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Education in the United States of America
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Role of Education

The United States has one of the most extensive and diverse educational systems in the world. Educational institutions exist at all learning levels, from nursery schools for the very young to higher education for older youths and adults of all ages. Education in the United States is notable for the many goals it aspires to accomplish—promoting democracy, assimilation, nationalism, equality of opportunity, and personal development. Because Americans have historically insisted that their schools work toward these sometimes-conflicting goals, education has often been the focus of social conflict. j4x12xy
While schools are expected to achieve many social objectives, education in America is neither centrally administered nor supported directly by the federal government, unlike education in other industrialized countries. In the United States, each state is responsible for providing schooling, which is funded through local taxes and governed by local school boards. In addition to these government-funded public schools, the United States has many schools that are privately financed and maintained. More than 10 percent of all elementary and secondary students in the United States attend private schools. Religious groups, especially the Roman Catholic Church, run many of these. Many of America's most renowned universities and colleges are also privately endowed and run. As a result, although American education is expected to provide equality of opportunity, it is not easily directed toward these goals. This complex enterprise, once one of the proudest achievements of American democracy because of its diversity and inclusiveness, became the subject of intense debate and criticism during the second half of the 20th century. People debated the goals of schools as well as whether schools were educating students well enough.

History of Education in America

Until the 1830s, most American children attended school irregularly, and most schools were either run privately or by charities. This irregular system was replaced in the Northeast and Midwest by publicly financed elementary schools, known as common schools. Common schools provided rudimentary instruction in literacy and trained students in citizenship. This democratic ideal expanded after the Civil War to all parts of the nation. By the 1880s and 1890s, schools began to expand attendance requirements so that more children and older children attended school regularly. These more rigorous requirements were intended to ensure that all students, including those whose families had immigrated from elsewhere, were integrated into society. In addition, the schools tried to equip children with the more complex skills required in an industrialized urban society.
Education became increasingly important during the 20th century, as America’s sophisticated industrial society demanded a more literate and skilled workforce. In addition, school degrees provided a sought-after means to obtain better-paying and higher-status jobs. Schools were the one American institution that could provide the literate skills and work habits necessary for Americans of all backgrounds to compete in industries. As a result, education expanded rapidly. In the first decades of the 20th century, mandatory education laws required children to complete grade school. By the end of the 20th century, many states required children to attend school until they were at least 16. In 1960, 45 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college; by 1996 that enrollment rate had risen to 65 percent. By the late 20th century, an advanced education was necessary for success in the globally competitive and technologically advanced modern economy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, workers with a bachelor’s degree in 1997 earned an average of $40,000 annually, while those with a high school degree earned about $23,000. Those who did not complete high school earned about $16,000.
In the United States, higher education is widely available and obtainable through thousands of private, religious, and state-run institutions, which offer advanced professional, scientific, and other training programs that enable students to become proficient in diverse subjects. Colleges vary in cost and level of prestige. Many of the oldest and most famous colleges on the East Coast are expensive and set extremely high admissions standards. Large state universities are less difficult to enter, and their fees are substantially lower. Other types of institutions include state universities that provide engineering, teaching, and agriculture degrees; private universities and small privately endowed colleges; religious colleges and universities; and community and junior colleges that offer part-time and two-year degree programs. This complex and diverse range of schools has made American higher education the envy of other countries and one of the nation’s greatest assets in creating and maintaining a technologically advanced society.
When more people began to attend college, there were a number of repercussions. Going to college delayed maturity and independence for many Americans, extending many of the stresses of adolescence into a person’s 20s and postponing the rites of adulthood, such as marriage and childbearing. As society paid more attention to education, it also devoted a greater proportion of its resources to it. Local communities were required to spend more money on schools and teachers, while colleges and universities were driven to expand their facilities and course offerings to accommodate an ever-growing student body. Parents were also expected to support their children longer and to forgo their children's contribution to the household.


