For Teachers

American Public Education: Changes, continuities, and how you, as a teacher, can make sense of  US public education in the 20th Century

                Nelson Mandela succinctly summed up the power and importance of education, saying: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”[1]  This powerful weapon, education, is “the action or process of teaching someone especially in a school, college, or university.”[2] However, society’s powerful weapon has changed substantially throughout history. Even within the last century, American public education has greatly changed.  In those hundred years there were different theories about why and how society should educate and different programs and structures which have dictated how education is structured, along with who has access to education. By looking at both the different types of education and the changes in access to education we will begin to answer how the ‘why we educate’ of American public education changed over the 20th Century.  We argue that the ‘why’ has not changed- it has always been to contribute to society in a broad sense and become useful citizens- however, as access opened to a wider audience, different events, pieces of legislation, and theories arose which approached the goal of educating to create useful citizens in different ways.  By looking at the following concepts, we will explain how the ‘why’ of education remained consistent over the twentieth century: bureaucratization, “Americanization” education, John Dewey’s philosophies, compulsory education, the high-school movement, tracking, secondary education and human capital, Civil Rights, Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education, and standardization. Unfortunately, when we discuss access, we focus primarily on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, however, we do acknowledge that access for many groups, such as Native Americans, disabled Americans, non-native speakers of English, and women, also changed over the course of the twentieth century.


        At the beginning of the century schools, for the most part, were localized- schools made decisions for themselves. As the century progressed, the American educational system began to become more formalized.  Increasingly, education came to be organized in more formalized andbureaucratized groups.  Prior to the 20th century these groups were in big cities; in the 20th century their system was adopted throughout the nation.  This system was the development of school districts.  One example of how education became more formalized was in 1913 when a Massachusetts school began to determine the “value” of classes. As they determined the value of classes, instruction in other schools in the district also adopted the policies.  Simply, in the 20th century school districts became the national way to organize education and these school districts help to formalize policy among schools. Eventually school districts developed more autonomy and now operate their schools in conjunction with state and national policies.  School districts expanded further creating massive school districts covering entire cities like in Chicago, New York and Minneapolis.  Another level of beautracitizing education arose in 1979, under President Jimmy Carter.  The Department of Education was re-established dividing the Department of Health, Education and Welfare into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. Despite criticism, the Department of Education has allowed for the subsidization of education and increased growth and access of education.   In short, the ‘why’ of education in relation to bureaucratization was that having a bureaucratized educational system would help create more useful citizens by having schools operate in similar ways and by having a systematized organizational structure for all the schools.

The “Americanization” Method of Education (1890-1930)

The ‘why’ of education from 1890 to 1930 was to create Americans. This goal was to be achieved using three key aspects of education: teaching English, American History, and the knowledge and skills necessary for one to be part of a democracy, such as knowledge of government structure and procedures or how to vote. Education policies based on Americanization dictated that English was to be the primary language of instruction. For example, the Supreme Court case Meyer v. Nebraska upheld a 1923 state of Nebraska ruling that found it illegal to teach students foreign languages prior to their mastery of English—which was deemed the “mother-tongue”, demonstrating that instruction performed in and about English was a priority of educational institutions, state and federal governments.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Americanization defined public education in the United States. The so-called “Americanization Crusade”, the push to use the Americanization method of Education, began in 1914 [3]. Americanization remained a common theory of education until about 1930, at which point its influence began to wane. However, the fact that U.S. history, civics, and a common set of English literature are all taught in American classrooms today, suggests that Americanization still has some influence.
During the period from 1890 to 1930, education was used to “create Americans,” primarily due to the idea that immigrants and their children needed to assimilate into American culture. The popularity of this theory was related to an influx of Southern and Eastern European immigrants to the United States, coming to work in U.S. factories. This group of immigrants is sometimes referred to as the “new immigrants” because they emigrated from Southern and Eastern Europe, areas from which the United States had not yet experienced immigration. However, these immigrants were seen as especially different from Americans. Because of these differences, seen as contrary to American culture, assimilation was stressed for the “new immigrants”, implying that Americans were the most useful and desired workers and members of society.
Americanization theories of education gained momentum during World War I, due to increased nationalism and national defense concerns. Since nationalism was increased, assimilation was deemed a necessary social and political strategy. Thus, education was seen as a mechanism for stimulating assimilation and making the immigrant groups of the period into useful, productive  members of American society.

