Skip to Content

The History of Education in America: A Timeline

When we think of the history of education in America, we might picture a handful of children in a rustic one-room schoolhouse. Now, we have preschools, graduate schools, and everything in between. So when did formal education begin in America, and how did it become what it is now?

Secondary education and higher learning have been a part of American life since the first generation of colonists established schools and colleges in the seventeenth century. From these beginnings, education in America has grown and expanded into the thousands of institutions that today educate people of all ages.

Read on to learn about the origins of America’s first schools and the key people and events that helped to grow American education into what it is today.

When Did Formal Education Begin in America?

As the first colonists settled in what would become the United States, they established schools and colleges in the new world. Colonists modeled their schools after the European schools of their time, which were very different from our modern public schools.

Boston Latin School opened in 1635 in Boston, Massachusetts, and was the first public school in the eventual United States (source). Puritan settlers opened Boston Latin School as a boys-only college preparation school.

Donors and land renters funded the operation of the school. The school’s founding schoolmaster, Philemon Pormort, instructed boys of all social classes in grammar and literature over the course of a four-year program.

While colonists continued to establish secondary schools throughout the New World, families and private tutors were responsible for teaching younger children elementary math and reading. To learn more about everyday life in the colonies, read our article 13 American Colonies Timeline: Dawn of the Colonial Era.

In colonial America, most trades relied on apprenticeships to train new practitioners. Even practitioners of medicine and law trained apprentices directly.

Still, colleges were not absent from colonial America despite their narrower scope than our modern colleges and universities. Some of America’s earliest and best-known colleges, including Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary College, date to the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. 

Who Started Schools in America?

Religious denominations established most of colonial America’s earliest schools and colleges. As the settlements grew, towns began to charter their own public schools.

Puritan settlers in New England pioneered America’s first schools. Other religious groups took similar actions elsewhere in the colonies. Anglican, Catholic, and Dutch Reformed communities established schools in their settlements along the eastern seaboard.

The religious groups that pioneered public secondary schools were also responsible for America’s first colleges. New England Puritans founded the aforementioned Harvard and Yale Colleges. While the Virginia government was directly responsible for founding William and Mary College, the school maintained a close association with the Anglican Church.

In the century leading up to the American Revolution, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others would go on to establish colleges to meet the higher education needs of their respective communities.

How Did Education Begin in America?

Education in colonial America focused on the religious needs of the communities, with the particular aim of training ministers.

The colonial settlers valued and encouraged literacy so that all people could read their Bibles. For this reason, churches and religious groups took on the responsibility of educating their communities.

Also, for this reason, secondary education focused almost entirely on reading and literature. Schools seldom instructed students in science or math, choosing instead to leave instruction in those disciplines to trade-specific apprenticeships.

The need to train young men as ministers compelled the religious denominations to establish colleges in the colonies (source). All the earliest colleges offered ministerial training in addition to broader civics and history courses intended to educate the future governing class.

One education pioneer, Benjamin Franklin, took a different approach. He founded the Academy of Philadelphia to provide higher education in the arts and practical skills to a broad audience instead of focusing on training future clergy.

The Academy of Philadelphia would soon go on to establish America’s first medical school and become the first school to earn the “university” designation.

What Was Education Based on in Early America?

Education in early America was based on society’s need to prepare young men for futures as spiritual, business, and political leaders. As the needs of society changed, education grew and expanded to meet emerging needs.

In colonial America, both public and private schools limited enrollment to boys only. The tax base supporting emerging public schools was limited. Since women did not play significant roles in commerce and politics, schoolmasters determined that the limited education dollars should only be used to educate boys.

Education for Girls

Girls still received the same elementary reading instruction in their homes but did not have many of the same secondary education opportunities as boys.

Quaker settlements in Pennsylvania operated co-ed schools as early as the seventeenth century, but such schools were an exception in the colonies. Schools specifically for girls began to emerge in the early eighteenth century, nearly an entire century after the establishment of public education in the colonies.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the colonies took unique and disparate approaches to educate girls. Some New England towns funded girls’ education with taxpayer dollars. This was most common in areas where taxpaying families reaped the direct benefit of receiving an education for their own daughters.

Upper-class families were more likely to educate their daughters to ensure their future prominence in society.

After the American Revolution, American men settled into their roles as soldiers, tradesmen, and statesmen, and the task of teaching increasingly fell to women. Colonial women had already been providing elementary education to the children in their care. The need for more secondary educators led to new educational opportunities for girls and young women.

With a twist of irony, teaching itself became a primary reason that girls gained access to education in mathematics, sciences, and philosophy. This was the first of several notable changes in education trends in America.

Common School Journal

In 1838, Horace Mann began a biweekly publication called Common School Journal. Through the Journal, Mann outlined a vision for public education that would ultimately shape the future of American education.

Image by Engin Akyurt via Pexels

A native of Massachusetts, Mann graduated from Brown University in 1819 and practiced law in the early years of his career. Within a decade, Mann turned his efforts toward politics, serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1827 until 1833. He subsequently won a seat in the state’s senate and began serving in 1835 (source).

