Education for All

American Education in the 1800s

Education in the United States from 1850 to 1880 grew by leaps and bounds. The first public school was created in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1820s, and by the 1880s public schools outnumbered private schools. Public education went through dramatic changes in the United States from 1850 to 1880.

During this time period, education not only was for privileged children but for all children. Guidelines for curriculum, length of the school year, and even mandatory attendance were established. One of the major driving forces behind education for all was Horace Mann, who helped to create the Common Schools in northern states.

Horace Mann

 American Education in the 1800s Facts

  • Common Schools which were publicly financed were first created in northern states.
  • An early champion for education during this time frame was Horace Mann.
  • Common Schools were focused on teaching students’ morality and social order.
  • In the southern states, Pauper Schools were publicly funded but were for poor whites.
  • Common Schools, now known as Normal Schools, sought a unified curriculum for students in the region or locality. William H. Wells created the Graded Course of Instruction for the Public Schools of Chicago.
  • The first United States Commissioner of Education was Henry Barnard.
  • Most teachers were females under the age of 24 years old. Edward Sheldon created the Oswego Normal School to train teachers.
  • African Americans in northern states attended segregated schools until the 1850s. These schools were underfunded compared to an all-white school. In the southern states, African Americans were not afforded an education until after the Civil War.

 Common Schools

By 1850 in the United States, the Common School had taken hold of many northern states. The leader of the Common School Movement was Horace Mann. He helped to rally local leaders to support his idea of Common Schools. These schools were seen by local leaders, mainly Protestants in the northern states, as a place to teach moral values to children.

The Common School Movement was prevalent in the northern states but not in the southern states or newly settled territories and lands in the western United States. In the south, public education was limited to Pauper Schools that were dedicated to indigent whites.

Organized Public Education System

One of the biggest problems facing the Common Schools was there was no consensus on education. Wealthy families were already paying for private schools. Public schools needed to be funded by the citizens of each place. The wealthy families argued taxing the people was not the right thing to do. They believed that the money used for education was being wasted. Horace Mann and Henry Barnard convinced people that moral instruction given by the Common Schools helped stabilize society and social order.

The two men formed an alternative system known as Rate Bill. This system taxed families based on the number of children in Public or Common Schools. Over time, the system changed to a Flat Rate, which is like the system used today.


Supporters of public schools included labor reformers. These reformers wanted a public education system to help equal the playing field in American society. By 1850 almost one in five people lived in a city. The industrialization of the United States had many side effects on society. Side effects included concentrated wealth and a rise in wage workers or factory operatives.

These effects caused many cities to form a social system that locked people into being poor. Labor reformers believed that public schools would change these side effects in an industrialized city.

Also, during this time period in the United States, there was a growing number of immigrants entering the United States from Europe during this time period. This action led to more people favoring a public school system to maintain an American identity. The American identity instilled in school was a moral character or moral instruction.


The curriculum was an important factor in public schools. From 1850 to 1880, the public school system tried to organize public schools in a coordinated effort. The curriculum became important. Previously, the curriculum was left up to each individual teacher. This played out in the one-room schoolhouses across the country.

A major step forward was provided by a Chicago school superintendent named William H. Wells. He compiled a new guideline called Graded Course of Instruction for the Public Schools of Chicago. This manual would later be adopted by most urban area schools.

By 1867 centralized curriculum around the country was further strengthened when Henry Barnard was named the first United States Commissioner of Education.


As administrators took control of the curriculum in their region or local, teachers became an important part of the equation. There was not much formal training for teachers in the United States.

Most teachers were young females under the age of 24 years old. During the Civil War, young men went to war, and females were sought for teachers. Female teachers suffered from low wages in rural areas and not much better pay in urban areas. There was also a high turnover rate among female teachers who got married at a young age.

To solve the problem, administrators sought to find qualified teachers to follow the new curriculum. The first teacher training school appeared in Massachusetts in the late 1830s. By 1860 there were only six normal schools for teacher training in the country. Edward Sheldon created the Oswego Normal School in New York to train teachers. The Oswego School became the model for other types of teacher training schools.


Depending on your family’s class status, determining a student’s learning. In rural areas, children were needed to work on the farms. In urban areas, most poor children needed to work to support the family. Most times, students only attended three months of school a year. Students also only attended school for eight years in most cases.

Mandatory school attendance took hold in the Northeast states around the 1850s. These areas required students to attend school from eight to 14 years old for a minimum of 12 weeks.

The school year would later be extended from 150 days to 192 days in most areas. But because of the incoming immigrants, the laws were not forcefully enacted. Mandatory school attendance for children would need to wait a few more decades until it enacted new child labor laws to prohibit children from factories and such.

African American Students

African American students in the northern states could attend public schools, but in a segregated fashion. In the southern states, education for African Americans was non-existent. African American schools were sorely underfunded and not equipped like all-white schools. After a ruling in 1855 in Boston, African American students were allowed to enter integrated schools with white children. This led to further integration of students except in the southern states.

After the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau built infrastructure in the southern, including schools. Unfortunately, the southern states quickly passed Black Code laws that prohibited integrated schools. Schools in the south became more segregated. Schools with freed slaves and black children never received the same level of funding as an all-white school in the south.

Higher Education

Colleges and universities during this time frame served a small percentage of students. The Morrill Land Grant of 1862 changed universities. The law required new territories and states to give federal land to establish state-run universities. These state-run universities concentrated their curriculum on agriculture, science, and engineering.


  1. Who was an early champion of public-funded schools known as Common Schools?
    Horace Mann
  1. Who was the first United States Commissioner of Education?
    Henry Barnard
  1. What type of administration positions were created to help unify the curriculum?
    Principals and Superintendents
  1. What was the name of the most important teacher training school created by Edward Sheldon?
    Oswego Normal School
  1. What was the name of the law that gave federal lands to create universities?
    Morrill Land Grant Act