A Brief History of Education in America

When talking about the history of American education, it can often be hard to keep it brief, but I will do my best.

*Teacher resources and references are located at the bottom of this post and are free for academic use*

As with most things in history, I’m going to be starting at the beginning. For the topic of education in America, the beginning, as I see it, would be the Late Colonial Period, when the ideas of liberty and freedom were just starting to ripple through the taverns and back country roads on the whispers of soon to be patriots.


The Education System During the Late Colonial Period in America

The education system during the Late Colonial Period in America, the time roughly between the 1730s and the official surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, looked very different than the one we know today. There were no formal schools that all people of a certain age group were required to attend, and teachers were often people within the community who had knowledge in a certain subject area rather than schoolmasters; at least outside of the major population centers such as Boston, New York, and the like.

In the small one-room schoolhouses of the 18th century, students worked with teachers individually or in small groups, skipped school for long periods of time to tend crops and take care of other family duties, and often learned little. Others didn’t go to school at all, taking private lessons with tutors instead.


Education, especially primary, was something that was mostly home based, unless you came from a family of relatively large means. After your primary education of reading, writing and basic math, it was the student and/or their parents’ responsibility to go out and locate someone who would be willing to train them in a trade that would then be that person’s job for their entire life essentially.

People didn’t really change jobs a lot like they do now a days in the Late Colonial Period. It was extremely important to get this right the first time partially due to the lack of access to extended education, but also because of general lack of social mobility. If you were a farmer who wanted your son to have a better life than you, you would either work hard and save enough money for him to attend university, or you would have to train him in how to be trained and convince someone who already worked in the field, like law or banking, to take him on as a clerk in training where he would then work his way up from the bottom.

Job Training and College in the Late Colonial Period

Training could take the form of basic trainings for those in service industries, similar to modern job training, but more often than not, it was in the form of apprenticeship agreements where you would do work for the master tradesman, with or without pay, learning each facet of the trade one at a time until it was mastered. Apprenticeship agreements lasted a minimum of 5 years, but more often went closer to 10+ for the more intricate trades like metal smithing. If you were a person from a family of means, you would be allowed a chance to attend university to peruse the more academic fields, such as banking and law.

For the most part, however, the majority of the American colonists were farmers. We read about all of the lawyers, doctors and writers who were involved in the formation of our nation, but it was the farmers who really made America what it was. They were independent, strong and just trying to survive while feeding their communities. The main goal of the farmers in the colonial days wasn’t necessarily monetary wealth, but to be able to earn a piece of land to hand down to their children so they would be able to make it no matter what the future held; an idea almost every American can relate too even today that formed the center of what we commonly refer to as the “American Dream”.

“But, provident as our fathers were, they did not foresee the part which women were to take in the future life of the Republic, and failed to provide for their public education on the same broad basis as that of men.”

“Evolution Of Women’s Education In The United States”

While most free men, white or black, were able to obtain some type of schooling during the Late Colonial Period, women and slaves were not allowed to attend formal education. It wasn’t seen as necessary for women or girls to have a formal education because it was their job to run the household, not to worry about the issues of men. Slaves were not able to attend formal education of any type by law because an uneducated population is more easily controlled. It was also bad for the slave owners if their slaves were able to communicate through writing because it would make it easier for them to organize against their masters (this is not a dissertation on the morality of the practice, I’m simply mentioning it as a historical factoid to be taken into account in a larger picture).

New Country, New Schools of Thought

After the Revolutionary War had concluded, the Founding Fathers expanded on the idea of what education was and what it would mean to this new country they were creating. The Founding Fathers knew that:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1787

This quote from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 shows that for the new American Republic to function, the citizenry must be both moral AND educated. The idea that people are inherently free was a relatively new one, established primarily through the enlightenment philosophies, and the idea that the government’s main purpose was to protect the individual liberties of the citizens, not control their actions, was also novel within history. With Christianity being the guiding principal of the times, this meant that the Founding Fathers intended for all citizens of the United States to be educated in the Judeo-Christian Bible, so that every member of the society would have the same moral grounding from which to start.

According to the Founding Fathers, in order for the citizenry to responsibly participate in this new republican government that had been established, they needed to be educated in the basic workings of both morality and government. This was part of the idea that only an informed citizen can consent to their governance. With this idea in mind, the Founding Fathers launched a campaign to have everyone from the poorest farmer to the most wealthy elite educated in the ways of economics, literacy and governance.

The Expansion of Education in Early America

After the Revolutionary War had ended and the Founding Fathers had finished the construction of the American Constitution, they then turned their focus to ensuring that the citizens of this new nation would be able to protect their own liberties and freedoms by educating them on what their rights were and the moral grounds on which those rights were founded; essentially the idea of freedom through education (check out our shop to get your “Freedom Through Education” shirts and more, exclusively from The Merch Shop @ one-roomeducation.com).

Woman’s Education

Who were the primary caretakers of American children? American women. If the republic were to succeed, women must be schooled in virtue so they could teach their children.


At the top of their list was the idea of Republican Motherhood. This was the idea that in order for the future voters of the United States to be both an educated and moral people, the primary caregivers of those future voters would need to also be educated and virtuous. With women being the primary caregivers for almost all children, the Founding Fathers established the first schools for women in the 1790s.

Men’s Education

The history of American education wouldn’t be complete with a short analysis of men’s only education.

During the early 19th century, the 1800s, almost all boys would be required to attend some type of education. With the growing population of the United Sates, there was a growing need for schoolmaster, but they were hard to come by due to the lack of a formal education system existing before this time, as mentioned earlier. This lead to the rise of the Lancaster education system. This was a merit-based system where the older students would teacher the younger students skills they had already demonstrated mastery of.

In this Lancaster system, boys would become monitors for the teachers, who were in short supply. These monitors were essentially the modern day equivalent of teacher’s assistants (TA) in college. The Lancaster-Bell schools became very popular due to the fact that they allowed one teacher to oversee large classrooms of students and took a large portion of the burden of everyday lessons off of the teacher, or schoolmaster.

This type of schooling continued well into the 19th century until the schoolmarms took over education in the 1840s. This, combined with the introduction of the Prussian model of education, helped to usher in the modern education system as we know it today.

For more information on the evolution of the modern education system, check out this episode of The State of Education podcast, presented by One-Room Education, The Factory Model of Education: What is it and is it Still Viable in Today’s Ever Evolving World?


white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

Related Reads

  • The Factory Model: Does It Work? Did It Ever? *Read More*

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