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According to a 2005 report of the U.S. Census Bureau, “educational attainment is the social variable that often displays the largest socioeconomic differential . . . because education affects income and occupation.” This is not a new idea. Throughout American history, social reformers have realized that acquiring a skill, profession, or trade was the most common way to move “up” the social and economic scale. This realization led, among other things, to compulsory education of American youth, but the development of public schools is not the only result of such awareness. Education also has a direct relation to quality of life. As noted by the Census Bureau, there is a positive correlation between education level and health: more-educated people have increased “ability to understand public health messages” and more-educated people tend to have a greater awareness of their role and surroundings, and thus a higher sense of self-worth.
The role of education in colonial America was mixed. Most youths entered society through acquiring trade from their family or a tradesman who offered them an apprenticeship. Thus, liberal arts education—the foundation of most modern schools and colleges—was often limited to the very wealthy, as well as to those entering a profession such as law or the clergy, which required more extensive knowledge. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was the first to pass a “universal” education requirement, in 1642, but its function was not to educate the public in the modern sense, but rather to produce citizens cognizant of their social and religious duty. The first institutions of higher education, Harvard College and Yale College, focused largely on training young men for the clergy.
In the nineteenth century, the role of education changed significantly to fit new societal needs. Increased immigration altered the social makeup of the nation’s major cities, many of which were overrun with impoverished and unskilled persons. Social workers such as Jane Addams set up settlement houses to provide life-skill education to impoverished wives, children, and immigrant men, but reform-minded persons—social workers and policymakers—soon realized that the problem was too large for isolated relief efforts to control. Compulsory education—first enacted by Massachusetts in 1852 and adopted soon after by other states—served to keep children and youth busy, off the streets, and out of dead-end and dangerous jobs and to open the doors of opportunity. Compulsory education served as a means to assimilate immigrants into the American way of life; policymakers and reformers used education as a tool to remake society. In striking contrast, late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Pragmatist John Dewey advocated a hands-on approach to education to engage students in studies that intrigued them as individuals: he viewed education as a means to self-realization rather than a social tool.
During the mid-nineteenth century, colleges and universities were founded throughout America. The 1862 Morrill Act established “Land Grant” colleges, state-run public institutions that expanded college education to new, more practical areas of study such as agriculture, mechanical arts, and home economics. Education at land grant colleges cost substantially less than at private liberal arts institutions, which allowed less-affluent Americans to obtain a college education. In the 1860s racial segregation negated the law’s effect on African American educational opportunity, but, in the following decades, black-only institutions were established. Most state-run colleges in the South remained segregated until the 1960s and 1970s.
The 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision significantly altered American education. In its decision, the Court struck down the “separate but equal” clause that had enabled states to segregate schools into white and black.
Although nearly a decade passed before real changes began to occur (especially in the Deep South), the Brown v. the Board ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” changed the way that public elementary, secondary, and universities approached their role. The continuing woes of the educational system in the late-twentieth century—after integration—demonstrated that, in many respects, the impact of poverty on the educational system was more considerable than that of race.
Part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), gave financial support to low-income districts to help offset the unequal funding created by local subsidy of schools. This legislation did not solve the problem, however, because wealthy districts still received more funding, and most states did not put all of the tax revenue raised for education into a common fund for equal distribution. For this reason, the amount of funding that a school receives often provides insight into the wealthy and poor areas of a particular city: social class, not racial distinction, is the primary division of post-1960 urban areas. Though most if not all school districts were integrated by the end of the twentieth century, affluent school districts had noticeably better facilities and test scores than impoverished districts. In short, there is a direct correlation between funding resources: and performance that has nothing to do with racial or ethnic makeup.
The philosophy that education is the primary means of economic and social advancement has remained popular through the twentieth century. Federally funded programs such as Head Start, which was designed to incorporate minorities and the poor into mainstream society, were the twentieth-century equivalent of settlement house life-skill education programs (for example, Hull House): the focus was on preparing low-income children to succeed as mainstream Americans. At times this approach has received harsh criticism. The 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education is a significant example. This report, designed to scare educators into approving substantial changes— notably an increased emphasis on math and science—decried America’s declining role as a world leader in education; the report implied that Russia would soon—if it had not already done so—eclipse the United State’s technological capacity. The report also indicated that “23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest test of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension,” a finding that, if accurate, signified the failure of the public education system to help low-income persons advance socially and economically.
To address the findings of “A Nation at Risk,” Congress approved a series of amendments to the ESEA that culminated in the 2001 “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) program. Signed by George W. Bush, NCLB emphasized standardized tests as a way to determine school performance based on equality of race and income. The NCLB program explicitly singled out low-income areas, such as the inner city and depressed rural areas, in an effort to help all Americans—regardless of location, race, ethnicity, and income level—enjoy the lifestyle of mainstream middle-class America.
- Bremner, Robert H., Gary W. Reichard, and Richard Hopkins, eds., American Choices: Social Dilemma and Public Policy since 1960 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986);
- Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, Higher Education Act of 1965, 1998 Higher Education Act Amendments, at the History of American Education Web Project (http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/);
- National Education Association (http://www.nea.org/ esea/index.html);
- No Child Left Behind, Public Law 107-110, 107th Congress; U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov/nclb/);
- The White House, Washington, D.C. (www.whitehouse.gov/ news/reports/no-child-left-behind.html).
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