Education is an enormous investment that requires contributions from many sources. American higher education is especially expensive, with its heavy investment in laboratory space and research equipment. It receives funding from private individuals, foundations, and corporations. Many private universities have large endowments, or funds that sustain the institutions beyond what students pay in tuition and fees. Many, such as Harvard University in Massachusetts and Stanford University in California, raise large sums of money through fund drives. Even many state-funded universities seek funds from private sources to augment their budgets. Most major state universities, such as those in Michigan and California, now rely on a mixture of state and private resources.
Before World War II, the federal government generally played a minor role in financing education, with the exception of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. These acts granted the states public lands that could be sold for the purpose of establishing and maintaining institutions of higher education. Many so-called land-grant state universities were founded during the 19th century as a result of this funding. Today, land-grant colleges include some of the nation’s premier state universities. The government also provided some funding for basic research at universities.
The American experience in World War II (especially the success of the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb) made clear that scientific and technical advances, as well as human resources, were essential to national security. As a result, the federal government became increasingly involved in education at all levels and substantially expanded funding for universities. The federal government began to provide substantial amounts of money for university research programs through agencies such as the National Science Foundation, and later through the National Institutes of Health and the departments of Energy and Defense. At the same time, the government began to focus on providing equal educational opportunities for all Americans. Beginning with the GI Bill, which financed educational programs for veterans, and later in the form of fellowships and direct student loans in the 1960s, more and more Americans were able to attend colleges and universities.
During the 1960s the federal government also began to play more of a role in education at lower levels. The Great Society programs of President Lyndon Johnson developed many new educational initiatives to assist poor children and to compensate for disadvantage. Federal money was funneled through educational institutions to establish programs such as Head Start, which provides early childhood education to disadvantaged children. Some Americans, however, resisted the federal government’s increased presence in education, which they believed contradicted the long tradition of state-sponsored public schooling.
By the 1980s many public schools were receiving federal subsidies for textbooks, transportation, breakfast and lunch programs, and services for students with disabilities. This funding enriched schools across the country, especially inner-city schools, and affected the lives of millions of schoolchildren. Although federal funding increased, as did federal supervision, to guarantee an equitable distribution of funds, the government did not exercise direct control over the academic programs schools offered or over decisions about academic issues. During the 1990s, the administration of president Bill Clinton urged the federal government to move further in exercising leadership by establishing academic standards for public schools across the country and to evaluate schools through testing.

Concerns in Elementary Education

The United States has historically contended with the challenges that come with being a nation of immigrants. Schools are often responsible for modifying educational offerings to accommodate immigrants. Early schools reflected many differences among students and their families but were also a mechanism by which to overcome these differences and to forge a sense of American commonality. Common schools, or publicly financed elementary schools, were first introduced in the mid-19th century in the hopes of creating a common bond among a diverse citizenship. By the early 20th century, massive immigration from Europe caused schools to restructure and expand their programs to more effectively incorporate immigrant children into society. High schools began to include technical, business, and vocational curricula to accommodate the various goals of its more diverse population. The United States continues to be concerned about how to incorporate immigrant groups.
The language in which students are taught is one of the most significant issues for schools. Many Americans have become concerned about how best to educate students who are new to the English language and to American culture. As children of all ages and from dozens of language backgrounds seek an education, most schools have adopted some variety of bilingual instruction. Students are taught in their native language until their knowledge of English improves, which is often accomplished through an English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Some people have criticized these bilingual programs for not encouraging students to learn English more quickly, or at all. Some Americans fear that English will no longer provide a uniform basis for American identity; others worry that immigrant children will have a hard time finding employment if they do not become fluent in English. In response to these criticisms, voters in California, the state that has seen the largest influx of recent immigrants, passed a law in 1998 requiring that all children attending public schools be taught in English and prohibiting more than one year of bilingual instruction.
Many Americans, including parents and business leaders, are also alarmed by what they see as inadequate levels of student achievement in subjects such as reading, mathematics, and science. On many standardized tests, American students lag behind their counterparts in Europe and Asia. In response, some Americans have urged the adoption of national standards by which individual schools can be evaluated. Some have supported more rigorous teacher competency standards. Another response that became popular in the 1990s is the creation of charter schools. These schools are directly authorized by the state and receive public funding, but they operate largely outside the control of local school districts. Parents and teachers enforce self-defined standards for these charter schools.
Schools are also working to incorporate computers into classrooms. The need for computer literacy in the 21st century has put an additional strain on school budgets and local resources. Schools have struggled to catch up by providing computer equipment and instruction and by making Internet connections available. Some companies, including Apple Computer Inc., have provided computer equipment to help schools meet their student’s computer-education needs.

