History of Public Education in the U.S.

Abby Germann
June 6, 2024

The development of equity in education and how public education has evolved in the United States 

Before colonization, Indigenous populations developed their own educational systems, passing down culture, history, and technical skills. They were erased as North America was colonized and replaced with public schools. However, these early schools weren’t equitable. Through various lawsuits, huge steps were taken in granting all students better access to education. Eventually, online learning emerged and evolved as technology has improved, as a health necessity, and a solution to the teacher shortage. 

What were indigenous education practices in the U.S.?

Prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the forced assimilation of the indigenous population of North America, the native people had thousands of years of educational tradition. As explored in History and Foundation of American Indian Education” by Stan Juneau, an emphasis on respect, tradition, and knowledge was passed from one generation to the next. 

The practice of sharing the history, religion, and culture of each tribe was done through storytelling and oral tradition as well as practical teaching. The major distinction from our modern American learning model is the focus on learning through imitation and other nontraditional teaching methods as opposed to basic memorization. 

As the Indigenous population grew, smaller factions formed with their own culture. The ability of the factions to develop and interact supports the theory that a communication and education system developed mutually across the country. 

The existence and ability of these tribes to interact socially and economically reveals the strength of the existing education system. Additionally, the imposition of the European educational system did not happen all at once. The period of Indian Removal in the 1830s was happening on the West Coast at the same time the tribes of Montana and the Great Plains were barely interacting with European settlers. 

The University of Minnesota explains the relationship between European residential schools and generational trauma. Young Native Americans were forced away from their tribes, made to cut their hair and stripped of their native names, and were abused in residential schools. The systematic trauma of boarding schools and forced assimilation is the direct cause of under-preparedness for college. It is a result of only intending for the population to perform menial labor as opposed to being encouraged to pursue higher education. The forced assimilation of native people to European schools is detrimental to higher education for Indigenous students to this day. 

Indigenous children before starting school at a residential school. 

What were schools like in the 13 colonies?

European settlers had a method of education similar to the indigenous population before the establishment of a public school system. The Foundation for Economic Education explores the origins of public schools. Especially in the northern 13 colonies, education was passed on at home and small schools, churches, apprenticeships, and private study. Education relied on community. Despite this system’s reliance on wealthy private benefactors, it was majorly a voluntary effort. 

The motivation to have a literate population stems from the religious initiative to regularly read the Bible and participate in town meetings, encouraging influence in local government. The rural South had significantly less schooling, only wealthy white children had private tutors and virtually all black children were uneducated. 

As the desire for more education grew, the establishment of secondary schools started in New England. The local communities supported and controlled their schools after the initiation by the colonial governments. 

The demand for schooling was so great that hundreds of schools started appearing and quality teaching was established by weeding out ineffective teachers. Because there were no unions or guilds, only teachers who had satisfied customers could afford to keep teaching. 

By 1940, 50% of young adults had a high school diploma. Most critically, following the expansion of public education, came widespread segregation of schools, especially in the South. 

How has legislation affected equity in modern public education?

The Supreme Court upheld segregation in the ruling on Plessy v Ferguson (1896), establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine. This meant that as long as the treatment of African Americans was equal, segregation does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, it was clear that the education of black students was not equal. 

The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s shed some much needed light on inequality. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was a landmark case that overturned the ruling from Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court reasoned “that the segregation of public education based on race instilled a sense of inferiority that had a hugely detrimental effect on the education and personal growth of African American children,” Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1), Oyez. By the 1970s legally segregated districts were abolished. This is one of the earliest legal rulings that uphold equity in education. 

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the foundation for preventing discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

In the later 20th century the court’s focus exposed the disadvantages of lower-income school districts. Because school districts relied on property tax for funding, there was a significant disparity between the schools in higher-income areas and lower. As many districts were defined by redlining practices, the populations that were most affected were minority populations and African American populations.  This is highlighted in New Jersey in Robinson v Cahill (1973). The court references the state constitution, where a requirement is outlined that the public education system must be “thorough and efficient.” This requirement could not be upheld in areas where schools were getting significantly less funding. Stanford University explains that this violation required a reevaluation of the public schools in New Jersey where property tax is the main source of funding. 

California, New York, and Texas also relied on local taxes for funding and had landmark cases to reallocate funds in the late 20th century. While these financial and social changes were made legally, many districts that remained segregated de facto were also the underfunded districts. 