John Dewey’s Philosophies

                Born in 1859, John Dewey’s philosophies about education greatly influenced the theories of education for the 20th century. He also developed theories on Pragmatism, Empiricism, functional psychology, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, art, logic, social theory, and ethics.  Yet, his ideas about why and how society educated, as well as the role of the teacher, proved to influence how classrooms are operated on a daily basis. Dewey's educational theories were presented in: My Pedagogic Creed (1897), The School and Society (1900), The Child and the Curriculum (1902), Democracy and Education (1916) and Experience and Education (1938).
                Essentially, he believed schooling was an instrument for social progress. He thought that learning by doing, that is, doing activities and learning from experience instead of just reading about theories or teachers presenting rote information to memorize, was the best way to learn as it allowed students to be prepared for all parts of life.  He writes: “…It is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions… [education should] prepare him for the future life… to give him command of himself… to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities, that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.” Moreover, he understood that education was part of living itself, not just preparing for the future: “Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living” he wrote in My Pedagogic Creed. Finally, education and democracy, he contended, went hand-in-hand: education could create a more flourishing democracy, and democracy could generate a better educational system.
        Dewey believed that society needed to educate its citizens in order to have citizens that could contribute to society; educated citizens were imperative to a flourishing democracy.  Dewey believed that education furthered a democracy and democracy could further education; by having educated citizens who were prepared for living, they could contribute to society and create a better country. In the end, Dewey influenced education by laying out a strong framework of ideology and theory of education along with having some schools practice more hands-on learning.  Today, his theories and practices still influence education both in the ways we educate by doing and in beliefs about why we educate.

Compulsory Education

        Compulsory attendance laws had already been enacted in many states prior to the 20th century, starting with Massachusetts in 1852. However, some Southern states did not enact compulsory attendance laws until the early twentieth century. Finally, in 1918 Mississippi was the final state to enact such laws. The question is why southern states took so much longer to enact compulsory attendance laws, ending with Mississippi in 1918, and why those states eventually did make education compulsory.
George F. Milton, editor of the Knoxville Sentinel, in writing “Compulsory Education and the Southern States,”  shows that access to compulsory education lagged in the South because of various economic, political, and racial factorsMilton is clearly in favor of compulsory education and views it as the a necessary component for the South to make economic, social, and political advances. Specifically, he is concerned that in 1900, even though the South accounted for only 14.9 percent of the white voters in the United States, it also accounted for 27.9 percent of the total illiterate white voters, a disproportionate amount [4]. If voters were unable to make responsible choices due to illiteracy, education became necessary to ensure a functioning, democratic, political process.
Further, compulsory education was considered necessary because it would protect society against ignorance, which, according to Milton, led to vice, crime, and poverty. Compulsory education was imperative because the South had struggled to recover economically after the Civil War and one critical part of the solution was having an educated population that could contribute to the recovery economically, since per capita income in the North was increasing much more quickly than per capita income in the South, with some states even seeing a drop in per capita income. Therefore, in the South the purpose for enacting compulsory education laws was to be sure that it was keeping up with the rest of the nation in politically, economically, and socially. Thus making the ‘why’ of compulsory education all about educating citizens which could contribute to the society democratically and economically.

The High School Movement

The time period between 1910 and 1940 was known as the “high school movement” when there was a greater emphasis on the importance of secondary education. Before the 20th century, secondary education was structured as preparation for college and was seen as only for those who could eventually send sons or daughters to college. In addition, the cost of four years of high school was equal to the cost of eight years of elementary school. So why did the high school movement take place if it seen as benefiting a few and being costly for the public to fund? First, high school itself became tied to personal benefits for the student. A high school education became an end in itself, as opposed to being just preparation for further education, and a high school graduate simply made more money than a non-graduate. Secondly, it came to be seen as an investment for older generations. By paying for a students’ public education at a time when that student could not, it was expected that the graduate, who would make more money than a non-graduate, would contribute financially to the well-being of the community and that the older generation, especially those without their own children or families to care for them, would have greater security in their old age. Therefore making ‘why of education’ for the “high school movement” focused on creating citizens that eventually, thanks to education, help better the nation by contributing economically.


