Frenier: Common American education closes income gap

Part two in a three-part series

Carol Frenier. Classroom photo by RDNE Stock project

by Carol Frenier

In a previous article I reviewed the conclusion of Harvard professors Goldin and Katz1 that an effective education system closes the income gap. It does so by producing a high percentage of graduates that can compete effectively for good pay in the workforce. In the same study, the professors pointed out that over the last two centuries American education has led the world in producing such graduates.

What made America the world’s education leader? “The evidence,” they report, “points to the importance of local, rather than state regulations and to grassroots action rather than top-down campaigns.” 

Less important were the “school men”, such as Horace Mann, and state governments, the role of which was largely to enable localities to tax their residents to pay for education.  

Mass education grew in stages: the Common School Movement from 1810-1870; the Academy Movement in the 19th century; and the public High School Movement from 1910-1940. These dates are approximate and varied widely across the country.

Goldin and Katz list six “virtues” of American education that emerged with the Common School Movement.

  • Public funding (paying for education which could mean operating a school or just paying tuition for a privately operated school)
  • Public provision (operating public schools, either free or by charging tuition)
  • Separation of church and state (publicly provided schools were secular, not sectarian, but commonly held religious principles/values were not removed from the curriculum)
  • Decentralized system (containing thousands of fiscally independent districts which had decision-making power over curriculum and personnel)
  • An open structure (in which youthful transgressions were often forgiven, including second chance opportunities such as GEDs)
  • Ability of girls to receive instruction

In the early 19th century the Common School was a “publicly maintained” school belonging to the community and binding the community together. It taught “commonly held [including religious] principles and elementary subjects.” Funding, staffing, and curricula were all local. 

The advantage of small decision-making districts was the rapid spread of the movement itself. With no state or federal mandates, communities could adopt ideas from each other without needing bureaucratic approval.  

By the late 19th century the wage premium for high school graduates began to drive the second wave of grass roots efforts to extend mass education beyond the Common School (grades 1-6 or 8). This resulted first in the Academy Movement that was largely a tuition-based system of private schools, but the variations were many. Burr and Burton and St. Johnsbury Academy, both established before 1850, are excellent examples of the proud legacy of this Movement in Vermont.

The Academy Movement was short-lived, because the public High School Movement, advocating both public funding and public provision of secondary school education, took over from 1910-1940. 

“The High School Movement was, above all,” say Goldin and Katz, “a grassroots movement. It sprung from the people and was not forced upon them by a top-down campaign.” The Movement was focused on specific knowledge and skills needed by workers as major changes occurred in industry in the second half of the 19th century. 

Another driver was the knowledge explosion that occurred around the same time (1900). Curriculum developed accordingly, expanding and subdividing academic subjects. 

Overall, these movements were remarkably dynamic. They were moving ahead of state or federal government efforts to regulate them. Despite the local control, the curriculum was surprisingly consistent across the country, which suggested a strong, informal network of public and private organizations offering materials and advice. As late as the 1970s, when I was teaching, I never saw a state-written curriculum for my U.S. History classes, either advisory or mandated, but I did find the abundance of private resources extraordinary.

What remained to be done was to extend the best of the educational system to all districts. But, by the 1980s, we had a new problem: our system was no longer the acknowledged world leader. This was partly true because Europe and other developed nations joined the competition. But something else had gone wrong. The income gap increased, suggesting that our educational product no longer effectively provides what is needed to succeed in today’s world. Over a period of several decades of increasingly rigid standards, mandates, and testing, we have not been able to identify, agree on, or correct our course.

But a new grass-roots movement advocating school choice is currently gaining traction. In my next article I will look at why so many parents and educators believe school choice is the best route to re-inventing our educational system and how we can apply the lessons of the past to our current efforts.

1. Goldin, Claudia and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between  Education and Technology, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.

A Chelsea VT resident since 1992, Carol Frenier taught high school U.S. History for a decade before joining her husband, Bob, in a marketing business. Now retired, she most recently subcontracted as an indexer with Norwich University for many years.

Categories: Commentary, Education

6 replies »

  1. I am very often skeptical of relying on conclusions drawn from evidence that is not presented, such as here. “The evidence,” they report, “points to the importance of local, rather than state regulations and to grassroots action rather than top-down campaigns.” What evidence? What is being suggested, that state and federal regulation are not at all important? And for example, does this mean that school districts with high achievement do it all because of the superiority of the local administrators, and not some other factor such as available wealth within the community, or the higher socio-economic status of the families sending their children to school?

    • Mr. Searles,

      Once again you are lacking critical thinking and common sense with your view.
      Do you believe in individual freedom and personal responsibility at all? Is the government your god?

      We the taxpayers fund education and we have lost ALL SAY in school budgets and curriculum. Every year the costs increase and the education system gets worse for the children.

      The establishment of the Federal Department of Education is unconstitutional as the individual states should be over their state educational systems. This is just more power and control by the overlord, elitists in the federal government.

      The federal bureaucrats in the US Department of Education sit up on there elitist pedestals in Washington DC, making ALL decisions and handing them down through mandates. This is one of the greatest examples of taxation without representation.

      Essentially they say, “We make ALL the decisions because we are the all-knowing, educated, elitists. We just need YOU to pay the bills.”

      Think of how much money could be saved or used elsewhere if the Federal Department of Education was abolished.

    • The evidence is in the results — student achievement — which has been consistently worse in the decades since the DOE and then collective bargaining against the taxpayers was established. Our state legislators jumped on board with every federal dollar waved their way. School officials’ excuse is always that they’re understaffed and need more money, while they assume more of the responsibilities that belong to parents…and too many parents are fine with that because we now have three generations that have been schooled under their system.

      Time to abandon ship and get your kids out of their re-education camps.

    • Clearly, Dave, ‘available wealth’ is not a determining factor. In my K-8 public school district, taxpayers spend approximately $26,000 per student each year – as much as it costs to send an in-state student to college for a full year of undergraduate studies, INCLUDING room and board. And still, more than half of those public-school students graduate without meeting grade-level proficiencies. Never mind what else they learn.

  2. All tax funding for education should go with the child to any school their parents
    want to use, including homeschooling, public schools these days are holding our
    current children hostage, just look a the grade level stats…….pathetic !!

    If your child is enrolled in a public school, they are getting indoctrinated not
    educated, and don’t forget, they think your kids are theirs ….

    You better wake up

  3. Thank you Carol for the second piece regarding a short history of public education in the US and what we need to do to regain excellent education outcomes again. I can’t wait for the next one!

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