Timeline of curriculum in education in the united states

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I. Colonial America Part 1:

  • European immigrants brought their culture, traditions, and philosophy about education.

  • The Native American influence on the development of the formal educational practice was minimal since many tribes had not yet developed writing or a system of formal educational practice (also was a systematic effort to eradicate the Native Americans as opposed to assimilating them).

  • The English were the predominant settlers in the New World and as a result education in colonial America was patterned on the English model which involved a two-track system.

  • The lower classes received minimal instruction (only learning to read and write, calculate, and receive religious instruction).

  • The upper classes were allowed to pursue an education beyond the basics and oftentimes attended Latin grammar or secondary schools where they learned Greek and Latin and studied the classics in preparation for a college education.

  • Dame schools were common.

  • These were usually established by women, and more often than not run from the home of the person in charge.

  • Education was basic, concentrating on reading, writing, and calculation.

  • Attendance was often erratic and dependent on the season and work at home that needed to be done.

  • For most females the dame school provided their only education so homemaking skills such as sewing were included in the instructional process

  • Religion played an important role in developing the educational system.

  • The Puritans of the New England colonies believed that education was necessary in order to read the Bible to receive salvation and therefore, developed a common school system that made no distinction between religious and secular life and also used to inspire children to endure the hardships of a life in the New World through religious devotion.

  • The Mid-Atlantic colonies had a more diverse population consisting of the Dutch, English, Irish, Scottish, German, etc. which was more varied in its religious beliefs and therefore each group often developed its own schools which promoted its culture, religion, and traditions.

      • The Quakers who settled in the Philadelphia area in the 1680's believed in educating the populace, were tolerant of others' beliefs and ways of life, and established the first public school.

  • In the Southern colonies, society was more structured and stratified according to socioeconomic classes.

      • The wealthy plantation owners developed their own system to prepare their sons for further education.

      • Children from poorer households received a minimal education and slaves from Africa only learned what was necessary to attend their masters.

  • In 1636, Harvard College, the first post-secondary school on the North American continent was established in the Boston, Massachusetts area.

  • The first compulsory education laws were passed in Massachusetts from 1642-1648.

      • Religious leaders were concerned about the rapid growth of the non-Puritan population and took steps to maintain Puritan religious beliefs.

  • The Massachusetts Act of 1642 made education a state responsibility.

      • While schools were not yet funded or required, education was and all children were supposed to learn how to read and write or parents would risk loss of custody of their children.

      • The law was amended and strengthened in 1648.

  • The law requiring the establishment of schools was passed in 1647.

      • All towns of fifty or more households were required to form a school and pay a teacher either out of private or public monies.

      • . Towns of one hundred or more households had to establish a secondary or Latin grammar school to prepare students to enter Harvard College.


  • As the American colonies continued to grow and prosper, the European traditions that had previously guided the development of schools and education began to lose some of their influence.

  • Though religion was still an important part of the curriculum, the need to build and maintain commerce, agriculture and shipping interests required a different focus.

  • As generations were born and grew up in the American colonies, people began to see themselves as apart from their European roots and started to develop their own identity.

  • As the United States of America, the former colonists wanted to establish their independence in both thought and deed and saw education as a means to this end.

  • Education was a tool that would both establish and promote the growth of the concepts of freedom, liberty, and democracy to insure that citizens would learn how to be responsible citizens and secure the United States as a nation for generations to come.

  • Harvard, America’s first institution of higher learning, was founded in 1636, had a humanistic and rational side with a heavy emphasis on ancient languages as vehicles for reading Christian scriptures.

  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) founded the Philadelphia Academy, a secondary school that followed Franklin's instructional curriculum that emphasized the more practical subjects such as modern languages, agriculture, accounting, etc. rather than the more traditional classical education such as employed by the Latin grammar schools in1751.

  • Females for the most part received little or no formal education during the 17th and 18th centuries.

    • Most were educated at home, although occasionally they attended dame schools.

    • Sometimes a governess would be provided if the family was wealthy enough and girls were taught sewing, drawing, music, and languages such as French.

    • Sarah Pierce established the Litchfield Female Academy in 1792 beginning with just two students and which eventually grew to 140 students.