        The tracking method can best be described as  the sorting of students into different paths based on their perceived potential in a given career [5]. Under this system, the best students with the highest potential to succeed would be placed in the best classes which led to the most prestigious jobs: doctors, lawyers and scientists, to name a few. The “middle of the pack” students would be placed in less advanced tracks leading to careers such as accountants, teachers and other white-collar jobs. The students with the lowest potential would be placed into the simplest track; careers from this level would lead directly into the workforce, namely, jobs including field or factory labor. Tracking tried to directly prepare students for future careers, with an emphasis on the balance of careers in the national economy. For instance, fewer doctors and lawyers would be necessary per capita than farm or factory workers. Lastly, which track a student was placed on was decided, among other things, on IQ testing.  
For the majority of the twentieth century, the tracking method of education was the preferred method, as it was intended to give the highest potential students the challenges that they needed. However in 1980 critics of the tracking method began to wonder if the it was beneficial to education. Studies began to reveal that the students in the highest tracks finished standardized exams with an average grade only one percent higher than those in the mid-range track. In the early 1990s education author and policy analyst Anne Wheelock wrote that “detracking” schools would be, in the long run, more beneficial for students no matter what their skill level [6]. Today, most school districts in America have abandoned the tracking method. Still, the debate continues to rage on; is tracking beneficial? Are students in lower tracks missing out by not being allowed the opportunity to challenge themselves? Regardless of the real impact on students, tracking has been an important method of education in the twentieth century, and whether or not it will continue throughout the twenty-first century remains to be seen.  Moreover, tracking’s ‘why’ again focused on creating citizens which could contribute to the nation.  By sorting students into different track  each sector of the economy would be filled and the nation could prosper.

Civil Rights and Education

The fight for equal access to a higher quality of education really took off in the 20th century.  The 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson wasn’t challenged until 1954, with the Supreme Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education [7].  Brown v. Board of Educationoverturned the court decision made in Plessy v. Ferguson in which the court decided that separate but equal was still equal. The Brown v. Board of Education case, however, challenged this notion of separate but equal and deemed the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson unconstitutional.  Brownstated that "separate but equal is inherently unequal."
The Supreme Court Case of Brown v. Board of Education would span over two decades and three different phases: Brown I, Brown II, and Brown III.  Each of these cases further refined the decisions of the previous case.  Brown II (1955) delegated the implementation of desegregation to district courts in the South,  and it was also where the majority of changes to the Supreme Court Case decision took place.  Brown v. Board of Education was also the first step toward equal rights for all African Americans as it served as a springboard for other civil rights movements and acts such as The Civil Rights Act, and The Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Although Brown v. Board of Education I was successful in drawing attention toward school segregation, it did not have a plan or recommendation for the implementation of desegregation, this led to many school districts in the deep south delaying desegregation in their schools. A response to school desegregation was the “Southern Manifesto” (1956) which nineteen senators and eighty one congressmen signed, denouncing the Supreme Court's decision and urging other southern states to resist school integration. After Brown II, most southern school districts implemented desegregation in their school systems, albeit slowly. It would not be until 1968 that southern states completely dismantled segregated school systems, thirteen years after the decision of Brown II.
If the ‘why’ of education in the twentieth century centered on forming useful citizens and contributors to society, then due to the Civil Rights Movement and the Supreme Court cases discussed above, the pool of people considered for contributing to society greatly increased. The purpose of education was the same as it had always been for social contributors, however, now there were more people included in that group. It was no longer acceptable to have a separate and inherently unequal educational system. Thus, in theory, everyone became co-creators and contributors to their nation.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's so-called “War on Poverty.” Title I of the act emphasizes the importance of helping disadvantaged children meet higher standards, emphasizes that many children still lack the opportunity to become educated, and concentrates on schools and students in low-income areas. Finally, it focuses on access to high quality education for all individuals: “Quality of our individual lives depends on the quality of the lives of others[8]Program expansion of Title I of the act was authorized over the fiscal years of 1996 to 1999, when funding was increased by over $750 million. In 1988, the act was further revised and to stress the importance of services, such as health and social services, and the professional development of teachers.
Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act focused on fulfilling the need for the improvement of library, textbook, and audio-visual resources in Elementary and Secondary schools. Through the first three years of the implementation of Title II, 300 million dollars were made available for education, demonstrating the importance President Johnson and the U.S. government placed on equality in Elementary and Secondary Education. At the local level, Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act allowed local schools to access the quality and quantity of their library resources and other instructional materials, and consulted with classroom teachers as to what they need for their students.
Any child that is attending school today or that had attended elementary and secondary since 1965 has been affected by the Act in many ways. Students that come from low-income areas are especially impacted by the act, as it gives such students access to a higher quality education, similar students of a higher income background are receiving. Ultimately, the “why we educate” for the ESEA was to give students who come from low income areas, access to a high quality of education and a fair chance at succeeding in their academic careers.

