Public Education in the United States: Purpose and Brief History
Public Education in the United States: Purpose and Brief History
Lawrence P. Creedon
There is no scarcity of information on the topic of this monograph; however, a case can be made
that practitioners in the field and the general public at large are limited as to an understanding of
how the public schools as they are today work and came to be. For the past 50 years public
education in the United States has been subjected to a torrent of criticism at home, while
internationally AAmerican Schools@ are valued as prestigious institutions of learning. Prior to
1957 few government officials gave much consideration to what went on behind the classroom
door. It was viewed as a local matter and best left to the locals to decide what went on in their
community schools. They then taxed themselves at the local level for whatever they decided to
do. All that has changed. Public education is of priority concern throughout the nation.
In order to understand how public schools in the United States came to be as they are today it is
instructive to become familiar with their development from one room village school houses to
vast physical plants catering to the learning needs of hundreds of children at the elementary level
and thousands at the secondary level. In search of such an understanding we will begin with a
brief consideration of purpose.
The Purpose of Public Education
The purposes of public education in the United States abound. In a democratic society it stands
to reason that not all citizens are going to view the purpose of things and institutions, including
the public school, through the same lens. And, even if they peer through the same lens the
images frequently the images they see are different. Purpose, like beauty, is in the eye of the
beholder. However, a set of core purposes can be identified and among them are these:
1. The transmission to the young knowledge of the ideals upon which the United States was
A critical reading of this purpose immediately raises into question the meaning of the
2. To function as a microcosm of a democratic society.
Seldom, if ever, does the school function in this way. More often than not it follows a
structured command, conform and comply mode.
3. To assist young people in becoming self fulfilling individuals, good citizens and competent
workers in a world that is maximally effective for all.
Seldom does the school function so as to promote individual self fulfillment except for a
minority of students. Currently the emphasis on mandated standardized testing dominates
the curriculum and instructional time. There is little time left for other things. Good
citizenship is interpreted to be mean compliance with traditional norms . A Agood
citizenship@ supports the government in its endeavors. The current international crisis in
Iraq is an example. However, an earlier international crisis in Vietnam saw students
becoming politically active. Few students graduate from high school with a job entry skill
other than meeting the requirements for going on to college or vocational training. A
concern for a Aworld that is maximally effective for all@ is a questionable priority in
public education. Evidence to support that point of view includes the current concerns
over immigration into the United States and the outsourcing of American jobs.
4. To provide access and equality of opportunity for all citizens to receive an education at public
The record shows that the public school has constantly and continuously strived to make
these goals available and real for all. The journey has not been on a smooth road and it is
not yet over, but efforts continue unabated.
5. To focus on individual achievement and self fulfillment
History shows that educators are concerned and committed to both of these goals,
however, frequently constraints beyond their control limit effectiveness. The constraints
include among other concerns tradition, bureaucratic micro management of schools, the
organization and structure of the school day and year, and financial limitations.
To do better is better than doing one=s best. A first reading of the above might lead the reader to
conclude that the writer is a skeptic and unnecessarily critical. However, neither skepticism nor
criticism for criticism=s sake is intended. To the contrary, few, if any nations, in the history of
humankind can equal the commitment to universal and effective education that has characterized
the American experience. However, growth does not come from resting on one=s laurels, but
rather striving to do better than what heretofore has been considered one=s best. The United
States is a pragmatic nation. Its schools have developed pragmatically. It will do better than its
How public education in the United States developed is the story of an evolutionary process. In
the Anew world@ of the 17th century it began when what is now the United States were colonies
of Great Britain. The story has continued constantly adding new chapters until today when the
education program of the United States is among those emulated around the world.. It has grown
from one room village-by-village places where select children learned the rudiments of readingwriting-
and-arithmetic for three years (the three Rs) to a colossal enterprise open to all citizens,
including immigrants. At present it culminates in universities providing the most advanced
education in all areas of learning known to humankind. It will continue to get better.
However, the path from what it was in the beginning to what it is now has not one been that was
in foresight laid out on a blueprint. It has evolved over a period of more than 300 years. The
institution has been the scene of many ideological and legal confrontations as to:
What is the purpose and significance of education?
Who should be educated and, why?
What should the curriculum be?
Who should teach?
What should the cost be?
How should the funds be raised?
Who should control education?
Who Should Control Education?
