The History of Education

What pivotal historical influences do you think have most influenced today’s educational system?  How?  Why?

I agree with Sheri that NCLB is a huge influence on education today, but, for the sake of diversity, I’ll cite the common school movement as the foundation of today’s educational system in America. The common school movement established the principal that all children should have a certain kind of formal education and that the government had the responsibility and authority to act in that regard (Kauchak & Eggen, 2005). The nature and structure of our system today still reflects decisions and beliefs established then. Eduction is, by and large, public. It is controlled locally (by the municipalities and states) but with considerable interest and intervention from the federal government. It takes a certain European form, with core subjects, classes, bells and even the layout of classrooms reflecting the ideas of the 19th century.

For better or worse, something the size of the American educational system takes on a life of its own. Teachers have much invested in preserving the usefulness of the skills and experience they possess. Administrators are safest in a static system. Unions protect their own interests and, usually, the interests of the members. For parents, the public school system is the benchmark. The system makes it clear that children must conform to that system and parents seeking alternatives do so at great social risk. Politicians, of course, do what gets them elected and messing with teachers, administrators and parents is rarely a solid electoral strategy. Thus, changes when they happen generally come in the form of more money, more programs, and more demands for output. In the end, the only things that change are things that everybody can agree upon. Everybody will only agree when their individual needs are met. This is frequently not the change that meets the needs of the students.

To be fair, there is more to the current situation than the enormous inertia of a giant human system. There is also the breathtaking uncertainty of what exactly would be a superior system. Would a purely federal system be more efficient or perhaps one managed at the lowest political level, the municipality? Would more art work better, both as subject matter and as an approach to education? Or is more science (again in both meanings) the ticket for superior outcomes? Interestingly, the one thing that seems to have more or less universal agreement are the generalities of what should be taught. ELA, math and science, and a certain amount of civics/history, these are the core that seem beyond dispute. The rest (spirituality, physicality, artistic expression) are largely seen as optional at best, though significant elements of society value them highly. Likewise, there’s no significant pressure to revisit the military-industrial model of the school as established in the 19th century and still dominant today. The organization of students into classes, the rigidity of scheduling, teach/test cycles, classroom structure; all of these seem to be beyond debate in the mainstream.

Given the vast range of alternatives, known and unknown, it is impressive how powerfully the origins of American education echo today. 


Kauchak, P. & Eggen, P. (2005). Introduction to teaching: Becoming a professional (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

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