Elementary Education

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history of
gerald l. gutek

current trends
jane mccarthy
linda f. quinn

preparation of teachers
kenneth r. howey
linda m. post


Elementary schools exist worldwide as the basic foundational institution in the formal educational structure. Elementary schooling, which prepares children in fundamental skills and knowledge areas, can be defined as the early stages of formal, or organized, education that are prior to secondary school. The age range of pupils who attend elementary schools in the United States is from six to twelve, thirteen, or fourteen, depending on the organizational pattern of the particular state or school district. While a few, mainly small rural, districts, retain the traditional pattern of grades one through eight, a more common pattern is grades one through six. In most school districts as well as in many teacher preparation programs, elementary education is organized into the following levels: primary, which includes kindergarten and grades one, two, and three; intermediate, which includes grades four, five, and six; and upper, which includes grades seven and eight. A commonly found organizational pattern places grades seven and eight, and sometimes grade six and nine, into middle or junior high schools. When the middle school and junior high school pattern is followed, these institutions are usually linked into secondary education, encompassing grades six through twelve.

In comparing elementary schools in the United States with those of other countries, some distinctions in terminology are necessary. In the United States, elementary education refers to children's first formal schooling prior to secondary school. (Although kindergartens, enrolling children at age five, are part of public schools, attendance is not compulsory.) In school systems in many other countries, the term primary covers what in the United States is designated as elementary schooling. In American elementary schools, the term primary refers to the first level, namely kindergarten through grades one, two, and three.

The elementary school curriculum provides work in the educational basicsreading, writing, arithmetic, an introduction to natural and social sciences, health, arts and crafts, and physical education. An important part of elementary schooling is socialization with peers and the creating of an identification of the child with the community and nation.

History of Elementary Education in the United States

The European settlers in the North American colonies, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, initially recreated the school systems of their homelands. They established a two-track school system in which the lower socioeconomic classes attended primary vernacular schools and upper class males attended separate preparatory schools and colleges. The primary schoolselementary institutions under church controloffered a basic curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion.

Colonial period. While many similarities existed in the colonial schools, there were some important differences between New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South. The New England colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, which were settled primarily by Puritans, were characterized by a strong sense of religious and social conformity. Because of their Calvinistic emphasis on reading the Bible and other religious literature, the Puritans quickly established elementary schools. In 1642 the Massachusetts General Court, the colony's legislative body, made parents and guardians responsible for making sure that children were taught reading and religion. In 1647 the General Court enacted the Old Deluder Satan Act, which virtually established elementary education by requiring every town of fifty or more families to appoint a reading and writing teacher. Massachusetts and the other New England colonies developed the town school, a locally controlled, usually coeducational elementary school, attended by pupils ranging in age from six to thirteen or fourteen. The school's curriculum included reading, writing, arithmetic, catechism, and religious hymns. The model of the town school, governed by its local trustees or board, became an important feature of later U.S. elementary schooling.

The Middle Atlantic colonies of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania were settled by diverse ethnic and religious groups. In addition to English, Scots, and Scotch-Irish, there were Dutch in New York, Swedes in Delaware, and Germans in Pennsylvania. The Middle Atlantic colonies' religious and language diversity had important educational implications. Elementary schools were usually parochial institutions, supported and governed by the various churches.

In the southern coloniesMaryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgiaenslaved Africans were used as forced labor on the plantations. Wealthy families employed private teachers or tutors to educate their children. Enslaved Africans were trained to be agricultural workers, field hands, craftspeople, or domestic servants, but they were legally forbidden to learn to read or write. There were some notable exceptions who learned to read secretly.

Early national period. After the establishment of the United States as an independent nation, the earliest U.S. federal legislation relating to education was included in the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. The ordinance divided the Northwest Territory into townships of thirty-six square miles, and each township was subdivided into thirty-six 640-acre sections. Each township's sixteenth section was to be used to support education. Unlike constitutions or basic laws in other nations, the U.S. Constitution, ratified as the law of the land in 1789, did not refer specifically to education. The Tenth Amendment's "reserved powers" clause (which reserved to the states all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government or prohibited to the states by the Constitution) left education as a responsibility of each individual state.

During the early national period, the first half of the nineteenth century, American leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson (17431826), argued that the United States needed to develop republican schools that were different from those found in the European monarchies. Jefferson's "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," introduced in the Virginia legislature in 1779, would have made the state responsible for providing both girls and boys with a basic elementary education, in a local ward school, at public expense. Although not enacted, Jefferson's bill had an important influence on later developments.

The movement to establish an American version of elementary education was promoted by Noah Webster (17581843), who sought to create an American version of the English language and instill an American identity into the young through language instruction. Webster's American Spelling Book and American Dictionary were widely used in schools.

The movement to common or public schools. In the 1830s and 1840s, several Western nations began to develop national elementary or primary school systems that were intended to augment or replace the existing church-controlled institutions. In France, Francois Guizot, the Minister of Education in the regime of Louis Philippe, promoted national elementary schools. In the United States, with its historic tradition of local and state control, the movement to establish public elementary schools was not national but carried on in the various states.