Concerns in Higher Education

Throughout the 20th century, Americans have attended schools to obtain the economic and social rewards that come with highly technical or skilled work and advanced degrees. However, as the United States became more diverse, people debated how to include different groups, such as women and minorities, into higher education. Blacks have historically been excluded from many white institutions, or were made to feel unwelcome. Since the 19th century, a number of black colleges have existed to compensate for this broad social bias, including federally chartered and funded Howard University. In the early 20th century, when Jews and other Eastern Europeans began to apply to universities, some of the most prestigious colleges imposed quotas limiting their numbers.
Americans tried various means to eliminate the most egregious forms of discrimination. In the early part of the century, "objective" admissions tests were introduced to counteract the bias in admissions. Some educators now view admissions tests such as the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), originally created to simplify admissions testing for prestigious private schools, as disadvantageous to women and minorities. Critics of the SAT believed the test did not adequately account for differences in social and economic background. Whenever something as subjective as ability or merit is evaluated, and when the rewards are potentially great, people hotly debate the best means to fairly evaluate these criteria.
Until the middle of the 20th century, most educational issues in the United States were handled locally. After World War II, however, the federal government began to assume a new obligation to assure equality in educational opportunity, and this issue began to affect college admissions standards. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the government increased its role in questions relating to how all Americans could best secure equal access to education.

Schools had problems providing equal opportunities for all because quality, costs, and admissions criteria varied greatly. To deal with these problems, the federal government introduced the policy of affirmative action in education in the early 1970s. Affirmative action required that colleges and universities take race, ethnicity, and gender into account in admissions to provide extra consideration to those who have historically faced discrimination. It was intended to assure that Americans of all backgrounds have an opportunity to train for professions in fields such as medicine, law, education, and business administration.
Affirmative action became a general social commitment during the last quarter of the 20th century. In education, it meant that universities and colleges gave extra advantages and opportunities to blacks, Native Americans, women, and other groups that were generally underrepresented at the highest levels of business and in other professions. Affirmative action also included financial assistance to members of minorities who could not otherwise afford to attend colleges and universities. Affirmative action has allowed many minority members to achieve new prominence and success.
At the end of the 20th century, the policy of affirmative action was criticized as unfair to those who were denied admission in order to admit those in designated group categories. Some considered affirmative action policies a form of reverse discrimination, some believed that special policies were no longer necessary, and others believed that only some groups should qualify (such as African Americans because of the nation’s long history of slavery and segregation). The issue became a matter of serious discussion and is one of the most highly charged topics in education today. In the 1990s three states—Texas, California, and Washington—eliminated affirmative action in their state university admissions policies.
Several other issues have become troubling to higher education. Because tuition costs have risen to very high levels, many smaller private colleges and universities are struggling to attract students. Many students and their parents choose state universities where costs are much lower. The decline in federal research funds has also caused financial difficulties to many universities. Many well-educated students, including those with doctoral degrees, have found it difficult to find and keep permanent academic jobs, as schools seek to lower costs by hiring part-time and temporary faculty. As a result, despite its great strengths and its history of great variety, the expense of American higher education may mean serious changes in the future.
Education is fundamental to American culture in more ways than providing literacy and job skills. Educational institutions are the setting where scholars interpret and pass on the meaning of the American experience. They analyze what America is as a society by interpreting the nation’s past and defining objectives for the future. That information eventually forms the basis for what children learn from teachers, textbooks, and curricula. Thus, the work of educational institutions is far more important than even job training, although this is usually foremost in people’s minds.

Public Education in the United States, programs of instruction offered to children, adolescents, and adults in the United States through schools and colleges operated by state and local governments. Unlike the nationally regulated and financed education systems of many other industrialized societies, American public education is primarily the responsibility of the states and individual school districts.
The national system of formal education in the United States developed in the 19th century. It differed from education systems of other Western societies in three fundamental aspects. First, Americans were more inclined to regard education as a solution to various social problems. Second, because they had this confidence in the power of education, Americans provided more years of schooling for a larger percentage of the population than other countries. Third, educational institutions were primarily governed by local authorities rather than by federal ones.
The most notable characteristic of the American education system is the large number of people it serves. In 1995, 87 percent of Americans between age 25 and 29 had graduated from high school. Among those who had completed high school, 62 percent had completed at least some college, and 28 percent had earned at least a bachelor’s degree. Expanding access to college education is an important priority for the U.S. government. In his 1997 State of the Union address U.S. president Bill Clinton called for the creation of new public policy to enable virtually every high school graduate to receive some form of college education.
After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the founders of the United States argued that education was essential for the prosperity and survival of the new nation. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, proposed that Americans give a high priority to a “crusade against ignorance”. Jefferson was the first American leader to suggest creating a system of free schools for all persons that would be publicly supported through taxes. In 1779 he proposed an education plan that would have supported free schooling for all children in the state of Virginia for three years. The best students from this group would continue in school at public expense through adolescence. The most advanced of these students would go on to publicly funded colleges. Jefferson’s proposal was never enacted and his idea of selecting the best and brightest students for special advantage failed to gain widespread support. However, Jefferson’s plans for universal education and for publicly funded schools formed the basis of education systems developed in the 19th century.
Until the 1840s American education was not a system at all, but a disjointed collection of local, regional, and usually private institutions. The extent of schooling and the type of education available depended on the resources and values of the particular town or city, on the activities of religious groups seeking to further their ends through schools and colleges, and on many other private groups—such as philanthropic associations and trade organizations—that created different types of schools for different reasons. Most institutions only provided educational opportunities for boys from wealthy families. Public governing bodies were rarely involved in the financing or control of schools.
Elementary Education and the Common-School Movement

