Education has not always been an ingrained part of the American lifestyle. When America was first being settled, the colonists brought with them whatever form of education was used in their homeland. This mixture of systems eventually melded together into the American education system. The simple harsh realities of life, however, made education a luxury instead of a priority during these early years. For a long time the majority of schooling was accomplished by teaching the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic and religion to young children in a one room school house. Since school attendance was not required due to the conditions of rural life in the colonies, only about one out of every ten children actually went to school. Many of the other children either helped their parents scratch out a living or went into apprentiship with a local tradesman. For those rich enough to afford the luxury, tutors were hired or the children were sent away to tuition schools or schools in England.

This sporadic education system would slowly see a change, however. The Boston Latin Grammar School made its debut in 1635. This school was the first attempt at some form of secondary education and was very exclusive, only allowing boys preparing for college, especially in law or the ministry, to attend. Although a school of this nature was thought of as a waste of time by many members of the community, the average school day still lasted about eight hours during the summer months and four hours during the winter months. The school year itself was very flexible as well, changing from two months of school annually to having classes six days a week year round, depending on the practicality for the community.

Despite this attempt at a more structured educational system, there were still some major flaws that had to be worked through. One of the most pressing problems was actually finding schoolmasters for the schools. Teaching in a Latin Grammar School or even a one room school house was not a very respected position in any community. Many of the schoolmasters were college educated, but it was still difficult for them to maintain any type of living on the salaries that they were earning through the school. More often than not the pay received from the school came in the form of a cow, pig, bushel of apples or load of firewood. Schoolmasters had to find other forms of salary such as a tavern keeper, grave digger or choir leader just to make a bare living.

With such teaching conditions, those who chose to work in the schools were not of the best temperment. Many of the students received more discipline than lessons from schoolmasters who were simply chosen for their size and manner as opposed to their scholastic credentials. The older boys would make a sport of running the schoolmaster out of town, so only the strong could handle the job.

By 1642, however, the education system had taken an important first step toward developing a set standard of education. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was able to pass a law to require parents to make sure that their children were able to read. In 1647 Massachusetts again passed a law, the first in America, to require that communities would establish some type of public schooling system. This new law dictated that elementary schools would be formed in every town with 50 families and every town with at least 100 families would have a Latin Grammar School. Any town that did not comply with that law would be fined five pounds (twenty-five dollars). Since it was easier to obey the law then to come up with the money in those hard times, the schools were formed.

The development of the high school received another boost from Benjamin Franklin in 1751 when a new type of secondary education, the academy, was formed. This school was considered more practical than the Latin Grammar Schools since it focused more on subjects that could be directly related to the students' adult lives. Another leap that was made by Franklin was allowing girls to attend this school. Primarily girls were allowed to attend more primitive forms of elementary education when they were young, but then they were expected to stay at home and learn domestic skills until they could be suitably married off.

By 1821 the premise for an established education system was well under way. Free publicly supported schools were introduced in many communities and in 1824 the first true publicly supported high school was formed in in the United States. As the number of high schools grew, so did the quality of the education. Classes such as algebra, American History, bookkeeping, geometry and surveying were quickly added to the sparse curriculum and towns with a population of 4,000 or more were even required to add Latin, Greek, general history, rhetoric and logic. Three hundred high schools were added by the time of the civil war and after a Michigan Supreme Court ruling in 1874 that the school districts must maintain a tax-supported public high school, the popularity of secondary education soared. By 1880 there were 800 high schools in the United States and by 1890 there were 2,500.

Even the purpose of the high school has changed. Their main intention went from preparing students for college to preparing students for life and non-academic jobs. Electives were made available and student choice was encouraged, as long as they chose from a basic curriculum of Latin-scientific, modern languages and English. High school diplomas suddenly became tickets into good colleges and students began to see the real value of higher education and the impact it could have on their lives. Change and adaptability were the mottos of the educational community and this new surge of interest in public education paved the way for the education system as we know it today.

Prepared by Bethany D. Collins