Reform of Public Education

by Connie Li

Goals and Tactics


- create a free and universal education system (available to all children regardless of class)

- through this education:

  • create educated citizens needed to sustain American political institutions
  • create an educated workforce required to expand the American economy
  • create a disciplined generation necessary to forestall the social disorders so common in American cities

- establish a more uniform curriculum throughout schools in the country


- promotion of the public school system as the way to social stability and equal opportunity

- by law in 1827, Massachusetts required a high school in every town of 500; in towns of 4000 or more the school had to offer Latin, Greek, rhetoric and other college preparatory courses

- in 1837, Massachusetts created the nation's first board of education

- Connecticut created a state board of common schools

- leaders of the reform published journals about public schools to inform the nation about their goals


1. Horace Mann
  • “The Father of the Common School Movement"
  • member of the Massachusetts state legislature
  • Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education
  • argued that the common school (a free, universal, non-sectarian, and public institution) was the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans
  • "Education... is the great equalizer of the conditions of men- the balance wheel of the social machinery."
  • believed that education was a child's "natural right"
  • created the first state-supported "normal school" for the training of teachers
  • advocated for a minimum school year of six months
  • mostly focused on reforming Massachusetts' schools
  • affected the whole nation by writing The Common School Journal

2. Henry Barnard

  • member of the Connecticut state legislature
  • instrumental in legislation that created a state board of common schools
  • in 1838, founded the Connecticut Common School Journal
  • established the first teachers' institute in 1839
  • in 1845, became the Rhode Island's first commissioner of public schools
  • in Rhode Island, teachers’ wages were raised, school buildings were repaired, and teaching and supervision were much improved because of Barnard
  • in 1855 helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Education and the American Journal of Education

3. Noah Webster

  • was a teacher who thought elementary education was in a deplorable state
  • felt that Americans should have their own textbooks, and not rely on English textbooks
  • wrote the A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, more commonly known as the "Blue-Backed Speller"
  • this speller was used all over the country and helped standardize spelling and pronunciation in America
  • this speller was the #1 most used school book in America until the end of the 19th century when it was gradually replaced by the McGuffy reader.
  • however, most known for publishing a series of dictionaries (the first truly American dictionaries) in the early 19th century

4. William McGuffey

  • in 1835, contracted with the Cincinnati publishers Truman and Smith to compile a primer (a schoolbook offering basic lessons in many subjects), a spelling book, and four school readers
  • compiled a fifth school reader in 1844
  • the readers were collections of didactic tales and excerpts from great books, reflecting McGuffey’s view that the proper education of young people required their introduction to a wide variety of topics and practical matters
  • they became standard texts in nearly all states
Horace Mann - The Father Of American Education

Pre-Civil War Achievements

- citizens voted to pay taxes to build better schools, to pay teachers higher salaries and to establish special training schools for teachers
- school year was lengthened to 6 months
- most states accepted three basic principles of public education:
  1. school should be free and supported by taxes
  2. teachers should be trained
  3. children should be required to attend school.
- a more uniform curriculum was established throughout the country with the introductions of "The Blue-Backed Speller" and "McGuffey Readers"

- in 1821, the Boston English High School opened as the first free public secondary school

- in 1837, Pennsylvania passed a law appropriating state money to education

- by the time of the Civil War, 94% of population of the North and 83% of the population in the South were literate, causing the U.S. to have one of the highest literacy rates in the world at that time

The Origins of the American Public Education System: Horace Mann & the Prussian Model of Obedience