The American school system originated in the 1830s and 1840s, when a new generation of education reformers attacked the tradition of disjointed and localized education. Prominent American educators, such as Horace Mann in Massachusetts and Henry Barnard in Connecticut, sought to increase educational opportunity for all children by creating the common-school movement. In 1837 Mann became secretary of the board of education in Massachusetts and supervised the creation of a statewide common-school system. Barnard led similar efforts in Connecticut where he became superintendent of common schools in 1849. The term common meant several things to these educators. Their reform efforts focused on elementary education, on the idea that all young children should be schooled, and on the notion that the content of education should be the same for everyone.
The common-school reformers optimistically argued that education could transform all youth into virtuous, literate citizens. They suggested that education could build a distinctive new nation that would be better equipped to compete with other countries. They appealed to people’s fears about growing economic and religious tensions in the United States as immigration of various ethnic groups increased. The reformers believed that common schooling could create common bonds among an increasingly diverse population. It could also preserve social stability and prevent crime and poverty. Common-school advocates contended that free elementary education should be available to everyone, that it should be financed by public funds, and that it should be conducted in schools accountable not only to local school boards but to state governments. They also argued for the establishment of compulsory school attendance laws for children of elementary school age.
By the end of the 19th century the reformers had largely achieved their objective. Free public education at the elementary level was available for all American children. Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852, followed by New York in 1853. By 1918 all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school.
Not everyone accepted publicly funded and controlled schools as the only way to provide education. The most significant opposition came from members of the Roman Catholic Church, who believed that the moral values taught in public schools were biased toward Protestantism. Arguing that proper education could not separate intellectual development from moral development, Catholics created their own separate school system. In 1925 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that states could not compel children to attend public schools, and that children could attend private schools instead. In 1994, 11 percent of American students in elementary and secondary schools attended private institutions. Most of these attended Catholic schools.

Secondary Schools

Before the 20th century, a bewildering variety of schools existed for the small number of teenagers who had the ability or the desire to pursue education beyond the elementary level. These schools offered students opportunities to prepare for college, or to learn a complex skill instead of competing for one of the rapidly decreasing number of on-the-job apprenticeships. Only a relatively small number of teenagers had the ability or desire to pursue secondary education. In 1900 only 10 percent of American adolescents aged 14 to 17 were enrolled in high schools. Most of these students were from affluent families.
The first publicly supported secondary school in the United States was Boston Latin School, founded in 1635. But until the late 19th century private tutors or privately supported academies mostly conducted secondary education. Public financing for secondary education was rare until 1874, when a Michigan Supreme Court decision involving the city of Kalamazoo established that communities could use local property taxes to support high schools.
The rise in American high school attendance was one of the most striking developments in U.S. education during the 20th century. From 1900 to 1996 the percentage of teenagers who graduated from high school increased from about 6 percent to about 85 percent. High school attendance grew because more and more students regarded additional schooling as the key to succeeding in an increasingly urban and industrialized society. In addition, after the introduction of strict child labor laws in the early 20th century, fewer teenagers entered the workforce than they had previously, which gave them the time to attend school. School provided teenagers with an acceptable alternative to labor that gave meaning to their lives before they entered the workforce, established a family, or began college. As the 20th century progressed, most states enacted legislation extending compulsory education laws to the age of 16. Most students found it more enjoyable—and more profitable in the long run—to stay in school beyond the legal limits than to leave, or drop out, before graduating.
The 20th century high school was a uniquely American invention. More than elementary schools or colleges, high schools demonstrated the American faith that schooling could successfully address a lengthening list of individual and social concerns. High schools provided supervision and a place for youth to experience adolescence with friends. They also sought to give students education to meet the practical demands of everyday life, to get a job, or to go on to more education. By “Americanizing” immigrants into mainstream political and social values, public high schools worked to accomplish for adolescents what the common elementary school had always attempted for younger students. High schools thus embodied the sometimes-contradictory values of educating students to fit into American society while providing opportunities for them to break out from whatever social or economic circumstances constrained their development.