Before public elementary schools were established, attempts were made in the United States to establish various kinds of philanthropic elementary schools, such as the Sunday and monitorial schools. The United Kingdom, a leading industrial nation, also experimented with these approaches to primary education. The Sunday school, developed by Robert Raikes, an English religious leader, sought to provide children with basic literacy and religious instruction on the one day that factories were closed. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, Sunday schools were established in the larger cities.

Monitorialism, also known as mutual instruction, was a popular method of elementary education in the early nineteenth century in the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries. Two rival English educators, Andrew Bell, an Anglican churchman, and Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker teacher, promoted monitorialism independently. The monitorial method relied heavily on monitors more advanced pupils, trained by a master teacherto teach younger children. Monitors aided teachers in conducting classes, taking attendance, and maintaining order. In using this method, the master teacher trained a selected group of older students as monitors in a particular skill, such as adding single-digit numbers or reading simple words. These monitors then taught that particular skill to subgroups of less advanced pupils. Since the monitorial method promised to teach large numbers of pupils basic literacy and numeracy skills, it gained the support of those who wanted to provide basic elementary education at limited costs.

Initially, monitorial schools were popular in the larger American cities such as New York and Philadelphia, where they were typically supported by private philanthropists and occasionally received some public funds. In the early 1840s monitorial schooling experienced a rapid decline and virtually disappeared. By the time that the New York Free School Society, which had operated monitorial schools, turned them over to the public school system in 1853, more than 600,000 children had attended its schools.

The common school. The common school movement refers to the establishment of state elementary school systems in the first half of the nineteenth century. The term common meant that these state-supported public elementary schools, exalted as the school that "educated the children of all the people," were open to children of all socioeconomic classes and ethnic and racial groups. Nevertheless, many children, particularly enslaved African Americans, did not attend.

Not a selective academic institution, the common school sought to develop the literacy and numeracy needed in everyday life and work. Its basic curriculum stressed reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, history, and geography. Emphasizing American patriotism and Christian piety, it was regarded as the educational agency that would assimilate and Americanize the children of immigrants.

The common school movement in the United States paralleled some trends taking place in western Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the 1830s the British parliament, though not creating a state school system, began to provide grants to educational societies for primary schooling. In France, under Guizot, a primary school system, too, was established during the regime of Louis Philippe. These transnational trends, found in Europe and America, indicated that governments were beginning to take the responsibility for providing some kind of elementary schooling. Unlike in France, which was beginning to create a highly centralized national educational system, U.S. public schools were decentralized. The U.S. Constitution's Tenth Amendment reserved education to each state. The states, in turn, delegated considerable responsibility for providing and maintaining schools to local districts. Even within a particular state, especially on the frontier where many small school districts were created, resources available for schooling varied considerably from district to district.

The common school movement scored its initial successes in New England, particularly in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Massachusetts, in 1826, required every town to elect a school committee to provide and set policy for the local schools. The Massachusetts legislature established the first state board of education in 1837. It named Horace Mann (17961859), an eloquent spokesman for common schooling, as its secretary. Mann, as editor of the Common School Journal and a popular orator, gained considerable support for public schools.

Other northern states emulated New England's common school model. As the frontier moved westward and new states joined the Union, they, too, followed the model and passed laws to create public elementary school systems. In the South, with a few exceptions, common schools were rare until the postCivil War Reconstruction.

A unique feature in the United States was the small one-room school, found in rural areas and small towns across the country. These schools served local school districts, governed by elected boards. Although small one-room village schools existed in other countries, the American ones were local creations rather than impositions of a national government. The American school's immediacy to its people made the local school a trusted institution rather than an alien intruder into small town life. In contrast, the teacher in France might be suspected as an outsider, a representative of the intrusive central government. Similarly, in tsarist Russia, the zemstvo school, established in the villages, was often extraneous to the needs of life in the countryside. The zemstvo teachers often were not accepted by the peasants whose children they tried to teach or were regarded as rivals of the village priest. In America's one-room schools, the elected school board determined the tax levy and hired and supervised the teacher. This pattern of local control contrasted with the visiting school inspectors sent to inspect teachers and schools in France or even with the royal inspectors in the United Kingdom.

The pupils enrolled in the local one-room schools, often ranging in age from five to seventeen, studied a basic curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, grammar, spelling, and hygiene. They were instructed by the recitation method in which each pupil stood and recited a previously assigned lesson. Group work might include writing exercises, arithmetic problems, and grammar lessons that stressed diagramming sentences. The values of punctuality, honesty, and hard work were given high priority.

African-American and Native American elementary education. The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States. Although a small number of free blacks had attended elementary school in some northern states before the war, southern slave states had prohibited instruction of African-American children. After the Civil War, the U.S. Congress, in 1865, established the Freedmen's Bureau, which established elementary schools for the children of former slaves. By 1869 more than 114,000 students were attending bureau schools. Many bureau schools functioned until 1872 when the bureau ceased operations.

In the late nineteenth century, the federal government, assisted by well-intentioned but often misguided reformers, sought to "civilize" Native Americans by assimilating them into white society. From 1890 to the 1930s the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in a policy of forced assimilation, relied heavily on boarding schools, many of which contained elementary divisions. Seeking to remove Native American youngsters from their tribal cultures, the students, forbidden to speak their native languages, were forced to use English. The boarding schools stressed a basic curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, and vocational training.