In order to better understand all that is to follow it might be helpful to begin by addressing the
last question first. Who controls public education in the United States? While the constitutional
answer is simple, what has happened and is happening is not. By virtue of the Tenth Amendment
to the Constitution of the United States, the last amendment in the Bill of Rights adopted by the
Constitutional Convention in 17 87, education is a State right. The federal government has no
constitutional powers over education. Not until 1979 under United States President Jimmy
Carter was the then Federal Bureau of Education elevated to the level of one of the now 15
cabinet positions in the executive branch of the federal government. Initially the role of US
Department of education was defined as: (http://publicservice.monster.com/articles/cabinet)
The Education Department’s first responsibility is ensuring
that the nation’s public school systems provide students with
proper school supplies, educational facilities and qualified
teachers. Department personnel promote parental involvement in
their children’s education and develop financial aid policies.
However, and especially since 1957, the federal government has played an ever increasing role
in the purpose and direction of public education. While its influence is ubiquitous as to purpose
and direction, it remains a very junior partner as to finance. The federal government pays
approximately 10 to 15 percent of the cost of public education. State and local governments pay
The influence of the federal government comes through legislation. Federal legislation related to
civil rights, discrimination, equity, due process and as host of other concerns place the federal
government in the center of things related to what goes on behind the classroom door. The
Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution is the key that unlocked the door for federal
involvement in public education. The Fourteenth Amendment provides that:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and
subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the
United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State
shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the
privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States;
nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or
property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person
within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The courts have determined access to a public education a property right and all citizens are
constitutionally protected by the Adue process@ and Aequal protection of the law@ provisions of
the Fourteenth Amendment.
Colonial Period in American History
In its earliest days during the American colonial period answers to the above seven questions
were relatively simple. The purpose and significance of education was twofold:. It was:
1. To teach young people beginning around age 5 or 6 the rudiments of readingwriting
2. To instill in them the moral and religious precepts of the then prevailing Protestant
Christian religious doctrine.
In that the colonists lived in an agrarian, apprentice learning based society there was little need
for anything beyond the three Rs of reading-writing-and-arithmetic. For the most part girls were
apprenticed at home learning domestic skills from their mothers. Teachers had no special traing.
They were drawn from among village members and were proficient in the three Rs. Also, they
received the approval of the local Protestant minister as to their religious orthodoxy. For the most
part teachers were men who had learned how to read, cipher and write in their own youthful
years and were judged by the minister to be of good moral character. It was not uncommon for
the minister also to be the school master. However, early on women began to replace men as
teachers in that in practice schooling was an extension of the home and men were needed for
more physically demanding work. No formal education in teacher education was required or
The first publicly funded secondary public school in the colonies was Boston Latin School
(1635). The purpose of Boston Latin was to prepare young scholars for admission to Harvard
College. The then purpose of Harvard was to prepare young men for the Protestant ministry.
Boston Latin remains in place today with a much broader purpose and scope.
The cost of the school was to be borne by village property owners. From the earliest days of
colonial America the cost of education has been viewed as a local responsibility And, it still is.
The control of education was to reside within the village
The local Protestant minister had a strong voice in determining all aspects of schooling. Slowly
village school committees, (also known as councils or boards) were elected from among those
eligible in the village to vote. Those eligible to vote were male property owners.
The Colonies Became a Nation in 1778-9 and the First Half of the 19th Century
During this period the concept of schooling continued to expand. In 1779 Thomas Jefferson, the
third President of the United States, laid out a hierarchal plan for the education of young men in
his native state of Virginia. Beyond the three Rs it was a plan of meritocracy. It began with each
village being required to maintain at its own cost a school where the three Rs would dominate
the curriculum. Schooling would be for three years. After that competitive examinations would
be taken periodically until the Abrightest@ ultimately received appointments to attend the
university. Jefferson=s university remains today as the prestigious college of William and Mary.
The curriculum remained focused on the three Rs and Protestant morality. Even thought the US
Constitution through the first amendment to the Constitution has placed limits on the extent to
which the Church was to be involved in secular affairs, the Protestant influence remained in
place. It was not until the 1830s that the last state severed the legal ties between the public
schools and the Protestant Church.
Slowly during this period the number of days spent in school each year, and the number of years
of schooling increased from three to eight. The schools were known as AGrammar schools.@
Public High schools were still yet to come. The brightest and wealthiest students could go
beyond grammar school to privately endowed academies. In the New England area of the United
States a few of those schools remain. In my home region of New England a few that remain
include Thayer Academy, Braintree, Massachusetts. Thayer is named after its founder who rose
to be the first superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Another in my home town of Quincy, Massachusetts is the Woodward School for Girls founded
by a revered physician. It was and is unique in that it was for girls. In the United States today
there are approximately 100 high school level non-religious affiliated schools exclusively for
girls. My son did a high school post graduate year in a third prestigious private academy:
Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, MA. When he attended it was limited to young men, now females
The curriculum remained focused on the three Rs, but began to expand beyond the rudiments of
low order cognitive skill development (information, comprehension, memorization, recall) in the
three Rs.. It began to expand into Euro centered classical literature and history, and geography.