Higher Education

During the 20th century participation in higher or postsecondary education in the United States has increased as dramatically as it has in American high schools. At the beginning of the century about 2 percent of Americans from the ages of 18 to 24 were enrolled in a college. There were fewer than 1000 colleges then, with enrollment totaling about 157,000 students. Near the end of the century more than 60 percent of this age group, or over 14 million students, were enrolled in about 3500 four-year and two-year colleges. This tremendous increase does not even include the 6500 postsecondary vocational and technical institutes that enroll millions of additional students but do not give bachelor’s or associate degrees.

Religious convictions motivated the founding of the earliest American colleges, such as Harvard (1636), College of William and Mary (1693), and Yale (1701). In the 19th century rivalry among Protestant denominations, and competition among towns seeking a commercial edge over their rivals, were responsible for the creation of hundreds of colleges. Almost all were privately supported, and many failed to survive. Nevertheless, 573 colleges existed in the United States in 1870, a testament to civic and religious support and to the faith of Americans in the power of schooling.
Unlike in elementary and secondary education, where public support and control of schools soon became the norm, public institutions never dominated college and university education. Unlike the religious controversy surrounding elementary and secondary schools, the religious origins of many private colleges were never seen as a threat to mainstream values. Government officials also believed colleges served broad public purposes, such as the training of physicians or engineers. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 provided federal financial support to state universities. The acts also led to the establishment of many new land-grant colleges and state universities through gifts of federal land to the states for the support of higher education.
By the end of the 19th century scientific and scholarly research flourished at both private and public universities. Commercial and practical uses of knowledge, especially in agriculture and engineering, created powerful incentives for states to increase financial support for their public universities. In addition, the numbers of students attending college increased dramatically after World War II ended in 1945, which further pressed states and municipalities to expand opportunities for publicly funded postsecondary education. Federal financial aid for students provided by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944—also known as the GI Bill—stimulated this surge in college enrollment following the war.

Tension Between Localism and Centralization

Individual states—rather than the federal government—have primary authority over public education in the United States. In 1794 New York became the first state to establish a board of regents to oversee public education. Eventually, every state developed a department of education and enacted laws regulating finance, the hiring of school personnel, student attendance, and often curriculum. Until the 20th century the degree of regulation varied enormously from state to state.

Traditions of Localism

In general, however, states have delegated control over public education matters to local districts, with the exception of licensing requirements and general rules concerning health and safety. Public schools have also relied heavily on local property taxes to meet the vast majority of school expenses. American schools have thus tended to reflect the educational values and financial capabilities of the communities in which they are located. When students move from one community to another, they often encounter entirely different curriculums even though they are in the same grade. Even within a given school district, different neighborhoods often contain very different public schools.
In contrast, countries like France, Germany, and Japan have school systems that are financed and regulated on the national level. This has allowed them to maintain a relatively uniform school environment throughout their respective countries, regardless of the values and economies of local communities. They have also accomplished this partly by mandating highly competitive standardized examinations. These exams usually have direct consequences for the students who take them, often by permitting or denying access to higher education or positions of employment.

Centralizing Tendencies

As greater numbers of Americans enrolled in schools during the 20th century, education became a powerful social and economic force. Efforts to increase the size and efficiency of public schools led to the creation of more centralized school systems. To bring order and efficiency to school systems, American educators had already developed standardized mechanisms of school organization by the end of the 19th century. For example, class placement was determined by a student’s age, each class period was a specified length, and students graduated after a specified number of years in attendance.
Schools also became more centrally organized as education developed into a highly structured profession with a streamlined chain of administrative command. For example, in the late 19th century the position of the school superintendent increased in power and influence. The first public school superintendent began directing the Buffalo, New York, school system in 1837. By 1900 the superintendent had replaced the school principal as the most influential and highest paid figure in public elementary and secondary education.
Also by 1900 specialized teacher training institutions called normal schools were well established, and many had already become four-year degree-granting colleges. Institutions that provided training for teachers developed expertise that often led to standardized practices, ranging from notions about the ideal size of elementary classrooms to the ideal form of a lesson plan. As education became a bigger and more lucrative enterprise, mass-market textbook publishing companies and testing organizations made significant profits by producing materials used in schools throughout the country.

