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Lesson 1.7

History of Education:
How have Schools Changed Over Time?

Public Schools are Evolving Toward Equity

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A brief history of public education

School should be free and mandatory for all kids. It's obvious, right?

Actually, it's kind of a new idea.

This lesson summarizes major milestones in history of public education in the United States.

Large-scale public education in America began in Massachusetts in the 1850s under the leadership of Horace Mann (pictured). Mann developed an organization of over a thousand compulsory schools modeled on the Prussian system of common schools.

Public education expanded further under President Ulysses S. Grant, who in 1875 campaigned for a constitutional amendment to mandate free public schools and prohibit public funding of religious schools. This amendment (known as the Blaine Amendment) failed, but the policy was adopted in most state constitutions. The idea that free public schools should be widely available and separate from religious institutions began to become part of the fabric of America.

Free public education and the end of child labor

Tuition-free basic education has been generally required in America for more than 100 years. It was a big transition. In 1910, more than a quarter of children in America did not attend school. At the time, even radicals in America viewed tuition-free universal education as a dream.

Tuition-free basic education has been universal in America for more than 100 years.

Putting children in school required first extracting them from fields and factories, where the poorest endured horrifying conditions with few protections. Around the turn of the 20th century, American journalists drew attention to the dreadful working conditions in factories. Women organized in protest, collaborating with the labor movement to press for policy changes.

By 1916 most states, following examples in Europe and Massachusetts, had passed laws to outlaw, discourage or at least regulate childhood labor. As states developed laws regarding child labor, they also changed public expectations about public schooling.

Milestones in the history of universal education

Over the last hundred years, a broad theme in the evolution of public education has been to make access to it more universal.

Milestones in the history of public education

Create the idea of public schools

In the 1850s, Horace Mann popularized the idea of public schools in America, inspired by schools in Prussia.
In the 1870s, President Ulysses Grant campaigned to make public education a Constitutional right. The effort failed, but many state constitutions adopted it.

Make school mandatory

In 1910, a quarter of America’s children did not attend school. By 1918, Mississippi became the final state to pass laws mandating that public school should be not only universally available but compulsory through elementary grades.

Get kids out of the factories

The Keating-Owen Act of 1916 set federal standards for the maximum number of hours children could work, and banned interstate trade in goods manufactured by children. This measure was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1918, but the trend had been firmly set.

Feed kids so they can learn

In 1946 Congress began funding for a nationwide school lunch program, creating a new reason for impoverished families to send their children to school and establishing an essential precedent for federal support for education.

Include all races in schools

In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Kansas Board of Education that schools could not be segregated by race.

Include schools in impoverished areas

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as a key element of his War on Poverty. Title I of this Act provided federal funding to support education in low-income communities.

Include girls in schools

In 1972 Congress amended the Higher Education Act of 1965, adding Title IX to prohibit discrimination against students in federally funded schools on the basis of sex. (It’s pronounced “title nine.”)

Include students with disabilities

In 1975 the US Congress established that American schools must provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities.

Make schools work online

In 2020 the COVID-19 Pandemic prompted school systems across the world to move online. There were gaps, but in California, for the first time virtually all students were provided with devices and network access for online learning.

Incorporate A.I.

In 2023 the release of ChatGPT kicked off the era of Artificial Intelligence in education.

Since the 1970s, state and national education policies have increasingly reflected this principle of universal access, including a growing sense that students should have equal access to not just a school, but a good school. Students must also have equal opportunity to succeed at school: they are protected from discrimination in the classroom and on the athletic field. Issues of funding equity and adequacy have driven policy decisions for more than four decades.

A century of steadily expanding and improving access to education has fundamentally changed America, both economically and socially. Universal public education is a major proof point for America's self-image: this is a land of opportunity for all.

Education is a strategy for national defense

National security concerns have strongly influenced the history of America's educational system.


In the early years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik sparked concern that America was falling behind, and failing to produce the scientists and inventors needed for a nuclear age. This sparked a wave of investment in science programs in America's schools and universities. Today it is widely accepted that education is connected not only to economic and military security, but social aims as well.

