Key Terms of Educational History

“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a
desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.” – Horace Mann

Horace Mann, American Educational Reformer

Horace Mann was an influential reformer of education, responsible for the introduction of common schools – non-sectarian public schools open to children of all backgrounds – in America.

Early Public Schools in the United States

There were several key actions taken by the federal government to finance public education early in our nation’s history, including Land Grants. Click here for a brief review.

After the American Revolution, an emphasis was put on education, especially in the northern states, which rapidly established public schools. By the year 1870, all states had free elementary schools and the U.S. population boasted one of the highest literacy rates at the time. Private academies flourished in towns across the country, but rural areas (where most people lived) had few schools before the 1880s. By the close of the 1800s, public secondary schools began to outnumber private ones.

The earliest public schools were formed in the nineteenth century, where they became known as common schools. This term was coined by educational reformer Horace Mann and refers to the aim of these schools to serve individuals of all social classes and religions.

The Common School

Students often went to common schools from ages six to fourteen, although this could vary widely. The duration of the school year was often dictated by the agricultural needs of particular communities, with children having time off from studies when they would be needed on the family farm. These schools were funded by local taxes, did not charge tuition, and were open to all children – at least, all white children. Typically, with a small amount of state oversight, each district was controlled by an elected local school board, traditionally with a county school superintendent or regional director elected to supervise day-to-day activities of several common school districts.

Since common schools were locally controlled and the United States was very rural in the nineteenth century, most common schools were small one-room centers. They usually had a single teacher who taught all of the students together, regardless of age. Common school districts were nominally subject to their creator, either a county commission or a state regulatory agency.

Typical curricula consisted of “The Three Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic), as well as history and geography. There were wide variations in grading (from 0-100 grading to no grades at all), but end-of-the-year recitations were a common way that parents were informed about what their children were learning.

Many education scholars mark the end of the common school era around 1900. In the early 1900s schools generally became more regional (as opposed to local), and control of schools moved away from elected school boards and towards professionals.

Dame Schools

Essential to the development of education in the United States was the creation of Dame Schools. Read the linked article to better understand their purpose.

Old Deluder Satan Law

Most notable in the history of education in America are the Massachusetts School Laws. These included the Old Deluder Satan Law, which you should be familiar. Click and review both linked items.

McGuffey Readers

More trivia that education students may find interesting, the McGuffey Readers were the first ‘textbooks.’ Conduct your own online search to learn more about these booklets and see authentic images.


While kindergarten is expect in schooling today, that wasn’t always the case. Click here to learn how kindergarten evolved.

Latin & English Grammar School

Designed as prep schools, theseĀ  boy-only schools were unique. See this article for details. There are even a few still open.

Key Legal Cases that Shaped Schooling in America

Review these law cases which were pivotal in the evolution of America’s educational system:

Here is an excellent timeline of American educational history. For a great overview of education during colonial times, review this!