What is the purpose of Public Schools?

Common schools

What is the purpose of Public Schools?

School has in the past and will always affect the shape of the lives of children. Born after centuries of conflict and experiments, public schools have become a staple of American society. The availability of universal public schooling was not included in the Constitution of the United States. During the years when the idea of having public schools available to all children there was great uproar. From the fear of the government raising taxes to unequal rights of women and the life threatening idea of becoming educated for blacks, It was obvious that convict with idea would soon be inevitable. From the revolutionaries of the time to the periods of centuries affected, and the enforcement of teaching of religion; the process of establishing and compulsion of public schooling was a long suffering undertaking to those who so desired to see this, at that time, the dream of universal education come to past.

During early American Independence there were early republic debates about whether there should be a formal school system. This era is better known as the colonial era is defined by the history of European settlers conquest to America from the time of colonization to their incorporation into the United States. As society became more complex during the Protestant reformation, there was a rise in literacy. From the 1600s to the 1700s, large religious latin schools, grammar schools, Dame schools, colonial schools and universities came to formation in the 13 colonies.

One of the things that protestants believed in was that christians should read and comprehend the Bible. Schools origin most often had a religious undertone nature, another purpose of schooling children was for teaching discipline and obedience. Girls were taught domestic skills like cooking, homemaking and sewing. Only the most wealthy had the opportunity to experience higher education. The idea of common schools was then a radical idea. In the 13 colonies of the United States, during the pre-Revolutionary times only the larger towns in New England was required by law to build schools. However, many other places, schools were neither free nor public.

Some parents pulled together fees to send their children to Dame schools where children were given ABCs and short prayers as a curriculum. Many of the Dame school instructors where women who themselves didn’t have much of an education compared to the men at that time. The most common text book was called The Primer which had a strong Protestant religious presence. Some older boys went to grammar schools to learn Mathematics. By the time of the revolutionary war most people were only educated enough to read the local paper and figure their taxes. In 1776 through 1787 America was founded without education systems thus incorporating public schooling was a state issue and the Land Ordinance of 1785, outlined by Thomas Jefferson, enforced townships to set aside land for schools.

Thomas Jefferson’s views also influenced the idea of the need for public school movement. Jefferson obtained only the type of education that the most privileged Americans could obtain at the time. Jefferson strongly believed that regardless of the social class of men, they all deserved equal opportunity to achieve education.  He truly believed that the family that yo were born into should not dictated the success of those who tend to their education and excelled in learning. Although, at the time the thought of women and black having those equal rights was not considered, Virginia assembly men scoffed at the idea of the poor having access to the what was then only known as the elites education. Jefferson continued to push for public education stating that it was essential to democracy.

In 1815, School attendance was not compulsory. According to The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein, schools were organized by town councils, in the rural areas groups of parents/ neighbors, local churches, urban charities. Schools were supported by a mix of tuition and local tax dollars. Two thirds of American children attended one room school house where there was as many as seventy children to one teacher who was usually male. (Goldstein, 2014) The discipline the children faced was very strict. These conditions led to American educator Catherine Beecher and Politician and education reformer Horace Mann to investigate the school systems.

In 1830s Jeffersons dream of public schools began to take root with the help of the newly elected Secretary of Education, Horace Mann. Horace Mann (also known as the father of common schools movement) pushed for common schools and there was a rise of common and the normalization of schools. Mann visited thousands of schools and made reports. Most of the rural district schools were in poor condition and they were often funded by the parents of the children. The learning material was extremely inadequate. Mann concluded what is now known as common schools with learning material that equalized the public schools education. Horace Mann like Jefferson believed that if even the poorest man tend to learning he could achieve the best education. Mann ideas of school reform reflected Jefferson’s vision of making public schools available to the rich and the poor giving them equal opportunity to reach the highest level of education.

By 1840 most of the New York residents were immigrants. Irish catholic children were expected to attend a school in which at the time were very anti catholic. Bishop John led a protest that created a demand where public funding was wanted to be obtained for Catholic School funds. Due to fear of taxes being raised and to avoid all of other sects of religion and christianity wanting the same treatment, more controversy raised over Public school funds. The Bishops concern over the content of the textbooks led to the public schools text books being revised to fit the interests of not only protestant children but also the catholic children. There was also a growing consternation about the growth of immigrants, urbanization and industrialization of America. This added to more need for public school to Americanize immigrants.

