Schooling in the Usa

views updated

Schooling in the Usa







The ancient Greeks believed that education was the optimal means for transmitting and reinforcing societal values through the generations. They believed that religious life should coexist with public life (e.g., society and the state) so that society might flourish by sustaining the prevailing cultures norms and values. For this process to occur, the young must be trained and educated and their character shaped.


Many U.S. founders adopted a similar theory of education, believing that the republic would not survive without sufficiently educated citizens. For the founders ideas to thrive, appropriate policies were needed to drive the process of educating young citizens in God and country. The importance of public education and the policies that drive its function have transformed and continuously shaped the identity of the United States since its inception, creating an often turbulent history. Many of the founders of American education focused on education as vital to the continual progression of the republic and, in particular, white Protestant morals. The U.S. educational system and the policies enacted were for white males, by white males, for the purpose of advocating their economic, social, and political interests. After much resistance, women were later granted admission to education, and blacks were the last minority group to gain access.

The linkage between public life and education in the United States was not immediate (Salomone 2000). Seventeenth-century colonists did not believe that religion and public life should coexist. In fact, the founders instituted a separation of church and state. As a result, schools were used primarily to reinforce the religious beliefs of the prevailing white citizenry. Since the colonists main financial resource was agriculture, education was less critical to the economy. Schooling took place primarily within the home, as the burden of teaching children was laid upon the family unit and the white Protestant church. The few schools that existed at the time were seen as short-term places of learning. Many were held for just ten to twelve weeks out of the year, favored boys, and were substantially influenced by wealthy landowners and the Protestant perspective. Early schools also charged fees, which helped to stretch the minuscule monies spent by towns. Before the American Revolution, education was neither free nor public (Kaestle 2001, p. 20). Indeed, a familys race, wealth, and social status heavily impacted the amount of education their children received and their potential outcomes.


Following the American Revolution, influential men such as Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, and Benjamin Rush became concerned at the lack of school expansion and the uneven distribution of education. They advocated statewide education that would be systematically supervised. During the 1790s, Jefferson and Rush made failed attempts to legislate state systems of education in Virginia and Pennsylvania. But with the help of Horace Mann, the first secretary of education for Massachusetts, the idea of a statewide school system finally took hold. Mann devised the Common School, which replaced the colonial mode of education. These schools would impart a higher quality of education for both boys and girls, giving them a chance for a good life while ensuring the survival of the republic. He proposed that schooling should be free and thus be equally accessible to all, thereby increasing the social capital of all, regardless of social position in life, and enhancing democracy. Mann understood that children of higher social status who could attend school had an advantage because of the cultural capital of belonging to a high-status family with high academic expectations. Following Manns common schooling initiative, education was to put all children, regardless of cultural capital, on an equal footing. Schools would be headed by women, who many felt were dispositionally designed by God to be the principal educators for the white race. Many young women headed west not only to teach the three Rs but also to instill discipline and promote national ideals. The common school became the new direction and principal version of public education throughout the United States.

This approach did not proceed without major conflicts between political parties, such as the Jacksonian Democrats and the Whigs, who debated the role of the government in school expansion and policies. Resistance to centralized state mandates and government intervention also took place in local communities around the country. But Mann persisted in his fight to end the inequalities of the colonial educational system, and in 1860 state laws were established instituting government control. Finally, schools would be funded by taxes and follow state standards.


The purpose of common schools shifted again as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the concomitant increase in immigration. Most white Americans were concerned about the new immigrants, regarding them as poor, socially and morally deviant, and threatening to the predominant white Protestant way of life. Schooling became a critical device for assimilating new immigrants to the ideas of Protestant morals, respect for private property and authority, hard work, patriotism, and accepting ones given second-class citizenship in the social hierarchy, while at the same time training them to understand the political and public affairs that were important to expanding America through the world economy.

The nineteenth century ended with many changes in education and a vast expansion of American schools. Many scholars have noted that the changes in education and educational policy were closely connected to U.S. economic needs (e.g., Vinovskis 1999). The practice of holding school for children until the eighth grade changed because of the new skills demanded of workers. Children were being asked to stay in school longer than they had in previous decades. Later, secondary education was added. In addition, rising curriculum standards, an increased teachers knowledge base, and additional state and federal control forced the creation of stricter education policies that standardized the practice of education.

Because of government and business influences, education policy transitioned from the philosophy that the role of schools was to provide moral teaching to the philosophy that their role was to provide vocational and industrial education. After World War I, group intelligence tests were used to place children on curricular tracks that purported to demonstrate differences among immigrants, racial minorities, and whites. In the end, the purpose was to show the country that immigration should be restricted. Some proponents of IQ tests felt that they could also be used to assign groups of children to tracks that allegedly offered education that benefited their individual needs. But many saw the educational policies that drove these tests as not simply assigning children to appropriate vocational or academic tracks but as a form of social engineering that restricted the opportunities of immigrants and other minorities.

