Education policy in the United States

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Education policy in the U.S.
Public education in the U.S.

Higher education by state
School choice in the U.S.
Education statistics
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See also

Education policy refers to the plan and underlying principles for educating students. The goals of educational policy have evolved in the U.S. as society and culture have changed, and are continually being debated and revised.

Over time, the following have all been goals of public education:
  • to prepare children for citizenship
  • to cultivate a skilled workforce
  • to teach cultural literacy
  • to prepare students for college
  • to help students become critical thinkers
  • to help students compete in a global marketplace [1][2]

In the United States, education policy has been important since the first settlements of the Puritans, when the goal was mainly religious. Today many see the goal of education as learning skills necessary to participate in a global economy. While it is generally agreed that gaining certain fundamental knowledge and skills is important for individual success and happiness, civic order and economic prosperity, there is still much disagreement about what should be learned and how it should be taught.

Major educational policy issues involve the following questions:

  • Who should be educated and by whom?
  • What should be taught, and who decides this?
  • Where and when should students be educated?
  • Who is responsible for the delivery of education?
  • How much should education cost and who should pay for it?
  • What are the standards for measuring success?
  • What should and can be done to correct failure?

The interested parties or immediate stakeholders include: students, parents, teachers, school administrators, professors and education schools, elected and non-elected officials, reformers and businesses which rely on an educated work force.

Education policies often pit these stakeholders against each other and often come down to who should decide what is best for children. One main tension has been between the rights of parents to determine how their children are educated, and public authority which passes laws, collects taxes and sets up schools for the common good of society. Within the government, there is often tension is between local, state and federal offices over control of various aspects of education content, funding and delivery. In addition, groups such as teachers’ unions, parents' groups and reform organizations often disagree with each other and among themselves about the most basic issues.

Traditionally in the United States, education has been primarily the responsibility of parents and local and state government. The U.S. Constitution says nothing about education, and therefore, according to the 10th Amendment, the role of the federal government is limited.[3] Education is funded largely by local and state government, with the federal government contributing less than 13 percent of total education expenditures for elementary and secondary education in the fiscal year 2011-2012.[4] However, since education is overseen and carried out by so many different state and local entities there is much variation and inequality among school systems. For this reason, some reformers advocate giving the federal government a larger role in setting policy and standards. Others argue for greater local and parental control, and fear that a distant bureaucracy cannot serve the best interests of their children.


Colonial era

Boston Public Latin School, the first public high school, established 1685
Education in America in the early years was primarily private and religious, and focused mainly on learning to read and write in order to read the Bible and new laws of the settlements. The first education law was enacted by the Massachusetts General Court in 1642 requiring parents and guardians to “make certain their charges could read and understand the principles of religion and the laws of the Commonwealth.”[5] Most children were taught at home, but because not all parents could or would comply, the Massachusetts Law of 1647, the Old Deluder Satan Act, was enacted to require that “towns of fifty families hire a schoolmaster who would teach children to read and write. Towns of a hundred families must have a grammar schoolmaster who could prepare children to attend Harvard College.”[6] The first government-owned and operated public high school, Boston Latin School, was founded in 1685.[7]

The prominent minister, Cotton Mather, following Martin Luther and the Reformation in Europe, preached in the strongest terms for the establishment of schools to prevent degeneracy and social disorder:

“A woeful putrefaction threatens the Rising Generation; Barbarous Ignorance, and the unavoidable consequence of it, Outrageous Wickedness will make the Rising Generation Loathsome, if it have not Schools to preserve it.”[8][2]
The religious component of education was predominant, and the Latin schools provided a classical education meant to prepare young men to study theology or law at Harvard. Girls were educated mainly at home or in Dame schools, which were private homes where women taught rudimentary reading and writing while tending their homes.[9]

Founding era

By the time of the American Revolution, education in the colonies was less influenced by Europe and geared more toward practical matters of commerce and agriculture. In 1749 Benjamin Franklin founded the private Philadelphia Academy offering a practical, more secular curriculum. During the 17th and 18th centuries there were many different types of private or semi-public arrangements for the education of children, with curricula ranging from traditional Latin and Greek curricula to more practical utilitarian studies typical in English grammar schools. Academies combined elements of both.[10]

There was also great inequity as to who was educated. Generally girls were educated at home, and few students from poor families, American Indians, or African Americans were educated formally, except by Quakers who established charity schools to serve these groups.