Mann recognized the deep and proud legacy of education in his home state. As a product of the state’s education system, he also perceived a decline in the quality of education and leveraged his role as a public servant to advocate for reform.

Committed to reform, Massachusetts established a State Board of Education in 1837 and appointed Horace Mann as the state’s first Secretary of Education.

Through his Common School Journal, Mann promoted taxpayer-funded public schooling based on six key principles:

  • An uneducated republic cannot expect to remain free and independent.
  • Universal education serves the interests of the public.
  • Schools ought to provide education to students of all backgrounds.
  • Public schools should be free from sectarian influence.
  • Education should espouse the tenets of a free society.
  • Well-trained professional teachers are necessary for proper education.

Many of these principles seem apparent to us today because they now form the very structure of our education system. But they were innovative and controversial in Mann’s time.

While Mann’s vision is responsible for much of the structure and philosophy of American education as we know it today, another change in society prompted the rapid expansion of the number of schools and education content.

Progressive Education Movement

In the late nineteenth century, the industrial revolution led to urbanization and increased demand for factory labor. The resulting shift from apprenticeship in the trades led to new education reforms.

In the United States, John Dewey was the most outspoken advocate of the progressive education movement. As a philosophy professor, Dewey believed that education should not simply pass on academic knowledge but should prepare students for life in society (source).

In his 1916 book, Democracy in Education, Dewey advocated for education that built upon children’s natural creativity and activity that led to critical thinking and problem-solving in a group setting.

Dewey’s ideas and the changing needs of an industrialized society led to more hands-on and experimental learning, themed curricula, and the development of social skills through the education experience.

In just three centuries, education had grown from a specialized privilege for select students to an integral part of American society.

Important Facts about the History of Education in America

Before we examine education in twenty-first-century America, let’s briefly recap how we got from where we started to where we are.

1635Boston Latin School opens.
1639Dorchester, MA opens America’s first taxpayer-funded school.
1683Pennsylvania law requires that all children be taught to read and write.
1689Quakers establish Friends Public School, the first school for both boys and girls.
1727Ursuline Academy opens.
1749Benjamin Franklin opens the Academy of Philadelphia.
1821Boston opens America’s first public high school.
1837Massachusetts establishes America’s first state board of education.
1838Horace Mann begins publishing Common School Journal.
1867President Andrew Jackson establishes the Department of Education.
1890-1930States establish compulsory school attendance laws.
1916John Dewey publishes Democracy in Education.
1925US Supreme Court rules that attending private schools complies with compulsory attendance laws (Pierce v. Society of Sisters).
1953The US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare assumes oversight of the Office of Education.
1954US Supreme Court rules that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education).
1965President Lyndon Johnson signs the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law.
1979President James Carter reestablishes the Department of Education as a cabinet office.
2002President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law.
2010National Governors Association introduces the Common Core Standards initiative.
2015President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act into law.

The growth and increased availability of education only tell half the story. Education has reached every town, demographic, and age group in the United States, but how do we evaluate the effectiveness of our robust schooling? 

When Was America First in Education?

America’s early educational reforms followed then-existing European models. American pioneers forged new paths beginning with the progressive education movement. By the mid-twentieth century, America would lay claim, at least subjectively, to the distinction of being the best at educating its population.

Image by Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels

In the decades that followed World War II, schooling in America began to coalesce into what is familiar to us today. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) declared racial segregation of schools unconstitutional. The hard-fought effort to fully desegregate the schools would proceed well into the 1970s.

Alongside desegregation, space exploration and advances in medicine and warfare encouraged increased investment in scientific education. At the same time, state houses and the federal government each sought to exert greater control over education in the United States.

While states continued to refine licensing requirements for school teachers, President Lyndon Johnson signed several federal education bills into law as part of his Great Society programs. 

The Higher Education Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965, allocating federal funding for college and grade-school education plus brand-new initiatives to promote early childhood education.

In the 1980s and 1990s, state legislatures implemented academic standards and developed testing for measuring students’ progress to determine if they had met the minimum criteria to earn a high-school diploma (source).

As similar metrics emerged worldwide, the United States entered the twenty-first century as the world’s most educated country.

Education in Twenty-First-Century America

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, over a dozen countries have surpassed America’s college graduation rate, the primary metric for determining the education level of a nation’s population.

Much of America’s approach to education in this century has been centered on creating as many educational opportunities as possible for the broadest number of residents. Read our article, Finding, Understanding, and Explaining Your Academic Interests, to learn more about the dynamics of modern education.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and the 2015 update, the Every Student Succeeds Act, federalized this effort by holding states accountable through the use of financial incentives to enforce their own standards for students’ math and reading proficiency.

This article was written for

In the 2010s, the federal government encouraged but did not mandate, states to adopt the Common Core Standards promoted by the National Governors Association, which would nationalize the academic standards by which states measured students’ progress.

Not all states embraced the Common Core Standards, and those that did subsequently reverted to their previous standards.

Final Thoughts

Education has grown in size, scope, and reach since America’s founding. With the proliferation of the Internet, remote learning, and self-paced study, education is again shifting with society.

We cannot know for sure what education will look like in 10 or 20 years. Still, history tells us that pioneers and visionaries will continue to innovate to meet the educational needs of our ever-changing society.