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Lesson 1.7

History:
Have Schools Always Worked This Way?

Change in schools seems slow, until you look at it this way…

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

Actually, it's kind of a new idea.

Large-scale public education in America began in Massachusetts in the 1850's under the leadership of Horace Mann (pictured). Mann developed an organization of over 1,000 compulsory schools modeled on the Prussian system of common schools.

In 1875 President Ulysses S. Grant 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 was adopted in most state constitutions. The idea of public school began to become part of the fabric of America.

First, get the kids out of the fields

A mere 100 years ago, however, there was still far to go. More than a quarter of children in America did not attend school in 1910. At the time, even radicals in America viewed tuition-free universal education as a dream.

A mere 100 years ago even radicals in America viewed tuition-free universal education as a dream.

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, Americans journalists drew attention to the dreadful working conditions in factories. Gradually public opinion shifted, influenced both by the women’s movement of the time and the labor movement.

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.

Gradually making education "universal"

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

  • In 1910, a quarter of America’s children did not attend school, but 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.
  • The Owen-Keating 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.
  • In 1946 Congress appropriated funds 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.
  • In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Kansas Board of Education that schools could not be segregated by race.
  • 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.
  • In 1975 the US Congress established that American schools must provide a free and appropriate education to students with disabilities.

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 only a school, but a good school. Issues of funding equity and adequacy have driven policy decisions for more than four decades. A growing body of research on how children learn — and on how they can best be taught — has also been a powerful driver of education change.

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 of America's self-image: this is a land of opportunity for all. And most Americans are now convinced that, given enough support and time, all kids can attain a high level of academic achievement.

Education: a strategy for national defense

Another source of influence in the history of America's educational system has been national security.

260px-Sputnik_1

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 social aims, but also to issues of economic and military security.

In 1983, "A Nation at Risk" called for sweeping changes in American 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 emerged, leading to the federal No Child Left Behind act (NCLB), passed in 2001. The central, 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.

...or as a strategy for national inclusion

Alas, many children were still left behind. Among other things, the NCLB experience revealed that the 50 states varied widely in their expectations for students. In response to the requirement to test annually and show steady improvement, many states' standards were written in a way that led to a narrow definition of success. In 2009 the National Governors Association initiated a project to define a new set of shared standards that became known as the Common Core State Standards.

These standards were quickly adopted by most states in part because the Obama administration used a federal matching grant program called "Race to the Top (RTT)" to encourage them to do so. California set 2015 as the year it would begin judging the performance of its students and schools based on these new standards.

Fierce debates continue about public education generally and standards specifically. Worth noting, though, is 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.

Review

True or False? It was only in the past hundred years that elementary education became not only free but required in all 50 states.

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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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. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED012275.pdf
Education Week takes a look at then and now
http://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/50-years-seeking-educational-equality-the-coleman-report.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news1-RM
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. http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr14/yr14rel42.asp 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.
Celia
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.
--Jeff
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
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