Colonial Era

New England
The first American schools in the thirteen original colonies opened in the 17th century. Boston Latin School was founded in 1635 and is both the first public school and oldest existing school in the United States. Cremin (1970) stresses that colonists tried at first to educate by the traditional English methods of family, church, community, and apprenticeship, with schools later becoming the key agent in "socialization." At first, the rudiments of literacy and arithmetic were taught inside the family, assuming the parents had those skills. Literacy rates seem to have been much higher in New England, and much lower in the South. By the mid-19th century, the role of the schools had expanded to such an extent that many of the educational tasks traditionally handled by parents became the responsibility of the schools.

All the New England colonies required towns to set up schools, and many did so. In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony made "proper" education compulsory; other New England colonies followed. Similar statutes were adopted in other colonies in the 1640s and 1650s. The schools were all male, with few facilities for girls. In the 18th century, "common schools," appeared; students of all ages were under the control of one teacher in one room. Although they were publicly supplied at the local (town) level, they were not free, and instead were supported by tuition or "rate bills."

The larger towns in New England opened grammar schools, the forerunner of the modern high school. The most famous was the Boston Latin School, which is still in operation as a public high school. Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut, was another. By the 1780s, most had been replaced by private academies. By the early 19th century New England operated a network of elite private high schools, now called "prep schools," typified by Phillips Andover Academy (1778), Phillips Exeter Academy (1781), and Deerfield Academy (1797). They became the major feeders for Ivy League colleges in the mid-19th century. They became coeducational in the 1970s, and remain highly prestigious in the 21st century.

Generally the planter class hired tutors for the education of their children or sent them to private schools. During the colonial years, some sent their sons to England for schooling.

In Virginia, rudimentary schooling for the poor and paupers was provided by the local parish. Most parents either home schooled their children or relied on private schools and tutors.

In the remote colony of Georgia at least ten grammar schools were in operation by 1770, many taught by ministers. Most had some government funding. Many were free to both male and female students. A study of women's signatures indicates a high degree of literacy in areas with schools. Georgia's early promise faded after 1800, and indeed the entire rural South had limited schooling until after 1900.

Southern states established public school systems under Reconstruction biracial governments. There were public schools for blacks, but nearly all were segregated and white legislators consistently underfunded black schools. High schools became available to whites (and some blacks) in the cities after 1900, but few rural Southerners of either race went beyond the 8th grade until after 1945.

Women and girls
Tax-supported schooling for girls began as early as 1767 in New England. It was optional and some towns proved reluctant. Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, was a late adopter because it had many rich families who dominated the political and social structures and they did not want to pay taxes to aid poor families. Northampton assessed taxes on all households, rather than only on those with children, and used the funds to support a grammar school to prepare boys for college. Not until after 1800 did Northampton educate girls with public money. In contrast, the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, was diverse in terms of social leadership and religion at an early point in its history. Sutton paid for its schools by means of taxes on households with children only, thereby creating an active constituency in favor of universal education for both boys and girls.

Historians point out that reading and writing were different skills in the colonial era. School taught both, but in places without schools reading was mainly taught to boys and also a few privileged girls. Men handled worldly affairs and needed to read and write. Girls only needed to read (especially religious materials). This educational disparity between reading and writing explains why the colonial women often could read, but could not write and could not sign their names—they used an "X".

The education of elite women in Philadelphia after 1740 followed the British model developed by the gentry classes during the early 18th century. Rather than solely emphasizing ornamental aspects of women's roles, this new model encouraged women to engage in a more substantive education, reaching into the arts and sciences to emphasize their reasoning skills. Education had the capacity to help colonial women secure their elite status by giving them traits that their 'inferiors' could not easily mimic. Fatherly examines British and American writings that influenced Philadelphia during the 1740s-1770s and the ways in which Philadelphia women implemented and demonstrated their education.

Republican motherhood
By the early 19th century a new mood was alive in urban areas. Especially influential were the writings of Lydia Maria Child, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Lydia Sigourney, who developed the role of republican motherhood as a principle that united state and family by equating a successful republic with virtuous families. Women, as intimate and concerned observers of young children, were best suited to this role. By the 1840s, New England writers such as Child, Sedgwick, and Sigourney became respected models and advocates for improving and expanding education for females. Greater educational access meant formerly male-only subjects, such as mathematics and philosophy, were to be integral to curricula at public and private schools for girls. By the late 19th century, these institutions were extending and reinforcing the tradition of women as educators and supervisors of American moral and ethical values.

The ideal of Republican motherhood pervaded the entire nation, greatly enhancing the status of women and demonstrating girls' need for education. The polish and frivolity of female instruction which characterized colonial times was replaced after 1776 by the realization that women had a major role in nation building and must become good republican mothers of good republican youth. Fostered by community spirit and financial donations, private female academies emerged in towns across the South as well as the North. Rich planters were particularly insistent on their daughters' schooling, since education served as a substitute for dowry in marriage arrangements. The academies usually provided a rigorous and broad curriculum that stressed writing, penmanship, arithmetic, and languages, especially French. By 1840, the female academies succeeded in producing a cultivated, well-read female elite ready for their roles as wives and mothers in southern aristocratic society.

Non-English schools
New Netherland had already set up elementary schools in most of their towns by 1664 (when the colony was taken over by the English). The schools were closely related to the Dutch Reformed Church, and emphasized religious instruction and prayer. The coming of the English led to the closing of the Dutch language public schools, some of which were converted into private academies. The new English government showed little interest in public schools.

German settlements from New York through Pennsylvania, Maryland and down to the Carolinas sponsored elementary schools closely tied to their churches, with each denomination or sect sponsoring its own schools. By the middle of the 19th century, German Catholics and Missouri Synod Lutherans were setting up their own German-language parochial schools, especially in cities from Cincinnati to St. Louis to Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as rural areas heavily settled by Germans.

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