What is the purpose of public schools?

Public education has evolved so much over the last few hundred years. In the early days during the 1700s to early 1800s, public school was not for everyone. Only the elite and few could go. And in the beginning, students who had the privilege of going to school learned about religion. According to Breckenmyre (n.d), the Puritans of New England wanted all of their students to read the Bible, and it was so important to them that they enforced this through the Massachusetts Bay School Law of 1642. Not all children could go to school because often they were required to know how to read and write, but many parents did not have the education themselves or the means to teach their children. A few years later, the Old Deluder Act of 1647 made it mandatory that towns had to establish their own school for the locals (Breceknmyre, (n.d). However, it was still not accessible for all children, and those that could go did not have the best of classroom conditions. They often had one classroom crammed with kids ranging from ages 5 to 20 with only one teacher and very little resources. Children of less wealthy families were to be educated by churches or other family members.

Two prominent people that had certain opinions about the American public school system was Thomas Jefferson and Catharine Beecher. Breckenmyre (n.d), stated that Thomas Jefferson wanted American children to be educated so as to create a democracy that generation of citizens that were informed well enough to be able to vote. He also created educational reform in the way of Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, which would allow for a happier and freer group of citizens. His whole premise of education was that he did not really care how children were educated, whether it be at home by a family member, or at a public school, just as long as it would create a nation of educated people in support of a democracy.

Catharine Beecher was a very interesting woman. She is known for the female teacher movement. Early in the days, teachers was a male dominant profession, but thanks to her and her beliefs that women are better educators and should be teaching instead of only doing domestic duties, there are more women in the profession. She led a movement of new female teahcers by doing lectures and educating them so they could travel west to open new schools. In Goldstein’s book (2014), The Teacher Wars, Catharine said some things that got me thinking. The first is this, “A lady should study, not to shine, but to act… She is to read books, not to talk of them, but to bring the improvement they furnish . . . . The great uses of study are to enable her to regulate her own mind and to be useful to others,” (Goldstein, p. 19, 2014). Although what she said about women as teachers makes sense, I do not see why this would be a female only thing. Men also can be teachers. Although, they do not have that same nurturing quality as women do. According to Goldstein, Catharine Beecher believed that the home and the school are two intertwined things in where a woman can nurture and teach, (Goldstein, p.18, 2014). As a mom and a teacher myself, I realize that I am always being nurturing, but at the same time, I am teaching. I may not be teaching academics necessarily, but I would be teaching him morals and values and how to be a good citizen in this world.

Nowadays, a public school is a place where a child can get a free education. What they are teaching in public schools now varies from state to state, even district to district. They all have curriculum that they follow and they teach a wide range of subjects, but there is one thing that is different from hundreds of years ago, and that is that they try to keep religion out of it, so it has come a long way from the old days where religion was the primary and sole focus. However, there are still some similarities between now and then. Even though public education is accessible to all, money does come into play and those schools that have more money tend to have better resources and often higher assessment scores compared to those schools that have a poorer demographics or a more diverse socioeconomic status.


Education to the Masses – US History Scene. (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2016, from http://ushistoryscene.com/article/rise-of-public-education/

Goldstein, D. (2014). The Teacher Wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession. New York: Doubleday.


4 thoughts on “What is the purpose of public schools?

  1. Great post! I enjoyed watching the video about the boys being taught by their Catholic priest and how they were required to know the answer to every question he asked. I found it intriguing that early education was founded on religious principles and mostly white males were privileged to participate in rigorous education. But, if one did not know how to read or write then they could not attend schools to participate in learning about the bible. As you mentioned, some parents did not have the money or even the education themselves to teach their children the fundamentals of reading and writing. Without the establishment of equal opportunity education establishments, it is easy to see how generations go on uneducated if their parents could pass down those skills to their children. This reminds me of my family because I am fist generation here in the states and all of my family is from Mexico. When my grandmother was younger she did not live in the city and lived in the mountains in a village with similar customs as these. Only the boys were allowed to go to school and learn how to read and write. It was seen as a waste to send the girls off to school because they would grow up to only get married and have children anyway. Instead, my grandma was kept at home and taught how to cook, wash and basic domestic duties. Eventually my grandmother married but her husband died early. She moved to the city, and could not read any signs or even a grocery list by the time she was 19 years old. My grandmother is now 76 and taught herself how to read little by little even though she never received a formal education and cherishes her moments when she is able to relax by window to read her book. The “dated” customs we learned about in this unit might not be as dated as we think in other parts of the world.


    1. You are right about that, Perla. It is unfortunate that geographic location and socioeconomic status as well as cultural norms can prevent a child (and even grown ups in some cases) from going to school, or learning to read and write. This includes all children, but it is often females and those who may have disabilities that are at a disadvantage.

      Your story about your grandmother is one that many people have experienced. I am happy to hear that she taught herself how to read!

      I just found out last Friday that I will be getting a new student later this week. He recently moved here from Nigeria and is 12 years old, but has no language. Despite his age, he is being placed at my elementary school because he would not be able to earn credit in middle school with no language. Although his parents speak English, they did not have the resources or the knowledge of how to teach a deaf child. This will be a huge challenge for me, but I am so looking forward to it. I hope to have a positive impact and am excited to be part of his learning journey. I will be teaching him 3 things simultaneously when it comes to teaching language: matching the picture of the object (or real object) with the written word, the fingerspelled word, and the ASL (American Sign Language) sign for the word.


  2. Hi Whitney,

    Since our school system really began with trying to create morality through religious learning, do you think that this could have been taught without religion? Of course having one book, and only one version of that diverse book, would eventually bring riots and change. I have noticed that Christianity is still predominantly represented in public schools. Teachers that I substitute for will have bible phrases and crosses as decoration in their rooms and I wonder if that alienates students from other backgrounds. So I have found that public schools aren’t really keeping religion out.
    I’ve also seen, in several schools, bible study available before or after regular school hours offered by teachers. It’s almost as if those Puritan ideals are still around.
    Do you feel a disconnect with Beecher’s lack of interest in women’s suffrage and her passion toward education? Finally, do you have any ideas that could help even the resources across education to create a more equal education?

    Thank you for your post,



  3. I think that it would have been different if the Bible was not used in schools. The Bible was the “standard” of morality back then, (and even now, still). If it was not there then what was the standard? Each person has a different opinion when it comes to morals and values, so there would be some disagreement there.

    The more I read about Beecher, I started to wonder more about who she was as a person. She thought women should be teachers, but not that they should be paid equally as men. This really bothers me because as a female I believe in equal pay.

    When you talk about equal education, are you talking about the students? Or men and women teachers in general?


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