On July 3, 1839, three young women reported to Lexington, Massachusetts, with hopes of attending the first state funded school specifically established for public teacher education (what were then referred to as "normal" schools). After taking an examination which determined they were satisfactorily versed in the subjects taught by the ordinary district school, they were granted admission to this experimental program, the first in the nation.

The motivation to provide a public school education for all children was twofold. First was the desire to indoctrinate them with religious teachings to assure the continued existence of a devote and moral populace (and regular church attendance). A law passed in 1647 in the state of Massachusetts often called the "Old Deluder Law" makes reference to " chief object of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures..."

A second motivation for providing public education was the need to educate for social, economic, democratic and national reasons. By the time of the Revolutionary War, people were less homogeneous, and there was a commonly held belief that the democratic representative government would fail unless the state took a real responsibility in educating the children of all people.

For the upper classes there existed some good colleges providing a classical education for ministry, law or medicine. Teacher education was not considered a profession worthy of their attentions. Common (public) schools at this point were in bad shape. Typically in session only four months of the year (because of the agrarian society and the need to have children helping out at home), they were poorly attended, and basically taught by whomever was available. Pay of $30.00 per month was not much of a motivator for teachers to seek out an education specific to the occupation or for existing colleges to provide it.

James G. Carter, a member of the Massachusetts legislature is called the "Father of the American Normal School". He was influential in the passage of a bill creating the first State Board of Education in Massachusetts. Horace Mann was named the first secretary on June 29, 1837. Mann said at the dedication of the Lexington school "I believe Normal Schools to be a new instrumentality in the advancement of the race. I believe that, without them, Free Schools themselves would be shorn of their strength and their healing power and would at length become mere charity schools and thus die out in fact and in form."

The direction of education at this time was influenced by the teaching methods of Prussian schools, as developed by Pestalozzi. He described the process of teaching as directing the child in the unfolding of his latent powers and emphasized the harmonious development of the individual's faculties into a complete personality. This was a far cry from rote memorization, basically the only teaching method being utilized at this point in the U.S. There was a real need to provide the type of education which would foster a critical thinking populace. Daniel Webster said "Make them intelligent, and they will be vigilant -- give them the means of detecting wrong, and they will apply the remedy."

The spread of the normal school to other states can in part be credited to twenty-six graduates of the third Massachusetts normal school, opened on September 9, 1840, in Bridgewater. These graduates went on to become normal school heads as far away as Illinois and Michigan. The first Bridgewater principal, Nicholas Tillinghast, is credited with firing their enthusiasm for the normal school program. He said "The number, and I could almost say, the kind of studies, is of small importance provided we attempt to lead the pupil to habits of exactness, and put him so he can have self reliance. This is what I think the normal schools should aim at."

The normal schools attempted to provide the prospective teacher with a laboratory for learning, using model classrooms as a place to practice their new skills. The emphasis was on common everyday learning. The colleges, with their classical curriculums, looked down on the normal schools. The normal school crusade advocated teaching as a profession.


Harper, Charles A., "A Century of Public Teacher Education", 1970. Greenwood Press, Publishers, Westport, CT.

Ornstein/Levine, "Foundations of Education, 5th Edition", 1993. Houghton Mifflin Company, NY.

Prepared by Karen Cheek