The United States education system has undergone significant transformation since independence, with most changes occurring from the progressive era to the postmodern era. The educational system faced numerous challenges in the early years of the nineteenth century. The public demanded improvements in the learning conditions and teaching methods. A primary concern among Americans in the early twentieth century was that society was changing rapidly. The schools did not do enough to prepare children for the new global challenges. To match the new industries’ demands, the political class needed to institute measures to improve ordinary Americans’ education standards. The educational reforms resulted in more robust connections between economic institutions and America’s education. In the technological age, employees, parents, and students’ expectations grew beginning in the 1990s. Each school was expected to impact students with the appropriate skills to match the employment world’s increasingly technical need, resulting in integrating computer technology in learning.
Keywords: Education reforms, industrial development, instruction delivery, technology
Matching Skills with Industrial Demands
The U.S. educational system faced numerous challenges in the early years of the nineteenth century. The average child in America only attended a few years of formal education, in which the child learned mathematical skills and basic grammar (Westberg et al., 2019). In this period, approximately two-thirds of the schools were located in rural areas. Most of the rural schools were in single-room buildings attended by teachers with little or no formal training. Classrooms had students from all age groups, from five to twenty years old. Therefore, the education system was underdeveloped with poor structures and limited human and physical capital to support learning. Concerns about employees’ inadequacies in educational attainments compared to industrial demands resulted in education reforms.
Summary and Context
At the beginning of the 20th century, approximately two-thirds of the schools were located in rural areas. The education system was underdeveloped with poor structures and limited human and physical capital to support learning. A primary concern among Americans in the early twentieth century was that society was changing rapidly. The schools did not do enough to prepare children for the new global challenges. As the U.S education system restructured to reflect the changing circumstances, education leaders adopted examples from successful businesses. The early reformists saw principals as managers, while teachers were astute individual workers. The resulting reforms emphasized efficiency and improving productivity within each school.
Industrialization was a vital driver of the early reforms as the country needed personae to match the technical industrial needs. Vocational schools were established to prepare students for industrial placements upon graduation. These efforts resulted in significant reductions in the disparities between the market demand and the skills that graduates possess. The economic recession in the 1930s caused experimentations in education reforms. Most of these experiments searched for new progressive educational approaches or new social orders that reflected the reconstructionist agenda.
In the 1970s, educators who had previously demanded the establishment of new social orders gave up on the broad goals of social reforms. Teacher unions focused on pensions, higher wages, smaller classes, and high standards of certified teachers. In the 1990s, the U.S. witnessed tremendous growth in technology, which affected how schools work. Computer technology, which was once a luxury, became a critical addition to every school. The expectations of employees, parents, and students grew as the decade progressed.
Approximately two-thirds of the schools in the early 1900s were located in rural areas. Repetition and memorization were the most common teaching methods. Unlike in rural schools, learners in urban schools were correctly grouped according to their ages. Additionally, learners in the urban areas had longer school years than in the rural setting (Westberg et al., 2019). Although children continued to learn in these conditions for years, enlightened citizens and stakeholders realized that the conventional schools were undeserving. This realization marked the beginning of reforms in the American education system as the public demanded improvements in the learning conditions and teaching methods.
A primary concern among Americans in the early twentieth century was that society was changing rapidly. The schools did not do enough to prepare children for the new global challenges. The most significant cultural shift was the transformation of the U.S. economy. Large industrial companies were replacing small manufacturing firms and agricultural-based industries (Westberg et al., 2019). Additionally, an increasing proportion of Americans residing in urban centers as rural America moved to cities searching for employment opportunities. To match the new industries’ demands, the political class needed to institute measures to improve ordinary Americans’ education standards (Cohen et al., 2019). Therefore, the needs resulted in further education reforms to improve the technical abilities of workers.