Nonpublic elementary schools. In addition to the public elementary school, the United States also has private elementary schools, many of which are church-related. Today, nonpublic schools enroll about 11 percent of the pupils in U.S. schools. Roman Catholic parochial schools, serving the children of a particular parish, represent the largest number of private elementary schools. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian schools are the fastest growing sector in nonpublic elementary education.

Goals of Elementary Schools

Elementary schools in the United States, as in other countries, have the goals of providing children with fundamental academic skills, basic knowledge, and socialization strategies. They are key institutions in instilling a sense of national identity and citizenship in children.

In the United States, elementary schools prepare children to use language by teaching reading, writing, comprehension, and computation. Elementary schools worldwide devote considerable time and resources to teaching reading, decoding, and comprehending the written and spoken word. The stories and narratives children learn to read are key elements in political and cultural socialization, the forming of civic character, and the shaping of civility and behavior. Throughout the history of American education, the materials used to teach reading exemplified the nation's dominant values. For example, the New England Primer, used in colonial schools, stressed Puritanism's religious and ethical values. Noah Webster's spelling books and readers emphasized American national identity and patriotism. The McGuffey Readers, widely used in late nineteenth century schools, portrayed boys and girls who always told the truth, who worked diligently, and who honored their fathers and mothers and their country. McGuffey values were reinforced by the American flag, which hung at the front of elementary classrooms, flanked by portraits of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. The "Dick and Jane" readers of the 1930s and 1940s depicted the lifestyle and behaviors of the dominant white middle class. Contemporary reading books and materials portray a much more multicultural view of life and society.

The language of instruction in elementary or primary schools is often highly controversial in many countries, especially in multilingual ones. The ability to use the "official" language provides access to secondary and higher education and entry into professions. In such multilanguage nations as India, Canada, and Belgium, protracted controversies have occurred over which language should be the official one. In the United States, the dominant language of instruction in public schools has been English. The children of non-English-speaking immigrants were assimilated into American culture by the imposition of English through the elementary school curriculum. The later entry of bilingual education in the United States was an often controversial educational development, and remains so in the early twenty-first century.

Along with the development of language competencies, elementary education prepares children in the fundamental mathematical skillsin counting, using number systems, measuring, and performing the basic operations of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Further, the foundations of science, social science, health, art, music, and physical education are also taught.

Curriculum and Organization

In the United States at the primary level, the first level of organization, the curriculum is highly generalized into broad areas such as language arts or life sciences. It gradually becomes more specialized at the intermediate and upper grade levels into more specific subjects. Because of the generality of the elementary curriculum, especially at the primary and intermediate levels, there is likely to be a greater emphasis on methods and styles of teaching in elementary schools in the United States than in primary schools in other countries. For example, U.S. teachers, in their professional preparation and classroom practices, are more likely to emphasize the process of learning, inquiry skills, and social participation than teachers in other countries. Instruction in many other countries tends to be more oriented to specific skills and subjects. While elementary or primary classrooms in the United States and in other countries are likely to be self-contained, the American teacher generally has more autonomy and is not concerned with visitations by outside government inspectors.

The typical U.S. elementary school curriculum is organized around broad fields such as language arts, social studies, mathematics, and the sciences. The essential strategy in this approach is to integrate and correlate rather than departmentalize areas of knowledge. Curricular departmentalization often begins earlier in some other countries such as Japan, China, and India than in the United States.

The language arts, a crucial curricular area, includes reading, handwriting, spelling, listening, and speaking. It includes the reading and discussing of stories, biographies, and other forms of children's literature. Here, the U.S. emphasis on reading and writing is replicated in other countries. The methods of teaching language, however, vary. In the United States, the teaching of reading is often controversial. Some teachers and school districts prefer phonics; others use the whole language approach or a combination of several methods such as phonics and guided oral reading.

Social studies, as a component of the U.S. elementary curriculum, represents a fusion and integration of selected elements of history, geography, economics, sociology, and anthropology. It often uses a gradual, step-by-step method of leading children from their immediate home, family, and neighborhood to the larger social and political world. While the U.S. approach to social education has been subject to frequent redefinition and reformulation, its defenders argue that the integration of elements of the various social sciences is a more appropriate way to introduce children to society than a strictly disciplinary approach. Critics, some of them educators from other countries, argue that American students lack the structured knowledge of place that comes from the systematic teaching of geography as a separate discipline or the sense of chronology that comes from the study of history.

Like social studies, science in the elementary curriculum consists of the teaching of selected and integrated concepts and materials from the various natural and physical sciences rather than a focus on the specific sciences. Frequently, science teaching will stress the life and earth sciences by way of field trips, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments. Critics contend that the elementary science curriculum in the United States is too unstructured and does not provide an adequate foundational base of knowledge. Defenders contend, however, that it is more important for students to develop a sense of science as a process and mode of inquiry than to amass scientific facts.

The main part of the elementary curriculum is completed by mathematics, with an emphasis on basic computational skillsaddition, subtraction, multiplication, division, measuring, and graphing. The curriculum also includes health concepts and practices, games, safety, music, art, and physical education and fitness, which involves the development of motor skills.

