History of American Schools

Franklin Academy, 1837 and 1857, Watkins Woolen Mill State Park, Missouri. Images copyright and courtesy of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

Franklin Academy, Watkins Woolen Mill State Park, circa 1857
Image copyright © and courtesy of the
Missouri Department of Natural Resources

America ’s schooling system was established as early as the 17th century. Its goal was orthodox faith for attending children. Established, influential Puritan clergymen led schools, and they were assisted by colonial settlements and towns in the Thirteen Colonies. This system was supported and accepted until approximately 1830, but the system had deviated from its purpose. Many factors contributed to its decline, including the diminishing power of the clergy, the separation of church and state, the issue of transportation and the population dissemination from concentrated areas. With the population moving westward, families were concerned with “making it”, and likened book learning to aristocratic activity, ruling out advanced schooling for most, and any schooling for some. All of these issues led to funding problems for the small public schools that were in operation.

Dissatisfied with the state of public schools, well to do families enrolled their children in private academies, as public schools carried the stigma of “poor man’s education”. While some families were grateful for the education, with whatever stigma attached, many families eschewed public education, fearing that it would make children unfit for work and manual labor, the life that their parents had known. Educators, realizing the status of public schools in the nation, began reforms.

Simultaneously occurring with many other reforms (e.g. temperance, abolition, world peace, women’s rights, and humane treatment for humans with disabilities), educational reformers touted education reform as a key to achieving other reformations. The common school reformation was led by men who were unhappy with the quality and opportunities for education in their respective areas. They found that elementary education was inadequately fulfilling the two aims of education: 1) to ready children to reap benefits of opportunities, and 2) to prepare children to meet the responsibilities inherent with citizenship of a country striving to be a model of enlightened democratic state, economic well-being, and Christian morality. The town leaders thought that an integrated, common school would foster social order and mutual respect among all children who attended school.