    • Formal education in secondary schools and colleges was reserved for males.

  • Thomas Jefferson (1743-1846) believed in the education of the common man as the most effective means of preserving the democratic ideal.

    • Jefferson consistently advocated for free public education, even as early as 1779 when he tried to persuade the Virginia legislature to fund elementary and secondary schools.

    • Jefferson established the University of Virginia and oversaw the adoption and implementation of many of his ideas regarding education.

  • A standard curriculum was difficult to achieve in a country as large and sparsely populated as the new United States of America.

    • One way of promoting a curriculum that advocated the ideals of democracy and independence from England was the development of textbooks.

      • Noah Webster (1758-1853) introduced his first text (known as “blue books”) in 1783, a speller with an emphasis on developing patriotic and moral values as well as teaching children correct grammar and spelling.

  • The Native American population had little or no influence on the development of educational practice in the United States and very little effort was extended to formally educate them during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

    • Various churches and other religious organizations sent missionaries to try to convert Native Americans to Christianity, but the primary focus was religious indoctrination as opposed to learning basic skills and subject matter.

    • The Quakers, who believed that slavery was wrong, were one of the first groups to establish schools for both African and Native Americans.

    • Several southern states passed laws forbidding people to teach slaves how to read and write.


  • Horace Mann (1796-1859) worked continuously on behalf of the public to achieve support for public education.

    • Many different groups such as private school owners, taxpayers, rural residents and members of the upper and wealthy classes opposed Mann because they felt public schools were not in their best interests.

    • Mann saw the need for setting standards and for teachers to be educated.

      • The first normal school for teacher training was established in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1839.

        • Prospective teachers were given courses in content knowledge and pedagogy or instructional methods.

        • Perspective teachers were required to practice teach in a model school that was associated with the normal school.

  • The McGuffey reader, which was designed to foster the development of good citizens, had a moralistic overtone with an emphasis on virtuous and upright behavior and was the most common text used in schools.

  • As the common school movement continued to grow, the settlement of the territory in what is now the western United States encouraged the development of higher education to better meet the needs of a growing and more diverse population.

    • In 1862, Justin Morrill sponsored the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which provided for the sale of public lands to fund institutions of higher learning to teach agriculture and the mechanical arts.

    • The Morrill Land-Grant Act was the first time the federal government ventured into funding and attempting to shape the direction of higher education in the United States.

  • The United States experienced rapid growth during the period from 1865-1920 due to the flux of immigrants making their way to what they viewed as the land of opportunity and the westward expansion which called for a common system of education to join together and educate an increasingly diverse population.

    • Compulsory attendance laws helped accelerate this process of joining together a diverse population and provided the means of delivering a common school curriculum.

    • Compulsory school attendance laws were first passed in Massachusetts in 1852 and invariably spread to other sections of the country.

    • Lawmakers turned to the schools to develop a curriculum that would promote the development of moral values and training for jobs to take care of the problem of rising unemployment for lower class youth who roamed the streets making trouble since they had little or nothing to do due to the gradual institutionalization of child labor laws along with increasing technology that made many unskilled jobs obsolete.

    • As the number of students grew, the need also increased for a more efficient method of administration, school leaders turned to big business to provide a model of scientific management to effectively manage these resources.

      • Using Frederick Taylor's model of "scientific management," schools began to cluster together into centralized districts and pool their existing resources.

      • Curriculum became more standardized and increasingly the county, state, and city governments began to assert more control over the process.

      • Superintendents were appointed to run each district, which in turn was governed by a local school board formed by members of the community who were elected to their position.

      • Individual schools had principals in charge.

      • Teachers who formerly had assumed responsibility for almost the entire educational process had their duties proscribed and divided.

  • Diverse cultures felt the effects of a white curriculum.

    • Segregation laws, whereby the African-American population was not allowed to share facilities that were used by the Caucasian population, as well as a lack of adequate funds to staff or build African American schools resulted in sub-standard and overcrowded facilities for them.

    • Booker T. Washington believed education was the means to which the races could learn to live together in harmony and thus founded the Tuskegee Institute, a technical and vocational school for African Americans, in rural Alabama in 1881.

