For many years in my books and this blog, I have argued that two dominant patterns of organizing schools and teaching lessons capture the primary mechanisms of how U.S. schools its young both in the past and now.
First, the structure of the age-graded school replaced the one-room schoolhouse, the primary way of organizing schooling since the 18th century.
These one-room schools enrolled children and youth from six to seventeen and older. Rote teaching and learning with constant student recitations of text to the sole teacher were common. But as cities in the young nation grew and a constant flow of immigrants flowed into cities, the one-room schoolhouse could not accommodate large numbers of students. State educational policymakers of the day sought a more efficient, lower cost way of organizing tax-supported public school.
The emergence of age-graded schools in mid-19th century Massachusetts built to house students in grades 1 through 8 coincided with the spreading industrial economy and factory system. In the decades after the Civil War, this school structure became common across New England and Midwestern states,spreading into Southern states following 1865. One-room schools gave way to a different, seemingly more efficient way of educating young Americans.
This age-graded structure seemed to educational leaders of the day as the best way to achieve the primary purposes of tax-supported public schools: turn children and youth into literate adults who had not only absorbed civic and social values held by the local community but also displayed those values daily in the home, workplace, and town square.
The bricks-and-mortar age-graded building placed children of the same age in a room (e.g.,seven year-olds in the second grade) with one teacher stationed in each of the eight grades. At the end of the school year, each teacher would decide which students would be promoted to the next grade and which ones would be held back.
By 1900, the age-graded school had become the dominant way of organizing schooling across every state in America. Even when subsequent innovations in funding and organizing schools arose (e.g., charter schools in the 1990s), age-graded schools were so taken for granted, that few reformers ever challenged this structure. It remains so in 2022.
The second pattern of schooling in the U.S. that has emerged from the 18th and 19th centuries is how teachers taught students. Teacher pedagogy is linked intimately to the organizational structure of the age-graded school and the curriculum that state and local boards of education require teachers to teach. I have identified teacher-centered instruction as the prevalent pattern of teaching.
This way of teaching is where the individual teacher makes the bulk of classroom decisions in seating students, managing class behavior, determining who can talk or leave the room, and, finally, deciding what content and skills found in the state curricular guides will be included in each daily lesson. Even with a dearth of sources and fragmentary data, a few historians, including myself, have documented this prevailing way of teaching.
Beginning in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, however, challenges to that main way of teaching arose. Progressive educators in these decades sought a “New Education,” ways of teaching that permitted students to participate in classroom lessons and decide, based on their interests, what should be learned. Called student-centered instruction, educational reformers of the day–called “progressive educators”–sought ways of teaching that would incorporate students’ aptitudes and interests into those chunks of curricular content and skills that states and districts required teachers to teach. Here, again, historians have not only documented the presence of this new way of teaching that challenged the dominant practices of teacher-centered instruction but also made clear that the prevailing pattern of how teachers taught remained in place during these decades with only a small fraction of teachers ever embracing versions of the “New Education.”
These two patterns, that is, the prevailing organization of the age-graded school and dominant teacher-centered way of instruction, characterized U.S. public schools in the past. They do so as well in 2022. Moreover, these patterns are central to understanding what goes on in schools and classrooms in the U.S.
But suppose I am wrong. Suppose there are fundamental patterns of organizing public schools and teaching lesson in the past that I have missed or ignored. That is surely possible since historians have to deal in scattered sources, fragmentary evidence, and skewed sampling.
Since I do read extensively about education, past and present, however, I have yet to find other patterns that educators in the U.S. have evolved (I invite readers who have observed or participated in different ways of organizing schools and teaching to comment).
Or perhaps I am incorrect because there are other ways to organize classrooms and teach elsewhere in the world of which I am ignorant.
This latter possibility of my being unaware of other patterns in organizing schools and teaching approaches in other nations is one I want to explore. I may be incorrect in claiming these historic patterns of schooling and teaching in the U.S. are present in other nations. In the next post, I begin to look at other countries’ systems to see whether the patterns I have identified in the U.S. appear elsewhere.