For the most part the study of geography was unrelated to anything else in the curriculum and
focused on memorizing the names and locations of nations, capitols, rivers, mountains, crops
grown in the region and natural resources available.
The one room school house prevailed with one teacher for all eight grades. Older students served
as peer instructors for younger students. To some degree continuous progress did prevail.
Continuous progress meant that a youngster continued on an individual path of learning and was
not constrained by artificial content for the grade restrictions..
In larger communities larger schools began to appear. However, the organizational structure
remained the same: One teacher with the same group of students for eight years. The first graded
grammar school appeared in Boston during the latter part of this period. It was known as the
Quincy School and remains today. Now it is populated almost exclusively by Chinese
Americans. In this dramatic organizational change the school was divided into grades one
through eight. Children moved through the grades one year at a time as if on a conveyor belt.
Each year the cohort of children had a different teacher and the content for the grade was
specific for that grade. The teacher taught all subjects including such specialties as music and
art. That organizational structure remained in tact for over 100 years and was in place when I
began my career as an elementary school teacher in 1957. By this time the term Agrammar
school@ had been replaced by elementary school.
Another feature of the graded Quincy Grammar School was that it had a full time supervising
headmaster (now known as the principal).
Teachers still did not need much in the way of pre service education. At best, maybe a few
months of pedagogical training that was focused primarily on discipline. In that Protestant
morality of the day viewed the child as a creature that left to his/her own devices would err and
disobey, corporal punishment was condoned, expected and applied. Corporal punishment was a
term that identified the approach to discipline. Corporal punishment allowed the teacher or
headmaster to Aspank@ or use physical force in correcting the alleged transgressions of a child.
For the most part corporal punishment is a thing of the past, however, a few states, primarily in
the South, still allow it by law.
Control remained within the jurisdiction of local townspeople with the strong influence of the
Protestant church. Financial support was raised locally. In 1837 Massachusetts appointed Horace
Mann as the first state wide secretary of education in the United States. Under his leadership
state funds were made available to start schools, however, continued funding would remain a
local responsibility. The curriculum in state initiated schools was standardized. This >carrot and
stick@ approach continues today at the state and federal levels. If the local distinct wants sate and
federal money it must adhere to their curriculum requirements.
From the American Civil War 1860-1865 to the Turn of the 20th Century
The American Civil War followed by the industrial revolution resulted in many new realities
facing the public school. The graded grammar school came to characterize school organization.
Public high schools were still for the most part in the future.
The need for change was forced upon the schools as vast numbers of non-English speaking
immigrants began to flood United States east coast cities. The public grammar school began to
be characterized as the great melting pot where immigrant children were taught how to be
Americans. Of course it was being American by the standard of the day which meant anti-Negro,
anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Asian. AAmerica for Americans@ and that still meant
European Caucasians of Protestant tradition.
In the south Negroes did not attend school. It was a crime to teach a Negro how to read. In the
North the urban schools were openly anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. In the just opening West
anti-Chinese laws were enacted.
Two from among the many dramatic happenings of the era were the creation of the Roman
Catholic parochial school system, and the US Supreme Court Plessey vs Ferguson decision
(1896) declaring it Constitutional to maintain two Aseparate but equal@ school systems within
the United States.
The public school was clearly anti-Catholic. It was common practice for teachers to Apreach@ to
their immigrant Roman Catholic students about the evils of Catholicism and popery. It was
commonplace for the teachings of the Catholic Church to be scorned as idolatry and the Pope to
be portrayed as the anti-Christ. As a result in the Second Council of Baltimore in the late 1860s
the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States pledged to establish a school in every parish in
the country so that by the turn the turn of the century Aevery Catholic child would be in a
Catholic school.@ Thus, the parochial school system was born. The goal of the Bishops was
never realized, however, Catholics did give rise to the largest alternative to the public school in
the United States. As a result of the changes in the Catholic Church post Vatican Council II in
the 1960s the Roman Catholic parochial school reinvented itself. While many parish grammar
schools were forced to close due to the loss of teaching nuns and the cost of hiring lay faculty,
regional high schools under the jurisdiction of the diocese or separate religious orders began to
flourish. The focus shifted to regional college preparatory high schools and that remains the
situation today. In urban centers Catholic schools serve as an alternative to the public school.
Frequently only a minority of enrollees are Catholic. Nuns no longer staff the schools as none are
available. To raise funds for their support Catholic schools are turning to professional fund
raisers and adopting the practices of colleges in fund raising.
