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History of Education
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Common Core Part 2: History Of Education in America

Have you ever looked at your kids homework and say,  “how did we get here?” I know I have!

Many times, in order to understand how you got where you are, you must look at history to see where it all began.  This week in part 2 of the Common Core Mini Series we will be traveling back to look at some facts about education in American history. We will learn how and when it began, and who was involved. History of Education

I understand many of you may be cringing at the thought of a history lesson. Trust me, I was not a fan for the majority of my life either! Yes, I was the girl who simply memorized the information to get the grade. The relevance of it’s importance never sunk in, until now.  And because I know there are parents out there that feel as strongly as I do about the importance of educating our children to be independent thinkers, with the liberties to become something great, I felt I must share this with you.

The History of the Department of Education

Our story begins in 1867 with the creation of the Department of Education. Until that point, the educational system had been regulated by the individual states, as per the constitution. The goal at the time was to create an effective school system that was a collective of information. At its inception the federal government appointed a man named Henry Bernard to commission the department.

Bernard was an educator from Connecticut.  He had helped to create a school system that included a primary and secondary school, a school board to help monitor consistent education, and a superintendent to oversee the operation. His belief is that education should be more vocational based, should be engaging, and include a sensory experience for the kids. Bernard had successfully implemented this in Connecticut, and had hopes of making it nationwide with the department of education.

However, Bernard’s hopes were short-lived. Between 1868-1869,  the federal government decided to pull the funding from the department and lower its stature from the Department to Office under the Department of Interiors. This decision was made because the administration feared it was overreaching on state-owned issues.

History of Education

Reinstating the Office of Education

Years passed, but  the all but forgotten Office of Education still remained.  It did, however, go through numerous name changes and moved from within one Department to another within the federal government. Then in 1890 with the passing of a second Morrill Act, provided federal funds for land grant colleges and universities, the Office of Education began to see expansion.  In 1896 the office began working with using an experimental primary school created by a man named John Dewey as their department for laboratory to test their educational theories. Each year the department grew and gained funding, and moved forward with congressional acts such as GI bill in 1944.

History of EducationThe funding continued to pour in and as the cold war raged it began to stimulate the idea of a comprehensive federal education.  Legislation in 1958 known as the National Defense Education Act was born, which implemented student loans, aimed to improve science, math, and foreign language, among many others.  It wasn’t until 1979 however that the Department of Education that we know today was instated, under Jefferson the  Federal Department of Education Act of 1979 was born.

Fathers of Modern Education

History tells us that there were two main opposing philosophies in the education of children. Although many may argue there are many more, the two that have lasted throughout the decades are those are John Dewey and Edward Lee Thorndike. Both of whose writings are still taught in universities today.

First; John Dewey, the creator of the experimental primary school used by the Office of Education,  would later be known as the father of modern education. To give you some context,  Dewey grew up in the post Industrial Revolution era. One in which society was trying to determine if children had rights, and how education should be molded. As he grew older Dewey became a student of both Wilhelm Wundt, a German Marxist Philosopher and founder of experimental psychology, and G. Stanley Hall, a professor and founder of child psychology and educational psychology.

Given the historical era and his studies, Dewey went on to mold an educational theory that blended attention to History of Educationchildren and what he believed was a need for a social shift.  Dewey’s theory was that children’s education should be taught more around them as individuals, they are not just cogs in the industrial wheel.  He mixed that theory with the idea that there needed to be an overall social shift to a sharing and mixing of ideas to create a more collaborative social collective.

Second, a man named Edward Lee Thorndike, was known as the father of modern child psychology and educational psychology. Also a student of Wilhelm Wundt’s experimental psychology, Thorndike believed that children were nothing more than stimuli, similar to that of a rat, or monkey, or cat, and could be trained by positive and negative reinforcements.

So How Does it all Come Together?

So all this mumbo-jumbo about ancient historical facts and figures. What does it all mean? How does the history fit with how our kids are being taught today? Both of these men, these “fathers of modern education”, may seem to be ancient history. Yet their texts and articles are still being taught to our educators at the University level today! So lets take a step back for a minute and look at what these men were actually saying.

History of EducationDewey believed that we should not be taught based on trade but by subject. Translation? Math, English Language Arts  ( not reading any longer) , Social Studies, and all the other subjects we know today. He also believed that ideas should be collaborative and benefit the collective. How does this translate to tour schools today? Group projects, groups studies, and some assessments (aka tests) are even being gauged on how well students can “develop a shared understanding of a problem“.

