Chapter 10 What Is the History of America’s Struggle for Educational Opportunity?

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What Is the History of America’s Struggle for Educational Opportunity?


After studying the chapter, students will be able to

10. identify, explain, and analyze the seven key forces that have shaped the history of American education: local control of schools, universal education, public education, comprehensive education, secular education, the changing ideas of the basics, and expanding definitions of educational access and equality.

20. identify and describe the purposes of the various types of elementary schooling available during the colonial period and be able to associate particular types of schooling with the geographical region in which it was most common.

30. identify and describe the purposes of various types of secondary schooling available, from the colonial period through the present.

40. locate on a time continuum the introduction of the following major developments in U.S. education: grammar schools, public (common) schools, academies, kindergarten, middle schools, and secondary schools.

50. identify, explain, and apply the educational ideas and methods of several key European educators.

60. identify, explain, and apply the educational ideas and methods of several key American educators.

70. articulate the major arguments supporting and opposing the establishment of common schools in the United States.

80. define and explain the impact that several key rulings or laws have had upon expanding education: the Old Deluder Satan Act, the Northwest Land Ordinances, the Kalamazoo case, the Morrill Acts, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education.

90. explain and apply the general principles of the Progressive Education Association.

100. describe the major issues in the history of education for women, for African Americans, for Hispanic Americans, for Asian Americans, and for Native Americans.


The history of American education spans more than 350 years. In this chapter on the history of American education, we provide an overview of this vast time span to provide prospective teachers with the general landscape of educational history. In this way, we hope that future teachers will become familiar with significant ideas, events, and people that have shaped American education. We also hope that prospective teachers can gain perspective on contemporary educational practices and their relationship to earlier practices. Tracing the growth of public education from the dame schools of colonial New England to the advent of middle schools in the mid-twentieth century, this chapter highlights how access to educational opportunities for various groups within the United States has gradually widened over the course of U.S. history. In that vein, we identify and discuss significant events that have helped educational institutions include a greater number and variety of people.

We identify seven forces that have had an impact on shaping education in this country: local control of schools, universal education, public education, comprehensive education, secular education, the changing ideas of the basics, and expanding definitions of educational access and quality. Each of the subtopics we present can be related to those broad forces.


I0. Themes in American Education0

II0. Elementary Education0

A0. Colonial Origins0

10. New England Town and District Schools0

20. Education in the South

30. Education in the Middle Colonies

B0. The Common School0

10. Arguments for the Common School

20. Arguments against the Common School

30. Victory of the Common School

C0. Other Developments in Elementary Education0

10. European Influences0

20. Curriculum Changes

30. Consolidation

40. The Progressive Education Association

50. Since World War II

III0. Secondary Education0

A0. Early Forms0

10. Latin Grammar Schools

20. English Grammar Schools

30. Secondary Education for Females

B0. The Academy

10. Growth of Academies

20. Female Academies

C0. The Public High School

10. Debate over the Secondary Curriculum

20. The Comprehensive High School

D0. Growth of Junior High and Middle Schools

E0. Secondary Education Today

IV0. Private Education

V0. Education of Minorities0

A0. Education of African Americans

10. Before the Civil War

20. The Late Nineteenth Century

30. The Twentieth Century

40. Desegregation Efforts

a0) Busing

b0) Big-City Desegregation

c0) Recent Developments

d0) Desegregation Versus Integration

B0. Education of American Indians

C0. Education of Hispanic Americans

D0. Education of Asian Americans

E0. Access and Equality of Educational Opportunity


10. Historical textbooks Assemble a sample of textbooks used in various periods of our nation’s history from a local library collection. The New England Primer and McGuffey Readers are widely available. Compare the features of these books to the features of modern textbooks. Or assemble comparable samples of old and modern teacher education texts. What do the old teacher education texts emphasize? What qualities did they say a teacher should have? What are the differences between training then and now?

20. Private and parochial education Trace the development of private or religious schools in the United States, paying particular attention to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Include discussions of contemporary religious fundamentalist schools.

30. Charter schools and home schooling Discuss the historical development of these two movements as well as their relationship to the seven major themes in American education.

40. Higher education Trace the development of American higher education from colonial days to the present. Include changes in the student body, relevant legislation, curriculum, and accessibility. Explain how your own institution was affected by these factors. If your institution has a published history, refer to that for background, or, if possible, have a guest lecture by the person who wrote that history.

50. Education for whom? Look at the history of American education from the perspective of “education for whom?” In the early days of American education, who was considered worthy of education and why? As we move toward the present, various groups were identified and considered worthy of education (often a certain type of education). Find several specific examples to illuminate this point (such as special schools for women; boarding schools to acculturate Native Americans; trade schools for those who were considered “meant” for manual labor).