Civic education

Thomas Jefferson viewed educating the common man as important for promoting and preserving the democratic ideal; in order to preserve their liberty, citizens needed not just reading and arithmetic to manage their affairs, but also an understanding of history to understand their rights and duties. Benjamin Rush, a prominent doctor and founding father, called for public schools in Pennsylvania, and even a national system of education. Many opposed this plan because they did not want to pay for it through higher taxes. He argued that all would benefit because education would lead to less crime and degeneracy. Nevertheless, there were still few completely publicly funded schools, and nothing approaching a standard curriculum or unified theory of education. Early schooling involved primarily learning to read for religious purposes, and learning some rudimentary arithmetic. After the revolution, civic literacy became an added component, as seen in Noah Webster’s first “textbook” in 1783. This was a speller that emphasized patriotic and moral values of the newly independent colonies while teaching grammar and spelling.[11][12]

The 19th century

Common schools

Horace Mann American Educationalist.jpg

In the 1820’s Massachusetts and then Connecticut passed laws requiring every town to choose a school committee to organize public schools into a unified system. The chief advocate of government schools, or “common schools,” was Horace Mann, who was appointed Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. He introduced age-grading, and also set up "normal schools" to train teachers. He argued for free public schooling as the best way to civilize children both morally and socially. In response to the great wave of Roman Catholic immigration beginning in the 1840's, public schooling was seen as a way of integrating children of immigrants, and counteracting the presumed bad influence of immigrant parents. This began the “Common School Movement,” during which local governments set up non-sectarian schools for the general populace paid for by local and state governments. Critics of the movement included Catholics who complained of religious bias, taxpayers who did not want to pay for public schools for someone else's children, and those who saw government control as trampling individual liberty and parental rights.[13]

Despite these objections reformers succeeded during the second half of the century in getting all states to set up systems of common schools. Local schools boards, school districts and teachers' associations came into existence. The Southern states lagged behind the North, and it was not until after the Civil War that they set up legally mandated schools, which were racially segregated. By 1900 the majority of children aged 6-13 were enrolled in government elementary schools. As the power of the educational establishment expanded, there was a sense among some reformers, bureaucrats, politicians and teachers, that parents were "unfit guardians" and children must be "forced into school," according to one Massachusetts Teacher article written in 1851. The Wisconsin Teacher Association in 1865 was not alone in declaring that "children are the property of the state."[14]

Religious schools

Although the public schools were officially non-sectarian the inherited Protestant bent to the teaching prompted Catholics and Lutherans to set up a parallel system of parochial schools to preserve their religion and culture. Opposition to parochial schools led to the so-called "Blaine amendments," which prohibited the use of public funds for parochial schools. Although the original amendment proposed in 1868 ultimately was not passed by Congress, such amendments were adopted by many states and still affect school choice policy today.

Role of the federal government

In addition to expanded state control of schools, the federal government began to play a role. In 1862 Congress passed the first Morrill Act which granted land to set up colleges in agricultural and mechanical arts.The original Department of Education was created in 1867 to help the states establish effective school systems by collecting information on schools and teaching.The Second Morrill Act in 1890 made the federal Office of Education responsible for administering support to land-grant colleges and universities.[15][16]

The 20th Century

By the end of WWI in 1918, roughly two-thirds of children were enrolled in government schools, and all states had compulsory attendance laws. Oregon amended its Compulsory Education Act, making it illegal for students to attend non-government run schools, but this was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925 in the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters.

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.[17][2]

Secondary schools

The reforms of the early 20th century focused mainly on expanding secondary schools, and has been called by some the "high school movement" or second transformation of American education. It concentrated on increasing graduation rates by diversifying the academic programs to include not only traditional foundational subjects, but also vocational training. In 1917 the Smith-Hughes Act and the 1946 George-Barden Act focused federal involvement on agricultural, industrial and home economics training for high school students.[16] Educational "administrative progressives" did succeed in changing the face of public education based on the new "educational science." They changed high schools to include different tracks and electives, increased professionalism of the educational bureaucracy and instituted standardization of curricula, testing and even building design. They advocated for consolidation of schools and districts, more centralized administration, increased spending and expanded school services. In the cities they drastically reduced the number of board members and delegated decision-making to experts, including superintendents and central staff. In the countryside, smaller school districts were consolidated into large districts, drastically reducing the influence of local schools boards and lay people and increasing the power of administrators. These administrative progressives believed the federal education department should lead the states in reorganization and regulation. State Departments of Education grew to regulate and standardize their states' school systems. Whereas in 1890 there was, on average, one staff member for 100,000 students, in 1970 the ratio was one to 2,000.[18]

These reforms instituted by a new powerful education elite was very successful in educating more students through the secondary school level than anywhere else in the world. Between 1900 and 1950 the number of children aged 5 to 19 enrolled in school increased from 50 to 80% respectively. Students spent many more days in school.


