The goals and purpose of an educational system have been debated since the first settlers arrived in the American colonies. In the United States, tax-supported public institutions of elementary, secondary and higher learning have replaced the early system of private or religious schooling. The idea of a universal K through 12 educational system available free of charge to all citizens was slowly implemented.

Colonial History

The American educational system began with the establishment of Congregationalist and Puritan religious schools in the 1600s. Their purpose was to provide religious-oriented instruction to the upper-class children of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Reading, writing and arithmetic were taught with Bibles, primers and wooden paddle-shaped hornbooks. The system's Latin Grammar Schools prepared the sons of high social standing for eventual leadership roles in colonial life. The schools specialized in preparing male students for entrance into college.

Public Education

By the 1840s educational reformers pushed for the goal of establishing a free public education system open to children of all genders and social classes. Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, Harry Barnard and others proposed the concept of schooling freed of religious bias. The purpose of public education was to train students to become skilled workers while teaching them the traditional core academic disciplines. The supporters of universal public education believed it would create better citizens and a culturally uniform American society.

High Schools

The first publicly paid for secondary schools of the 1600s were Latin grammar schools, geared for preparing students from wealthy families to enter Harvard College, America's first institution of higher education. Students learned Greek and Latin to read classical texts and literature in their original language. The demand for technical and contemporary knowledge led Benjamin Franklin to start an alternative type of American secondary school. It was more focused on teaching current skills and information to ordinary students.

Progressivism

As the population grew more diverse in the 1890s, progressive principles of education began to take hold. The goals and purpose of the American educational system were adapted to meet the needs of a diversifying population. The progressive approach attempted to teach critical thinking skills to an engaged and informed citizenry. Child-centered curricula were devised to address the artistic, imaginative and creative aspects of the students. Traditional academic learning combined with vocational training would produce citizens better prepared to understand and participate in community life.