The new parochial schools are the Christian Academies established by the Protestant religious
right especially in the south. Originally such schools were in protest to the 1954 Supreme Court
decision striking down Plessey vs Ferguson and declaring racially segregated schools
unconstitutional. Today the purpose of Protestant based Christian Academies has grown beyond
a concern for continued segregation to embrace a broader interest in including religious values
and content in the curriculum While this element strongly opposed any government financial aid
for Catholic Parochial schools prior to the 1954 Brown Supreme Court decision as a violation of
separation of church and state, it now actively supports government financial assistance under
the Bush Administration AFaith Based Initiatives@ program for its own schools. Ironically
Catholic schools qualify for the same financial assistance. Objection to this practice does not
come from Protestant or Catholic partisans, but rather secularists concerned over violations of
the First Amendment prohibition against aiding religious activities. Protestants and Other
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (POAU, or as they now prefer to be
called AAmericans United@ are in the forefront of this legal battleground). In 1957 I co-authored
United for Separation, a book related to the activities of POAU.
In the post American Civil War (1860-1865) South the ideological battle waged on as the white
population strove to keep the recently freed from bondage Negroes subservient and Ain their
place.@ White parents across economic lines angrily and violently resisted their children going
to school alongside of Blacks. Ultimately the US Supreme Court settled the issue proclaiming
the Aequal but separate@ doctrine in 1896. This prevailed until overturned in 1954 in Brown vs
the Board of Education. There are those who argue today that the schools remain segregated
especially in urban areas where African Americans and other minorities do not receive equality
in educational opportunity. Study after study highlights the achievement gap between students
attending urban schools and those attending suburban schools. Urban schools are heavily
populated by African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. Also, there are those newly
minted African American middle class members as well as Hispanics who in order to preserve
their cultural identity and sense of community, are calling for a return to a new approach to
Aseparate but equal schools.@ Their message is make the schools equal in every respect, but
leave them as community schools serving those who live in the community. They oppose
integration for the purpose of racial balance if in the process cultural identify is lost.
The curriculum remained very narrow by today=s standards. For the most part it could be
characterized as reflecting the liberal arts. The public school had little to offer those for whom an
academic approach was not fulfilling or appropriate. What came to be known as ATrade
Schools= for non-academically inclined students were still on the horizon and vocational
technical schools of choice were beyond the horizon.
Public high schools began to slowly appear, but they were not open to all. Qualified graduates of
grammar schools were offered the opportunity to apply for admission to public high schools.
Teacher education began to take form during this period. The first post high school program
specifically for the training of teachers opened. It was Framingham Normal School in
Framingham MA. This institution grew to become Framingham State Teachers College, then it
expanded beyond teacher preparation into Framingham State College. The C. Louis Cedrone
International Education Program is affiliated with Framingham.
A ANormal School@ was not a degree granting institution. It offered a one or two year preservice
program primarily for those young women interested in becoming grammar school
teachers. Slowly Normal Schools evolved into four year baccalaureate institutions for all
interested in teaching as a vocation, not just grammar school teachers. Further growth saw the
inclusion of masters degree programs and the expansion into other academic areas beyond
teacher preparation. The International Education Programs, a private non-profit corporation,
came to be affiliated with Framingham State College and was recently named in memory of Dr.
C. Louis Cedrone who championed its growth into an international program with sites in over 30
countries around the world.
.What came to be known as the progressive education movement began to emerge during this
period. The progressive education movement proposed a psychologically based alternative to the
then prevailing rigid academic structure of the school. The prevailing essentialists or traditional
approach was content centered, the progressivist approach advocated an alternative learner or
child centered school. The ideological debate continues to this day with essentialists and
progressivists. At present the traditionalists are in the forefront primarily due to the stringent
requirement of the No Child Left Behind Federal law (2001). Today=s progressivists can be
identified as Constructivists. Constructivists believe that knowledge is developed by and within
each learner as opposed to being imposed on the learner from the outside.
Merle Curti in his now classic volume The Social Ideas of American Educators was among those
education historians who held that progressive education in the United States began in the then
small village of Quincy, Massachusetts during the superintendency of Colonel Francis W.
Parker. Parker served in Quincy from 1865 -1870. He was the first professionally trained
superintendent of schools in the United States. The AQuincy Method@ began nationally
renowned. When asked a quarter of a century later to define the Quincy Method, Colonel Parker
replied: There never was a Quincy Method unless it meant the more humane treatment of little
I served as the 13th successor to Colonel Parker as Quincy superintendent of schools (1969-
1984), and my brother Eugene served as 16th successor from 1992-2002. From 1865 to when I
became superintendent of schools in 1969 the district grew from a faculty of less than 40
teachers to one of 2000. It went from a grammar school program only to one culminating in a
two year community college offering an associate degree, and a 13th and 14th year vocational
technical program in such areas as related health occupations and computer science.