Increased State Involvement

As the 20th century progressed most states assumed a more active regulatory role than in the past. States consolidated school districts into larger units with common procedures. In 1940 there were over 117,000 school districts in the United States, but by 1990 the number had decreased to just over 15,000. The states also became much more responsible for financing education. They helped fund the rapid expansion of state postsecondary institutions after World War II. They sometimes supported efforts to equalize local school district expenditures by using state funds and state laws to ensure more equitable per pupil expenditures regardless of the wealth or poverty of individual districts. In 1940 local property taxes financed 68 percent of public school expenses, while the states contributed 30 percent. In 1990 local districts and states each contributed 47 percent to public school revenues. The federal government provided most of the remaining funds.
During the 1980s and 1990s, virtually all states have given unprecedented attention to their role in raising education standards. Much of the initiative for greater state involvement in education stemmed from the publication of a report by a federal commission in 1983 that indicated low academic achievement in American schools. This report, entitled A Nation at Risk, presented statistics suggesting that American students were outperformed on international academic tests by students from other industrial societies. Statistics also suggested that American test scores were declining over time. Many parents, educators, and government officials believed that only a concerted, centralized reform effort could overcome these apparent shortcomings of American education. Because the perceived crisis in student performance was based largely on test-score results, most states have implemented reform strategies that emphasize more frequent testing conducted by states, more effective state testing, and more state-mandated curriculum requirements. Some educators have also proposed the introduction of “high-stakes” examinations, in which performance on the examination would have a significant impact on the individual taking the test. Results on a high stakes examination might either permit or restrict a student’s access to higher education or the job market. Despite widespread support for such examinations, few states have introduced them.

Increased Federal Involvement

Although educational authority resides ultimately with the states, the federal government has long encouraged and assisted specific educational activities that it considers to be in the national interest. The federal government’s activities in the field of education have further centralized American schooling. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, for example, helped create vocational programs in high schools, and the GI Bill of 1944 was the first important federal effort to provide financial aid for military veterans to attend college. In addition, federal civil rights laws require all schools and colleges to conform to national standards of educational equality.
The federal commitment to improve and finance public schools expanded enormously when Congress passed the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. In these two landmark statutes, Congress addressed for the first time such broad problems as expanding educational opportunity for poor children and improving instruction in pivotal but usually neglected subjects, such as science, mathematics, and foreign languages. In addition, these laws strengthened many large universities by providing federal funds for research. They also supported students attending private colleges by providing federal support for financial aid. Because this assistance came from federal sources rather than from state or local governments, it increased centralized control of American education.
Federal involvement in schools since the 1980s has been expressed less by legislation providing money for new programs than by government reports and proclamations that schools were performing insufficiently. A Nation at Risk and many subsequent federal reports and studies on the condition of schooling sparked a vigorous school reform effort at local and state levels. But aside from espousing ambitious national education goals, the federal government has been far less active in shaping education legislation during the 1980s and 1990s than it had been in the 1960s and 1970s.

Education and Equality

Despite the fact that American education has provided unprecedented educational opportunities, some groups of Americans have benefited from the system more than others. Especially since the 1950s, public policy toward education has sought to provide greater equity—that is, equality of educational opportunity for all Americans. Policymakers have attempted to eliminate various forms of discrimination in schools even more than they have addressed issues of educational quality or standards. Most federal intervention into the educational practices of local school relates to issues of equal educational opportunity.

Racial Equality

During the 1950s segregation by race in public and private schools was still common in the United States. In the American South separate schools for African Americans and whites were sanctioned by state laws that had been upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In the North no such laws existed, but racial segregation was common in schools located in segregated neighborhoods and in school districts where school boards deliberately drew boundaries to ensure racial separation. Segregation usually resulted in inferior education for blacks, whether in the North or the South. Average public expenditures for white schools routinely exceeded expenditures for black schools. Teachers in white schools generally received higher pay than did teachers in black schools, and facilities in most white schools were far superior to facilities in most black schools.
In 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, thus reversing the position it had held since 1896. Despite vigorous resistance for many years by many southern states, by 1980 the federal courts had largely succeeded in eliminating the system of legalized segregation in southern schools.
Most black Americans, however, lived in northern cities. In cities where intentional segregation was proven to exist, such as Boston, the federal courts ordered redrawing of neighborhood school district lines. The courts sometimes also ordered busing of students from one neighborhood to another to achieve racial balance in each school. In higher education, federal law mandated affirmative action programs to ensure that colleges admit more racial minority students and hire more faculty members.

