The Education Reform Primer: The Early Days of Education in America

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

This blog will explore some of the influences from the last 375 years (mostly from the last 100 or so) that have shaped public school education and made it what it is today (for better or worse). So stay tuned, add this to your favorites, and prepare to receive a bit of education on education.

The Early Days of Education in America

by Matthew R. Plain

What did it look like?

Though Massachusetts blazed the trail for public school education in the mid-1600’s, the concept evolved relatively slowly in the Colonies. The extent to which Colonial American communities provided opportunities for formal schooling varied. In New England, though public schooling existed in some form, a child’s educational experience nevertheless depended on gender and social status. Many New England towns afforded school opportunities for boys and girls alike, but boys from wealthy families were far more likely to have access to additional opportunities.  Private and religious schools accounted for the vast majority of the formal education available in the mid-Atlantic Colonies, and the rural South had few schools. Of course, children from wealthy families, regardless of the region, could access private tutors or learn from literate family members.  Where schools were not available, children generally learned in the home.

What did they study?

Children generally learned, if at all, the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. A child’s gender, social status and means may have dictated access to additional subjects like Latin, Greek, and the Classics. Across the Colonies, and particularly in New England, the Bible served as an essential school text. The New England Primer, published in the late 1600’s, contained reading instruction and religious maxims, often using pictures. Horn books consisted of leafs or pages displaying the alphabet, the Lord’s Prayer, and sometimes Roman numerals attached to a piece of wood with a handle and covered with a transparent sheet of “horn.”

In short, the early days of education in America were relatively basic, especially for those of average means. Nevertheless, new ideas and thoughts in America would soon influence the public school education concept and increase its availability. More on this influence will follow in our next installment.

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including charter schools, charter management organizations, traditional public schools, private schools, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York . For more information, please click here.

Matt Plain is a Partner at Barton Gilman focusing his practice on education law, including school governance, administrative law, labor and employment, special education, and contract drafting and disputes. In addition, Matt is currently serving his second term as an elected member of the East Greenwich School Committee. In this capacity, he chairs the district’s policy subcommittee and serves on the negotiating team. Matt also teaches Education Reform and Policy at Roger Williams University School of Education. He is a former public school teacher and holds a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction. Matt has been named a 2018 Best Lawyer in America in Education Law, a New England Super Lawyer Rising Star, and a 40 Under Forty honoree by Providence Business News.