During this period policy making and financial control remained at the local level. Locally
elected school boards set policy including matters related to the curriculum. Financial support
was raised locally through the taxes levied on real estate
The First Half of the 20th Century
This period brought with it extensive changes in public education in the United States. Changes
1. By the end of WW I (1918) Public high schools became a reality in every community large
enough to support one. Smaller communities formed regional high schools. However, in 1900
only 5 percent of high school youngsters graduated from high school. By World War One the
figure climbed to 10 percent.
2. Enrolled in high school came to be understood as a property right. Formal education did not
end at the conclusion of grammar school.
3. The organizational structure of schools was changed. The new structure included elementary
schools serving grades 1-6, junior high schools serving grades 7-9, and high school grades 10-12.
4. At the elementary level the curriculum continued to focus on the basic academic skills. The
classroom was heavily structured. The primary approach to learning was teacher dominated
whole class instruction. The self contained classroom prevailed with one teacher being
responsible for the entire curriculum for a cohort of students. Little consideration was given to
individual learning needs or styles. Standardized academic achievement tests and AQuick
Scoring@ intelligence tests were introduced. Non-achieving students were retained in grade
Corporal punishment was a norm. Toward the end of this period the expectation was that all
teachers would have at least a bachelor=s degree.
5. The junior high school was new. It was as the name implies a Ajunior high school.@ It was
viewed as a transition period between the Amothering@ approach of the elementary school to the
ANo nonsense,@ Aacademic rigors@ of the high school. The school day continued to be heavily
structured and modeled after the high school. All students followed the same core curriculum.
Cohorts of children were divided into classroom size groups based on previous academic
performance and the results of standardized tests including intelligence tests. Teachers
specialized in a specific content area. Students were exposed to several different teachers each
day according to that teacher’s specialty. After school Aextra curricular@ programs were
introduced such as sport.
6. The high school came to be the pearl in the local system. Increasingly the expectation was that
all young people would graduate from high school. At the beginning of WW I approximately 10
percent of 17 year olds graduated from high school. By the end of this period the statistic had
climbed to over 70 percent and in the more affluent communities to well over 90 percent. The
structured day prevailed. Students were divided into classroom size cohorts according to test
determined and previous academic achievement. The curriculum was expanded to include
business education and secretarial skills for girls and vocational trades for boys. The prestigious
academic program remained college preparation. The extra curricular program expanded with
interscholastic sport, social events such as dances, theater and music programs, and student
government. The expectation was that teachers would have at least a master’s degree in their area
The end of WW II had a major impact on public education not only at the local level but at the
college level. Returning veterans began to marry, move to existing suburbs, create new suburbs,
and raise families. New schools were required and they sprung up all over the landscape. Parents
began to take a renewed interest in what went on behind the classroom door. At the college level
returning veterans by the millions took advantage of the opportunities provided them by the
federal government for free college education provided by the AGI Bills of Rights.@ The
program was an expression of appreciation by a grateful nation for their military service during
During this period policy making and financial control continued to remain at the local level.
Locally elected school boards continued to set policy including matters related to the curriculum.
Financial support was raised locally through the taxes levied on real estate. However, during this
period the financial contribution of the state came to be more significant and began to increase.
1950 to the Present
During the last half century significant changes have continued
to take in public education. However, the age old witticism that
the more things change the more they remain the same applies to
education. Until 1957 the United States was complacent about
education. As late as 1973 the US Supreme Court in the San
Antonio, TX Independent School District v. Rodriguez. Case
declared that public education is not of interest under the
Constitution. The Court ruled that the inequitable public school
funding scheme in Texas was not a violation of the equal
protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The case The
Texas case was not a bellwether signaling how the federal
government and the courts were proceeding during this period.
The first major disruption to the status quo came in 1954 with
the US Supreme Court unanimous decision in Brown vs the Board of
Education. The high court struck down segregated public schools
as unconstitutional. In effect the 1896 Plessey vs Ferguson
decision authorizing separate but equal school was vacated.
In 1957 the then Soviet Union shocked the United States out of
its lethargy regarding its preeminence in world affairs. The
Soviet Union launched a basketball sized space satellite known
as Sputnik and the space age cold war battle was joined.
Immediately in the United States the finger of blame was leveled
at the public school. The allegation was that the US had fallen
behind the Soviet Union in space age science due to the
inadequacy of the public schools in math and science education.
