History of the Modern School System

The modern school system in America is quite broadly and extensively structured. Children in the United States are required to attend school in a formal education setting, be it a public or private or home school, until reaching the age of 16. Most children start their compulsory schooling at the age of five or six by attending elementary school, which is followed by middle and then high school.

Though it may seem like this school system has been around forever, it is a modern phenomenon that came into existence in the late 20th century. To understand how this well-structured school system came into existence, let’s have a look at its history.

The 17th Century: Advent of Public School Systems

An image of the first or second supposed building of the Boston Latin School in 1635. Kiesel conducted the first set of classes here

In the early 17th century, the models of education were such that education was only accessible to the privileged in America. Children from the working class were mostly taught at home by their parents, provided that they were themselves learned while the elite class hired private tutors for their children. The education distribution was non-uniform, and the American literacy rate was low.

However, the arrival of Puritans in the 1630s altered this education system in Colonial America as education was an essential part of their way of life. The Puritans advocated for the need of public education so that every child in the country was able to read and write proficiently.  Consequently, a number of changes took place.

In 1635, America established its first public school, Boston Latin School, in Boston. The institute is still operational to this day, making it the oldest public school in American history.

Soon, by 1642, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s decree made formal education compulsory. By 1647, its law required towns of 50 inhabitants to establish a public elementary school and the ones with more than 100 residents to institute a Latin School.

Other colonies followed the footsteps, issuing similar decrees. Within the next two decades, public schools were springing up throughout towns in New England. Unlike in the past, when only boys received an education, girls too attended public schools now. In these schools, students were taught family values, religious duties, and social responsibilities, along with the rudiments of literacy and mathematics. However, the prime focus remained on instilling Puritan beliefs in students.

The 18th Century: From Public Schools to Private Academies

Winters at the present day Deerfield academy established in 1797

The wake of the 18th century marked a significant uplift in the literacy rate of New England, as 70% of the men were now receiving education. The Northern and Southern colonies, however, were still lagging behind.

In the mid 18th century, some common schools surfaced where one teacher taught students of all ages in the same classroom, using the monitorial system.

The image of the main entrance of Ursuline Academy, present.

In 1727, Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula opened the first-ever school for girls in New Orleans: the Ursuline Academy. It was not only an academy but also a haven for all young women. History will always remember the Ursuline Academy, for it was the first institute in American history to teach women of color.

In 1743, Father Theodore Schneider opened the first Catholic school in the town of Goshenhoppen. This school served both male and female students and is still in operation.

Towns within New England also established grammar schools, some of which are still operating to this day. These grammar schools set a precedent for future high schools.

An image of Phillips Exeter Academy in 1783 

Soon, one by one, all public schools were replaced by private academies. However, these private schools, such as Phillips Exeter Academy and Deerfield Academy, enrolled male students only, and it was not until 1787 that women got a private academy of their own.


The 19th Century: Prussian Model of Horace Mann

A picture of Horace Mann

The two centuries after the advent of public schools and private academies account for most of the notable changes in school systems.

In 1837 Horace Mann, secretary of education of Massachusetts, introduced the Prussian model of common schools in an attempt to standardize the American public school system. With this model, he aimed to make elementary education accessible to all children in the United States. This movement quickly gained popularity in the northern region of the country. The southern part, however, was a bit reluctant to adopt it.

Towards the middle of the century, Massachusetts passed a law that made it mandatory for all students to attend school until they reached a certain age. By the end of this century, at least 34 states had decreed similar schooling laws.

In 1848 Mann introduced another technique he had learned from Prussians: age grading. Students were now to be designated in different grades based on their age, instead of studying in the same classroom. This eradicated multi-aged classrooms. Teachers now approached students in a more standardized, objective manner, treating the whole class as a single entity instead of catering to the individual needs of each student. It was also easier to develop a curriculum as each class now hosted students of one age group with similar levels of cognitive and understanding abilities.

The education module also changed as teachers no longer focused their lectures on religious values, but were now teaching science and arithmetic. Textbooks, chalk, and slates were introduced, along with other learning tools. Public education became widespread, and by 1870 every American state housed public schools.

Mann’s reforms laid the cornerstone for the modern school and education system. This system undoubtedly produced fruitful results in the 19th century and paved the way for a standardized school system with a several layer structure.

The 20th-21st Century: The Educational Revolution

A modern university lecture hall

Several schools and universities emerged and developed in this century, marking the educational revolution of America. Many progressive reforms were established, which today, with a few changes, form the modern schooling system.

In the early years, school systems consisted of an 8-year elementary school followed by a 4-year high school. In 1910, a structure of 6-years of elementary, 3-years of junior high school, and 3-years of senior high school replaced the former. 1910 also marks the advent of an advanced and broader curriculum. Teachers now taught a broad range of subjects, meeting the demands of the present era.

Soon, provisions were also made for preschooling and the increasing number of staff at schools to enhance early childhood education. The steps taken at this stage have a significant part in the development of modern-day kindergarten education.

Laws allowed the parents to decide on the education of their child with a few reservations. Parents could either send their children to private, public, or religious schools. Private schools also received federal financial support under the Establishment Clause, which also protected students from religious discrimination at any educational institution. This century also saw significant changes in the education and employment of Black people.

Early in the 21st century, the No Child Left Behind act in 2002 standardized the schooling system in America. Today there are around 98,158 public schools with 34,576 private schools in America spread throughout the States. All these schools follow a standardized system with education accessible to all. Teachers teach a broad range of subjects and skills.

The Takeaway

A glimpse into history shows how dramatically the school system has evolved over these centuries in America. Considering that the school system today continues to adapt for students to keep up with the technological advances of the modern world, one can imagine there will be new reforms soon.