Completing this study guide will help you prepare for the major topic areas on an exam; however, it does not cover every piece of information found in the chapter or the test questions.0

10. List and describe the seven themes in American education.

20. Describe the location, time period, and characteristics of dame schools, town schools, moving schools, district schools, private venture schools, and common schools.

30. List the pros and cons of establishing common schools.

40. Identify the European educators that have made significant contributions to American education, and briefly describe each of their contributions.

50. Indicate how the ruling in each of the following legal cases affected education in the United States: Old Deluder Satan Act, the Kalamazoo case, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education.

60. Describe the significant changes in education that have taken place since World War II.

70. Describe Latin grammar schools, English grammar schools, and academies; include the purposes of each.

80. Identify the significant characteristics of middle schools.

90. Indicate the percentage of students who attend private schools, and analyze the significance of this option in the United States.

100. For women and for each group of minority students in American schools, briefly describe the historical evolution of their participation in the American school system.


Cuban, Larry. How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms: 1890–1990. New York: Teachers College Press, 1993. A respected educational historian, Cuban presents a scholarly account of the teaching methods of this one hundred year period. His findings are striking.

Cunningham, Pet. Becoming Teachers: Texts and Testimonies 1907–1950. London, England: Woburn Press, 2004. This text provides information about the development of the teaching profession over the first half of the twentieth century. Policies and practices are examined and experiences of typical teachers at different points in time are explored.

Curti, Merle. The Social Ideas of American Educators. New York: Littlefield, Adams, 1959 (reprint 1978). Curti examines the ideas of educational thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Horace Mann.

Lessons of a Century. Education Week, January 27, 1999–October, 1999. Ten monthly installments examining aspects of the educational landscape of twentieth-century America, including the people, trends, historical milestones, enduring controversies, political conflicts, and socioeconomic forces that have shaped education in the twentieth century. Available online at

MacDonald, Victoria. Latino Education in the United States: A Narrated History from 1513-2000. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Provides a comprehensive look at Latino education including history, influences on American education, and triumphs and issues in Latino schooling over time.

Pulliam, John P. and James Van Patten. History of Education in America, 9th ed. Columbus, OH: Merrill, 2006. A clearly written history of the major events in American education.

Ravitch, Diane. The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945–1980. New York: Basic Books, 1983. Ravitch traces the history of U.S. education from directly after World War II to the beginning of the 1980s. She analyzes the fall of progressive education, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the controversies surrounding public education during the 1960s, and the politicization of education during the second half of the twentieth century.

Reyhner, Jon and Jeanne Eder. American Indian Education: A History. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. Explores Native Americans’ experiences in American public education including key legislation and educational policies and their impact on the schooling of Native American children.

Schuman, David. American Schools, American Teachers: Issues and Perspectives. Boston: Pearson Education, 2004. Examines current issues in education, introduced by several chapters focusing upon the history of American education.

Spring, Joel. The American School: 1642–2004. New York: Longman, 2004. Spring writes a history of the social, political, and ideological forces that have shaped American education from the 1600s to the present.

Tyak, David. The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge: Harvard College, 1974 (reprint 2007). The author provides a history of urban education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as cities were undergoing radical changes and rapid growth. Tyak discusses school centralization and systemization and explores the impact on various groups of students including African American and many cultural minorities.

Tyack, David B., and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. These authors argue that utopian policy talk about school reform has usually only involved incremental policy action —“tinkering with the system.” An important book on school reforms in the United States.

Urban, Wayne J., and Jennings L. Wagoner. American Education: A History. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2008. This book, recently revised, provides a relatively brief overview of American education.

Webb, L. Dean. The History of American Education: A Great American Experiment. New York: Prentice Hall, 2005. A brief history of innovations in American education.

Williams, Heather. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Provides an examination of the educational history of Afterican Americans, particularly around literacy, over time.

0Media Resources

As American as Public Schools: 1900–1950 (Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 52 min., 2000). This program recalls how massive immigration, child labor laws, and the explosive growth of cities fueled school attendance and transformed public education, and explores the impact of John Dewey’s progressive ideas as well as controversial IQ tests.

The Bottom Line in Education: 1980 to the Present (Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 52 min., 2000). Following the A Nation at Risk report, this program explores the impact of the “free market” experiments that ensued from vouchers and charter schools to privatization and looks at how the debate over education continues to rage.

Brown v. Board of Education (Insight Media, 19 min., 1997). This video traces the history of educational opportunities for black Americans, examining the social and political context of the watershed Brown case, which declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional.