By the 1950s, many government officials were coming to believe that schools suffered from lower standards that enabled such countries as the Soviet Union to beat the United States in the space race. In response, policy initiatives such as the National Education Defense Act of 1958 provided funding for graduate students to study foreign languages, mathematics, and other sciences. Later, education, as a form of investment in human capital, was recognized as an important component of economic development in the 1960s (Vinovskis 1999, p. 153). In decades to come, education policy would be used to provide for the growth of schooling to stimulate economic expansion. This idea of viewing children as human capital was renewed in the 1980s and 1990s and continues in the twenty-first century.


Although in contemporary America schooling is believed to be universal and connected to the founders purpose, discussion surrounding public education is more complicated today than ever. Many groups are attempting to reform public education through a variety of initiatives, and many of the same past issues have reemerged. The actors in these conflicts include politicians, administrators, boards of education, special-interest groups, teachers unions, corporations, and foundations. Many functionalists argue that public education and policy have triumphed because education has stayed true to the founders ideals in continuing the success of the republic. Functionalists accept social inequality as necessary, arguing that social inequality encourages competition, which pushes people to perform to the best of their abilities to attain a desired social level. Therefore, individuals and minority groups without power are in constant conflict, always striving for a better place on the social hierarchy. These theorists believe that an individual or a groups social mobility is determined by their own efforts because everyone, regardless of race or gender, has equal access to education and resources.

Both the Reagan and Bush administrations of the 1980s and 1990s closely adhered to this functionalist doctrine, favoring political approaches to social issues that affected the poor and minority groups. Under the functionalist paradigm, individuals are to blame for their own lack of resources, power, and education. Both administrations blamed the educational system for the failure of public education. The 1980s reports A Nation at Risk and Action for Excellence blamed public education for the nations decreased status in the global markets. With Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murrays 1994 book The Bell Curve, attention was redirected to children, especially the supposed deficiency of minority and lower-class children, who were blamed for the nations drop in competitiveness in global markets.

This approach again became prevalent in the George W. Bush administration through policies and legislation such as No Child Left Behind. Supporters of the policy argue that the education reform act is aimed at addressing the needs of disadvantaged children, closing the gap between the rich and poor kids, improving accountability, and offering schools more financial resources to improve their performance (Giroux 2003, p. 72). Parents can obtain vouchers to choose and pay for education that fits their childs needs if their current school is not achieving to government standards within three years. Many voters agreed with Bush, voting largely for a presidential candidate who ran on a strong market-based approach to education policy. This market approach is also seen in the concept of charter schools, which first emerged in 1992 in Minnesota as advocates demanded change in urban schools. Proponents of charter schools see them as a way of enhancing competition in public education by focusing on student achievement while at the same time empowering parents with choice. Opponents such as Jonathan Kozol (1992) note that choice will fragmentize ambition, so that the individual parent will be forced to claw and scramble for the good of her kid and her kid only, at whatever cost to everybody else (p. 92). But in reality, the market approach and legislation such as No Child Left Behind focus on the academic and social deficits of poor and minority children and not on the structural deficits of the economic and educational institutions. The blaming tactic that focuses on the low achievement of poor and minority children as well as the operation of public schools takes attention away from economic issues that are closely connected to student achievement. It has also galvanized the connection of the corporate world with public education by treating schools as if they were businesses within the marketplace.


Conflict theorists have attempted to deconstruct the functionalist doctrine. They charge that every society operates socially and economically on the grounds of inequality that privileges the wealthy and powerful while attempting to convince lower groups that the gap in power, resources, or education are necessary to the survival of the society. Conflict theorists argue that schools are set up as mechanisms to sort and control minorities in an unequal manner, inhibiting their social mobility. In essence, regardless of effort, some children in U.S. public schools are set up to lose.

Conflict theorists consider the current schooling issues as a prime example of the inequalities that exist in public education. Miron (1996) states that in a study of an urban school setting in Louisiana, black students articulated a general dislike for the way school officials treated them. Miron asserts that the curriculum was used as a tool to discriminate against black students. In terms of observed behavior and academic practices, whites were found to be subjected to less rigorous observation than black students.

Secondly, despite significant progress during the civil rights era, some scholars today feel that the spirit of true integration never occurred in U.S. public schools. In fact, many feel that public schools today have shown signs of de facto segregation where by choice whites are increasingly leaving ethnically diverse inner-city schools for more homogeneous white surroundings in suburbs (Bell 2004; Kozol 2005). This becomes all the more believable when one recalls that the foundation of U.S. public education meant that whites would benefit from a white system of control.

African Americans have a particularly long history of denied and suppressed educational opportunities. For example, in the South, the expansion of the rights, privileges, and access to formally all-white institutions for blacks took place during Reconstruction (18661877). Blacks participated and successfully held governmental positions of power, voted in elections, owned land, partook in the economy, and sought education that was once denied to them during the era of slavery. Moreover, the Reconstruction legislation that affected public schooling in the South was the result of the important and influential efforts of ex-slaves not only to shape but also to create a catalyst for an established public school system for all children, which continues to exist in the South today. Exslaves desire for schooling was felt by old and young alike. Blacks at the time believed that obtaining an education enabled them to open the doors to democratic politics in the United States. In order to obtain an education, they appealed to federal and state governments.

