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How Education in America Evolved

Written By:

Carson Watkins

Publishing Date: 

June 25, 2023

How Education in America Evolved  

            According to The United States Department of Education, 91.1 Percent of Americans will receive a high school diploma, and 38 percent will attend college (Department of Education, 2022). But what the students learn has been a multi-century-long debate that has picked up in recent years. Public Schools operate with standards brought by the State Government. This seemingly inconspicuous policymaking has become a key talking point from the kitchen table to presidential candidates.

Early America

            In early America, only ten percent of American children were in school. (Middlekauff, 1961, 78) However, early in the Revolutionary period, American schools started to take shape. The Upper East Coast began to invest in the education of youth. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson invested heavily in education. Jefferson laid a foundation for what Public Schools would become in the Virginia State Government. At the time, Jefferson's efforts failed to gain government support. (Altenbaugh, 1999, 192).  The only children who were being educated were children with wealthy parents. With a growing sense of urgency to get legitimacy for the new land, state governments began to mandate that children be taught literacy. The way American history is taught to school children is at the forefront of the education debate, and the roots of this debate go back to the Revolutionary period. According to the University of Minnesota,

“Textbooks were written to standardize spelling and pronunciation and to instill patriotism and religious beliefs in students. At the same time, these textbooks included negative stereotypes of Native Americans and certain immigrant groups.”

Religion In Schools

            As education became widespread in America, religious groups wanted schools to teach religion. In the early 19th Protestants and Catholics' arguments over teaching religion in schools became deadly when violence erupted, causing catholic churches to be burned down. (Pew Research Center, 2019). Protestants had the support of government officials; in Massachusetts, the government required the Kings James version of the Holy Bible to be taught. (Altenbaugh,1999,41). Anti-Catholic sentiment would be brought into educational policy for the next century. Catholic schools began requesting federal funds for schooling. Protestants started to lobby for these funds not to be given, citing Catholic bigotry. The most prevalent voice in this movement was Paul Blanshard, who said in the magazine Nation, “Struggle between American democracy and the catholic hierarchy depends on the survival and expansion of public schools.” (Ravitch, 1983, P. 32). This statement would cause controversy. Still, in the backdrop, a string of decisions from the nation’s highest court would fundamentally shape education in the United States.

Supreme Court changes Education

            In Illinois, public schools had a set time called “release time,” when students would get specialized schooling for religious teaching at certain times. Vashti McCollum, an atheist, sued, citing first amendment violations. In an eight-one decision, the court ruled that schools could not aid in religious teaching. (Ravitch, 1983, P. 32). Religious groups did get a small win in Zorach v. Clauson when the court ruled that students in the state of New York could get released to attend religious instruction if it was not on public property. (Zorach v. Clauson). Shortly after this, the religious movement would face another blow in the case of Engel V Vitale. According to court documents, schools in New York implemented voluntary prayer at school, and once again, a lawsuit was brought against the school board in New York. In an eight-one decision, the court ruled that sponsored prayer in schools is against the Constitution's First Amendment establishment clause. In the opinion of the court, Justice Black said,

“The people's religions must not be subjected to government pressures for change each time a new political administration is elected. Under that Amendment's prohibition against governmental establishment of religion.”  (Black, 1962).

New Politics of Schooling

            In a new hyper-partisan America, classroom politics have been challenging, and some believe that their children are not receiving a proper education free of politics. This has led to grassroots organizing of “Parental Rights Groups” Across the United States, with groups of parents demanding more access to their children’s schooling and input on the curriculum. While parental rights groups are a relatively new phenome, the Supreme Court has made rulings in the past that parents have brought forth on behalf of their children. Joseph Griffith (2021) at the American Institute of Economic Research said,

“The United States Supreme Court first upheld this right of parents in a series of landmark cases in the mid-1920s. In Meyer v. Nebraska (1925), the Court struck down a state law prohibiting instruction in German to students before the ninth grade; in the lesser-known decision of Farrington v. Tokushige (1927), the Court overturned a similar law in Hawaii that forbade instruction in Japanese. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the Court struck down an Oregon law that effectively outlawed private schools.”  (Griffith,2021)