This was not the only form of discrimination that happened in the public school system. Buffalo State University highlights other methods of guaranteeing equal opportunity in the form of Title IX laws. Title IX was introduced to prevent discrimination in athletics or education on the basis of sex. These statutes were applied to public education institutions from kindergarten to colleges and graduate schools. 

Photo of newspaper from Topeka, KS where Brown v. Board of Education originated

How did online learning start? 

The concept of digital learning started in the 1960s when the University of Illinois established a network of early computers to support remote learners. Champlain College points out that by the 80s, home computers became standard and opened new doors for online learning. Despite suffering stigmas about the legitimacy of these online degrees, the concept caught on as technology improved. 

As education enters the 21st century, there has been a push to develop new skills. Equity in education has reached a certain standard and now must be applied to new technology. Modern teaching focuses on contextual fluency, being able to use skills and knowledge students are learning and apply them to the modern technological world. With an emphasis on complex problem-solving and teamwork as opposed to traditional academic skills, teachers are aiming to prepare their students for the digital age.

The flexible nature of online learning and accessibility meant that by 2019, 36% of students had taken at least one remote course in the process of earning their degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This number spiked to 75% in 2020 with the emergence of the Coronavirus pandemic. The most notable part of this dramatic shift to virtual learning is the retention of online learning despite medical advances being made and in-person classes resuming. 

However, not all online learning is made the same. As teachers were forced to navigate distance learning, they were under-supported and unprepared. This exposed gaps in education, especially the differences between synchronous and asynchronous learning. 

What is emergency remote learning and what are its negative impacts?

As schools suddenly closed, even short-term, education needed to continue amid the pandemic. Teachers were forced to develop new methods of teaching with no training. They needed to find and use unfamiliar programs overnight and methods that had been used for decades couldn’t translate to a virtual learning world. The lack of support for teachers and students meant that virtual learning was ineffective at the time and left a bad impression globally. 

According to a study done by the World Bank Group on remote learning during COVID-19 from 2020-2021, online learning successes were few and far between. The effects of prolonged remote learning without social activity and unprepared school districts resulted in undeterminable learning losses; especially for younger children who need social-emotional learning, losses were more than typically experienced in a summer vacation. 

In higher grade levels, standardized testing reveals that students were learning only 67% of math skills and 87% of reading skills their peers would have typically learned. However, with these downfalls we have learned what works and what doesn’t. 

The World Bank Group highlights the top 3 components needed for fruitful online learning: “Effective teachers, suitable technology, and engaged learners.” This study explores the other options that have been presented following the mass return to in-person learning. 

The new methods to support students require all 3 components to work in tandem; they are critically dependent on teacher-student interaction along with tools to help teachers in hybrid learning situations and support from parents. One of the leading propositions from The World Bank Group is a method that combines a classroom setting with synchronous instructions. 

This system allows for immediate feedback for learners and tailored learning experiences for each student. Moving forward in the world of learning, finding the best method to teach students virtually is critical. 

Why does synchronous learning work best?

Following the return to in-person classrooms, there is a growing teacher shortage leaving many students without access to a certified teacher in the classroom. One big takeaway from the failures of Covid-era learning was the necessity for human connection between peers and student-to-teacher connection. This can be facilitated in a synchronous classroom even if an in-person teacher isn’t available. Asynchronous learning requires students to be entirely self-motivated and have self-taught skills that are beyond what can be expected for young learners. 

The benefits of synchronous learning are the personal connection, immediate feedback, and customizable lesson plans for both teachers and students. The ability of synchronous learning to facilitate communication that is not all academic is also beneficial for students who learn interpersonal skills and other soft skills they will need later in life. 

Even in 2008, researchers in Sweden found that students' social skills benefitted from synchronous learning, especially when able to break into small groups as they felt less pressure to analyze all aspects of complex problems and instead were motivated to problem solve collaboratively with their peers. 

The reality is in a modern world, digital learning is here to stay. There is a method that fulfills the learning needs of virtual students and promotes equity in education. That method is a facilitator-supported synchronous classroom.

about the author
Abby Germann

Abby Germann is getting her Bachelors of Arts in Mass Communication at Sam Houston State University. She is currently a Marketing Intern at Proximity Learning and loves learning new marketing skills. In her free time she loves music, working on film sets, and her dog, Finn.

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