The National Defense Education Act

Enacted in September of 1958, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) provided much support for education. The NDEA sought to make up for deficiencies in certain areas, what would be called the “critical subjects”, that were exposed during World War II and the early years of the Cold War. During these efforts, deficiencies were revealed specifically in the language and science skills of U.S. soldiers. Additionally, the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 further exacerbated fears that U.S. scientists and students were falling behind their Sovietcounterparts.
The NDEA funded university student loans, financial aid and graduate fellowships. It strengthened instruction in the so-called critical subjects, namely science, mathematics, and critical foreign languages, specifically Russian and other languages spoken in the Soviet Union. The study of the histories, cultures and geographies matching up with those critical languages was also funded. Additionally, the NDEA provisioned for testing, statistical analysis of the tests, and guidance counseling. Finally, it allocated funds for research into the educational uses and development of communication technologies—specifically television, radio, and video technologies—and training institutes and programs for teachers of so-called critical subjects. The NDEA sought to make up for deficiencies in certain areas, the critical subjects, that were exposed during World War II and the early years of the Cold War, specifically language and science skills.
The ‘why’ of education indicated by the NDEA was to create useful citizens who would be able to compete on the world stage, and especially in the new Cold War efforts against the Soviet Union to develop technologies to fight against the USSR. Thus, the NDEA was motivated by desires to protect the United States from the Soviet Union. This motivation was primarily based on fears, confirmed during World War II, that American soldiers, scientists and linguists were falling behind world standards.

“A Nation at Risk” and Standardization

                The 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk: the imperative for educational reform” marked the beginning of the move to standardize education. “Traditionally, American public schools had aimed to educate citizens to live in a democracy.  They were the melting pot in which immigrants embraced the American Dream. And they were at the forefront of the struggle for equality.  In the 1980s and ‘90s schools were also asked to compete in a business driven world where one thing mattered- the bottom line”[9]. The publication of “A Nation at Risk” sparked this new drive.  The report compared the United States’ schools to other Western nations’ schools and reported that the American educational system was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce.  The report claimed that 23 million American adults were functionally illiterate and that high school students’ average achievement on standardized tests was lower than before the launch of Sputnik in 1957.  The report made recommendations as to how to improve the educational system. Some of these solutions weretougher and standardized requirements in order to graduate from high school, increasing teachers’ wages to be professionally competitive, and more days of school, among others.
                Essentially, after the report came out, education came to the forefront of the national agenda and school reform took place.  From efforts under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton and then the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 under George W. Bush, standards-based education was the model of American public education. The reforms viewed schools in a business model where competition would help better schools. There were standards set, and success was measured by tests (success meaning the school met the standards). Schools, like businesses, were punished (funds decreased) for poor tests scores (no success) and awarded (increased funds) for good tests scores (success). The reforms resulted in the standards-based educational model. This essentially meant that curriculum, assessments, and professional development would be aligned to a concrete standard. Then, each student would be measured, by tests, against this concrete standard. Thus, “A Nation at Risk” sparked this move to standards-based education which is the educational model of today.
        Moreover, the ‘why we educate’ of “A Nation at Risk” was all about developing people who could contribute to the national economy. The report saw American students falling behind students in other Western nations; by changing to the standards-based educational model it was believed that- thanks to this new system- American students would learn better and the educational system would produce better, more economically productive, citizens.

STEM in the 1990s

STEM is an acronym standing for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM was an initiative of the 1990s, primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that sought to improve and encourage education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by providing funding for those subjects, encouraging young people to become teachers of those subjects or go into related careers. STEM is seen as important for national economic prosperity and competition in the global economy, specifically in science and technology industries. The initiative resembles earlier pieces of legislation, such as the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) that link education to the usefulness of the population. Specifically, the STEM initiative indicates that the ‘why’ of education is to promote national economic prosperity. The STEM movement is still taking place today, and concerns about access to quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers and programs have grown.

                               Today and the “No Child Left Behind” Act

In 2001 the The No Child Left Behind Act formalized the move towards standardization. No Child Left Behind’s policies are in place today- one major aspect of these policies are the standards basededucational model.  Educators today are familiar with this model which includes rigorous testing of students.  In addition, schools deem these tests to be extremely important as funding for each school is directly related to the test’s scores.  Education is a hotly debated topic and one can hypothesize that in the next decades more changes will come to the American public education system.

