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You are here: Home > Teaching Tips for Books You've Purchased > School Tips & Education Articles > US Education History

Major Events in American Education

The American K-12 public schools of today are unique.  Due to the 1965 reform of immigration act the United States has a very diverse population that is being educated, with California leading the way.  The Puritan roots of education believe that everybody should get an education in order to develop their own understanding of God.  There is an increased Federal role in schools, with the latest being the No Child Left Behind legislation.  Along with the facts that the court system is continually changing school policy based on their understanding of the laws passed by state and federal legislation.

Education in the United States started out as a private affair, with Massachusetts leading the way.  Schools were usually religious in nature.  Protestants believe that each individual has their own unique relationship with God, and it is their duty to study the bible to interpret Godís word.  This led to the belief that everybody needs to be educated in order for them to become closer to God.  This led to in 1846, Massachusetts putting in place compulsory schooling.  Schooling in the US initially started with Latin academies, that led to grammar schools, that later led to high schools and a system we have today of Elementary, Middle, and High Schools.  Public Schools under current interpretations of the Constitution have made public schools in the United States very secular.  Sputnik was a shock to the US, and resulted in an increased math and science focus.  Other countries have students take a test, where they are put onto either a vocational or college track.  That no longer exists in the US, since in the past mostly minorities were put on the vocational track.

The racial and sexual mix of schools in the United States has gone through significant changes.  Originally private schools were for rich boys of rich parents (ie white).  Education then spread to the general population, including women.  The Supreme Court in 1954 reversed an earlier ruling that separate but equal was acceptable.  This led to the desegregation of schools.  The 1965 Immigration Reform Act changed significantly the ethnic mix of immigrants, and has had a huge impact on California.  Prior to this, immigration from non-European countries was discriminated against.  In 1962, 8% of the population of California was non-white.  Today it is 53%.  In 2002, English is a second language for 40% of students, and 25% of these were still learning English.

Funding in the United States has changed for public schools from a local affair to a mostly state with some federal funding. In California, the increase in State funding due to Serrano vs. Priest has also led to increased power by the state. This has led to policies being implemented on a statewide basis, with no testing.  Some have had positive impacts, and some negative. Examples include whole word, new math, and class size reduction.  Americanís have this culture that a silver bullet will result in significant positive changes.  This can be positive with an openness for new ideas, it can also be negative when the wrong change is implemented that turns out to be a fad.

The United States K-12 School system is incredibly complex and constantly changing.  California at one time had one of the best K-12 school systems in the US, it is now recovering from being one of the worst.  Individual schools are influenced by many things, including the society, funding, ethnic mix, administration, state requirements, federal requirements, lawsuits, per capita, to name a few.  Significant changes are underway in the school system, the impact of the No Child Left Behind legislation is only beginning to be felt.  Schools in the United States started being religious in nature, and have become secular.  Mainstreaming (due to legislation and court cases) of Special Education students is an area that is changing how districts allocate their money and the class room environment.  Teacher Unions have become very powerful politically and have a significant impact on school policy.

It is hard to predict the future changes in education.  Vouchers will probably happen eventually, which will spur more changes due to the increase in competition.  The aging of America with the retirement of the baby boomers will probably lead to major changes in our culture, that will further impact schools.  Currently schools are built on an industrial model, which treats students as interchangeable.  Does an industrial model still hold true in a society that has become an information based one?

Chronological Chart of major events in American Public Education





Founding of Boston Public Schools

Latin grammar curriculum for boys 8 to 15.  Based on European Schools in a Puritan area.  Schools were to prepare boys for college and the service of God.  Shows heavy influence of religion on schools at the time.  Protestantism believed in education was needed so that individuals could interpret the bible.


Founding of Harvard.  First college in United States.

Started as a school for preparing ministers.  Emphasized the study of classics.  Required students to know Greek and Latin for admittance.


Massachusetts required teaching in all towns over 20 people.

The Massachusetts law did not state who would do the teaching.  The main point was it required all students to learn how to read.  Puritan influence.


American Academy founded by Ben Franklin.

Curriculum was geared to prepare students for employment.  Academies eventually replaced the Latin Grammar Schools and some admitted Women.


First monitorial school established (NY)..

Monitorial school originated in England, and was an attempt to provide mass elementary education for large numbers of students.


First college for Women established (Troy College).

Important because recognizing that women also need to be educated, since regular colleges at the time rarely enrolled women.


First High School developed

Eventually replaced the academies and Latin grammar schools.


Massachusetts requires compulsory education for all students.

Horace Mann got a Phd from Prussia, which had compulsory education since 1821.  The Prussian idea was to have a population that was more education, would be better citizens.


Brown v. Topeka Board of Education reversed "separate but equal" doctrine

Forced integration of the United States for all schools for all children, no matter what the color of their skin.  Eventually this led to forced bussing.



The launch of Sputnik shocked the US and led to a major focus on science and science in the school system.


Civil Rights Act

Specifically aimed at desegregating schools.


Immigration Reform and Control Act

Changed who immigrated to the United States and had a huge impact on the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States, specifically California.


The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)

Increased federalization of education included head start, free lunches, special education students.  Huge impact on the public school system.


Serrano Vs. Priest

Ca Supreme Court declared that property tax based school financing was unconstitutional.  Funding now came from the state along with increased regulation.  Districts such as LA that had large tax bases and often poorer students suffered loss of income.  Similar type law suites spread across the US.


Title 9

Added amendment to ESEA on discrimination against women.


Education for All Handicapped Children Act

Stated that all physically challenged students are entitled to a fair and appropriate public education.  As the courts have interpreted this program, it has led to a large increase in special education classes.  Currently, there fight has moved onto mainstreaming of handicapped children in schools.


Proposition 13 passes

Reduces state income significantly.  Starts a tax payer revolt across the United States.  Major impact on school funding.


No Child Left Behind Law

A very complex law that is having a huge impact on schools by requiring certain minimal standards be set.  And if the school districts do not meet these standards, they may be taken over.




Slavin, R. E. (2003). Educational psychology: Theory and practice (7th ed.).

Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.


Ryan M. (2003) Ask the teacher: A practitionerís guide to teaching and learning to the diverse classroom  (2nd ed.) Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


Johnson, J.A., Dupuis, V.L., Musial, D., Hall, G.E., and Gollnick, D. (2002). Introduction to the foundations of American Education (12th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.


Time line of major events for American Schools,, no date, retrieved 6/13/04.


NEA National Education Association, Integration Timeline 1954, Celebrating 50 Years of Brown v. Board of Education,, no date, retrieved 6/13/04.


The Merrow Report- Television (First to Worst),, aired February 2004 initially, web site information retrieved 6/13/04.



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