Change for a Time: Childhood Education in 19th Century America

At first look, I theorized that education in the Western United States was different from education in the East in the 1800s. However, I soon found out that the curriculum was standardized across the country. In the 19th century, efforts were made to allow equal opportunities for people of all socioeconomic levels and all regions in America. In the past century, people have made efforts to allow equal opportunities for people of all races and genders. The principle behind American education continues to be a standardized, one-size-fits-all education, when the world has been changing around us with new technology, jobs, and culture.

The curriculum of schools was the part of schools that was the most standardized; it did not vary much from the east to the west. The teachers would prepare lesson plans. Students often did individual work, but “older students took pride in tutoring younger students,” (Bial, 14-18) helping them with their work. Teachers would walk around the room, checking on the students’ work. Frequently, teachers would call groups of students up to recite lessons, which were usually verses from their readers. Some schools had exams, others did not.

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At Massie School in Savannah, Georgia, examinations were public events. Anyone could come and watch the pupils get quizzed on all subjects. For reading they used textbooks. An early textbook was the New England Primer, used from 1760 to 1843. However, in the 1830s, William McGuffey wrote another set of textbooks, which took over almost entirely. The McGuffey Readers were a “sampler of the best of world literature…” Sometimes instead of moving to the next grade level, students would move to the next reader, which went from a primer through a sixth volume. Not everyone had McGuffey Reader, however.

For example, at Massie, textbooks were handed down through the family, and so teachers got used to having different authors or editions in one class. Also at Massie, the word method was used to teach primary students how to read. By the end of the year, the young students were expected to be able to read the First Reader. At some schools, they learned the alphabet and learned to read by finding letters in the word. For writing, sometimes “students worked at the blackboard, parsing sentences, breaking them down and explaining the part of speech and function of every word. (Bial, 19-23) They learned uniform punctuation and spelling. They also practiced their penmanship by copying down the teachers’ sentences into small blank books or pieces of paper using quills and ink, and later, pencils. As part of reading and writing, they memorized verses and new spelling words and would recite them to the teacher at the front of the room. Sometimes they had spelling bees as well. Students often did arithmetic problems on small slates using slate pencils and eventually chalk.

Children often memorized poems or rhymes to help them learn or remember things. An especially popular rhyme taught multiplication of twos. Often students would go to the blackboard and race to be the first to solve an arithmetic problem. Students at Massie needed to do mental arithmetic, unlike some other schools, which allowed written arithmetic. The most important part of the curriculum in the 19th Century was the three R’s: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, but there were other subjects they studied as well.

Students had the opportunity to have music if their school was fortunate enough to have a piano or an organ. They also would study art, history, geography, elocution, and physiology, although everything that was taught in physiology was not completely accurate, as they did not know as much as we know today. A few other things about school were generally the same across the nation. Their indoor appearance, the school year and day, and even the teachers’ duties were similar. The one-room schoolhouses in the west had a similar layout to the classrooms in the east.

Often they would have a cloakroom by the door, or at least a shelf for lunches and coat hooks or nails on a wall. A low table or shelf had a washbasin, towel, and homemade soap. There was usually a potbelly stove to heat the room, although at Massie, a man named John Norris designed the building with central heating. Today, the mid-nineteenth century furnace still resides in the basement of the school. There were big blackboards at the front of the room, and sometimes benches near the front for students’ recitations. On the opposite side of the benches was the teacher’s desk.

There would be two sections of students’ desks: one for girls and one for boys. The students’ desks would be individual desks with attached chairs or benches. There would be a groove on the top for pencils and pens and sometimes a hole in which to put inkwells. Later in the 1800s, most classrooms had an American flag in the front. Some schools even had inspirational sayings around the classrooms, the equivalent of today’s posters. The school year and day varied slightly. In the west, by the mid-1800s, schools had two terms: summer and winter.

Many farm boys had to help their families with planting and harvest, so they could only attend in the winter session, which went from the middle of November to the middle of April. However, there was not as much farming in the east, and so the school year was a little different. The school day, though, was the same almost everywhere: from eight o’clock to four o’clock. Teachers had many duties. According to the “Rules for Teachers of 1872,” they swept, mopped, and carried firewood and coal to keep the fire going.

They were responsible for cleaning the chimney and filling the lamps. They wiped down blackboards and even sharpened pencils. In some cases, student monitors did certain duties, or students rotated doing jobs. Although not many schools had principals, most had county supervisors or district superintendents who kept an eye on teachers. Not only their teaching methods, but their personal lives, were monitored closely. They couldn’t smoke, drink alcohol, and in some places, go to pool halls, or even get their hair cut in barbershops. There were even regulations on dating!