In 1983, "A Nation at Risk" called for sweeping changes in U.S. education, and kicked off a series of national conversations about standards. The goal was to improve what children know and are able to do at each grade level so the U.S. could stay safe and competitive in a global economy. A widespread consensus led to passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed in 2001. The big-picture goal of NCLB was to gradually raise the achievement bar, year by year, so that all children, including those usually "left behind", would receive a solid education. The law required each state to establish grade-level standards and to test all students annually in order to evaluate each school’s success.

As the bar rose, many schools did not meet the expectations, especially for their students living in poverty. Popular support for the law collapsed. In 2015, a bipartisan consensus in Congress replaced NCLB with the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA), which kept the requirement for annual testing but significantly reduced the federal role in pressing for measurable improvement in test scores.

Education is a strategy for national inclusion

NCLB revealed that the 50 states expected widely different things from their students. Many states' standards had been written clumsily, with a narrow definition of success. In 2009, the National Governors Association initiated a project to make standards more meaningful and useful by defining a new set of shared standards that became known as the Common Core State Standards. (More about that in Lesson 6.1.)

These standards originated with the states, but federal funding was key to their adoption. The Obama administration used a competitive federal matching grant program called Race to the Top (RTT) to challenge states to develop strong implementation plans. California set 2015 as the year it would begin evaluating the performance of its students and schools based on these new standards.

How the pandemic changed education

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly changed education for virtually all students in at least three ways. First, it evaporated the notion that all children must always attend school in person. Second, it demonstrated that relationships matter for learning. Third, it further widened the educational gap between students of different backgrounds.

When the Pandemic hit, school districts scrambled to provide children with ways they could continue learning at home — especially with digital resources for distance learning. Their efforts were partially successful, but it quickly became clear that the internet had become the new #2 pencil — school just doesn't work without it.

Access to computing devices and high speed internet is unequal across socioeconomic classes. Online learning works pretty well for students who have experience with technology, access to tutors, and a quiet place to work. Rich kids have all that. Poor kids don't.

The lessons of the Pandemic for education will take years to be clearly understood, but it is already clear that it widened the educational gap between students of different backgrounds.

Education is a bipartisan issue

Like national defense and social security, America has enjoyed a rough national consensus that education is important and worth investing in. This consensus is vital because universal public education costs serious money and requires serious taxes. As discussed in Lesson 1.1, most developed nations and states commit about 3% to 5% of their economy to public education through high school. California falls on the low end of this spectrum, but 3% of the economy is still serious money.

Why have lawmakers over time cared about education policies? Because their constituents care about them. Policymaking is hard. People disagree vehemently, and the path to wise policy is rarely clear. Lawmakers choose their point of view with expert advice from advocacy organizations and think tanks (Lesson 7.7), of course, but when parent leaders and student leaders present a clearly developed point of view they listen with attention.

What’s Ed100’s role in this scrum, you ask? We help members of parent organizations and student organizations become well-informed constituents. With knowledge, they can develop their own point of view, empathize with other points of view, and prepare to have a voice in the room where it happens.

Reason for hope

People disagree about public education policies in a way that has become noisy and partisan. Disagreements simmer about charter school policies, for example, or the role of unions, or how much money to spend.

But it's worth noting how little we argue these days about the basic principle that all children should have the chance to attend quality schools and meet high academic standards. Horace Mann would be pleased.

Last updated September 2023
Previous updates include:
September 2022
December 2021
July 2021
December 2020
December 2019
August 2018
May 2017