Despite the use of judicial power to achieve desegregation and the presumed equality of educational opportunity it promised, many schools in the United States remained highly divided along racial lines. Many whites and middle class blacks had moved out of central cities by the 1970s, leaving poor blacks and rising populations of Hispanic Americans to attend urban schools. The courts generally refused to sanction metropolitan busing plans—those that require busing across district lines between city and suburb—as a tool to achieve racial integration. Nor did the courts mandate that affirmative action produce the same level of results that had been achieved through the introduction of racial quotas for institutions of higher education.
Most federally mandated desegregation efforts have been aimed at increasing educational achievement among African American students. However, many educators cite continued inequality in educational opportunities for Hispanic American students. Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in American schools, increasing from 6 percent of the enrollment in public schools in 1972 to 12 percent in 1993. In 1996 a report issued by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans indicated that a disproportionate number of Hispanic American students attend predominantly non-white schools and schools that lack adequate educational resources. Educational achievement is also lower for Hispanic students than for white students. In 1992 the dropout rate among Hispanic students was 12 percent, while for white students it was 5 percent. Income gaps and language barriers between many Hispanics and non-Hispanics further complicate efforts to achieve educational equality for Hispanic students.

Gender Equality

Discrimination against women and girls has been as pervasive in American schools as discrimination based on race. Laws in the 19th century required states to provide equal educational opportunity for both boys and girls. Most public schools were coeducational, yet many teachers subtly but firmly suggested to girls that a woman’s place was mainly in the home rather than in secondary schools, colleges, or professions—unless the intended career was school teaching. Educators first encouraged broader views of women’s life possibilities in all-girls schools and, especially, women’s colleges. During the mid-19th century female education reformers, including Catharine Esther Beecher, Emma Willard, and Mary Lyon, established women’s academies that provided female students with secondary and sometimes college-level instruction and offered subjects that educators previously considered unnecessary for women, such as mathematics, science, and history. The first coeducational college was Oberlin College (founded in 1833), the first enduring all-women’s college was Vassar College (1861), and the first graduate school for women was at Bryn Mawr College (1880).
With the expansion of the American school system in the early 20th century, a huge demand for elementary and secondary schoolteachers encouraged large numbers of women to participate in higher education to gain teaching credentials. Even then, social expectations for women to remain in domestic roles, as well as male discrimination against women, often closed career doors to well-educated women. These barriers only began to lower when the women’s rights movement gained power during the 1960s. Title IX of the 1972 federal Education Amendments prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that received federal aid. This legislation began to remove perhaps the most visible symbol of discrimination against women in schools and colleges—the scarcity of athletic opportunities for women compared with those available to men.

Special Programs

Many educators and some political leaders have increasingly viewed mere access to a school and its offerings as an inadequate solution to the problem of educational inequality. Especially since the 1960s, education reformers have argued that special programs and resources were essential to guarantee genuine equality of education to disadvantaged youth. Title I (later called Chapter I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided federal funds for supplementary education programs targeted toward poor and black children. Most of these funds were spent on young children, according to a prevailing theory that educational disadvantages could best be eliminated at an early age, before their effects had become more difficult to reverse. The federal Head Start program, established in 1965, created special education programs for preschoolers and remains one of the most admired achievements of the War on Poverty programs of the 1960s.
The federal government has also provided financial assistance for educational programs for other disadvantaged groups. The Bilingual Education Act, part of the 1967 amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, authorized federal funds for school districts having substantial numbers of students with limited mastery of English. Estimates of the number of students in the United States with limited mastery of English range from 2.5 to 4.6 million, or from 7 to 10 percent of the U.S. student population.
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 mandated individualized instructional programs for students with disabilities. It also called for placing such students, whenever possible, in regular classrooms rather than separating them from mainstream students. In 1994 the U.S. Department of Education reported that 6.6 percent of all Americans below age 21 received special education services.

