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
An unprecedented influx of immigrants from foreign nations in the
mid-19th century prompted yet another change in the Massachusetts
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.
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
Payzant, Superintendent of Boston
Public Schools reading with a student