores and other measurements. Read the executive summary here.




All American schools are connected to the Internet, acccording the the National Center for Education Statistics.




The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race cannot be a factor in assigning students to high schools within a district.




The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 injects federal funds into struggling local education systems. The act includes the Race to the Top initiative.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is launched.

The first school to teach primarily through game-based learning is opened in New York City.




Alabama becomes the first state to require public schools to check the immigration status of students. Read more about HB-56 and subsequent actions here.

The Wisconsin legislature removes collective-barganing rights for many public employees, including teachers. A similar law in Ohio is appealed.

The US Department of Education allows states to request flexibility in meeting the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act. (2011) Wisconsin's request is approved in 2012.

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Districts in Chicago and other large cities begin to close schools in response to tight budgets and the demands of No Child Left Behind. Local educators resist closures based on the disproportionate effect on low-income and minority students.

Heated debates over immigration policies are mirrored by ESL challenges. READ:  Are Schools Getting Tongue-Tied? ESL Programs Face New Challenges by Ron Schachter (District Administration Magazine, 2013)

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The Every Child Suceeds Act replaces No Child Left Behind, returning state control in judging school quality and summarized here. Obama also announces a new plan for limiting "standardized testing" to no more than 2% of class time.


Sources for Reference

120 Years of Education: A Statistical Report (National Center for Educational Statistics)

A Half Century of Learning: Historical censustatisics on educational attainment in the United States, 1940 to 2000


Articles. Essays and Speeches

Choice Reading American Public Education: An Origin Story (Education News)

Choice Reading An American Imperative: Public Education (Center for Public Education)

Choice Reading Classical Education in America by Daniel Walker Howe (Wilson Quarterly, 2011)

Choice Reading Educational Dilemmas for Americans by Paticia Albjerg Graham (essay, 1998)

Choice Reading Erasing Brown by William Yeomans (Nation Magazine, 2015)

Choice Reading Getting In, The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions by Malcom Gladwell (essay, 2005)

Choice Reading School Reform Fails the Test by Mike Rose (The American Scholar, 2015)

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