As the U.S education system restructured to reflect the changing circumstances, education leaders adopted examples from successful businesses. Like successful business leaders steered their companies, they wanted school superintendents to head schools in the same ways. The early reformists saw principals as managers, while teachers were astute individual workers. The reforms emphasized efficiency and improving productivity within each school (Urban et al., 2019). The changes in management and educators’ view as part of organizational excellence resulted in enhanced educational curriculum and instruction delivery methods that reflected American society’s immediate needs.
The educational reforms resulted in more robust connections between economic institutions and America’s education. Employers became increasingly concerned about employees’ inadequacies with limited educational attainments, which mismatched the changing workspace. The increasing concerns about workers’ quality led to vocational schools’ establishment across the country (Urban et al., 2019). The purpose of the vocational schools was to prepare students for industrial placements upon graduation. These efforts resulted in significant reductions in the disparities between the market demand and the skills that graduates possess.
Apart from providing learners with the required skills, the education reforms improved enrollment rates. At the beginning of the 20th century, approximately 78% of American children between five and seven attended school (The Education Reform Movement, 2021). By 1910, the percentage of enrolments had increased slightly to 79%. Despite the improvements in enrolments, the number of days that students spent in school was significantly lower than today. For example, in 1905, learners spent an average of 151 days a year in school. The average student only spent about 105 days in school. Therefore, the education sectors still faced significant problems regarding attendance.
To increase the number of days children spend in school, educators created programs to accommodate special needs learners. For example, they developed programs that would accommodate foreign-born students who could neither speak nor understand English. Apart from learning English, foreign-born learners were taught the American culture and customs to conform to mainstream society. The teachers entering classes were more qualified than before, thus increasing the quality of education offered to learners. These improvements attracted more learners as universities expand their teaching programs to accommodate qualified teachers’ urgent needs.
One of the primary reform principles of the 1900s was that formal education must meet not only intellectual needs but also address social concerns at large. Ineffective traditional teaching methods were replaced with teaching methods that emphasized child development. Despite the improvements in education quality, very few learners advanced beyond grade school. For example, by 1910, only 11% of learners aged between 14 and 17 were enrolled in high school (The Education Reform Movement, 2021). The average number of years completed by American children over twenty-five years old was just eight. These statistics signified improvements, but a lot of work had to be done to increase the average school years.
Economic hardships characterized the 1930s as the U.S. economy went through depression. Despite the challenging economic times, the period produced barrios education experiments, particularly at the college level. Most of these experiments aimed at searching for new progressive educational approaches or new social orders that reflected the reconstructionist agenda. Some of the experimentations happened in higher learning institutions, including labor colleges, folk schools, and other alternative schools. Folk schools emphasize interpersonal relations between learners and teachers, which was a deviation from conventional memorization. On the other hand, Labor colleges focused on labor organizations, history, and instruction for farmers and workers. Other schools like Rollins College and Bennington college also provided a variety of experimental philosophies.
The 1940s saw the closure of small rural schools and districts’ integration to increase resource allocation efficiency. Between 1930 and 1971, the number of single-room schools dropped to 1815 from 149,282 (The Education Reform Movement, 2021). This consolidation resulted in increased efficiency in the utilization of suppliers, facilities, teachers, and school transportation. The federal government was primarily involved in running schools through the New Deal programs up to the 1940s. However, from the 1950s to the 60s, the federal government was in the periphery regarding education reforms. However, in the 1960s, national concerns emerged regarding the quality of education in public schools. An education office was established in the Department of the interior, which grew into the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1980, the U.S. Congress established the Department of Education that oversaw federal laws touching on financial aid, civil rights, and special needs students.
In the 1970s, educators who had previously demanded the establishment of new social orders gave up on the broad goals of social reforms. Teacher unions focused on pensions, higher wages, smaller classes, and high standards of certified teachers. These efforts resulted in increased teacher salaries by over 70% between 1960 and 1970 (The Education Reform Movement, 2021). The WPA’s Emergency Education Program provided the basis for child development education. Similarly, the WPAs school lunch program for needy students helped increase the quality of education offered in public schools. Like the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), other reforms provided the framework for funds allocation according to the proportion of low-income families in schools. The Act offered comprehensive help for less privileged children in writing, reading, and mathematics.