Contemporary Issues

Today, formal education serves a greater percentage of the U.S. population than at any time in history. It has also assumed many of the responsibilities formerly reserved for family, religion, and social organizations. Most Americans expect schools to provide children with skills, values, and behaviors that will help them become responsible citizens, contribute to social stability in the country, and increase American economic productivity. The federal government also requires schools to correct social inequality among students of different racial, ethnic, social, or economic backgrounds.
Although the objectives assumed by formal education increased dramatically during the 20th century, the format and techniques of American schooling have remained, for the most part, quite stable and resistant to change. Despite occasional experiments—such as the introduction of movable rather than fixed desks, team teaching, and ungraded courses—the practice of teaching and the process of learning in 1900 closely resembled that of today. Students took courses; classes consisted of groups of 20 to 30 students with a teacher at the front of the room; instruction proceeded by lecture, demonstration, discussion, or silent work at a desk; and teachers often assigned homework for the students to complete after class.
However, some aspects of teaching have changed. The influence of modern psychology and of education reformers such as John Dewey caused schools to become less formal, more relaxed, and somewhat more centered on the individual child rather than on the institution or the society. School facilities improved for most students, except perhaps in the inner cities. More money was spent on education, resulting in both a general upgrading of teacher salaries and improvements in programs that focus on specific kinds of students, such as special education. Spending on students in public elementary and secondary schools increased from $961 per pupil in 1940 (adjusted for inflation to 1990 dollars) to $5526 per pupil in 1990.

Educational Technology

Many technological innovations of the 20th century have promised breakthroughs in the methods and effectiveness of teaching. Some of the most promising innovations included filmstrips and motion pictures, teaching machines (mechanical devices that present systematic instruction to students), and programmed instruction (instruction delivered in a graded sequence of steps, usually by means of a computer or other device). But the promise generated by much of this new technology proved illusory, and most changes in teaching methods became nothing more than short-lived fads.
Two very different technologies, however, may have far greater effects on educational practice than their predecessors. The revolution in computer and communications technology holds out hope that all students will connect with more information and more people than ever before, and that learning might become more individualized. The other promising technological advance is in biochemistry and genetic engineering. Innovations in these fields suggest that certain barriers to learning, such as short attention spans or faulty memories, might one day be reduced by means other than the traditional reliance on sheer effort alone. For example, medical researchers conduct studies on the brain and central nervous system in hopes of discovering ways to enhance memory and intelligence.

Extended Schooling

Educational institutions in the United States are increasingly offering schooling opportunities to people both much younger and much older than the traditional school-age population. For example, the percentage of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschools increased from 15 percent in 1971 to 34 percent in 1993. This rise of early schooling parallels the increase in single parent households and households in which both parents have careers.
Enrollment has similarly increased in adult education programs, which are usually defined as part-time study not directed toward a degree. Adult education programs vary substantially. Millions of adults enroll in such programs for job-related reasons, often because companies provide incentives for employees to upgrade skills through training. Many adults also attend school to pursue personal interests and hobbies. A growing number of older and relatively affluent people has created a new market for travel, reading, and other kinds of self-development. Many institutions of higher education have developed part-time, evening, and summer programs to tap the nontraditional adult market more aggressively.

Education Outside of Schools

Education occurs not only in schools and colleges but also in many other settings, directly and indirectly, intentionally and unintentionally. Since the 1980s, education policymakers and reformers have given greater attention and funding to improve the quality of education in nonschool settings. For example, educators view the family as perhaps the most powerful educational force, and schools have increased education programs designed specifically for parents. Museums have also given greater attention to their instructional role, and many museums with an educational purpose have been created specifically for children. During the 1960s the pioneering work of the Children’s Television Workshop, which created “Sesame Street” (1969), was an early demonstration of how television could advance rather than retard educational values. The proportion of government funds spent on education in nonschool settings is likely to continue to increase.

The School Reform Movement

Reform efforts in the 1980s and 1990s have been characterized by an unprecedented effort to improve both academic standards and equality of opportunity in public schools, especially in high schools. Unlike reform movements in the 1960s and 1970s, most recent initiatives now come from states rather than from the federal government. States often mandate curriculum and testing programs whether local districts want them or not.
Some members of the school reform movement believe that too little power exists at the local level. They claim that teachers and schools can increase their effectiveness only by having greater authority over such fundamental matters as curriculum content, teaching methods, and hiring of staff. Supporters of local control over education often support the creation of charter schools, which receive public funds but are free from most restrictions on curriculum, teaching methods, and staff. Other reformers contend that not all local communities have the resources to provide quality education. They argue that to meet goals of equity and excellence, all local districts should meet high educational standards and provide ample school budgets.


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