Education in America – Part 7

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The rise of public schools

By 1870, a patchwork quilt of public schools sprang up in America. Horace Mann (see Part 3) and others fostered the idea of a common school, with paid teachers, supported by taxpayers – but the idea was slow to catch on. For the wealthy, who could afford private tutors, there seemed to be little incentive to educate the poor laborer, and even less to educate minorities (black, Asian, immigrant, Native American, women).

Mann pushed moral education as a reason for the public school, yet wanted to remove religion. Sectarian clashes between Protestants and Catholics fueled the controversy. Labor reformers wanted public schools, but as a means of levelling the economic playing field rather than as a moral force.

Prior to the Civil War, education wasn’t required to earn a good living. Just a few years later, the urban population more than doubled, as people flocked to the new factories of the industrial age for employment, and jobs increasingly required reading and basic arithmetic. By 1880, forty percent of America’s population lived in cities. As noted previously, there was no standard curriculum or national control, and many rural children continued to learn at home, or attend school sporadically. This period also saw the rise of school administrators, principals who were not teachers, and professional teachers who had some education beyond sixteen years of age.

Early 1900s Wisconsin school

Nearly 80 percent of teachers in southeastern Michigan in 1860 were between seventeen and twenty-four years of age, and in one Wisconsin county more than one-quarter of teachers were under eighteen. Laws usually prohibited young women from continuing to teach after marriage.

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