In 1958 the Congress passed the National Defense Education Act.
(NDEA). Federal money began to pour into public schools in
order to develop new science and math curricula, push science
education down into the junior high school and elementary
grades, up grade school laboratories, provide more and current
learning materials including electronic aides to learning, and
establish university based four to six week summer workshops for
science and math teachers to upgrade their knowledge and skills.
Eventually NDEA was extended to other areas of the curriculum
beyond math and science.
In 1963 the US Congress passed into law the first major up grade
in vocational education legislation since 1930. Vocational
education which had languished as a Adumping ground@ and
vocational trades training program for non-academically inclined
students began to come into its own. Federal money was available
for the development and implementation of vocational and
technical programs beyond the traditional trades of plumbing,
electrical, carpentry, automotive, etc. One major effort funded
by the US Department of Education was known as Project ABLE. For
the first time in education history the US Department of
Education had provided over one million to one school system to
develop a dramatically new curriculum for a newly constructed
vocational technical school. The program extended from grade
nine through year 14. The grant was awarded to Quincy,
Massachusetts where I was then serving as assistant
superintendent of schools for curriculum and instruction. Sadly,
today, 40 years later, there is no trace of that effort
remaining. In fact the school has been down-graded to a division
of the neighboring Quincy High School and the facility built
specifically to house the new school might be razed. A good
question is: Why? Happened?
In 1963 the Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act. It was
through this legislation that Head Start for pre-school children
from low income families was established. Head Start remains in
place today. For the most part it continues to be held in high
In 1965 the Congress passed the then most far reaching piece of
federal legislation related to education in the history of the
nation: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
Through provisions of the law federal money has been provided
for basic skills development for children from low income
families. The law provided funds for libraries and electronic
aids to learning. It encouraged innovative locally initiated
projects and programs. Since its original passage in1965 it has
undergone several legislative revisions and remains today as the
No Child Left Behind federal program.
In 1975 the Congress passed the Education for all Handicapped
Children Act. This legislation provided funds to assist local
communities in providing for the needs of handicapped children
and doing so in the least restrictive learning environment
possible. Equality of opportunity, equity and due process
considerations of the Fourteenth Amendment required that
handicapped children not be segregated and denied access to
mainstream education opportunities
In 2001 the Congress passed a revised version of ESEA (1965). It
is known as the No Child Left Behind law. Under its provisions
school districts and states which wish to benefit financially
from its provisions must comply with federal requirements
concerning standardized testing. While not handing down a
mandated federal curriculum, the federal government has
accomplished the same thing by requiring schools to administer
standardized tests approved by the Department. Failure to comply
or having schools fail to meet federal standards will result in
loss of federal financial support and recognition as a school
providing a Aquality@ education. Under the act teachers must
meet federal standards for competence in their areas of
specialization. The legislation is very controversial and
opposed in part or in its entirety by many practitioners, local
school boards, professional organizations for educators, and
university professors of education. I include myself among the
In addition to the above cited actions by the federal
government, each state in the union has during the past quarter
century stepped up its involvement in determining educational
standards. The states have the legal right to do so as education
is a states right. Every state now has mandated curriculum and
instructional objectives. Each state has established its own
mandated state wide standardized testing program. Financial
penalties and loss of state accreditation await those districts
and schools that do not comply.
Several other initiatives beyond landmark federal legislation
characterize this period. They include the 1966 Colman Report of
Racial Equality, the 19XX report by the then Secretary of
Education: A Nation at Risk, voucher plans to permit tax dollars
to used to defray part of the cost of tuition in non-public
schools, and Charter Schools as a Tax supported alternative to
In 1966 sociologist James S. Colman of John Hopkins University undertook a massive study
involving 570,000 students and 60,000 teachers. The name of the study was: Equality of Educational
Opportunity. The purpose of the study was to examine the factors that led to success in school. The
study has been identified as the most important US educational research project of the 20th Century.
Instead of proving that the quality of schools is the most important factor in a student’s academic
success, as had been expected, the report found that a child’s family background and the school’s
socioeconomic makeup are the best predictors. David J. Hoff, Education Week on the Web,
March 24, 2004.
In 1983 the Secretary of Education released a study titled A Nation at Risk: Report of
the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The report was
extremely critical of the public schools. It asserted that if a foreign power had been responsible for
subverting the purpose and practice of public education in the US to the extent that was currently
prevailing, then the nation would consider it an act of war. Critics of public education rallied around
A Nation at Risk and the report came to be the impetus for one by one the 50 states enacting
legislation aimed at halting approaches to education that were identified with the progressive
education movement. For the first time in the history of the nation states began legislating basic
skills requirements and standardized testing. The effort of the critics has reached its current apex in
the No Child Left Behind federal law.