    • W.E. B. DuBois, the first African-American to receive a Ph.D., believed that African-Americans should educate themselves to assume positions of leadership and thereby founded the NAACP or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.

    • Mary McCleod Bethume believed that education was important in providing opportunities for employment and growth in Christian education for African-American women so she founded one of the first schools for African-American women (later it became Bethune-Cookman College) in 1904.

    • The Bureau of Indian Affairs was established to help Native Americans adjust to life on the reservation.

      • The Bureau of Indian Affairs established compulsory schools to educate the population.

        • For the most part these schools made little or no effort to accommodate the traditional and cultural beliefs of the various tribes.

    • For the thousands of immigrants entering the United States the goal of education was quick assimilation.

      • Schools provided a common ground where children had the opportunity to learn English as well as the common cultural traditions and mores of American society.

      • Most immigrants were forced to put aside cultural traditions and beliefs from their former countries.

  • In the early 19th century in Germany, Friedrich Froebel developed the concept of kindergartens, where young children would have the opportunity to socialize with their peers, learn social skills, and explore their surroundings through active learning before entering the more structured world of formal education.

    • This concept of early childhood education slowly spread to the United States and in 1855 the first kindergarten opened in the United States.

    • Froebel believed that women were best suited to teaching young children and as the demand for teachers grew, women began to enter the profession in ever increasing numbers creating a strong voice in directing educational policy.

  • The NEA (National Education Association) was founded in 1857 with the goal to influence the development of schools and education.

    • The goal of this organization was to influence the development of schools and education.

    • The 1876 A Course of Study from Primary School to University described five essential areas of knowledge: inorganic nature, organic nature or cyclic processes, theoretical man or intellect, practical man or will, and aesthetical man or phantasy as an attempt to create a grand synthesis of knowledge as a basis for a universal curriculum (These divisions are used within a liberal arts curriculum.).

    • The 1893 Committee of Ten recommended the standardization of American high school curriculum.

      • The committee recommended twelve years of education, with eight years of elementary education followed by four years of high school.

      • All students would be taught, regardless of their further education plans or careers.

      • The recommendations were generally interpreted as a call to teach English, mathematics, and history or civics to every student every academic year in high school.

      • The recommendations also formed the basis of the practice of teaching biology, chemistry, and physics, respectively, in ascending high school academic years.

    • In 1895 The Committee of Fifteen Report on elementary school curriculum headed by William Torrey Harris called grammar, literature and art, mathematics, geography, and history the "windows of the soul".


  • The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918 were issued by the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education to form objectives for secondary education.

    • The commission decided that segmented subjects and their subject matter were a way to achieve the decided goals but that they were not the one and only way.

    • A new focus that would take into account individual differences, goals, attitudes, and abilities was adopted.

    • The curriculum became whatever contributed to the realization of the seven Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: health, command of fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, worthy use of leisure, and ethical character.

  • In 1918, Franklin Bobbitt wrote The Curriculum: A Summary of the Development Concerning the Theory of the Curriculum which expressed the idea that the curriculum was a way to prepare students for their future roles in the new industrial society.

    • Bobbitt influenced the curriculum by showing how teaching classical subjects should be replaced by teaching subjects that correspond to social needs.

    • Bobbitt felt that the curriculum has to adapt to the needs of an individual and to the needs of the new industrial society, whereas people should not be taught what they would never use.

    • As an early differentiation in education, people should only learn those skills which were necessary to fulfill their personal tasks since education was a preparation for adulthood and not for childhood or youth.

    • Bobbitt created five steps for curriculum making: analysis of human experience, job analysis, deriving objectives, selecting objectives, and planning in detail.

    • Besides a change in the content of the curriculum, Bobbitt was also calling for the elimination of conventional school subjects preferring subjects that were themselves areas of living, such as citizenship and leisure.

  • The Progressive Movement in education had a lasting impact on practice and instructional methodology.

    • People such as John Dewey and Maria Montessori believed that education should be responsive to the needs and interests of children as opposed to teaching a set curriculum proscribed by traditional practice.