Noah Webster was a teacher in Connecticut and author. Webster believe in education being vital to the American Culture so he created Blue Back Speller in the late 1700s that  taught children about the founding fathers. Webster’s Speller establish the American lingo for Americans and immigrants to learn in order to differentiate between the English and American English.

In 1830, the Common School Era was birthed due to the diligence and dedication of the  pioneers during these times in history. The idea of bringing diverse students into the classroom, unifying them while instilling morals and discipline was the primary goal of public education in the Northern states. In 1852, Massachusetts made school compulsory and in 1855 Massachusetts was also the first to desegregate schools which occurred before the Civil War. Around the turn of the century, after the civil war there was a rise in industry where more immigrants flooded into the United States. In 1907 alone over one million newcomers arrived to American soil. This in which increased the movement and urgency to assimilate and Americanize the foreigners. Public Schools became the bridge to freedom that the children’s descendants came to have and are continuously evolving and will continue to be a staple in American culture.

Reference List

Brackemyre, T. (n.d.). Education to the Masses: The Rise of Public Education in Early America. U.S. History Scene [blog post]. Retrieved from http://ushistoryscene.com/article/rise-of-public-education/

Goldstein, D. (2014). The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. New York: Doubleday.

Patton, S. & Mondale, S. (Producers), & Mondale, S. (Director). (2001). School: The Story of American Public Education [Documentary] . United States: Stone Lantern Films. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL00795BC38B4368D4



10 thoughts on “What is the purpose of Public Schools?

  1. It is a travesty that immigrants in this country were and are still are looked upon negatively. The very idea maybe stemmed in the notion that they are “different” than “us”. This contrived idea goes back the colonial era when Anglo Saxon Protestants wanted to spread their way of life. When trying to semanate their closed minded ideas, they thought everyone should be educated the same way. Not being able to think outside the box and their Puritanical way of existence. The role of money also played a large part in segregation of the early American schooling system. Wealthy individuals saw themselves in a different light than they saw the poor. It was like the aristocrats saw themselves apart from the less money inclined. “The poor, the ignorant, the base hold the offices, wealth, and power”. (Goldstein 2014) With this thought Goldstein sees the very truth in that the wealthy ones were at the bottom because of their close mindedness.

    Goldstein, Dana, author.(2014). The teacher wars: a history of America’s most embattled profession. NewYork,

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The way the school system started is upsetting when public education was started to create an equality in learning, but was only usually given to people of money. If it was supposed to be equal for everyone why only give it to the people of wealthy class? The fact that we are still struggling today with equality in America is something that you would think by now we could have gotten together and learned from our past. I can’t agree more with your first statement, despite where it began and what I disagree with schools will always change students lives. School shapes the way students think about thing, act upon things, and see the world.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The idea of Americanizing immigrants is really quite amusing to me because that’s all America is. America was founded on people fleeing religious persecution and wars from all over the globe. The fact that Horace Mann and Thomas Jefferson wanted to create these public schools and teach the populace so that everyone had equal opportunities in life to reach their goals was very ambitious. Everybody had different ideas of how to teach, who should teach, and what should be taught or flat out didn’t think schools were a good idea. Beecher, pushing for more education for women instead of the norm of time which was just learning how to sew and cook, is just one example. That equality that Jefferson and Mann dreamed of, while it has improved leaps and bounds over the years, is definitely not where it should be. Take two students for example, one graduates from Yale University while the other graduates from the University of North Texas, both have the same GPA. Nine times out of ten an employer is going to give the job to Yale because of the repertoire Yale has. Who is to say that Yale teachers and students are better than others?


    1. Leila, you bring up a good point because throughout The Teacher Wars Goldstein (2014) really talks down “non-selective universities” and assumes they’re inferiority. It bothers me throughout the book.


