The history and evolution of education in America

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Photo by 123RF

The history and evolution of education in America

Pearson Pathways

A brief history of education in America

When you hear the word “education,” you may think of school. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. There’s formal education, where you learn in a traditional setting with trained experts, and then there’s informal education, where you learn from parents, day care providers, and almost anyone else.

Education in the American Colonies

Education was informal in Colonial America, with teaching largely left to parents. Some early education options included church schools, schools run by traveling schoolmasters or charities, and work apprenticeships. Even when schools did exist, they were mostly for the wealthy. That’s a far cry from the 21st century, when getting a free, public education is a right. So how did the transformation happen?

Education as a tool to unite the country

After the American Revolution, education became a tool to unite the country through standardized spelling and pronunciation, as well as through lessons on patriotism and religion. The Founding Fathers recognized that democracy requires an informed populace, so they set aside federal land for states joining the union under the condition that some of the land go to public schools. Calls for mandatory, free education soon followed.

The legal battles that shaped American education

What Americans learn — and under what conditions — evolved in part because of legal battles. For instance, Brown v. Board of Education ruled in 1954 that segregated schools “are inherently unequal.” In 1962, Engel v. Vitale ruled against school-initiated religious prayers in public schools, and in 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines ruled that students don’t lose access to their First Amendment rights while in school.

The many faces of U.S. schooling

These days, Americans face a cornucopia of educational choices beyond just public versus private. Here’s what you should know about some of the less traditional educational opportunities.

Home schooling

Home schooling isn’t that common, but more families are looking into it. The appeal is more control over what children are learning, more flexibility for families on the move, and the ability to de-emphasize conformity and obedience.

Learning pods and microschools

Small educational communities have grown in popularity amid the pandemic. They prioritize student-led learning and emphasize problem-solving, rather than supplying the answers.

Charter schools

Charter schools are publicly funded and independently run. They accept students on a first-come, first-serve basis, and how they operate depends on the state. They’re increasingly popular: Between 2000 and 2016, charter school enrollment jumped from 400,000 to 3 million. However, critics argue that some charter schools focus too much on earning money and too little on helping children.

Nature preschools

There’s been a big uptick in demand for nature preschools, where kids do things outdoors, such as playing with sticks, digging in dirt, and catching frogs. Proponents say it helps kids with anxiety and encourages them to be creative, engage with ecological systems, and build strength and self-confidence.

The future of education

The U.S. schooling system is continually evolving — finding new and more effective ways to teach millions of young people vital skills such as reading, writing, and critical thinking. From nature preschools to learning pods and charter schools, American education embodies far more than a one-size-fits-all approach. The innovation is paying off, as the average American graduation rate recently hit 85%. Such success is key to creating a better America, because it allows young people to understand their power and potential.

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  1. ACLU, “Your Right to Equality in Education”
  2. The Atlantic, “The Perks of a Play-in-the-Mud Educational Philosophy”
  3. Center on Education Policy, “History and Evolution of Public Education in the US” (PDF)
  4. Harvard Ed. Magazine, “The Battle Over Charter Schools”
  5. Harvard, “What the Future of Education Looks Like From Here”
  6. The New York Times, “In Pandemic’s Wake, Learning Pods and Microschools Take Root”
  7. The New York Times, “The Freedom and Fulfillment of Home-Schooling”
  8. Stacker, “25 Ways American Education Has Changed in the Last Decade”
  9. Today, “The Future of America, According to 7 Teachers”
  10. United States Courts, “Supreme Court Landmarks”
  11. University of Minnesota, “A Brief History of Education in the United States”
  12. The Washington Post, “A Dozen Problems With Charter Schools”


Source of Pearson Pathways


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