During the early part of the century, the Progressive education movement led by John Dewey sought to reform society through education. They challenged the earlier aim of public schooling to achieve cultural uniformity and to educate dutiful citizens. Instead these idealistic reformers focused on individual development and emphasized experiential learning and critical thinking, and "opposed a growing national movement that sought to separate academic education for the few and narrow vocational training for the masses, preparing workers for their vocational roles." Although some progressive education ideas were seen as too radical at the time, they survived mainly in education schools and continue to inspire educational alternatives to a "regime of standardization and mechanization" in secondary schooling.[19]

Role of federal government

In the second half of the century, the federal government continued to play an ever-increasing role in education. After the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, in 1958 Congress passed the "first example of comprehensive Federal education legislation," the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) which "included support for loans to college students, the improvement of science, mathematics, and foreign language instruction in elementary and secondary schools, graduate fellowships, foreign language and area studies, and vocational-technical training."[16]

Segregation in public schools continued until 1954 when it was outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. During 1960s and 1970s, with the passage of laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 which prohibited discrimination based on race, sex and disability, the Department's mission came to include that of ensuring equal access to education. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) launched a comprehensive set of programs, including the Title I program of federal aid to disadvantaged children and the Higher Education Act which authorized assistance for postsecondary education, including financial aid programs for needy college students.

    DocumentIcon.jpg See bill: Higher Education Act of 1965

In 1980 the Department of Education became a cabinet level agency. Despite the objections of critics, including President Reagan who wanted to abolish it, the federal agency's involvement in elementary and secondary programs, as well as postsecondary education continued to expand. There was also a growing sense that the quality of public education had been declining since the mid-1960's. This led to the comprehensive 1983 study "A Nation At Risk", which recommended more rigorous standards, merit pay and other reforms in order to increase national competitiveness.

All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgement needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself.[20][2]

In response to the devastating findings of the report, the "School Choice" movement, led by Milton Friedman, noted free-market economist, began among parents and reformers calling for more school choice and accountability, and significantly less state involvement. By 2000 education options such as homeschooling, vouchers, tuition tax credits and charter schools had increased significantly throughout the country.[21] These reforms have been somewhat controversial and opposed by some in the educational establishment and teachers' unions.

Current education policy

In the 21st century, two major policy issues have been most prominent: school choice and academic performance. Parents have been demanding more alternatives and a more active role in choosing schools that they believe will provide better education for their children. Reform groups and federal and state government agencies have been wrestling with the issue of education standards, and whether there can or should be common standards for all educational instruction and achievement.

To administer and oversee its programs, the Department of Education today has the third largest budget of all the Cabinet-level departments, though it has the smallest staff, with 4,400 employees.[22]

  • No Child Left Behind Act: In 2001 the United States Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, (NCLB) which instituted education reform based on the philosophy that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals for schools would improve individual outcomes for public school students. The legislation required states to develop standardized tests and to give these assessments to all students at certain designated grade levels in order to receive federal funding. Each individual state was responsible for developing its own standards. The bill passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on January 8, 2002.[23] Many critics of No Child Left Behind have denounced its requirement of and emphasis on standardized testing, and believe it was not sufficiently funded.
For more information, see: No Child Left Behind Act
  • Race to the Top: On June 24, 2009, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a $4.35 billion competitive grant fund named the Race to the Top Fund. The competition, created by the U.S. Department of Education, was created to promote innovation and improve achievement in state and local K-12 education. The program was funded by the ED Recovery Act, a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. States were awarded funds for achieving performance standards, implementing reforms, complying with Common Core standards, building comprehensive data systems and turning around low performing schools. The goal for this plan was to provide incentives for effective reform efforts and reward states and districts for implementing these reforms. To become eligible, states needed to satisfy a "Common Core" of achievement standards. States proposed sweeping reform objectives and then submitted grant proposals for programs they believed would achieve the objectives outlined. Proposals were measured against a scoring criteria, and grants were awarded. The Department of Education then measured states' progress towards their target objectives as the grant renewal process proceeded. Several states were unable to meet proposed targets in Race to the Top funded programs. As a result, grant allocation slowed significantly after three initial rounds. In 2012, President Obama announced a $400 million expansion of the program--the Race to the Top District competition--in which school districts, rather than state school systems, may apply for Race to the Top program grants.[24][25][26]
For more information see: Race to the Top
  • Common Core: The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an American education initiative that outlines quantifiable benchmarks in English and mathematics at each grade level from kindergarten through high school. These benchmarks were developed by a working group assembled by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in 2008 through 2009. Common Core standards have drawn attention since their finalization in 2009 among groups concerned about several different elements included in the reforms, including the impact of standardized testing on academic achievement. A total of 43 states have approved Common Core standards as of June 20, 2014. Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted the standards. Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina adopted the Common Core standards but repealed them in 2014. Minnesota has only adopted the English-language arts requirements from the Common Core standards.
For more information see Common Core State Standards Initiative
  • Online learning: Online learning is a rapidly expanding type of education not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Although the first virtual classroom was an experiment that used closed circuit television and an early computer network, online education has improved alongside technology. Courses taught in a studio or college in New England can be viewed or taken by students around the world. Students in elementary or secondary schools can take online courses through their districts or virtual charter schools. Critics assert that learning online is a poor substitute for classic instruction while proponents insist that the difference in education quality is negligible at its worst and improving gradually. Regardless, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that around 5.5 million college students took at least one online class in 2012. This data only accounts for a small number of students who participate in online education, as students of all ages and from anywhere in the world can potentially take classes online.[27][28][29]
For more information see Online learning

