Public Education: Historical Review

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Public Education: Historical Review

The history of education in the United States has certain peculiarities which are closely connected with the specific conditions of life in the New World and the history of the American society.

The early Colonies and different politics of education for the first settlers who came to North America from Europe in the l7th century brought with them the educational ideas of the time most typical of the countries they represented. In Virginia and South Carolina, for example, education was entirely private. The children of the rich either had tutors or were sent to Europe for schooling. Many of the children of poor parents had no education at all. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York many of the schools were set up and controlled by the church.

In Massachusetts, which was much more developed at that time, three educational principles were laid down: I) the right of the State or Colony to require that its citizens be educated; 2) the right of the State to compel the local governmental divisions, such as towns and cities, to establish schools; and 3) the right of the local government to support these schools by taxation.

At the very beginning, school buildings were often rough shacks. They were poorly equipped with a few benches, a stove, and rarely enough textbooks. Discipline was harsh, and corporal punishment was frequent.

The program of studies consisted largely of reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and Bible lessons. Since each community was responsible for solving its own educational problems, there was no attempt to find a common standard of excellence. Even the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1789, contained no direct mention of education.

The schools of the early 1800s were not very different from those of the pre-revolutionary period. Some historians consider that they actually deteriorated in the three or four decades following the American Revolution, for the new country turned its attention to the development of its land, cities, and political institutions.

And yet, in attempt to generate interest in education, a number of communities continued founding schools. Some classes were opened to children for secular instruction and a number of schools for poor children which were a forerunner of the public schools in several major cities. Some States tax-supported schools and urged their spread.

The purpose of the public or “common” schools was to teach the pupils the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. No particular religion was to be taught.

By the middle of 19th century, the desire for free public education was widespread. But the States could not find enough means for its financial support. It was during those years that communities began to support the schools within their boundaries. The States finally required local school districts to tax themselves for that purpose through the “real property” tax. This tax originated as financial support for public schools, and remains today the major financial resource for the public school system in the United States though it can no longer carry the entire burden.

Towards the second part of the 19th century compulsory attendance laws came into effect, starting with Massachusetts in 1852. Now in most States the minimum age at which a pupil may leave school is sixteen; in five States seventeen; and in four States eighteen.

As has already been mentioned, education remains primarily a function of the States. Each State has a board of education, us 3 to 9 members, serving mostly without pay. They are either elected by the public or appointed by the Governor. The board has an executive officer, usually called a State school superintendent or commissioner. In some cases he is elected; in others he is appointed by the board.

In theory, responsibility for operating the public education system is local. Schools are under the jurisdiction of local school board, composed of citizens elected by residents of the school district. In fact, however, much local control has been superseded. State laws determine the length of the school year, the way in which teachers will be certified, and many of the courses which must be taught.

Though the Federal Government has no powers at all in the field of education, from time to time Congress passes different Acts which help to “assist in the expansion and improvement of educational programs to meet critical national needs”. Such Acts provide money for science, mathematics, and language instruction; for the purchase of laboratory equipment.


American School System


Education is not mentioned in the Constitution, nor is there any federal department of education, so the matter is left to individual States. Education is free and compulsory in all States, however, from the age of 6 till 16 or 18. So, most American children go to State schools. In the USA these are called public schools. There are also some private schools, which are usually supported by religious organizations.

At 6 years of age children begin the first year of elementary school, which is called “Grade I” or “First Grade” (the second year is “Grade 2”, etc.). At elementary school the emphasis is placed on the basic skills — speaking, reading, writing and arithmetic, though the general principle throughout the American school system is that children should be helped and encouraged to develop their own particular interests.

Children move on to high school in the seventh grade, where they continue until the twelfth grade. There are two basic types of high school: one with a more academic curriculum, preparing students for admission to college, and the other offering primarily vocational education (training in a skill or trade). The local school board decides which courses are compulsory. There is great freedom of choice, however, and an important figure in high schools is the guidance counselor, who advises the students on what courses to take on the basis of their career choices.

There are no national exams, although some schools and States have their own exams. Generally examination is given by continuous assessment, which means that teachers assess children throughout the year on how well they do in tests, classroom discussions and written and oral work.

In order to receive the high school diploma necessary in most States to get into college, students must accumulate a minimum number of credits, which are awarded for the successful completion of each one- or half-year course. Students hoping to be admitted to the more famous universities require far more than the minimum number of credits and must also have good grades (the mark given on the basis of a course work and a written examination). Some colleges and universities require the students to take the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test).

Extra-curricular activity (such as playing for one of the school’s sports teams) is also very important in the American school system and is taken into consideration by colleges and employers.


Higher Education

There are about 3,000 colleges and universities, both private and public, in the United States. Students have to pay to go to both private and State universities. Private universities are generally smaller but very expensive, which means that the tuition fees are extremely high. State colleges and universities are not that expensive, the tuition fees are usually lower, and if the students are State residents, they pay much less.