Lack of confidence in the public schools has given rise to two tax supported alternatives. Both
alternatives are controversial and face court challenges. The first is the Voucher Movement. Here
parents who’s children are attending public schools that are over crowded and/or determined to be
deficient in providing a quality education can petition to have their children transferred to a more
desirable public school in a neighboring community, or a private, including religious affiliated,
school. The voucher provides tax money to defray in part the cost of tuition at the receiving school.
The money to support the voucher is taken from the public school budget. The program is
controversial and court battles are on-going. The program has the support of the current federal
administration. It is opposed by others as an inappropriate drain on limited financial resources
available for public schools. In some cases it is being challenged as an unconstitutional violation of
the separation of church and state.
The second alternative is the Charter School Movement. Under this initiative a limited number of tax
supported alternatives to the public school are permitted. Charter schools are state programs,
therefore, each state where they are allowed has its own requirements. Essentially how it works is
that a group of “qualified” individuals can petition the state for a “charter” to operate an alternative
to the public school. The requirements for receiving a charter are strict and limited. Generally a
group receiving a charter is released from many of the state bureaucratic requirements. The charter is
for a pre-determined number of years. The state serves in oversight capacity. The initiating group
must raise start up costs itself, however, once established it can draw financial support on a per pupil
basis from the school district of the community where it is located. It must adhere to all provisions
of civil rights legislation and Fourteenth Amendment requirements. As with the voucher program,
charter schools face legal challenges. As with vouchers the program has the support of the current
federal administration. It is opposed by others as an inappropriate drain on limited financial
resources available for public schools. In some cases it is being challenged as an unconstitutional
violation of the separation of church and state.
Local School Boards Reduced in Authority and Influence
Locally elected school boards no longer have the legal control
over schools they traditionally had. For example, in
Massachusetts local school boards no longer have fiscal autonomy
or have financial control of the school budget. That authority
now rests with city or town government and is increasingly being
assumed by state legislatures and departments of education.
Under the provisions of the No Child Left Behind law, the
federal government has assumed a responsibility for education
that was never envisioned by the founding fathers of the nation.
In large measure local control is in name only.
Another example of loss of local school board authority is that
local boards in some states such as Massachusetts are no longer
are responsible for hiring teachers and principals. They
responsibility now resides with the professionals in a
hierarchal structure. The principal hires the teachers, the
superintendent hires the principals and the school board hires
the superintendent. Furthermore, under provisions of NCLB all
teachers must meet federal mandated requirements before the end
of this decade.
In most states staff members at all levels and in all ranks now
have the legal right to bargain collectively for hours, wages
and conditions of employment. However, this right is not
universal. Some states such as Florida do not have collective
bargaining rights. Massachusetts was among the first states to
do so and Quincy, Massachusetts was the first school district in
the state to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with
the then autonomous school board.
This 8000 word monograph does not exhaust the subject. It barely
scratches the surface. It condenses complex and diversified
issues into a brief synopsis. In other places it makes specific
reference to time and place of specific events that I am
personally familiar with. The intent there is not to gloss over
differences, but rather to suggest a general overview. By
specific reference the intent is to highlight that in the final
analysis things do get down to boots on the ground. Real people
actually do walk the walk of those who talk.
Among the many hallmarks of a professional is to be informed
about the history of his/her profession including, trials,
tribulations, attempts at progress, success with some of those
attempts, and failure with others. Failure never truly occurs if
the professional assesses what went wrong, challenges the basic
assumptions being considered, regroups, and tries again. In
1941 Ortega Y Gasset put it this way:
Man, s real treasure is the treasure of his mistakes, piled up
stone by stone through thousands of years…Breaking the
continuity with the past, wanting to begin again, is lowering of
man and a plagiarism of the organutan… Continuity is one of
the rights of man; it is a homage of everything that
distinguished him from the beast [Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior
Politics. Vintage Books, Random House, 2002, Introduction
quoting Jose Ortega Y Gasset, Toward a Philosophy of History,
Education is about assisting young people in coming to know.