As children in the United States progress from the primary to the intermediate grades, the emphasis on reading continues but changes from stories to more informational narratives. The goal is to develop students' interpretive skills as well as to continue to polish the basic decoding skills related to mechanics and comprehension that were stressed in the primary grades. The broad fields of the curriculumsocial studies, mathematics, and scienceare pursued but now become more disciplinary.

Depending on the particular organizational pattern being followed, the upper gradessix, seven, and eightoffer a more specialized and differentiated curriculum. Subject matters such as English, literature, social studies, history, natural and physical sciences, and mathematics are taught in a more differentiated way. In addition to the more conventional academic subjects, areas such as vocational, industrial, home arts, career, sex, and drug abuse prevention education appear, especially in the upper grades and in junior high and middle schools.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, curriculum is being shaped by an emphasis on subject-matter competencies in English, mathematics, and basic sciences. Computer literacy, computerassisted instruction, and other technologies in school programs reflect the nation's transition to a high-tech information society.

The Standards Movement

The standards movement, which gained momentum in the late 1990s, has required more standardized testing in U.S. elementary education. Standards advocates argue that academic achievement can be best assessed by using standardized tests to determine whether students are performing at prescribed levels in key areas such as reading and mathematics. Most of the states have established standards and require testing in these areas. Strongly endorsed by U.S. President George W. Bush, the standards approach was infused into the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The act requires that, in order to receive Title I funds, states and school districts must develop and conduct annual assessments in reading and mathematics in grades three through eight. Opponents of the standards movement argue that it is based on a narrow definition of education that encourages teachers to teach for the test rather than for the development of the whole child.

See also: Common School Movement; Curriculum, School; No Child Left Behind act of 2001; Private Schooling.


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Gerald L. Gutek


Reform of elementary education in the United States, which began in the latter part of the twentieth century and intensified after the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, has been aimed at improving the academic performance of all children, with accountability for student achievement being placed on the schools, districts, and states. The federal government is also playing a larger role in elementary education through the funding provided to states under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. There is concern that the U.S. educational system is not enabling its students to perform as well academically as students in other nations, although some critics disagree with this assessment. Though the elementary curriculum is constantly in a state of reform and refinement, some common threads exist.

Goals and Purposes of Elementary Education

Democratization of education is the evolution of education away from models intended to support ideological, social, or industrial systems toward open, universal public education. Great Britain demonstrates the evolution of open, democratic systems of European education since the Renaissance. Japan in Asia has redesigned its public education system since World War II to reflect those same open democratic values. Chile in South America is currently undergoing an aggressive democratization of public education. The similarities of the reforms in these nations parallels similar reforms underway in the United States.

United States. Throughout the history of the United States, Americans have expressed a desire for an educated citizenry. Efforts to establish or reform education in this country include the Old Deluder Satan Act, enacted in Massachusetts in 1647, Thomas Jefferson's 1779 Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, The Common School Movement of the 1800s, the Education for All American Youth initiative of 1944, and George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The existence of a cumulative and consecutive system of universal public education for young children is a part of the national heritage of the United States, and it is expected that elementary education will play a major role in preparing future citizens to live in a modern, industrialized, global society.

Control over elementary education is reserved to the states; however, in 1979 the U.S. Department of Education was created by President Jimmy Carter to coordinate, manage, and account for federal support of educational programs. National and local attention continues to be directed at elementary education in the twenty-first century, as leaders, teachers, and parents seek ways to make the first step in the American education system educative, meaningful, and positive.

While current educational reforms reflect a myriad of societal changes, elementary education at the beginning of the new millennium still resembles the vernacular schools of colonial America. The essential skills of reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic occupy center stage, and the "common school" moral themes of honesty, hard work, diligence, and application prevail.

Europe. Elementary education in the United States has roots in European models of education, and, in fact, elementary education systems around the world share many common characteristics. Efforts to create public elementary school systems in Europe (mostly in the nineteenth century) were initiated by leaders in the national or central governments. Dominant political, social, and economic classes used elementary schools to encourage conformity with the ideas and values that perpetuated the status quo and provided little opportunity for upward socioeconomic mobility. In the twentieth century the requirement for a more educated workforce has enhanced the place of elementary education within the continuum of formerly hierarchical European education systems.

The compulsory age for children to begin elementary school is five or six and elementary education may last for six years. Typical subjects include reading, writing, arithmetic, art, geography, history, physical education, fine arts, and foreign languages. In some countries, noncompulsory religion classes may be offered. Since the fall of Communism, most eastern European elementary school systems follow the western European education model. Elementary schools in Europe experience many of the same issues related to student achievement, diversity, poverty, and violence that face their U.S. counterparts, and standardized testing has become increasingly important in many countries, such as Great Britain.

Asia (Japan). Elementary education in Japan is built on a model of communities of people working together to become healthy in mind, body, and spirit. Students are educated to respect the value of individuals, and to love truth and justice. Elementary education begins at age six in Japan and ends at age eleven or twelve. The structure of Japan's 6-3-3-4 school system was established by the School Education Law of 1947. The educational reforms resulting from this law, carried out under the direction of the American Occupation, decentralized control of education, authorized autonomous private schools, and encouraged the development of community education. The authority to establish schools is limited to the Ministry of Education, local governments, and private organizations that fulfill the requirements of becoming a school corporation. Municipalities are responsible for establishing elementary schools. Parents, especially mothers, take an active role in their children's education and reinforce the school curriculum through teaching their children at home or enrolling them in Jukus, which are privately run "cram" schools.