Ex-slaves desire for education was founded on self-help. Even though blacks held together in securing a decent amount of resources on their own, blacks also knew they needed the assistance of outside white investors, as well as state and federal government funding, physical protection, and legislation that granted equality. Because of this need for assistance, blacks met many obstacles: lack of money, conflicts with northern white missionaries who tried to control the education process, community conflicts, and acts of terrorism. In terms of education, because of the protection of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Acts of 1868 and 1875, blacks for a while enjoyed equal access to education. But this period of radical progressiveness and alliances between whites and blacks did not last long because of such factors as the withdrawal of Northern troops from the South, the ousting of blacks from the Republican Party, physical and emotional terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan, and the Democratic Partys return to political power. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) marked the collapse of Reconstruction by making it constitutionally legal to segregate blacks from whites as long as equality existed in their separation.

Two race worlds took root within the first decade of the twentieth century (Bell 2004). This was no more evident than in public education, with white and black schools. By separating whites from blacks, the process of schooling was another institutional example of the continuation of racial oppression of blacks. This unequal treatment was observed in the lack of adequate pay for school staff, inferior facilities, and lack of suitable academic resources in black schools compared to white schools. Even in the face of school segregation and considerably unequal financial resourcesdespite Plessy s separate-but-equal clausemany black schools thrived because of the adoption of a counterhegemonic theme, meaning that they were organized in opposition to the dominant ideology of white supremacy and Black intellectual inferiority in order to create literate, academically achieving citizens and leaders who would continue the racial uplift of African Americans (Perry, Steele, and Hilliard 2003, p. 91). W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction discussed how these schools did not exist in the South without the initiatives of blacks. Shortly after the Civil War, newly elected black officials and their collaborative efforts with the Freedmans Bureau, aid societies, and missionary groups all helped to establish the first state-financed public education system for young and old blacks alike. During Reconstruction, many free blacks began to educate themselves and others. Black women soon filled an important role in establishing and maintaining the schools. These new facilities helped blacks become literate and empowered in the business, economic, and judicial worlds that were foreign to them. Schools provided a place for blacks to be educated on the agenda of the Republican Party, their rights as free blacks, and the importance of voting.

The legal segregation of public schools continued until Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In terms of Native Americans, they too were required to attend segregated government schools where they were forced to abandon their tribal traditions, dress, appearance, and customs, in an effort to assimilate them into white customs.

Educational policies and schooling have adapted to the dramatic changes in population, the economy, the push for racial equality, technological advances, war, and cultural transformation. What has remained constant is that elite whites who control power and resources continue to vie for power through policies, including educational policies that have been historically devised to maintain the status quo by denying equal access to education for all citizens. The foundation of inequality set in place by the founders is alive and present in todays education system.

SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 ; Brown v. Board of Education, 1955; Education, Unequal; Norms


Bell, Derrick. 2004. Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crowson, L. Robert. 2003. The Turbulent Policy Environment in Education: Implications for School Administration and Accountability. Peabody Journal of Education 78 (4): 2943.

Daniels, Ron. 2002. Racism: Looking Forward, Looking Back. In Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century, ed. Herb Boyd, 120. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1935. Black Reconstruction in America: 18601880. New York: Atheneum.

Giroux, A. Henry. 2003. The Abandoned Generation: Democracy beyond the Culture of Fear. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gutmann, Amy. 1987. Democratic Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hahn, Steven. 2003. A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Kaestle, Carl. 2001. Part One-17701900: The Common School. In School: The Story of American Public Education, eds. Sarah Mondale and Sarah B. Patton, 1160. Boston: Beacon.

Kozol, Jonathan. 1992. I Dislike the Idea of Choice, and I Want to Tell You Why. Educational Leadership 50 (3): 9092.

Kozol, Jonathan. 2005. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. New York: Crown.

Lubienski, Chris. 2001. Redefining Public Education: Charter Schools, Common Schools, and the Rhetoric of Reform. Teachers College Record 103 (4): 634666.

Miron, Louis. 1996 . The Social Construction of Urban Schooling: Situating the Crisis. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Mondale, Sarah, ed. 2002. School: The Story of American Public Education. Boston: Beacon.

Perry, Theresa, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard III. 2003. Young Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement among African-American Students. Boston: Beacon.

Ridenour, Carolyn S., Thomas J. Lasley, II, and William L. Bainbridge. 2001. The Impact of Emerging Market-Based Public Policy on Urban School and a Democratic Society. Education and Urban Society 34 (1): 6683.

Rushing, Wanda. 2000. Inequality and Education Reform: Formulating a Macro-Historical Sociology Perspective. Race Ethnicity and Education 4 (1): 2944.

Salomone, C. Rosemary. 2000. Visions of Schooling: Conscience, Community, and Common Education. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Spring, Joel. 1998. Conflict of Interests: The Politics of American Education. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Vinovskis, A. 1999. History and Educational Policymaking. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Williams, Heather. 2005. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Woodson, Carter. 1933. The Mis-Education of the Negro. Chicago: African American Images, 2000.

Terence D. Fitzgerald