However, it is also about politics or as the ancient Greeks
would have it the polis. Polis has to do with the individual=s
responsibility for what goes on in the city-state in behalf of
its citizens. It is not about the down-and-dirty, unsavory
aspects of contemporary public, political life of election
politics. Educators have that responsibility for caring about
what goes on in the polis in the name of the young people they
serve. Tenure was supposed to provide an environment where
practitioners could express that concern without fear of
Credibility is another hallmark of a professional and among the
milestones along the pathway of being recognized as creditable
is to be conversant with what has come before. This brief
monograph is an attempt to offer a synopsis of what has come
before. It is up to individual practitioners to critically
reflect on has come before, assess things as they are today, and
extrapolate for the future. To do less is to be at play in
Lawrence P. Creedon
Arlington, VA USA
A Time line of Public Education in America
This time line can be found by accessing the web site referred
to at the end. It has not been compiled by the author of this
Public education has long been intertwined with the social and
economic history of the country. Set forth below is a time line
of significant events in the history of public education in the
1635 The Boston Latin School, the first publicly funded
secondary school in America, and the oldest educational
institution in the country, opens. Some notable figures in
history who attended this school include: Cotton Mather,
Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
1779 Thomas Jefferson argued for universal taxpayer funded
public education at the basic level. While he was
unsuccessful at this time, his influence was apparent in
1837 Horace Mann becomes the first secretary of education in the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He travels the state on
horseback advocating for a system of “common schools.”
Under his leadership, the legislature provided funds to
localities to open the schools. These common schools
provided a standardized curriculum at the elementary level
and were the precursors to today’s public school system.
1849 Henry Barnard creates a system of common schools in
1852 The Massachusetts legislature enacts the first compulsory
education law requiring every child to get an education.
1853 New York follows the lead of Massachusetts and passes its
own compulsory education law.
1865 By the end of the Civil War, most state constitutions
guaranteed public support for public education.
1874 Michigan Supreme Court rules that communities could use
local property taxes to fund secondary schools.
1900 By this year, 1.6 million children were attending public
schools with 5% of them going on to high school.
1918 All states now have compulsory education laws through
elementary schools. John Dewey, an education professor at
the Columbia University Teachers’ College, advocates a
theory of education called progressive education which
eventually turned into the present day vocational
1920 High school has become a more common experience.
1930 By this year, 29 million children attend public schools.
1950 By this year, 35% of public school students graduate from
1954 The United States Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of
Education of Topeka that separate educational facilities
for black and white children in the South are inherently
unequal and unconstitutional.
1957 President Eisenhower orders federal troops to Little Rock,
Arkansas to force racial integration of that city’s Central
High School. The Soviet Union launches Sputnik, the first
spacecraft to orbit the earth, causing great concern in the
United States about the state of science and math education
1958 The National Defense Education Act is passed by Congress in
a reaction to the Russian launch of Sputnik. The act
provided federal funding to public schools to bolster
higher level science and math curriculum. This was the
first time the federal government intervened in public
school policy and curriculum citing the needs of national
1965 Congress passes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. Title
I of this act provided the first federal aid to school
districts with large percentages of children living in
poverty. This act was also the beginning of Head Start, a
health, education and nutrition program designed to help
low income three and four year old children prepare for
1968 Twelve cents of every dollar spent on k-12 education comes
from the federal government.
1973 The U.S. Supreme Court holds that public education is not a
fundamental interest under the U.S. Constitution and
therefore, the inequitable public school funding scheme in
Texas was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
The case was San Antonio Independent School District v.
1975 In the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, Congress
orders the public schools to provide an education to all
1976 The California Supreme Court holds that education is a
fundamental right under the equal protection clause of the
state constitution in Serrano v. Priest. The high courts in
Connecticut and Wyoming followed suit in 1977 and 1980.
1979 President Jimmy Carter creates the new cabinet level
Department of Education.
1983 A federal commission created by President Ronald Reagan
publishes its report, “A Nation at Risk,” which states
that, “public schools are drowning in a rising tide of
1989 The National Education Summit is convened by President
George Bush, attended by the nation’s governors. The Summit
produces five national education goals for the year 2000.
1995 Eighty-seven percent of Americans graduate from high
1996 A second national education summit includes both state
governors and national business leaders. The summit calls
for national education standards. The discussion of
national standards brings into sharp focus the dire straits
of poor urban schools.
1999 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds a lower court ruling
in PARSS v. Ridge that the issue of equity in school
funding among the 501 school districts in Pennsylvania is
not a matter to be decided in the courts but must be
resolved in the legislature.
2000 Continuing problems with the adequacy of the education
provided by public schools gives rise to a small but vocal
political movement in favor of publicly funding charter
schools, privately funded vouchers and home schooling.
2000 Since 1989, the fairness of state school funding systems
has been challenged in the courts of at least 28 states. In
18 of these cases, the state’s highest court has upheld the
challenge and ruled the system was unfair.
For more information on the history of public education in
America, visit these sites:
The Merrow Report: In Schools We Trust.
A Nation at Risk: Report of the National Commission on
Excellence in Education created by President Ronald Reagan.
The United States Dept. of Education website. http://www.ed.gov