The Foundations of American Education

A series of decisions made from the 17th through the 21st centuries has placed Massachusetts at the forefront of one the greatest struggles of modern times—the never ending quest for a free, universal system of education for all Americans.

Making Education Available to All

In 1635, only five years after the founding of
the town of Boston, the first school was established in the British colonies—and by 1647,
the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony decreed that every town of fifty families should have an elementary school, and every town of one hundred families required a Latin school.

Horace Mann changed the face of American education.

By 1817, local merchants, businessmen, and wealthy artisans guided a petition through a Boston Town Meeting to establish a system of free public primary schools. Soon after, Boston opened the first public high school in the United States. By 1827, Massachusetts legislated that public schools be open to all pupils, free of charge. A decade later, Horace Mann took the helm of the newly formed Massachusetts State Board of Education and began to change the face of American education forever.
An unprecedented influx of immigrants from foreign nations in the mid-19th century prompted yet another change in the Massachusetts public school
system: the institution of compulsory education, in 1852.
A primary goal of this legislation was to ensure that the children of poor immigrants become “civilized,” by requiring schooling to “foreign children who might otherwise fall into truancy, vagrancy, and social upheaval,” and instead would be molded into responsible American workers. The 1852 law was also the first social reform law in the nation that attempted to control working conditions for children in factories.

Establishing Boston Latin

Established in 1635, Boston Latin was the first public school in North America and the first formally organized institution providing free education irrespective of the socio-economic background of its students. Equally important, the formation of Boston Latin came from a collective decision of the residents of the Boston settlement, who took upon themselves the responsibility of financing the school.
The establishment of the school was due largely to the influence of the Reverend John Cotton, who sought to create in Boston a school like the Free Grammar School of Boston, England, in which Latin and Greek were taught. The student body was originally restricted to boys; among its alumni were several of America’s Revolutionary heroes, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Among its dropouts was a young, headstrong fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the school continued its fine traditions, educating and producing prominent Americans. Perhaps no other secondary school in America has seen more of its students shape this nation’s history. Though a Girl’s Latin School with a proud tradition of its own was created in 1877, Boston Latin itself became co-educational in 1972. To
this day, the school’s curriculum maintains a focus on the humanities, and strives to develop a belief in ‘dissent with responsibility’ among its students. Many believe that it is, indeed, the core of the Boston formula for innovation.

Opening the First Free Public School
for African Americans

Some 150 years after the founding of Boston Latin, the first free public school for African Americans in Boston—the Abiel Smith School—was established on Boston’s Beacon Hill. It was also the first building in the United States constructed solely to house a black public school. In 1787, the famous black activist Prince Hall petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for black access
to the public school system but was denied. Eleven years later, after petitions by black parents for separate schools were also denied, black parents took matters into their own hands and organized a community school in the home of Prince Hall on the corner of West Cedar and Revere Streets on Beacon Hill. The Abiel Smith School was named for a white businessman who left an endowment of $2,000 to the city of Boston for the education of black children in Boston. Though initially run from the basement of the African Meeting House, the school was given its own building in 1835.

Modern Education Reform

National innovation in education continues. Through the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, the state enacted groundbreaking educational reform that required accountability by students, teachers, and school systems. It also required that by 2003, all high school students pass a state examination before graduating. The Act was based on an agreement that the state and its corporate partners would increase funding in return for standardized testing and other performance indicators. In addition, charter schools were permitted, complementing the increased funding and accounting.

Thomas Payzant, Superintendent of Boston
Public Schools reading with a student