The Common School: 1770–1890 (Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 52 min., 2000). This program profiles the passionate crusade launched by Thomas Jefferson and continued by Noah Webster, Horace Mann, and others to create a common system of tax-supported schools that would mix people of different backgrounds and reinforce the bonds of democracy.

Common Threads (Insight Media, 20 min., 1995). This video chronicles the history of education in the United States from the colonial period to the present. It examines how curricula have evolved, how the purposes of education have changed over time, and how technology affects modern education.

Education in America: The 19th Century (Insight Media, 16 min., 1998). This program discusses the development of free public school systems, westward movement, the change to secular education, the rise and decline of the district school, the struggle for tax support, compulsory attendance laws, the influence of American textbooks, and the contributions of Webster, McGuffey, Hawley, and Mann.

Education in America: 20th-Century Developments (Insight Media, 30 min., 1998). This video examines changes in education in the first half of the twentieth century. It discusses the effects of the industrial revolution on education, the appearance of the junior high school and graduate education, and the building of central consolidated schools. It describes the influence of Herbart, Binet, Dewey, and Thorndike, and considers the G.I. Bill of Rights and Supreme Court decisions affecting education.

The Evolution of Our Education System (International Center for Leadership Education, 76 min., 1999). This video shows how the American education system has evolved from the agricultural age through the industrial age into the technological/information age. Conflicts with present structures including tenure, contracts, certification, testing, school bells, and schedules are discussed by William R. Daggett.

Eyes on the Prize (Prod: CCBlackside Inc., Dist: PBS and Boston University, six-part series, 60 min. each, 1986). The civil rights struggle between 1954 and 1965 is covered by this documentary series. Included in the series: Fighting Back (1957–1962). The law has been used both to promote change and to resist change, particularly educational change. This episode explores the lawsuits brought by parents on behalf of their children, with special emphasis on the crucial 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The Fateful Decade: From Little Rock to the Civil Rights Bill (Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 27 min., 1994). This program begins at Little Rock’s Central High School, when soldiers had to provide safety for black children exercising their legal right to go to school. Martin Luther King, Jr., appears in 1958 at a meeting of black leaders with President Eisenhower. The civil rights movement accelerated: marches, clashes with the police, and the jailing of demonstrators, the murder of Medgar Evers, the bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham, sit-ins and protests, the Montgomery march, the Mississippi Freedom march, King’s famous “I Have a Dream” and “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speeches, his funeral, and President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Bill of 1968.

Films for the Humanities website: offers a wide variety of videos for purchase on many of the topics found in this chapter.

Insight Media website: offers a wide variety of videos for purchase as well as a large selection of topics available through digital streaming. Many topics found in this chapter are addressed through these video selections.

A History of Education (Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 52 min., 1999). This program traces the evolution of education through the ages, from oral traditions to its role in today’s ever-changing society, where the need to learn new job skills is a constant necessity.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills website, video link: http://the Contains videos on a wide range of topics related to 21st century teaching and learning posted by a range of people including research professionals, conference presenters, as well as practitioners.

The Road to Brown (California Newsreel, 47 min., 1990). This video dramatizes the events and legal rulings that preceded the desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Saviors (Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 47 min., 1994). This program provides insight into the role of the federal government in legislating and enforcing rights for African Americans. It tells the story of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a landmark in the battle to end segregation in public schools.

Media distributor contact information is available in Appendix II.

0Student Activities0

0School Observation—How Have Schools Changed?

Ask students to compare today’s classrooms with those of the nineteenth century, and identify ways in which they were similar and different. Provide two photos of high school classes, one from the late 1800s and one from today. Ask students to study the pictures and then respond to the following items:0

a0. Make a list of the things you notice about the nineteenth-century picture, and then another list for the modern photo.

b0. In what ways are your two lists similar and different?

c0. Aside from the people’s dress, would you say that the photos are more alike or more dissimilar? Why?

d0. Share your impressions with three or four other students in your class. Think about the reasons why the classrooms appear similar or dissimilar.

0Analysis of Key Issues in Education

Ask students to collect news articles on local schools. These should be articles about educational issues (the introduction of a new curriculum, the school budget, a push for school vouchers, and so forth) rather than articles about educational personnel. After the students have collected and read these articles, ask them (either individually or in small groups) to analyze the stories in terms of the historical forces discussed in this chapter. To what degree are these news articles implicitly or explicitly linked to some of the key educational issues throughout American educational history? What conclusions can the students make?

0Historical Research

Teams of three or four students can choose or be assigned different historical periods on which to do research on schooling. Each group makes a class presentation in which the members describe some important features of the larger society that affected schools. For example, presentations could answer questions such as Who was in the student body (immigrant waves might affect this)? What developments of science and technology were influencing school life? What great artists were affecting the cultural climate? How was the shape of the country changing, and how, therefore, were geography lessons changing? What heroes or heroines of the time were functioning as role models for students?

