How Did We Get Here? Part IV: Mann Reforms to Public Education

This is one of a multi-part series on the progression of education policies in the U.S. from its founding. Click here to see a list of all the posts in this series

By Matthew Lynch

The first attempt at regulating exactly what American students were learning in those schoolhouses came in 1837 from now-famed education reformer Horace Mann. When he took over the role of Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, he set out to create a common way of teaching educational content, particularly to elementary students. He borrowed his idea from a Prussian model that also stressed training for educators.

Along with shared content, Mann’s reforms brought about the first age-grade systems where students were promoted up based on age, not academic aptitude. While this led to greater concentration on subjects that increased in difficulty as students grew older, it also planted roots of American students as passive learners, as opposed to active ones. The idea that each student of a certain age should master content by a certain time, and based on set criteria that was in no way customized, was founded as a way to keep students moving through the public education system, and advancing in their studies rather than idling on topics they already knew while younger students learned them for the first time.

States around the nation rushed to duplicate Mann’s ideas in their own schools and multi-age classrooms disappeared in the coming decades. As the American population rose, it just made sense to accommodate students in a more segmented way. Age-grading was meant to improve efficiency of classrooms and the entire public education system. The more students that could be passed through the public schools, the better. It made economic sense, and in the minds of reformers like Mann, it also meant a more highly-educated public.

Though Mann’s system for age grading was introduced over 175 years ago, it is still the main form of organization in the public, and private/independent, schools in America today. While some students are retained (or held back) when they do not master the material at hand, the idea of socially promoting students based solely on their ages is more popular than you might think. It is difficult to measure exactly how many students are passed on to the next grade based more on their age, and less on their academic merit, because teachers are obviously not keen to admit it. Retaining students is simple to measure but only tells half the story. Of the students who are not retained, how many of them should be?

In the past two decades, the social faux pas associated with students who are held back a grade has begun to fade. A Public Agenda survey from 2003 found that 87 percent of parents would rather that their children be held back than promoted if they have not mastered their grade-level material. There was once a time when a student who was held back was viewed as being outside the “norm” of what we have come to expect in U.S. classrooms. That’s changing though as parents begin a push back against social promotion.

The so called “redshirting” of Kindergarteners is rising each year in popularity. Rather than having to make the decision to hold a child back (most often it happens in grades K-2), parents are just delaying the start of school instead. In the mid-1990s, just 9 percent of children entering Kindergarten were age 6 or older. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, by 2007 that had risen to 16.4 percent. It’s reasonable to assume this rise is due at least in part to the increased demands placed on academic achievement at such a young age. Redshirting is becoming so common that Kindergartners who are 6, going on 7, are not a strange sight at all.

While it does speak to the maturity of American parents, sending children to school later does throw a wrench in the traditional age-grade system. Teachers are often ill-prepared to deal with students who are outside the age specifications in their classrooms, and in cases where both a 5 and 7 year old are in the same classroom, understandable behavior and maturity differences are evident. By adhering strictly to an age-grade system for just some, it puts a strain on the others. Teachers who hope to avoid problems for their colleagues in higher grades often take the easier route of age-grading promotion.

Despite the pitfalls of the age-grading system, the positive impact of Mann’s endeavors should not go unnoticed. Along with age-grading, he emphasized the need for mandatory attendance. Public education was not something that was a perk of American life; it was a necessity. He believed that for the nation to truly advance, its youth belonged in classrooms (not just in fields, or factories) and that states should implement attendance policies to support this view. While it took some time for his emphasis to really see mass appeal, his advocacy for mandatory public schools found some resonance. By 1900, 34 states implemented required schooling laws, 30 of which required students to stay in school until the age of 14. Ten years later, 72 percent of the children in the U.S. went to school. Just 10 years after that, every state had required attendance policies. By 1940, half of all young adults in the U.S. were high school diploma recipients. Follow my series on the progress of the U.S. educational system to learn more about where we’ve been, and where we need to go, as collective educators.


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