South America (Chile). Children in Chile attend primary (elementary) school for eight years. They study a curriculum and use textbooks approved by the government's Ministry of Education, though following the 1980 educational reforms the oversight of elementary education in Chile was transferred to municipal governments. The typical primary school curriculum includes reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, music, physical education, and art. A national program of school breakfasts and lunches recognizes the importance of nutrition in the education of children. Chilean elementary education is faced with inequities in access to education among the rich and poor and a high dropout rate among the nation's poorest children. The National Council for School Aid and Grants is charged with making scholarships available to all children. Since 1988, the national government of Chile has provided support for private schools, and this has caused a downturn in public primary school enrollments.

The Importance of Elementary Education

In America, children normally enroll in elementary schools at age five or six and exit elementary school at age eleven or twelve. In 2002 approximately 25 million children attended elementary schools in the United States. Readiness for elementary school is viewed as highly important. Through Head Start programs, the government provides educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged circumstances in order for them to be prepared for elementary school. Parents of the children who may not qualify for government-supported programs often enroll their children in privately run preschools in hopes of setting their children on a successful path to elementary school. Although school attendance is not mandatory in most states until first grade, national surveys of parents of early elementary pupils show that 98 percent of primary school children attend kindergarten before entering first grade.

The rapid changes in cognitive, social, and moral growth of an elementary school student makes the elementary classroom an ideal setting for shaping individual attitudes and behaviors. The elementary classroom may provide the best opportunity to set in place moral and ethical characteristics and understandings that have the potential to improve society. Children in the elementary schools are still malleable, and this emphasis on character education is seen as a particularly urgent matter in American classrooms. In fact, the socialization of children in America is no longer viewed as the sole responsibility of their parents.

The view of using the elementary classroom as a stage for molding future citizens of a democratic society is not new, but it does give rise to controversy regarding programs and methods, as parents may disagree with specific curriculum being promoted by local, state, or national agencies. For example, sex education at the elementary school level has been the object of much debate among religious and special interest groups. One result of the disagreements over such controversial curricula may be the large number of children home schooled in 19992001 (estimated to be more than 1.3 million). Even so, support may still be offered to home-schooled students through curriculum, books, and materials provided by local schools or districts, as well as access to extracurricular activities and special classes in areas such as technology.

The Curriculum of the Elementary School

Unlike many other nations, the United States does not have a national curriculum. As mentioned previously, control of the schools is reserved to the states, which in turn give local school districts some control over what is taught and how it is taught. Curriculum may be looked at as a negotiated set of beliefs about what students should know or be able to do. A curriculum framework includes these beliefs, and then specifies by what point students should have mastered specific skills and performances. This is known as the scope and sequence of curriculum. Until recently, states and local districts had significant latitude in the development of elementary curriculum. The advent of the standards movement, however, has mitigated this freedomfor the better according to some, and for the worse according to others.

Do standards-based curriculum frameworks and standardized tests prepare children for the twenty-first century workplace where problem solving, creativity, and teamwork are necessary tools? Some people in the business world do not think so. Others argue that it is necessary to insure that all children master at least the basic essentials of reading, mathematics and writing in order to be able to perform at higher levels of performance and thinking. At any rate, the standards movement has had a definite impact on the curriculum of the elementary school. In the early twenty-first century, forty-nine states have curriculum standards. Recent studies indicate that 87 percent of U.S. teachers believe the standards movement is a step in the right direction, and that the curriculum is more demanding and teacher expectations of students are higher as a result of standards. Many teachers also express frustration that they are not provided with the resources necessary to align the standards to the curriculum.

Prior to the standards movement, curriculum development was impacted by the notion of cultural literacy advocated by E. D. Hirsch. Hirsch began a national debate with the 1987 publication of what he considered essential common knowledge that all school children need to possess in order to be literate members of their society. His argument was that students could not be successful at understanding the world around them without a grounding in geography, history, literature, politics, and democratic principles. Hirsch then went on to develop a grade-by-grade outline of the knowledge students should master at each grade level. His book stimulated much national debate, especially with regard to whose cultural knowledge should be included in the curriculumWestern civilization only, or a more inclusive body of knowledge. His theories have had a definite impact on the elementary curriculum in many districts and states.

The current elementary school curriculum is influenced by societal needs and political influence. President George H. W. Bush endorsed the America 2000 goals for American schooling, several of which have had a particular influence on the elementary curriculum. Basically, the goals stipulated that students would demonstrate mastery in five areas: English, mathematics, science, history and geography. President Clinton's Goals 2000 program continued in the same vein. Societal concerns resulted in federal attention to the national curriculum, which has resulted in state accountability standards.

The state standards and curriculum are also influenced by the professional societies and their development of standards and benchmarks in their subject areas. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), for example, developed an extensive set of standards that are centered on the need to develop problem-solving skills in addition to basic skills in math. The NCTM stresses conceptual knowledge as a framework for all mathematics learning and provides standards and expectations for each grade level. Other societies have provided similar frameworks that are used by the states in the development of standards.

