What is the Purpose of Public Schools?

What is the Purpose of Public Schools?

The purpose of public schools has been a topic of debate throughout American history.  In order to define what the purpose of public schools is, there must be a clear understanding of how some of the ideas of early reform progressed into helping develop the standardized education of today in which all American children, regardless of race, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or religion have access to government funded education. From colonization to present day, public schooling has been reformed many times with the purpose to improve the success of the American people and to propel one of the world’s youngest democracies to be one of the most influential nations worldwide.

Education was not always a concept meant for the masses. Literacy specifically was only meant for priests and monarchs who governed by the Bible. After the Protestant Reformation, Protestant families were encouraged to teach their children how to read, making the Bible accessible to all white Protestants. This doctrine was brought to America with early American Protestant settlers. The purpose of education during this time was to teach the Bible and indoctrinate early Calvanist views of total depravity and predestination to children. However, boys would be taught academics while the girls were taught how to be obedient, domestic wives.

As the colonies grew, there was more need of schools, and different religious communities began to hire teachers. This posed a problem for the poor who could not afford to send their children to the school house. As the American Revolution approached, the purpose of public schooling shifted only slightly from religion to growing of a nation. Many of America’s founding fathers had opinions about education even though at this time education was not part of national politics, rather left to individual communities. Ted Brackemyre, author of Education to the Masses, states that “Washington [George] saw the importance of educating the American public as a means to grow the country economically, but also to create a well-informed populace to participate in America’s newly founded democracy.” (Brackenmyer 2016). Even though our founding fathers knew that education was important in bringing up future generations to protect the freedoms that they fought for, Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars (2014) points out that, “The U.S, Constitution did not mention education as a right (it still doesn’t) and school attendance was not compulsory.” (pg. 13). As the nation grew, and new territories expanded west, the debate over how much control a newly formed government had over these new territories grew, “The years following America’s independence from Britain in 1783 did little to change the American public education system. Education remained a responsibility of individual families and local communities, not a duty of state or federal governments.” (Brackenmyer 2016). This debate set the stage for the government’s involvement in public school reform as it pertains to the purpose of public school.

With the westward expansion of the United States “Congress issued the Land Ordinance of 1785, ordering each township established in the new western territories to have space set aside for a public school: “There shall be reserved [a] lot… of every township, for the maintenance of public schools.” (Brackenmyer 2016). It became apparent that the conditions of these schools were extremely poor had little to no resources, thus leaving a rift between the rich and the poor. If the United States was to be a true democracy by letting all citizens vote (white men at this time), then these citizens should be educated. As “Jefferson [Thomas] argued that democracy required all the citizens of a populace to have sufficient education so that they could be well informed and vote accordingly. Jefferson did not, however, want to infringe on the rights of parents or local communities to educate their children. Instead, he proposed that everyone could be educated in the way they saw fit as long as they passed certain national examinations.” (Brackenmyer 2016). Massachusetts State Senator Horace Mann also believed that in order for a person to be able to vote responsibly, they should be able to recognize good moral character. Mann played a huge role as an education reformer and worked to introduce standardized education, “Mann’s idea of a common school was one that was open to all classes of Americans and would serve to break down class distinctions. As Mann argued in this report, a system of common education was the best way to ensure social and national unity.”(Brackenmyer 2016). During this time the purpose of public school was to educate to the preservation of democracy. However, as the United States continued to grow with an influx of immigrants from many religions, the freeing of African American slaves, and the movement of the Native Americans, new laws were passed in order to preserve human rights. All Americans had a duty to pay the taxes to support these public schools. This created a problem for those paying taxes to support schools that taught religions not similar to their own, thus marking the beginning of the public school system that we recognize today.

The foundation of early education in America had deep religious ties. America has changed through time due to growth and acceptance of other cultures and religions. In order to provide a culturally inclusive education in America today (as influenced by the definition of democracy) the purpose of public education is to provide all American children the opportunity to be able to contribute to the upward propulsion of American society as a whole.


Brackemyre, T. (n.d.). Education to the Masses: The Rise of Public Education in Early America. U.S. History Scene [blog post]. Retrieved 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.


Patton, S. & Mondale, S. (Producers), & Mondale, S. (Director). (2001). School: The Story of American Public Education [Documentary] . United States: Stone Lantern Films. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL00795BC38B4368D4




7 thoughts on “What is the Purpose of Public Schools?

  1. Great post on the purpose of public schools.
    What I found fascinating in the post and written in the 1st chapter was that the United States Constitution did not make any provisions for educating the masses. When the author of The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein wrote that “education was not a right and school attendance was not compulsory,” it left me wondering, why the omission? The following is the preamble and an excerpt from the Constitution of the United States of America:

    We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America (Declaration of independence, Constitution of the United States, Taft-Hartley Act).

    I questioned, “How could justice be administered fairly among the majority of its citizens, if they were uneducated, illiterate and had no knowledge of their rights?” They would have to rely on the educated to handle disputes fairly and within the parameters of the law. This meant they were at the mercy of those who represented them, and at best could only hope they were in the hands of trustworthy people.


    1. Thank you for your comment! I found it important to include the protection of democracy as just one example of the purpose of public schools, but what I didn’t include is how many historical texts can be interpreted differently. Take the line “all men are created equal,” from the Declaration of Independence. At the time this document was written, all men were not equal. For example slavery was still an institution, and the word “men” excludes woman. I believe Jefferson was vague here by design in order to provide a document that was open to interpretation (this is why we have amendments). The question “what is the purpose of public schools?” is also a vague question left to interpretation. As we see in the Teacher Wars, Goldstien’s inclusion of Catherine Beecher’s involvement in public schooling provides a different type of interpretation of the question. If we were to ask Ms. Beecher what the purpose of public schooling was, her answer would likely reside somewhere in the realm of providing jobs and opportunities for women and instilling good moral values in young Americans.


