American education reformers have discussed several problems with the modern public school system: excessive class sizes, age-based grade levels, curriculums focused on memorization instead of the development of skills, the rigidity of the school-year, and the uneven distribution of resources between public schools, charter schools, and private schools. Salman Khan and others have correctly argued that the methods of our schools no longer meet the needs of our society and have proposed numerous reforms. Khan Lab School, for example, has replaced age-based grades with “levels of independence” that measure how well students define, research, and solve academic problems on their own. The school evaluates its students using portfolios instead of graded exams, schedules twelve-month school-years, and demands mastery from its students before they can progress from one concept to another. I have written about the philosophy of Khan Lab School and the future of public education here, and I will now consider how the history of the American education system explains many of its perceived drawbacks.
The historian Johann Neem from Western Washington University has recently published Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America about the history of public education before the Civil War. Neem asserts that William Ellery Channing, Horace Mann, and other nineteenth-century reformers supported public schools because democratic societies could not survive without educated citizens. Mann, who served as the Secretary of Education for the state of Massachusetts, believed education not only helped Americans succeed within the workplace but also converted them into responsible members of their local and national communities (Neem 21-2). Reformers worried that the spread of private schools and non-profit academies, which used public resources, charged tuition, and resemble modern charter schools, would secure high-quality education for the wealthy but leave many of the poor behind. Public schools increased access to education and theoretically drew together Americans from different classes, races, ethnicities, and religions with the aim of reinforcing the bonds of the wider nation.