Elementary curriculum is dynamic, changing as the needs and conditions of society evolve and change. While it cannot be said that there will ever be consensus on the content of the curriculum, the negotiated curriculum serves as a framework for the national agenda for education.

Issues, Trends, and Controversies

The United States has engaged in a national debate over the purposes of schooling since the inception of the public school system. Such debate has resulted in numerous reforms and change efforts over the years. Some reforms have made lasting changes in elementary schooling, while others have gone away as quickly as they arrived. There are a number of burning issues that currently engage the public in discourse and negotiation.

Poor student performance is seen as a failure of the education system and numerous state and national mandates have been put in place to assure equal access to a quality education for all children. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education's A Nation at Risk outlined the decline of American education. This report heralded a revival of academic-driven curricula and resulted in an emphasis on standardized testing and accountability. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires each state to implement a system of accountability that will identify low-performing schools. It also requires that all students in grades three through eight must be assessed annually in at least reading and mathematics. Parents may also, under certain circumstances, receive governmental support to secure tutoring for children who attend low-performing schools. Such legislation gives rise to controversies surrounding charter schools and school vouchers.

Immigration in the United States has been an issue in elementary education since the advent of public schooling. Immigration patterns shifted dramatically at the beginning of the twentieth century, and continue to shift as children from Southeast Asia, Central America, and eastern European countries enroll in elementary schools. In 2000, 18 percent of the American populace spoke a language other than English at home. In 1990, 15 percent of the total child population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native American. It is projected that, by 2010, Hispanic children will surpass African-American children as the largest child minority. In addition, by 2020, more than one in five American children are expected to be of Hispanic descent. Immigrant children have special needs that must be addressed by the public elementary school. The debate over what form of English education children of immigrants should take has attracted much attention. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, programs for English learners in elementary schools are striving to focus on a holistic approach to educating transcultural/transnational peoples in a global context.

Incidences of school violence and drug use erupted on the school landscape during the late twentieth century. More than half of the nation's schools experienced criminal incidents in 19961997, and school security personnel have employed metal detectors to help assure the safety of students. The National Education Association supplies information and tools to help school administrators, teachers, and parents create safe schools. Conflict resolution and counseling have become a part of the elementary education curriculum, as have programs to teach children the dangers of drug use. The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, designed to give kids the life skills they need to avoid involvement with drugs, gangs, and violence, is seen as most influential when delivered to students attending elementary school.

The condition of children living in poverty is an issue of importance to elementary education. Poor children are more likely than more affluent children to experience difficulties in school. The strategies found to be most effective in teaching children of poverty may require special training for teachers, administrators, and school staff. Communication with parents is critical to student success in elementary schools, especially with parents of children of poverty. Many elementary schools in the United States incorporate programs that invite parents to participate in school activities and to feel welcome within the school environment, thereby supporting the families of their students.

The United States has firmly entered the information age. Computers are a common sight in most elementary schools, and school districts employ specialists in instructing students in the use of technology. An important issue that technology brings to elementary education is equal and controlled access. Questions arise concerning frequent use of computers in schools, supervision of students' access to the Internet, and whether computer use has any impact at all on student learning. National standards have been established to direct the use of technology in schools, and federal funding has been made available to facilitate the widespread use of technology in classrooms. One remarkable problem regarding the use of technology in classrooms stems from the fact that most elementary children have learned technology skills faster than their teachers.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was designed to assure an "appropriate public education" to meet the unique needs of all students with disabilities. Attached to this bill was a list of provisions for mainstreaming children with disabilities within the public school system. In order to comply with these provisions, elementary schools are faced with the problems of inclusion inherent in making their programs and facilities user-friendly for students with physical, mental, and behavioral disabilities of all sorts.

These issues are just a few of the current challenges faced by elementary education in the early twenty-first century. In spite of the debate, the basic framework of curriculum has survived.

The Evaluation of the Elementary Curriculum

Evaluation of the curriculum has become a focus of concern and disagreement. The use of standardized tests, some argue, drives the curriculum. The importance placed on these tests by local, state, and national entities all but defines what will be taught in schools, thus negating local control of schools and, in fact, creating a form of national curriculum. Teachers who "teach to the test" are neglecting the development of powerful thinking skills and creativity. In fact, the tests are said to penalize those children who are creative thinkers. This limitation was noted by Hilda Taba in 1962, and remains a relevant concern. Some standardized tests, for example, have writing portions that consist solely of multiple-choice questions.

Others insist, however, that standardized tests are a vital tool for measuring the effectiveness of schooling and for holding schools and districts accountable for the education of children. They note that newer versions of these tests include questions to evaluate problem solving and higher-order thinking skills. Yet only a handful of states currently have tests that directly measure student achievement with regard to mastery of state standards.

Standardized test scores of elementary schools are published and are public record. States maintain Internet sites where anyone can find the test scores of a particular school or district. Schools that consistently fall below state averages may be placed in a special category of at-risk schools, and in some instances they may actually be taken over by committees appointed by the state department of education if test scores do not rise within a certain probationary period.