Major federal legislation

  • 1862: First Morrill Act provided the first federal aid for higher education by donating land for setting up colleges.[30]
  • 1890: Second Morrill Act gave the Office authority to establish a support system for land-grant colleges and universities.
  • 1896: U.S. Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, legalized segregation in "separate but equal" schools.
  • 1917: Smith-Hughes Act extended federal aid to vocational education programs.
  • 1946: Georgia-Barden Act established agricultural, industrial and home economics classes.
  • 1944: GI Bill authorized assistance to veterans for postsecondary schools.
  • 1954: U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, outlaws segregation precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson.
  • 1958: National Defense Education Act (NDEA) supported loans for college students, improved science, technology and foreign language support in elementary and secondary schools and provided fellowships in response to the Cold War.
  • 1964: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based on race, color or national origin in public schools.
  • 1965: Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act gave federal aid to schools in poor rural and urban areas.
  • 1965: The Higher Education Act authorized federal aid for poor postsecondary students.
  • 1970: Standardized tests were given to public schools and the results are reported to the government and public in an effort to hold educators accountable.
  • 1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments prohibited discrimination based on sex in public schools.
  • 1973: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibited discrimination based on disability in public schools.
  • 1980: The Department of Education was officially formed by Congress.
  • 2001: No Child Left Behind Act program increased education funding and established standards-based testing reforms.
  • 2010: Race to the Top program encouraged states to compete for federal grants in education.

See also

External Links


  1., "School: The Story of American Education," accessed April 28, 2014
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  3. 'The U.S. Department of Education, "Laws and Guidance," accessed June 27, 2014.
  4. The Federal Role in Education, at," accessed April 10, 2014
  5. Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, "A Brief History of Education in America", accessed on April 10, 2014
  6. University of Notre Dame, "Massachusetts Education Laws of 1642 and 1647", accessed on April 10, 2014
  7. Boston Latin School Association, "Boston Latin School History"," accessed April 11, 2014
  8. "The Education of Children," ca. 1700," accessed April 10, 2014
  9., "Colonial Education, Education for Boys and Girls," accessed on April 18, 2014.
  10. Early National Education," accessed April 10, 2014
  11. Education Encyclopedia - State, "Common School Movement - Colonial and Republican Schooling, Changes in Antebellum Era, The Rise of the Common School," accessed April 11, 2014
  12. Education in the Revolutionary Era, accessed on April 10, 2014.
  13. Education Encyclopedia - State, "Common School Movement - Colonial and Republican Schooling, Changes in Antebellum Era, The Rise of the Common School," accessed April 11, 2014
  14. Coulson, Andrew J., Market Education: The Unknown History, Transaction Publishers: 1999, pp. 82-83
  15. ', "Land-Grant College Act of 1862," accessed April 18, 2014
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 U.S. Dept of Education, "The Federal Role in Education," accessed April 18, 2014.
  17. Pierce v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and, 268 u.s. 510 (1925), accessed, April 14, 2014
  18. Tinkering Toward Utopia, A Century of Public School Reform, by David Tyack and Larry Cuban, (Harvard University Press: 1995), p. 19
  19. University of Vermont, John Dewey Project, "A Brief Overview of Progressive Education," accessed April 21, 2014
  20. "A Nation At Risk," April 1983.
  21. Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, "A Brief History of Education in America", accessed on April 10, 2014
  22. U.S. Department of Education, "The Federal Role in Education," accessed September 30, 2014
  23. Josie Canales, James Frey, Cathy Walker, Sherry Freeland Walker, Suzanne Weiss and Anna West, Education Commission of the States, "No State Left Behind: The Challenges and Opportunities of ESEA 2001," accessed January 28, 2014
  24. Huffington Post, "Race To The Top For Districts Piques Interest Of Chicago And Los Angeles Mayors," March 3, 2012
  25., "Race to the Top District Competition," accessed February 27, 2014
  26., "Race to the Top Fund," accessed February 27, 2014
  27. Chronicle, "Exactly how many students take online course?" accessed January 16, 2015
  28., "History of online education," accessed January 16, 2015
  29. U.S. Department of Education, "Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: a meta-analysis and review of online learning studies," accessed September 12, 2014
  30., "Morrill Act (1862)," accessed April 18, 2014.