      • Dewey and Montessori were opposed to strict autocratic teaching styles that relied heavily on textbooks, memorization, and a spare the rod and spoil the child type of mentality.

      • The educational focus of the progressives was on teaching children how to think and learn.

  • The first major retrospective in the history of curriculum, the 1927 the National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) Yearbook identified questions and issues with which curriculum decisions must deal with.

  • Ralph W. Tyler headed the evaluation staff of the "Eight-Year Study" (1933–1941), a national program, involving 30 secondary schools and 300 colleges and universities that addressed narrowness and rigidity in high school curricula.

  • Following World War II, the population of the United States increased dramatically with a post-war baby boom.

    • Higher education also experienced a boom as the Congress passed the GI Bill in 1944 that provided subsidies for returning veterans to attend colleges and universities.

    • As the numbers of school children grew, the demand for facilities and teachers also increased.

      • In the late 1960's to early 1970's a teacher surplus led to raising teacher certification requirements.

      • More schools had to build to contain the large numbers of school age kids and small school districts joined together with other districts to from larger ones which could better bear the burden of increased capital costs and administration.

      • The one room schoolhouse where one teacher taught all grades (usually grades 1-8) that had been a staple of life in rural America almost disappeared because it was cheaper to build bigger schools and bus children to central locations.

  • During the 1950's the major political concern for the United States was the Cold War., and the United States believed its mission was to prevent the further spread of Communism and dominate the Soviets in every aspect.

    • In 1957 the Soviet Union, set off a shock wave in the United States with the first successful launch of an artificial satellite called Sputnik leading politicians to blame this failing on the American educational system claiming it wasn't rigorous enough and that more attention needed to be paid to mathematics and science education.

    • The federal government appropriated millions of dollars for educational reform.

  • The 1950's were the beginning of the end of school segregation.

  • In the 1960's, the political emphasis changed from an external or global focus such as the Cold War to the consideration of internal affairs such as civil rights and the President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

    • Programs such as Job Corps, TRiO, Head Start subsidized school lunches, and Title One began during this time.

  • The reform movement in education was characterized by a new curricular emphasis.

    • Teachers were encouraged to experiment and use their creativity to make education more interesting and involving for their students.

    • Rather than textbook oriented stay in the seat type of learning that had characterized teaching instruction in the 1950's, students were allowed choices, given flexible scheduling, individualized instruction and non-graded schools.

  • The curriculum reform movement of the sixties was not perceived as improving educational outcomes while enrollments fell and public confidence in teachers was eroded.

    • There was a strong back to the basics curriculum movement emphasizing reading, writing and arithmetic computation along with teacher accountability.

  • Since the seventies was a time of economic concerns with the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, double-digit inflation, high interest rates, and high unemployment schools also suffered from this economic pressure as funding was cut for public education.

  • In 1975 Congress passed PL 94-142 requiring a free appropriate education for all handicapped children and that they are to be educated to the best of their ability by using an individualized educational plan written to suit their specific needs.

  • The eighties saw an escalation of the criticisms aimed at public education and teachers.

    • In 1983 the national report A Nation at Risk was published detailing how the public school system had failed miserably in educating America's children and resulting in school reform movements with a number of states passing laws requiring higher standards and expectations for students.

  • The educational focus for the nineties has been primarily directed at school reform.

    • Goals 2000 are an effort by the federal government in 1994 to set standards for American education.

      • Based on the premise of outcomes-based education that students will reach higher levels of achievement when more is expected of them, the Act provides resources to states and communities to ensure that all students reach their full potential.

      • Restructuring schools to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population and greater competition from a world that is rapidly changing in terms of technology has been the focus of most educators.

  • With the final language of President George Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act came the withdrawal of all authorization for Goals 2000.

    • NCLB supports standards-based education reform based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education.

    • NCLB requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to all students at select grade levels in order to receive federal school funding

    • .NCLB’s main focus is on skills in reading, writing, and mathematics, which are areas related to economic success.

    • Combined with the budget crises in the late-2000s recession, some schools have cut or eliminated classes and resources for many subject such as history, arts, language and music, in order to give more time and resources to mathematics and English.

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