10 Things About the History of American Public Education

While a lot of the country is still enjoying the last few weeks of summer vacation, in the Southeast we’re already back in school. We start earlier than a lot of the country and get out earlier too. I’ll talk about why in just a moment. My oldest child started Kindergarten on Wednesday. He’s in love with learning and has really enjoyed school so far. I can only hope his enthusiasm doesn’t wane over the course of the year.

But, with a child in elementary school, my brain has been focused on school-related things lately. Back-to-school shopping (supplies and clothes), Meet the Teacher night, ensuring proper registration for school, etc. In honor of my back-to-school focused brain, this month’s 10 Things post is focused on American Public Education.

Let’s do this.

  1. The reason we start school in the fall in the United States has long been attributed to agrarian needs. However, that’s false–not to mention illogical–and is an excuse the urban elite have been using for decades. Think about it. In farming, there is a lot of work in the spring during planting season and a lot of work in the fall during the harvest. In comparison, summer and winter have moderate amounts of work to be done. Why, then, would farmers send their children to school in the fall and spring? They wouldn’t. And didn’t. Agrarian schools in the early days of public education generally had a summer term and a winter term. However, in densely populated urban areas where summer heat (before the invention of air conditioning) could be stifling, smelly, and dangerous the wealthy would retreat to summer homes outside the city until the weather cooled again. When public education started being federally funded and compulsory, it was decided that all school calendars (both rural and urban) should more or less match up. Guess who won that battle.
  2. As I said in the opening paragraph though, schools in the South often start earlier than those in the North. We start in August and are out before Memorial Day (in late May) whereas the majority of the country starts in September and finishes in mid-to-late June. The South once lined up our start and end dates with the rest of the country, but have changed in the last two decades. The reason? State testing. The South struggles with federally mandated standardized tests–a price paid for racist and classist education policies starting in the Colonial Period and continuing through the Civil Rights Movement–and so by starting earlier, we have more time to prepare for before the testing dates and we end the school year shortly after the testing period ends.
  3. Public school hasn’t always meant free. The first public schools were open to the public–for a comparatively smaller fee than hiring private tutors or paying for boarding school.
  4. The first public schools were connected to specific churches. The objective was to teach children to read so that they might be able to read and better understand the Bible. Moreover, the schools would only admit students who were a part of the specific denomination of the church. Brown University was considered quite progressive and liberal in its early days because, while it was started by Baptists, it would admit young (white) men from other denominations. Women, minorities, or even white men with other religious affiliations–including Catholics–were out of luck.
  5. Until the early 1800s, teachers were overwhelmingly male. The only women who received more than rudimentary education were generally from wealthy families who hired private tutors. They were training their daughters to be better prospective wives for other wealthy men. However, there was a movement in the early part of 19th century that spread the idea that women were much more suited to educating children, even young males, because of their natural maternal instincts. This gave rise to more young girls being admitted to schools, a prevalence of “teaching colleges” where women could specifically study how to be better educators, and new job prospects around the nation.
  6. Home Economics courses are disappearing from most schools, but it was a fight to get them started at all. Women’s groups and charities fought for and funded courses on sewing and mending for young women in public schools. The reasons were two-fold. First, for those young women who would eventually have to find work, this gave them the training necessary to apply for a position as a lady’s maid or other domestic service position. That meant better pay, better working conditions, and better life prospects. Second, some of the young ladies who attended public school institutions were poor and would show up to school in torn or tattered dresses. By teaching them how to sew and mend at school, they were able to better care for themselves and help their families.
  7. School didn’t become compulsory in each state at the same time. Massachusetts was the first state to lead the charge in both compulsory and free public education, as well as the education of women. Other states followed, some more slowly than others. Much of the south, for instance, didn’t make public education mandatory until the early 1900s. Even so, education was only compulsory through the eighth grade. High school attendance became more popular after World War I, and enrollment in secondary schools rose significantly after World War II thanks to the original G.I. Bill that helped pay for military veterans to attend college. Students had a reason to finish high school. They could serve in the armed forces and then the government would pay for them to get a college degree, greatly increasing job prospects and upward mobility. The bill was not limited to men. Women veterans could also claim G. I. Bill benefits. However, only 2% of American veterans of World War II were women. Side Note: The original G.I. Bill expired in 1956, but has revamped and extended time and again. In 1984, the Montgomery G.I. Bill was one of the newest incarnations of the bill. Named for G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery, a congressman from Mississippi and a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, who authored the bill.
  8. When public (and free) education (through 8th grade) became compulsory nation-wide, it didn’t mean there were suddenly Elementary and Middle Schools on every corner. Most schools were one room, one teacher, and all the students within walking distance–generally a five-mile radius from the school.
  9. While Black citizens had to fight for access to education, Native Americans were sometimes ripped from their tribes and families and forced to attend residential schools where they had to learn to dress, speak, and act in an “Anglo-American” style. The argument was that it would make Natives “more civilized” and ease tensions between Whites and Tribal Nations. Spoiler alert: It was a horrendous practice and not-so-shockingly a failure. The first Indian Residential School opened in the mid-1800s and the last one officially closed in 1973 (in the United States. It’s my understanding that some Indian Residential Schools still operated in Canada into the 1990s). The Bureau of Indian Affairs must have had the motto of “If at first we don’t succeed, we’ll keep forcing the same policy down your throats for over a century.”
  10. The official color for public school buses in the United States is “National School Bus Glossy Yellow”. While the name of the official paint color has changed, the yellow hue has been more or less the same since it was agreed upon in 1939 at an education conference funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Yellow with black lettering was voted the standard because it is the easiest to see in the dark of the early morning (more modern research studies have confirmed that you are more likely to notice something yellow in your periphery or in the dark than something red). The first school buses were not all motorized, some were yellow wagons pulled by horses. The design has certainly changed over the decades, but the color has remained the same.

American Public Educations has had its ups and downs. In the early 20th century, we had the highest literacy rate in the world. While that is no longer true, we don’t have to view it as all doom and gloom. I am a product of the public education system, and I hold two bachelor’s degrees from a public (though certainly not free) university. I received a quality education (my penchant for typos and my ongoing war with commas notwithstanding). However, I have also been a teacher in the public school system. Most of the pitfalls we (Americans) face are of our own making. The situation is certainly not hopeless, though the most effective solutions won’t be the most popular ones. And until we have someone in Congress who actually has experience in public education, or–heaven forbid–has a child in the public school system, nobody wants to take on that battle.

But I digress.

This post is for writers, as always. The public education system isn’t a bad idea, nor did it begin with bad intent. But the system has never been perfect. And bad decisions have been made along the way that negatively affected a lot of the population. So when you create a world, even if you design a complete Utopia, remember that just because something is a good idea and meant for the greater good of all, doesn’t mean it won’t face or create challenges. In fact, this could serve as the perfect opportunity to flesh out the implicit biases of your characters. What beliefs do they hold that could keep an altruistic venture from succeeding? How could that cause a rift in their perfect society? How does that affect your main character’s worldview or experience?

Not everybody all at once. Raise your hand.

Class is officially in session.

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