  2. It is clear that you had a pre-existing idea of what the purpose of public school is even before doing the assigned readings and creating this blog post. I can see that you are passionate about this topic because you brought in facts while relating it to what you already knew to be true.
    It is true that America has been reformed time and time again, but it is with these tiny steps forward that will help lunge us to where we want to be in the near future. I feel like the purpose of public schools differ according to what era one lived in. Education for the public had a different purpose 100 years ago than it does now. Like you stated, “the purpose of education during the Protestant Reformation was to teach the Bible and indoctrinate early Calvanist views of total depravity and predestination to children.” Boys and girls were taught according to their gender. Boys were to be taught academics while girls were taught domestic duties. In today’s society where Feminism and Pro-feminists are not uncommon ideas, it is hard to pinpoint the same purpose and say that public schools are meant to teach just that. It is because of this shift in ideas like the fact that women have long been in the workforce and stay-at-home dads exist that schools like Texas Woman’s University started accepting men and straying away from the purpose of creating “the ideal domestic woman.”
    Stepping away from the more gendered views of the purpose of public schools, you brought up the fact that the poor couldn’t afford to send their children to school during the American Revolution. Do you think that this could have been what started out as potential and unaccredited home-schooling? While public schools were growing to cater to the rise of the economy during this time, did the poor resort to a different form of education that was the “norm” for them?
    The other important factor that was mentioned in your post was the amount of control the U.S. government had over public schooling. I can see where this made complete sense during territorial times because it was such a new idea, but I can also see why it is a growing problem now. A lot of tension has brewed between federal and state governments concerning public schooling.
    It is true that the foundation of early education in America was built upon religion. Some schools still use that as a base for their teachings, but the main purpose of public schools now is, like you stated, “to contribute to the upward propulsion of American society as a whole.” Your post was refreshing to read and I look forward to your responses to other subject matters.


    1. Thanks for your response! Your question about home schooling brings up an interesting point. I am not familiar with the history of home schooling. I do have friends that did home school because religion was banned from public school and many/most private schools are religion based AND expensive. Granted, my home schooled friend’s parents are not considered poor, but maybe frugal… We also see home schooling of children that are very talented– dancers, musicians, actors, etc..– that “train” eight hours a day and school for four hours a day. I also speculate that some of those who home school could have farms or family businesses that depend on ALL members of the family to work in order to make ends meet– the flexibility of home school schedules could be another reason for why some families choose this option. It seems that the idea of home schooling could be for the rich or poor. If a family can afford one parent’s income to pay for dance/ ice skating lessons etc…to facilitate a talented child’s success while the other parent home schools/ drives said child to practice and competition or whatever, the families income is probably above middle class at best. On the other hand, rural families could home school because they need extra hands to work the farm or family business. Very interesting point you made there!


  3. Your post really gave an overall look at the purpose of public schools. Along with what you said about schools being focused solely on religion at the beginning, Dame Schools especially so. Women were just taught domestic things, but boys were taught reading, writing, and doctrines of the Puritans. Knowing answers within those doctrines were very important.

    At the beginning of your blog you wrote about how the purpose of public schools is still being figured out. At the end of your blog you write about how we have came along way and is being largely about giving everyone the opportunity to learn and contribute to the world like George Washington and other leaders in history felt. I agree with this because the only way to be a better society is to educate others and keep moving forward progressively. I would argue though that even though it seems that we have came a long way, in reality the same battles are being fought in different ways. For example, in “The Common School: 1770-1870” video the history of religion being taught in schools is discussed as it still is today. So many people still are fighting for religion to be taught into schools. Not even religion in the school books, but having things like prayer in school is still being debated to this day. People are still fighting for public schools to teach religion and wanting to Americanize immigrants coming into this country. Schools across America that are in poverty still don’t have the type of resources as a school in a higher class area. If the purpose of public schools is to make sure everyone gets to be a productive member of society, then why is there still segregation between classes? I think the large majority of America wants all of the future generations to have the highest level of education and by having public schools it is the belief that it can be achieved. Somewhere along the way though the purpose of the public schools and the ideals of education from the past are still getting mixed up.


    1. Great point about social class and resources available! I think that yes, public, government funded schools should be on a more equal playing field. This would lend to the Jefferson’s belief that schools should be standardized. But if we look at society today, there is a lot of exposure children get that could easily distract them from their own education regardless of how well funded their school is. Some would answer that teaching morality could curtail that, but then we all just end up where we started with the ban of religion in public schools. This is why the question of “purpose” could be open to interpretation! Certainly made me think!


  4. A very thorough snapshot of the birth of American public schools! It was nice to be reminded that the development of the U.S. educational system was not an overnight success. But only through repeated trial, error, and assessment do we have what we have today. The religious foundation that our country was founded upon can be clearly seen in the early stages of our history, but with the influx of immigrants to the land had created a definite problem. In regards to the teaching that boys and girls received throughout their schooling was interesting to see. I am sure that the two groups knew that they were not receiving the same knowledge. I can imagine the looks, side comments, and hurt feelings that were produced. The works of Catherine Beecher would add a feminine perspective to forming a well-rounded framework as the educational system evolved. The question of the purpose of public schools was said nicely. The early leaders of this nation knew that this country, as young as it was, would only be successful if the people were educated and well-informed. If that knowledge was held by a select few the propulsion of our nation would not have happened the way it did.


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