National measures of achievement (e.g., the National Assessment of Educational Progress) are also reported to provide information at a national level about the achievement of all students. These national assessments have found that achievement levels of all children have risen annually, including the achievement of minority children. The gap between the scores of minority students and white students still exists, however, and the latest data show that it actually increased during the 1990s. This information has informed the federal government's educational policies of accountability. Federal legislation now requires that all children in grades three through eight to be assessed annually in mathematics and reading. As of 2002, however, only thirteen states and the District of Columbia met this requirement.

School districts often administer their own criterion-referenced tests to measure the effectiveness of the district curriculum framework. These tests attempt to measure the mastery of skills in the district framework at each grade level. The information provided by these tests is designed to give schools and teachers information about the effectiveness of the delivery of the district curriculum.

State, federal, and district assessments are conducted, in addition to the ongoing assessment performed in individual classrooms. Teachers utilize performance assessments, teacher-developed tests, tests that accompany textbooks, and other measures to monitor student progress. Students of the early twenty-first century are becoming the most frequently evaluated students in history. Whether more frequent testing leads to higher achievement in academic skills has yet to be determined, however.


Elementary education is in an exciting period of reform. Technological advances and improved knowledge about how children learn are being infused into the curriculum and instructional practices in schools. The national debate over the purposes and governance of elementary schools continues in the same historical tradition. Educators and policy-makers throughout the world are grappling with the determination of the skills and knowledge necessary for effective citizenship in the twenty-first century.

See also: Character Development; Curriculum, School; Drug and Alcohol Abuse, subentry on School; Immigrant Education; Knowledge Building; School Reform; Special Education; Standards for Student Learning; Technology in Education.


Bracey, Gerald W. 2001. "The Condition of Public Education." Phi Delta Kappan 83 (2):157169.

Doherty, Kathryn. 2001. "Poll: Teachers Support Standardswith Hesitation." Education Week 20 (17):20.

Gutek, Gerald L. 1986. Education in the United States: An Historical Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. 1987. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Meyer, Lori; Orlofsky, Greg F.; Skinner, Ronald A.; and Spicer, Scott. 2002. "The State of the States: Quality Counts 2002." Education Week 21 (17):6870.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2000. The Condition of Education, 2000. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: National Commission on Excellence in Education, U.S. Department of Education.

National Council for Teachers of Mathematics. 2000. Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council for Teachers of Mathematics.

Passe, Jeff. 1999. Elementary School Curriculum. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Reich, Robert B. 2001. "Standards for What?" Education Week 20 (41):48, 64.

Taba, Hilda. 1962. Curriculum Development: Theory and Practice. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Jane McCarthy

Linda F. Quinn


During the first two centuries following the settlement of the American colonies the education of youngsters was a shared endeavor, with the family assuming major responsibility and the church typically taking on a prominent role as well. Various agencies and businesses in the community also contributed as children early on served in apprenticeships and indentures. Certain individuals did formally teach youngsters. However, in his major history of colonial education (1970), Lawrence Cremin noted that usually these individuals did not view teaching as their primary occupation nor were they formally prepared to do so. Some tutored the youngsters of the upper class. Others, typically women, taught the basics of reading, writing, and ciphering in their homes in what were known as dame schools. This rather informal and shared approach to educating youngsters continued well into the nineteenth century.

When the common school evolved in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the principles of free tuition, universal attendance, and hence tax support also became more prevalent. Correspondingly, the need for qualified teachers spread and the first public normal school was established in Massachusetts in 1839. These teacher preparation institutions spread quickly throughout New England and by the end of the nineteenth century to the rest of the country.

The curriculum in these normal schools focused on the subjects these prospective teachers were eventually to teach. Jesse May Pangburn's 1932 review of normal schools revealed, "students needed to show a mastery of reading, writing, spelling, geography, grammar, and arithmetic for admission to the regular professional courses" (p. 14). Examples of these "professional" courses were thirteen weeks devoted to the history of education, twenty-seven weeks in the science of education, and thirty-one weeks in methods in the elementary branches. Observation in elementary schools followed by practice teaching was a culminating feature of the normal school curriculum and the curriculum was spread out over one or two years.

As late as 1898 there were approximately 250 normal schools; however, these institutions graduated only about a fourth of the total number of elementary teachers needed. Most elementary teachers were simply graduates of elementary schools. These teachers were nearly always women who could be recruited for lower salaries than men and who were believed to possess the nurturing qualities needed to interact effectively with younger children.

With the advent of the twentieth century departments of education in universities evolved. Wayne Urban (1990) reported that the motivation for universities to incorporate teacher preparation into the curriculum stemmed from their need for increased enrollment and the positive public relations that came from addressing the needs of the expanding public school systems. The creation of specific departments of education would "also allow women to enroll but not spread their presence or influence across the campuses" (p. 63).

The normal schools now had to transform themselves in order to compete with the universities. Many of these normal schools became teachers colleges. Some of the teachers colleges eventually included other majors, and in the last half of the twentieth century some even became universities. Bachelor's degrees were now offered in both universities and teachers colleges. This resulted in adding general education requirements to the more technical teacher education curriculum. In the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s the foundations movement, guided by the social and philosophical ideas of John Dewey, took place in teacher education. The disciplines of history, philosophy, and psychology were brought to bear more directly on both the problems of teaching and the role of school in addressing broader societal issues. Thus, by World War II, the general structure of the preparation of elementary teachers was shaped much as it remains at the beginning of the twenty-first century: academic study, foundational study, professional study, and practice teaching.