Every young person who enters a higher educational institution can get financial assistance. If a student is offered a loan, he should repay it (with interest) after he has left the college. Needy students are awarded grants which they do not have to repay.

Scholarships are given when a student is doing exceptionally well at school.

American universities and colleges are usually built as a separate complex, called “campus”, with teaching blocks, libraries, dormitories, and many other facilities grouped together on one site, often on the outskirts of the city. Some universities are comprised many campuses. The University of California, for example, has 9 campuses, the biggest being Berkeley (founded in 1868), San Francisco (1873), Los Angeles (1919), Santa Barbara (1944), Santa Cruz (1965).

All the universities are independent, offering their own choice of studies, selling their own admission standards and deciding which students meet those standards. The greater the prestige of the university, the higher the credits and grades required.

The terms “college” and “university” are often used interchangeably, as “college” is used to refer to all undergraduate education; and the four-year undergraduate program, leading to a bachelor’s degree, can be followed at either college or university. Universities tend to be larger than colleges and also have graduate schools where students can receive post-graduate education. Advanced or graduate university degrees include law and medicine.

Most college and university undergraduate courses last for four years. During the first two years students usually follow general courses in the arts or sciences and then choose a major — the subject or area of studies in which they concentrate. The other subjects are called minors. Credits (with grades) are awarded for the successful completion of each course. These credits are often transferable, so students who have not done well in high school can choose a junior college (or community college), which offers a two-year “transfer” program, preparing students for degree-granting institutions. Community colleges also offer two-year courses of a vocational nature, leading to technical and semi-professional occupations, such as journalism.

There are no final examinations at colleges and universities, and students receive a degree if they have collected enough credits in a particular subject. The traditional degree which crowns the undergraduate course is that of a Bachelor of Arts (B. A.) or a Bachelor of Science (B. S.). The lower level of graduate school is for obtaining the Master’s Degree (M. A. or M. S.), and the upper level is for the degree of Ph.D.

The most famous American higher educational institutions that were already in operation during the early period came into being through the religious zeal and philanthropy of their founders.

Higher education began in the United States long time ago, when the Puritan leaders of the settlement called the Massachusetts Bay Colony founded in 1636 Harvard College (Massachusetts). Established by John Harvard, English clergyman, this college was to turn into the most famous of the American Universities.

The College of William and Mary (Virginia, 1693) was the second institution of higher education founded in the Colonies. In 1701 Connecticut Puritans established Yale College (Connecticut).

All these Colonial colleges which were gradually turned into Universities with classical education established a balance between a Humanities and Science. Their aim was to train men for service in church and civil state.

By the 1770s several more colleges had been opened: University of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania, 1740), Princeton University (New Jersey, 1746), Washington and Lee University (Virginia, 1749), Columbia University (New York, 1754), Brown University (Rhode Island, 1764), Rutgers College (New Jersey, 1766), Dartmouth College (New Hampshire, 1769).

Though the colleges in the first half of the first half of the 19th century were numerous and widely scattered over the settled area, their enrollments were comparatively small. Since 1870s the colleges have developed enormously. Their resources have multiplied, the number of their students has increased by leaps and bounds, the program of studies has broadened and deepened, the standards have been raised, and the efficiency of the instruction has greatly increased. Rigidly prescribed courses of study have given way to elective courses.

In the course of time, when research centers and experiment stations were attached to the Universities, these institutions turned into the strongholds of science and higher education. They developed a unique, typically American structure unlike any other existing University system in the world.

Higher education in Russia

Higher education in Russia is characterized by direct state administration and until 1990/91 was essentially controlled by the Communist Party. The schools of higher learning are divided into universities, where humanities and pure sciences are taught; institutes, where single fields are taught (e.g., law, medicine, and agriculture); and polytechnical institutes, where subjects similar to those in the institutes are taught but with a broader scientific foundation. Another distinction of the Russian system is that it greatly extends the educational network by offering a broad array of carefully prepared correspondence courses. These courses are supplemented by radio and television broadcasts and are further augmented by regional study centres. Many students are thus able to proceed part-time with their education while holding full- or part-time jobs. Students are admitted to higher-educational institutions on the basis of competitive examinations. The duration of studies for a first degree ranges from four to six years, with five years being the average. The curriculum consists of compulsory, alternative, and optional subjects. Candidates for a degree must take examinations in two or three basic disciplines related to a chosen specialty. At the conclusion of a first-degree course, all students receive the same diploma, but students with the best results are awarded a “distinction.” Most institutions organize graduate schools for postgraduate studies, which are likewise concluded by a set of examinations.

Modern trends in higher education indicate a willingness worldwide to learn from the strengths of the various systems. Schools in North America frequently suffer from a lack of the uniformity of educational standards that European systems provide through centralized bureaucratic control. Coordinated national accrediting organizations solve much of this problem. European universities have moved toward greater autonomy in curriculum development, and steps have been taken so that broader segments of the population can benefit from higher education.

Unit 7.

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