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A timeline of American public education

1635 Latin Grammar School established. This college prep school was the first permanent school established in the colonies. Only males of certain socioeconomic and social classes were considered for this school; girls were not included.

1647 Old Deluder Satan Act enacted (Massachusetts). “It being the chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures ...” The act required a town of at least 50 families to have a teacher to teach reading and writing and a town of 100 families to establish a grammar school (college prep). It emphasized the importance of education for religious purposes.

1779 Thomas Jefferson proposed a system of education for all supported by taxes. “A system of general instruction which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so it will be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest.” (to Joseph C. Cabell, 1818. FE 10: 102) “It is highly interesting to our country, and it is the duty of its functionaries, to provide that every citizen in it should receive an education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life.” (to Peter Carr, 1814. ME 19:213)

1785 Continental Congress passed a law calling for a survey of the Northwest Territory. The law created townships and reserved a portion of each township for a local school.

1794 New York State established a board of regents (a governing board for schools).

1805 New York Public School Society formed. Established by wealthy businessmen to provide education for poor children, schools were run on Lancasterian system (one master teaches hundreds of students by rote in a single room; older students teach younger). This model emphasized the discipline and obedience desired by factory owners in their workers.

1820 First Public High School, Boston English, opens.

1830s Laws Prohibiting Slave Literacy. Many southern states had in place laws forbidding the teaching of reading and writing to people in bondage.

1837 Statewide Common School System. Horace Mann, head of newly formed Massachusetts State Board of Education, supervised the creation of a statewide common school system.

1839 First Normal School established, Lexington, Mass., for the purpose of preparing teachers for schools.

1840s Catholic Immigrants Resist Protestant Curriculum. Over a million Irish immigrants were driven out of Ireland by the Potato Famine and flocked to the United States. Irish Catholics in New York City struggled to control their neighborhood schools as a way of preventing their children from being subjected to a Protestant curriculum. In the controversy over the use of the Douay Bible rather than the King James favored by Protestants, riots and burning of Catholic churches occurred. Ultimately this led to the establishment of the Catholic parochial system.

1851 First Compulsory Education Law. The state of Massachusetts passed the first compulsory education law.

1864 Law Prohibiting Teaching in Native American Languages. Congress made it illegal for Native American children to be taught in their own languages. Native children as young as 4 years old were taken from their parents and sent to Bureau of Indian Affairs reservation boarding schools.

1865-1877 Free Public Education in the South. African Americans, in most cases denied education under slavery, mobilized to bring free public education to the South for the first time.

1874 Property Taxes Support Secondary Education. Michigan Supreme Court established that property taxes could be used to support secondary as well as elementary schools.

1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Decision of the Supreme Court, ruling that the State of Louisiana had the right to require “separate but equal” railroad cars for blacks and whites, officially recognizing segregation. Southern states passed laws requiring racial segregation in public schools.

1905 Public Education for Chinese Immigrants. U.S. Supreme Court required California to extend public education to children of Chinese immigrants.

1917 Smith Hughes Act provided funding for vocational education. Job skill training was now out from under the control of trade unions through the system of apprenticeships.

1925 Catholic Schools Validated. The Supreme Court ruled that states could not compel Catholic children to attend public schools.

1948 Educational Testing Service is formed, merging several predecessor testing services. Carl Brigham, originator of the SAT, had done research in which he claimed to have proven the feeblemindedness of immigrants.

1954 Brown vs. Board of Education. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

1958 National Defense Education Act passed as a direct response to the launching of Sputnik by the Russians. It emphasized math and science.

1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination on the basis of race in all federally funded programs. Head Start was launched as a part of the War on Poverty.

1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act gave the federal government the right to withhold funding for noncompliance. Congress has renewed this act every few years.

1972 Title IX passed, prohibiting public schools from discriminating on the basis of gender. This paves the way for the expansion of school athletics programs for girls.

1994 Elementary and Secondary Education Act renewal under Clinton requires states to come up with content standards, assessments, and definition of adequate programs to measure children’s progress.

2001 No Child Left Behind passed.


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