Current Structure and Organization

In the early twenty-first century, teacher preparation in the United States is a huge enterprise. There are more than 3 million teachers in public schools in the United States and more than 1,400 institutions of higher education of various types that offer programs preparing teachers. The preparation of teachers is also increasingly undertaken as a partnership endeavor with elementary and secondary personnel assuming an expanded role, especially in the clinical aspects of this endeavor. A distinctive trend in the 1980s and 1990s was the formulation of professional development, professional practice, or partner schools specifically designed to assist in the preparation of prospective teachers.

The Research About Teacher Education (RATE) Study (1989) was a national survey of the organizational and structural properties of programs preparing elementary teachers in the United States. This study reported that the typical distribution of college credits for an elementary education program consisted of approximately 132 semester hours accordingly: general studies (58 credits), professional studies (42 credits), an area of concentration (20 credits), and student teaching (12 credits). About a third of the programs required an academic major averaging 32 credits, and another fourth required an academic minor averaging 20 credits.

A typical professional sequence for prospective elementary teachers includes six hours in the methods of teaching reading and approximately three hours each in the methods of teaching social studies, math, science, and language arts. Student teaching is usually completed in one setting and lasts about twelve weeks. Many programs preparing elementary teachers are organized into "blocks" of courses so that related subjects can be studied in an integrated fashion.

At the baccalaureate level, one can find preparation programs in relatively equal numbers that begin at the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year. However, elementary teacher preparation increasingly has taken on a postbaccalaureate flavor. History shows a pattern of teacher preparation from no formal preparation to two years, then four years, and at the turn of the twenty-first century, often five years and more. Some five-year programs combine undergraduate and graduate credits. Others result in a master's degree along with the baccalaureate award. In addition there are teacher preparation programs offered solely at the masters level, often designed to attract prospective teachers whose undergraduate degree is in another field. Finally, there are also many alternative licensure programs usually intended to accommodate the "nontraditional" student and to recruit teachers for "high need" schools.

The Continuing Education of Elementary Teachers

In addition to the trend towards extended programs of preparation, many states and school districts are offering what are referred to as induction or entry year programs wherein novice teachers in the critical first years of teaching are provided assistance by veteran teachers. Novice teachers also come together periodically to continue their education. Some of these programs are sponsored by the district, others by teachers' unions, and still others in partnership with universities.

The education of teachers hardly stops at this point. Licensing requirements mandate that teachers continue their education, and the rapidly changing student demography, new technologies, and everexpanding information underscore why they continually need to do so. While many teachers return to universities for further coursework (the majority of elementary teachers now complete at least a master's degree), they also regularly engage in educational activities sponsored by their school districts and teachers' unions. Although summer and after-school workshops remain a staple of this continuing education, increasingly forms of continuing professional development are built into teachers' ongoing daily activities with an emphasis on inquiry into and reflection upon how they are impacting student learning. During the 1990s professional development guidelines and accountability measures were put in place so that veteran teachers could be certified by a national board as accomplished teachers.

Unresolved Issues and Problems

Although inroads generally have been made in the recruitment, preparation, and induction of elementary teachers, problems remain and several issues can be raised as well. First, studies of teaching effectiveness underscore the essentiality of knowing the subject one teaches in considerable depth and having a repertoire of teaching strategies indigenous to that subject. Thus a strong argument can be made that most elementary teachers simply are not adequately prepared to teach five or six subjects well. Rather, what is needed are schools where elementary teachers work in teams assuming collective responsibilities for a group of youngsters but with each teacher on the team teaching only one or two subjects. This suggests quite a different pattern of preparing elementary teachers with an emphasis on effective collaboration among other needed changes. Second, the plurality of cultures and languages that is now represented in many classrooms calls for teaching that is sensitive and responsive to pluralism and youngsters who live in very different neighborhoods; a daunting challenge indeed. Third, the pervasive presence and massive potential of the computer as a teaching tool and vehicle for learning presents particular challenges in preparing teachers. Fourth and finally, while the preparation of elementary teachers has generally been improved and extended over time and entry-year programs are becoming more common, these endeavors tend to be uncoupled and not aligned with one another.

Although partnerships in the preparation of teachers are evolving and outstanding veteran teachers are contributing in expanded ways, these partnerships tend to be ad hoc in nature and tenuous, involving a few individuals rather than interinstitutional arrangements. Reform in teacher preparation tends not to proceed in an aligned and simultaneous manner with needed reforms in elementary schools.

See also: Early Childhood Education, subentry on Preparation of Teachers; Teacher Education; Teacher Preparation, International Perspective.


Cremin, Lawrence A. 1970. American Education: The Colonial Experience 16071783. New York: Harper and Row.

Pangburn, Jesse May. 1932. The Evolution of the American Teacher College. New York: Columbia University, Teachers College, Bureau of Publications.

Urban, Wayne J. 1990. "Historical Studies of Teacher Education." In Handbook of Research on Teacher Education, ed. W. Robert Houston. New York: Macmillan.

Kenneth R. Howey

Linda M. Post