Systemic reform efforts emerged in the 1990s, coming after education reforms were top-down in ideation. Systemic initiatives at both state and national levels had a common purpose, i.e., to upgrade the curriculum quality and instruction delivery mode (Young, 2018). The reforms’ ideal vision involved three fundamental components: alignment of state education policies, curriculum frameworks, and more school resources. Essentially, the systematic reforms represented America’s adoption of the policies of the world’s most advanced economies. The primary characteristic was integrated, coherent, and centralized policies, which attached a high degree of responsibility to local authorities.
Charter schooling was another signature reform of the 1990s. Minnesota’s passage of the charter school legislation in 1991 set the tone for 34 other states to adopt the measures. Despite the popularity of charter schools as education reform in the U.S., there is no exact definition of the changes because of the legislation’s variations (Finger, 2018). Despite these differences, one unifying factor is that the reforms advanced the contract concept: local and state education authorities contracted with external organizations in establishing and administering individual schools. Essentially, charter schools represented contradictions between public education deregulation and increased accountability. Systemic initiatives were effected between 1990 and 1999 to provide top-down support for bottom-down improvements in education quality. At national and local levels, the systemic initiatives had a shared vision, i.e., to enforce significant upgrades on the curriculum quality and instruction delivery methods.
Teachers have played a vital role in the education reforms witnessed in the U.S. Given their importance in the changes, teachers assumed an increasing role in the reform process beginning in the 1960s. Teachers have been mainly instrumental in the integration of technology in teaching. Other reformists like Mary McLeod Bethune played a leading role in advocating equality in education, particularly among African American communities (Woodley, 2018). Reformists, like Bethune, worked with organizations and political leaders in support of equality through Christian-led education initiatives.
In the 1990s, the U.S. witnessed tremendous growth in technology, which affected how schools work. Computer technology, which was once a luxury, became a critical addition to every school. The expectations of employees, parents, and students grew as the decade progressed. Each school was expected to impact students with the appropriate skills to match the employment world’s increasingly technical needs. Recognizing that schools with insufficient resources would remain behind in integrating technology in learning, President Clinton took steps to acquire the technology. The Universal Service program was born as part of the Telecommunications Act. The E-rate structured various discounts for telecom providers to equip schools and libraries to help check the cost of internet and telecommunications technology.
Emerging societal needs heavily influenced the education reforms in the United States. Key events, including industrialization, the great depression, the cold war, and the technological revolution, inflicted how Americans perceived educational needs. Apart from political influences on the reform direction, key individuals helped enhance equality in education and align the curriculum and instruction delivery methods to reflect the market needs. Additionally, various administrations put in place affirmative actions, which addressed the needs of underserved communities.
Cohen, D. K., Spillane, J. P., & Peurach, D. J. (2018). The dilemmas of educational reform. Educational Researcher, 47(3), 204-212.
Finger, L. K. (2018). Vested interests and the diffusion of education reform across the states. Policy Studies Journal, 46(2), 378-401.
The Education Reform Movement (2021). Historic events for students: The great depression. Retrieved February 25, 2021, from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-and-education-magazines/education-1929-1941
Urban, W. J., Wagoner Jr, J. L., & Gaither, M. (2019). American education: A history. Routledge.
Westberg, J., Boser, L., & Brühwiler, I. (Eds.). (2019). School Acts and the Rise of Mass Schooling: Education Policy in the Long Nineteenth Century. Springer.
Woodley, J. (2017). “Ma is in the park”: Memory, identity, and the Bethune memorial. Journal of American Studies. Retrieved from http://irep.ntu.ac.uk/id/eprint/32844/1/PubSub10401_Woodley.pdf
Young, V. M. (2018). Assessing the cornerstone of U.S. education reform. Educational Foundations, 31, 74-99.