U.S. public education has had three primary eras.
The first era reflected the needs of a sparsely populated rural agrarian society. Most children were homeschooled and literacy focused primarily on reading the Bible. The federal government began promoting public education through the U.S. Postal Service, which Congress created in 1775, by subsidizing the distribution of magazines, pamphlets, books, almanacs, and newspapers. To maximize access, and to facilitate political patronage, the federal government began aggressively establishing post offices in rural communities. By 1822, the U.S. had more newspaper readers than any other country.
Religious organizations provided most of the structured instruction outside the home in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Children and adults attended Sunday Schools and communities organized what today we would call homeschool co-ops, which allowed rural children to receive instruction when their chores would permit.
Public education’s transition into its second era began in the early 1800s as innovations in transportation and communications began to connect the country and promote more industrialization and urbanization. About 90% of Americans lived on farms in 1800, 65% in 1850, and 38% in 1900. Industrialization and the transition from farms to cities created childcare needs and the necessity for people to become more literate.
Demarcating the transition from one public education era to the next is somewhat arbitrary. I’ve chosen 1852 as the transition from era one to two because 1852 is when Massachusetts passed the nation’s first mandatory school attendance law.
The massive influx of European immigrants beginning in the 1830s was a primary reason Massachusetts decided to make school attendance mandatory. The U.S. experienced a 600% increase in immigration from 1840 to 1860 compared to the prior 20 years. Most of these immigrants were illiterate, low-income, and Catholic.
Massachusetts’ mandatory school attendance law was intended to help turn these new immigrants into “good” Americans, meaning they needed to be literate, financially self-sufficient, and Protestant.
Protestant hostility toward Catholics in the U.S. continued deep into the following century and included the infamous Blaine Amendments that many states adopted in the late 1800s to forbid public funding of Catholic schools, and the 1922 constitutional amendment in Oregon that required all students to attend Protestant-controlled government schools. The Ku Klux Klan helped pass the Oregon amendment because of their concerns about the growing presence of Catholic and Jewish families in the state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Oregon amendment unconstitutional in its 1925 decision Pierce v. Society of Sisters, ensuring that every state’s public education system moving forward would include public and private schools.
By 1900, 31 states had passed mandatory school attendance laws. While these laws were not initially well enforced, they did significantly increase school attendance, which created management challenges. This huge influx of students could not be served by one-room schoolhouses serving muti-aged students, so local and state governments began adopting batch processing methods that resembled industrial mass production, which allowed centralized enterprises to create large numbers of products at lower costs, the most famous example being the assembly lines that Henry Ford created to mass produce affordable Model T Fords.
This new industrial model of public education replaced multi-age grouped students with age-specific grade levels that functioned like assembly line workstations. Just as assembly line workers were taught the skills necessary for their workstations, teachers were trained to teach the skills associated with their assigned grade level, and children were moved annually from one grade level to the next en masse.
Mississippi became the last state to pass a mandatory school attendance law in 1918. By then the bulk of multi-aged one-room schools were starting to be replaced with larger schools that reflected the best management practices of 19th century industrial manufacturing.
Ford famously told customers they could have any color of Model T they wanted provided it was black. Public education adopted this one-size-fits-all approach to increase efficiency. Car consumers began demanding more diverse options over the next several decades, and so did public education consumers. The auto industry diversified its offerings much quicker than public education because it faced competitive pressures the public education monopoly did not. But in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which required all school districts to begin adapting instruction to serve children with special needs.
This expansion of instructional diversity accelerated in the late 1970s and early 80s as school districts started creating magnet schools to encourage voluntary school desegregation. Most of the beneficiaries of these early magnet schools were white middle- and upper middle-class families who were attracted by the additional resources and high-quality specialized instruction these programs offered. School districts soon responded to political pressure from influential constituents by creating more magnet schools, and the seeds for public education’s third era were planted.
Magnet schools, virtual schools, charter schools, homeschooling, open enrollment, and tax credit scholarship programs were already expanding nationally when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020. The pandemic turbo charged the growth of these options and helped accelerate the development of newer options such as micro schools, hybrid schools, homeschool co-ops and education savings accounts (ESAs). Consequently, I’ve chosen March 2020 as my candidate for when the third era of public education began.
Public education’s transition from its first era to its second took about 100 years (1830-1930). I expect this transition to the third era will also take about a hundred years (1975-2075).
Developing a national consensus on the need for mandatory school attendance, building thousands of new schools, developing grade-level curriculum and instruction materials, and training hundreds of thousands of teachers to teach at grade level complicated and delayed public education’s transition from era one to two. The current transition from era two to era three is also proving to be politically controversial and operationally complex.
But the current transition is driven by larger societal forces, just as public education’s first major transition was. The transportation and communications innovations in the 19th century drove the transition to public education’s second era, and the rise of digital networks, mobile computing, and artificial intelligence in the 21st century will similarly affect all aspects of society, including public education.
While customization will be public education’s primary guiding principle in 2075, we will spend the next several decades grappling with how to implement that principle. Public education’s stakeholders will need to answer questions such as:
- How will government help the public education market become more effective and efficient?
- How will government ensure the public’s needs are well served in a more decentralized, family-driven public education market?
- What should regulatory accountability entail in this market?
- What will be the proper balance between regulatory and consumer choice accountability in this improved public education market?
- How will public funding be customized to the needs of each student and each student’s educational ecosystem (i.e., family and neighborhood)?
- How much control will families have over how their public education funds are spent?
- How will adequate progress for each student be defined and determined in a public education system organized around customization?
- What consequences will be imposed, and for whom, if a student is not making adequate progress?
- How will government regulate or certify instructional software driven by artificial intelligence or machine learning?
- Will school districts continue to own and operate schools, or will their role become regulatory similar to how they relate to charter schools today in many states?
- What other roles could school districts fulfill in this landscape? For example, can they ensure students participating in a variety of learning options have access to transportation and school facilities that meet their needs?
- What will constitute a school in 2075? Will that concept be obsolete in an environment where publicly funded instruction is ubiquitous?
- Will instructional choice replace school choice?
Nearly half of Florida’s K-12 students are now choosing learning options other than their zoned district school to comply with the state’s mandatory school attendance law. This school year, nearly 400,000 Florida students will use some form of an education savings account to customize their public education. In Florida, public education’s transition from era two to three is moving fairly quickly. But similar to what happened during public education’s transition from era one to two, the pace of change in every state will be different, and it should be. This is complex and controversial work with huge implications and should be done thoughtfully over a prolonged period of time. But this transition will eventually occur everywhere.
Illustration: Three Eras, produced by Dall-E 3.