The new age of parental rights has drawn criticism for what some few as an extremism of policy making. During the Covid-19 pandemic, United States Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a statement declaring government action due to increased violent threats to teachers and other school administrators. (Garland, 2021, P.1). The most proviolent parental rights group right now is Moms for Liberty. Founded by two moms in Florida, the organization's mission statement states,

“Moms for Liberty is dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating, and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”

They initially planned to focus on policies in Florida, but with backing from several political leaders, the group began to expand nationwide. This attention has brought criticism from civil rights groups. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center (2023) added the group to their hate map list, accusing the group of being anti-government and accusing schools of teaching woke ideology and sexualizing children. The founders of the group Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich, fought back in the Wall Street Journal, saying,

“The SPLC and its donors want the parental rights movement to end. They find it threatening that parents have become vocal and involved in the education system since the pandemic, and they want us to sit down and shut up.” (Justice, Descovich, Wall Street Journal, 2023). 

Groups on the left have risen, attempting to stop groups like Moms for Liberty by training and running candidates against the group’s candidates. In the Washington Post, Katie Paris of Red Wine and Blue said, “A big goal is to flip back seats that were won by extremists in 2021 just to stop the chaos.” (Harden, Washington Post).

The Books That Are and Aren’t in The Library

            In 1977, the public school board investigated the school’s curriculum and library materials in Warsaw, Indiana. This review led to the dismissal of seven teachers, the removal of books from the library, and the ending of the school newspaper. (Reichman, 2001, P. 4). The calling to ban books from the library has increased in light of the prenatal rights movement. Parents believe that their children aren’t only given questionable material in the classroom but also material available in the library. However, some believe this is an attempt to ban books and censor new ideas from children. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court ruled against banning books in the school library in the Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico by Pico when students sued their school board, alleging violations of their first amendment rights. In a five to four decision, the court ruled in the student’s favor saying that schools violated the student's first amendment rights by banning these books. In a concurring opinion, Justice Blackmun (1982) states,

“The Court, therefore, has acknowledged the force of the principle that schools, like other enterprises operated by the State, may not be run in such a manner as to "prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion."

Despite this ruling, the banning of books is on the rise. According to the American Library Association (2022), have been 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022. Opponents of the book ban say restricting access to these materials damages student education. Proponents of book bans argue over politics in the classroom. In the book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch says,

“However, as I read current guidelines, it was clear that they went far beyond the original purpose of eliminating bias and had developed into an elaborate language code that bans many common words and expressions.” (Ravitch, 2003, P. 32)


The Past, Present, and Future of History Education

            In his book “Battle for The American Mind,” Fox News Host Pete Hegseth (2022) says,

“When I was in high school, the overwhelming historical ethos of the classroom was an example of Martin Luther King Junior. We all knew America had a past full of racial scars and other problems, but our modern responsibility was to fill the incomplete values of our founding.” (Hegseth, 2022, p. 35).

This is the way many on the right believe how history education should be in American schools. The ways to teach American History have been one of the most significant debates in American education among groups such as Mom’s for Liberty, leaving teachers, administration, and textbook publishers in an uncomfortable limbo. While this is a prevalent issue, it is not a new one. After the Supreme Court ruling in Brown V Board of Education, desegregated schools, educators had to grapple with how to teach in multicultural classrooms. Donald Yacovone (2022) alleges that education pre-Brown was based on a white supremacist view of history. Textbook publishers had to grapple with these changes in the 1990’s drawing criticism for not presenting a both sides view of historical events. Ravitch (2003) Believes that students should read primary documents and use the textbook should be a reference guide. Interpretations of history will always spark debate, and that's why teachers, administrators, and textbook producers must include first-hand sources of history that allow students to draw their conclusions.


            Every parent wants what’s best for their child, but parents will inevitably disagree on the topics that should be taught to students in a classroom setting. That is why it is crucial for schools to set an informative curriculum that informs students of the issues, the arguments and allows them to discuss with peers and parents and form their own opinions.


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