Male teachers could court either one or two nights, depending on how often they went to church. Furthermore, if female teachers got married, they would be dismissed. All this is to show that education was standardized thoroughly in the United States during the 19th Century. At this time, people started to realize the value and importance of education, and so the system was more organized than ever before. Many wanted to give children on the frontier an education as good as the one they could receive in the more urbanized east coast.

Not only did they want equal educational opportunities in terms of the region families lived in, but also in terms of their wealth and social status. One example of this is the story behind Massie Common School. Peter Massie of Glynn County started Savannah’s entire free school system with a generous gift. In his last Will and Testament, Peter Massie gave a generous gift. One part of the Will read, “I give and bequeath for the education of the poor children of Savannah the sum of $5,000, to be applied for that purpose in such a manner as the corporate authorities of said city shall direct. (Massie, 1) Fifteen years after the Will was read, on October 18th, 1856 the school opened. This benevolent man saw the need in his city and acted on it, giving the underprivileged children of Savannah education, one of the best gifts one can give. People like Mr. Massie helped start public schooling, which had a large effect on America. This standardization of education and movements for equal opportunities worked in some respects, but today education in the U. S. varies widely from place to place. These standardizing movements of the 1800 were not unlike what we are doing today.

Title IX was added, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance… ” (U. S. Dpt. Of Labor) This great idea gave girls the same options as boys. Also, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was a very smart plan. With this plan, the hope was students of all races might get good test scores and do well in school. To give all races and genders the same possibilities was a great dream.

However, there is one problem: all of the races and genders still do not have the same opportunities. Although Title IX was a step forward, it did not make things completely equal. One example of this is athletic programs. Today, girls have many more sports available to them than they did 40 years ago, however, in many schools boys have more options than girls. Hockey, lacrosse, and golf are less common sports for girls, to name a few. Even if schools offer the same sports for both genders, the budget for girls’ athletics is usually allotted less than the boy’s teams.

Despite the efforts of many working with No Child Left Behind as well as educators, it isn’t getting the desired results, evident in this recent article from the Tribune, Two-thirds of Illinois public schools this year failed to meet federal test targets that signal students can read and do math well, marking a record rate of failure for the state’s school system. But some educators and lawmakers say the results raise questions not only about the schools themselves, but about the standards by which they are judged under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. A stunning 98. percent of Illinois’ 666 public high schools fell short. Only eight high schools where students take the exam in 11th grade met federal standards…. Across the state, six of every 10 elementary and middle schools missed the mark on math and reading tests… U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan predicted that as many as 82 percent of the nation’s public schools may miss the law’s annual targets for academic improvement this year. The targets increase each year, and they also must be met by smaller subsets of students — those defined by income or race, for instance — for the school to avoid being labeled as failing.

The goals of giving equal opportunities to everyone and standardizing everything in education seem good at first look. But we in America have set up an impossible task. The fact that 98. 5 percent of Illinois high schools cannot meet the No Child Left Behind Act standards may be a clue that we have set the bar too high. If you think about it, it is highly unrealistic to believe that everyone can and should study the exact same things and get into the same high range of standard test scores. It is nearly impossible to allow all people of all races, genders, regions, and socioeconomic levels the same educational opportunities.

So why would we continue to work so hard at certain failure? In conclusion, as our world is consistently changing, our education system is staying the same. We keep doing the same thing over and over again and yet we hope to get different results. It is as if we are running on a treadmill. What if we tried something different and changed our education system to reflect our changing world? Maybe instead of trying to make everyone’s education the same, we could try to fit education to each learner. With an education based on each student’s strengths as well as their needs, maybe we would get somewhere. With a change in education, maybe America would move forward.


“19th Century School Life. ” Massie School. Massie School, 2010. Web. 09 Nov. 2011. <http://www. massieschool. com/>. Bargeron, Saxon P. Massie Common School House: Significance and Early History. 1975. MS. Savannah. Bial, Raymond. One-room School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Print. Malone, Tara, Darnell Little, and Dian Rado. “Record Percentage of Illinois Schools Fail to Meet Federal Targets. ” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. Massie School.

The Massie School. 1943. MS. Savannah. Mt. Zion One Room Schoolhouse. Ocean City. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. <http://www. octhebeach. com/museum/Zion. html>. Reese, William J. “Education, United States. ” Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. The Gale Group, Inc. , 2008. Web. 9 Nov. 2011. <http://www. faqs. org/childhood/Co-Fa/Education-United-States. html>. “Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972. ” The U. S. Department of Labor. U. S. Department of Labor. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. <http://www. dol. gov/oasam/regs/statutes/titleix. htm>.

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