Pulling things together

        After having considered several different events, pieces of legislation, and theories one can begin to understand the complexities of American public education.  Especially over the 20th century this educational system evolved significantly: in short, over these hundred years the system  became more centralized/ standardized, was accessible to more people, and had more philosophy/ ideology/ research/ thought into the best ways to go about educating its constitutes.  Within this, though, the crucial idea of why a society should spend immense resources on educating its citizens has remained the same: to create citizens which can contribute to the nation (usually democratically which then allows individuals to contribute economically.)  From early in the 20th century, as articulated by the influential philosopher John Dewey, or the Americanization movement, the purpose of education was develop good American citizens who could help the democracy grow and flourish.  Even through the 1980s and ‘90s with educational ideas such as STEM and standardization, the goal of these different strategies for education continued to be to create citizens who could help the country (in the case of the later two the way to help the country was focused more on economic measures).  
This continuity of the ‘why we educated’ only differed in the approaches different models took to achieve the goal of creating citizens that could help the democracy. For example, the 1958 National Defense Education Act provided funding for post secondary study and research along with funding more education into “critical subjects,” namely science, mathematics, and critical foreign languages, histories and cultures, specifically Russian and other languages spoken in the Soviet Union. This funding was provided to create Americans which would better create technologies to build the American economy and fight the Cold War- or essentially educate citizens who could better America.  Moreover,  the whole idea of tracking was to create a workforce where every sector of the economy- from doctors to dock workers- was filled.  Simply, tracking’s goal was to create citizens that could help the country by creating a flourishing national economy.  This method, like other methods,  just approached helping the country in its unique way- by separating students to so each could fill a specific spot in the workforce.
At the start of the twentieth century, only white males were included as ‘useful’, and it was seen as necessary to make the education system different for “undesirable” sections of the population. However, the Civil Rights Movement and other similar movements widened access to education considerably to including entirely new demographics, such as women, the disabled, and even Native Americans,  into the pool of ‘useful citizens.’ Today, concerns about fair access to quality education demonstrates the widening definition of ‘useful citizens.’  These concerns are seen particularly in desires to standardize, and therefore homogenize, the abilities of the future workforce, and concerns about the quality of education received—especially in the STEM subjects—by minority groups and females, demonstrates the widening of the definition of ‘useful citizens.’  
In all, through different events, pieces of legislation, and theories the educational system became more centralized, standardized, and accessible to more people. Also, more philosophy, ideology, and research went into determining the best ways to go about educating students. Within all the apparent changes the main goal of education-to create citizens that could contribute to the nation-remained the same.  Events including the Civil Rights Movement was able to make this system accessible to more people and the different events, legislation, etc. approached how to create contributing citizens in different ways.


        To close, American Public Education has evolved a lot over the past 100 years.  However its mission- why society educates- has remained the same.  Society has always needed people that can help contribute to the country.  Education has been the way society created useful citizens.  The different models, events, and ideas have approached this mission in different ways but each’s end results are always the creation of American citizens that can help contribute to the country.  In the end, as educators we must remember this in the modern era.  Education will be changing in the coming decades; by remembering that the changes are made to better create useful citizens we, as educators, can better provide services to the students in order for them to healthy, fulfilled, happy, educated and contributing members of society.  Students must also know why they are in school.  By presenting them with this knowledge hopefully they might feel a little more interested in why they are learning what they are learning.  Use this information to provide a historical background for students and inform them of why they are in school. This information can be used as a reference for building future lessons both about educational history and broad  20th century history.  In short, education truly is a powerful weapon that can change the world.  Use this weapon to empower students and remind them of the potentials they hold to innovate, to discover, and to help the American democracy flourish.   And hopefully, after all this, we will be better able to answer our students when they inevitably ask: “Why am I here?”

[1] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, "Education for Sustainable Development." Last modified 2013. Accessed January 15, 2013.
[2] Webster, M. (n.d.). Retrieved from
[3] Mirel, Jeffrey. Patriotic Pluralism: Americanization Education and European Immigrants. (Harvard University Press, 2010), 6.
[4] George F. Milton, “Compulsory Education and the Southern States,” 7.
[5] Guggenheim, Davis. "Waiting For ‘Superman’." (Walden Media January 01 2010.) Web,
[6] Wheelock, Anne. Crossing the tracks: How "untracking" Can Save America's Schools. (New York: New Press. 1992).
[7] Sam F. Stack, "Implementing Brown v. Board of Education in West Virginia: The Southern School News Reports," West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies, 2, no. 1 (2008): 59-81, (accessed 2013-10-29 ).
[9] Mondale, Sarah, ed. School: The Story of American Public Education. (Beacon Press, 2002), 183.

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