True or False? Elementary education has been free and required throughout America for over 100 years.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Eliza Sauer January 29, 2020 at 7:00 am
Honestly I feel schools need to work on getting back classes such as welding and mechanics again. Let's face it - not all our children will be able to continue their education beyond high school.
user avatar
Caryn January 30, 2020 at 9:23 am
Hi Eliza, thanks for your comment. You're correct--higher education isn't in the cards for many and sometimes it's by choice. The recent emphasis on college and career readiness is a step in that direction, acknowledging that graduating students should be prepared for success regardless of post-high school plans. What we once called "vocational" education is now CTE (Career and Technical Education). More on this in Lesson 6.11 (no spoilers from me!)
user avatar
Caryn January 30, 2020 at 9:26 am
Hi Eliza, thanks for your comment. You're correct--higher education isn't in the cards for many and sometimes it's by choice. The recent emphasis on college and career readiness is a step in that direction, acknowledging that graduating students should be prepared for success regardless of post-high school plans. What we once called "vocational" education is now CTE (Career and Technical Education). More on this in Lesson 6.11 (no spoilers from me!)
user avatar
francisco molina August 13, 2019 at 12:22 am
The Sputnik effect was a good reaction for to increase the high level education closing the cycle with the man on the Moon, today exist a revival with Mars and the Moon2 but is hard to see the same effect again with the education system like was in that time, should be good to give more importance , specially because for the creation of new technologies and careers.
user avatar
Jeff Camp July 4, 2018 at 11:46 am
The publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 was deeply influential. It presented evidence of lagging progress in American schools. The report persuaded many state leaders to adopt educational standards and measure students' learning progress against those standards. What the report did NOT do was disaggregate the data. A recurring theme of Ed100 is that Averages Lie. To understand, you have to dig deeper. This report from NPR describes the Simpson's Paradox at the heart of the Nation At Risk report.
user avatar
Sonya Hendren September 6, 2018 at 2:32 am
Link to NPR article about A Nation At Risk, mentioning the Simpson's Paradox:
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 14, 2016 at 8:39 pm
The Coleman Report--Equality of Educational Opportunities in Public Schools
This report, requested by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, documents the availability of equal educational opportunities in public schools for minority students.
Education Week takes a look at then and now
user avatar
arienneadamcikova April 20, 2015 at 10:22 pm
I believe in having a set of national standards, but I believe in publicly financing them, and having teachers write them. Unfortunately, the Common Core Standards were written with few classroom teachers, a rushed timeline, and some interesting corporate financing. I would like to press the restart button on them, and do them slowly, with transparency and with many more classroom teachers involved.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 20, 2015 at 11:23 pm
Thanks, Arienne -- standards and Common Core are discussed in more depth in Lesson 6.1
user avatar
Alice Griesemer March 23, 2015 at 5:49 am
I like to think about the summary at the end in this way:
What are we fighting about?
In 1850... All children should go to school.
In 1960... All children should go to a good school.
In 2000... All children should go to a good school and achieve at a standard level.
I wonder when we will be able to claim victory on the current debate and what the next one will be.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 2, 2015 at 12:26 pm
We haven't claimed victory on all of these levels. Far too many (indeed, fewer), children are not graduating from high school. And far too many students do not have the opportunity to attend a "good" school.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 2, 2015 at 2:17 pm
In reply to veliveli: Actually, there's some good news -- high school graduation rates have been slowly and steadily improving in California. Though no one would suggest that 80% is good enough, against a backdrop of rising inequality this is news worth noting. This topic is discussed further in Chapter 9.
user avatar
anamendozasantiago February 11, 2015 at 5:24 pm
While many funds are being used for struggling children, another population of our students are being ignored. Our exceptionally gifted and talented children are being left behind and told to wait, teach or clean. How can the US compete in the global market if our gifted, advanced and talented children are denied a quality education.
These students after years of neglect from our education system get so tired they begin looking elsewhere for challenges. It is a great loss for our society, state and country when we lose one of these talented minds to an educational system that is not meant to serve them.
"In the wake of sputnik, some educational programs were created to identify and support the education of children identified as the 'Best and Brightest.' These programs are mostly gone now."
user avatar
Kim April 9, 2016 at 6:41 pm
I completely agree. Gifted and talented education needs to be mandated and funded, both at the federal, state and local level. Gifted and talented children deserve an education that is appropriate and effective for them, too. These children have "special needs", as well.
user avatar
celia4pta September 25, 2014 at 9:26 pm
The characterization of Race to the Top as a catalyst that led to the creation of Common Core Standards is not true.
RTTT did reward states for adopting internationally benchmarked standards, and CCSS were the easiest way to do this, but the initiative for the writing of the standards came from the National Governors Association.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 2, 2014 at 12:17 pm
Thanks, Celia -- great catch! I have updated the lesson to correct my error.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
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