And ever heard of a reward system? In my son’s school its check marks for negative behaviors, and “millennium money” for good behaviors. This is a prime example of Thorndike’s Law of Effect being used over 120 years later!

These are only a few examples of how these men influenced our educational system. After all of this we can see that this educational system was based on experimental educational theories. Yes, that his how scientists operate, but what I will ask you now is;  is it not time to evaluate it after 120 years? Generation after generation has endured small steps farther and farther toward this educational system envisioned by these two men. Do you think it has made us better? After years of experiments in action; are our children being fulfilled, are they learning better, faster, smarter? Are we advancing or dumbing down?

History of Education

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!

And don’t forget Common Core Part 3 is yet to come…



Historical References: Who are they?

Name: Henry Bernard
Occupation: Teacher
Accomplishments: Reformed the Connecticut School system to include a secondary and primary school, a school board, and an overseeing superintendent.
Beliefs on Education: He believed that education should engage the children and a sensory experience. Using these theories he transformed the school system in that state of Connecticut and hoped to do the same in the rest of the country as the commissioner of the Department of Education.


Name: John Dewey  (1859-1952)History of Education
Educator originated the experimentalism philosophy and progressive educational reform
Wrote 40 books and over 700 articles that are still being used in educating teacher today. Started an experimental primary school in 1894 that was used as a laboratory for the reformed Department of Education.
Educational Influences:
Dewey was a student of Wilhelm Wundt, a German Marxist philosopher, and  G. Stanley Hall,  founder of child psychology and educational psychology.
Beliefs on Education: Believed in inquiry based learning, creating education based on the human experience. He also believed that learning in schools was focused too greatly on reading.  According to Dewey, reading created a more independent and solitary action in students, which took away from the collaborative social progress.

Occupations: Psychologist
Accomplishments: Often referred to as the Father of Modern Educational Psychology, Known for his Law of Effect.
Educational Influences: Wilhelm Wundt, a German Marxist Philosopher.
Beliefs on Education: Children were stimuli that responded only to positive and negative consequences. Children could be trained to perform a particular behavior, similar to rates, monkeys, cats, etc.


Common Core Part 2: History of Education in America
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Common Core Part 2: History of Education in America
Ever wonder how our children's educational system got to where it is today? Sometimes to help decipher the present, we have to look at the history to determine where it all began. Ride along on this brief outline of America's history regarding education, when it started, and who was involved.
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20 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing a very insightful read on the history of American Education… growing up in a different country I was accustomed to our education system and so migrating to this country, I have yet to learn what the governing principles are, history, all that…

    1. Thank you for the kind word Holly! I am glad to know there are others that feel the same way about making people aware of this issue.

  2. It is great where education started but I feel like it should be improved for today. I do like the idea of standard education across the country! Thanks for sharing this is a great post!

  3. I really do think that there are issues with public education that need to be addressed and that Common Core is one of them. My littles have not entered school yet but it won’t be long before I am dealing with this.

  4. This post help me to know more about history education in America. It is different from my country. Thanks for your post.

  5. It definitely is interesting the differences between school back then and now. I feel like the public school system def needs some tweaks though.

    1. Hi Kate, they use millennium money for an in school auction at the end of each quarter. It’s usually small trinkets or candy.

  6. As I was in school, I never liked history. In fact, I hated it. But as I grew up, it seemed more and more interesting. Your article really caught my attention. I had no idea about so many details!

  7. I always hated history class too. I love math and science, but especially math. With numbers, it’s either right or wrong! Although it is interesting to see how people from so long ago have shaped the way our education is run. I like the idea of it being standard across the country for all the people who move during their school career, but you also have to look at what works for each area.

  8. Interesting read! I didn’t know some of those details! I usually thank I Ronald Reagan for our need for obsession with standardized 🙂

    1. Thanks Alison! Don’t worry, Regan definitely played his part. Many people had their hand in it, but it started before him.

  9. This is why I love history. Because the people of history lived in a completely different world than we do now, and it can sometimes seem unfathomable to imagine their lives. But they were still people who laughed and cried and had a favorite color and food and best friends and awkward conversations. For so many history is just a list of facts and dates and names and obviously that’s really boring. But if you really look closely at history you learn about real people who were just like us even though they lived on another planet. And to be able to connect to some one that lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, in a completely different world, is amazing.

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