  4. It is interesting to learn that the initial purpose of public schools was to help children learn to read and comprehend the Bible. As capitalistic as our nation is today, it wasn’t the least bit surprising to learn that the purpose of public education shifted from religion to economic gains in such a short period of time after colonization and the revolution.
    One of the quotes that stuck out in my readings was one by Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars (2014) “The U.S, Constitution did not mention education as a right (it still doesn’t) and school attendance was not compulsory.” (pg. 13) I can see how this relates to the fact that the lower class couldn’t afford the kind of education that was available at the time. Education wasn’t seen as a “right” and even though there is free education up until high school, it is hard for even middle-class citizens to afford anything higher than a high school diploma. Today, there is financial aid available for those who want to go beyond a high school diploma, but most of America who are middle class, make too much to receive aid but too little to pay for tuition. What does the average middle class citizen have to do to receive enough money for tuition and books without being told that they make too much to receive financial support?
    I find it so ironic that during industrialization, Americans and our leaders wanted more public schools for the purpose of wanting to Americanize immigrants. Today, it is hard for even legal immigrants to find resources and the money to pay for school.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cathy — European colonists flocked to the U.S. from the very beginning due to both religious persecution AND to make money. And those colonists were generally not against religious persecution, but just that they should be the ones doing it. 😉


  5. What I love about reading these blog posts is the confirmation of the materials we’ve read and learning the history of how education came to be a “fair” necessity that became accessible to all. While we as (future) educators still have a ways to go in improving the public school systems and requirements, it’s great to reflect on the advances we’ve seen. The reasons for going to school have gone from it being a religious requirement to being accessible to all children regardless of their family’s economic status and class. We see, with the history lesson we received in reading this material and watching the videos, that many of our forefathers and historic people weren’t able to become as educated as we are now. They made things happen with little to no opportunity to be exposed to education in the way we are now. This is one of the reasons I’ve become a big advocate on educations. I love to promote education at any age. I firmly believe that education can be obtained at any age; you just have to be willing. Especially in my concentration (Deaf education/interpreting for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing), I love to be able to educate those that may not be afforded all possible factors in regards to their education. Often times, Deaf/Hard of Hearing students are put into mainstreaming education situations (Deaf student in a majority hearing student with an interpreter and other accommodations), and all opportunities aren’t exhausted, leaving the student with no choice but to fall behind, get “help” instead of being taught, etc. So, if education has become so easily accessible, why not make it easily accessible for all types of learners/students?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I find it interesting that people of the 13 colonies who are immigrants themselves felt the need to separate themselves, new immigrants and black people when it came to public schooling. The colonists had the opportunity to go to the best schools, with very well educated teachers. They had better resources, curriculum, and a learning environment where they could flourish. While blacks were forced to go to schools that were supposed to be equal to the learning of the privileged school, but were inadequate for the proper advancement in academics. I believe this was done to keep blacks from progressing because they wanted them to remain in the lower class. I don’t understand why education could not be fair and equal for all, but I am glad advocates like Benjamin Roberts fought against segregation to get his 5-year-old daughter into the Boston school. He took his case to the state legislature and was able to get the state of Massachusetts to integrate their schools. Without people like him enlightening other black people to fight against segregation I would not be able to receive the education I am getting today.

    Patton and Mondale. 2001. School: The Story of the American Public Education. The Common School: 1770-1890. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL00795BC38B4368D4


  7. Jefferson and Mann laid the ground work for equality in public schools today. They pioneered the ideas that education should be equal for both rich and poor. Their ideas took some time to take effect however, and I still think that traces of the “old” system can be seen. For example, private schools typically are seen as better in the education system that most public schools. Private schools cost money to attend, thus poorer students cannot receive privatized education. Even within the public school system there are schools in low-income districts that have less resources that schools in the better economic areas. It seems that even though public schools are standardized, economic status still plays a huge role in education. Horace Mann traveled to rural areas to do his studies. Some of the rural areas in America today, still are under-funded and the learning material is less adequate. In the eyes of the Jefferson and Mann, all students should receive equal opportunity through the public school system. We’ve achieved free and equal schooling, so why are some schools still better than others?


  8. In reading your article two things stand out. One of the purposes of public schools in the 19th century was to Americanize new immigrants coming to this country. The fear that these new immigrants had different cultures saw an increase in public schools. It differs from our view today that although you do need to learn the language and customs, we are moving to a more tolerant view and welcome immigrants to keep their customs. It make us diverse and adds to the uniqueness of this country.
    Another thing that stood out was Horace Mann, Catharine Beecher and Thomas Jefferson’s view on the family you are born to should not dictate the success of those who want to learn and better themselves. By allowing all regardless of your social class to be educated, this country progressed and continued in the philosophy it was founded on. Because of these ideals everyone has the opportunity to succeed. For that I am truly grateful because I am an immigrant myself. My fate was being sealed by people who were innovative and great visionaries.


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