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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.