0Historical Research of a School or School District

Have students, either individually or in small groups, research the history of a particular school or a particular school district. Have students visit local libraries or a local historical society to discover when formal schooling first took place in the community and what type of schooling it was. How did formal education change over the years in the district? What were some of the major events in the district? If they are researching a school, find out when it was built and what purpose(s) it has served over the years. What were the plans when the school was built? What was the structure of the district? Were there particular reasons why it was designed as it was? What does the structure of the school building reveal about the community’s philosophy of education? Is the building named after someone? Who is the person, and what is his or her significance? How would the same school be different if it was built in the same place today?

0Oral History (individual or group work)

Ask each student to interview the oldest person he or she knows or can contact. (It would be best if all the interviewees were older than sixty.) Ask that person about his or her memories of school. Sample questions might include the following: What did the school look like? What was the inside like? What subjects did you study? What was a typical day like? What do you remember about your teachers? What were some of the school’s rules? Present to the class and discuss. An interesting whole-group project might be to construct a chart of commonalities found among the people interviewed or to look at the different experiences women had from men, various ethnic groups had from each other, or the college-bound student had from the commercial or vocational student. If your community has a vocational workshop for developmentally disabled people, have some students interview several of their older clients also, noting differences in education for those with disabilities.

0Student Assignments

The following activities are suggestions for student portfolio activities. They are a means of providing alternative assessment of the students’ capabilities.

0Independent Reading

Read and respond to any of the selections noted on the chapter/article correlation list found on the Instructor’s Companion Website for Ryan/Cooper, Kaleidoscope: Readings in Education (Cengage Learning, 2013). You may want to use the Article Review Form in Kaleidoscope.

Alternatively, select three recent articles or websites on any of the following topics and write a short summary of the main ideas for each article.

the common school

comprehensive high schools

the education of American women

the education of Native Americans

secular education

the history of the curriculum

the education of African-American students

middle schools

0Reflective Papers

Choose one of the following topics to write a reflective paper (2–5 pages). The purpose of the paper is to help you assimilate new knowledge by blending it with your previous knowledge and experiences.0

10. Considering your background (race, gender, ethnicity), imagine that you are living in the 1700s, 1800s, or early 1900s in a particular region of the United States. Write about the kind of education you probably would have received. What would have been the kinds of knowledge you would have been expected to possess? Compare that to your own education.

20. The history of American education can be viewed from a number of different perspectives. As discussed in the text, one underlying reason that public schools came about was that many believed public education would build national unity and increase economic productivity. From that vantage point, education’s purpose is primarily for the common economic good of the society. At other points in the text, the authors indicate that many people believed that the purpose of education was for humanitarian reasons: so the individual would be enriched. Think about those two purposes and respond: What do you see as important considerations for either or both of those positions? What do you see as the primary purpose of education?

0Journal Reflections

Suggestions for journal topics for students’ selection:0

10. Discuss a current school practice you consider to be the result of an historical relic (like an agrarian calendar).

20. Select a period in the history of education, and tell why you would or would not want to be a teacher during this period.

30. Predict what will have changed about today’s schools by the year 2020.

40. Develop a “time line” of ten major events in your own life. After developing it, think about how you decided what to include and what to leave out. Reflect on the concept that recorded history also includes some events and leaves others out.

0TeachSource Video Cases

10. The video case, Bilingual Education: An Elementary Two-Way Immersion Program, found on the Education CourseMate website, shows one current approach to teaching children whose first language is Spanish: two-way bilingual education. As you watch the clips and study the artifacts, reflect upon the following questions:

  • How does the scenario depicted in this case compare with the historical treatment of Hispanic students described in this chapter?

  • How can you begin developing the skills you will need to work effectively with a diverse group of students?

20. The video case, Diversity: Teaching in a Multiethnic Classroom, found on the Education CourseMate website, shows how the teacher of an elementary school class with a large percentage of Japanese students works with the class today. Watch the clips and study the artifact, and consider the viewing questions that accompany the case. In addition, you may wish to reflect upon the following questions:

  • How does the scenario depicted in this case stand in contrast to historical treatment of Asian Americans, both in schools and in the larger U.S. society, that is described in this chapter?

  • In one of the bonus videos, the two teachers talk about how to best make use of the limited number of students with strong Japanese-language reading skills in the class. If a class had an even smaller percentage of students who shared a language other than English, could a teacher carry out a project like this one? How? What other ways might a teacher incorporate the cultures of English language learners into the curriculum in a way that was useful for all students?

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