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Education is one of the main social institutions in a society. It serves as one of the primary ways new members of society are taught social norms, valued behavior, and economic skills. As societies evolve, their education systems change with them. Free, mandatory public schools developed in the United States in the 19th century, sparked in part by the economic and social changes of the Industrial Revolution. Major changes in the public school system occurred in the mid-20th century, when racial segregation of schools was prohibited by law. However, de facto segregation continues in the 21st century.

Education is strongly linked to social mobility. However, a society's education system can also contribute to inequality. Children from high-income families often attend high-quality schools, while low-income children often receive a lower-quality education. Socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity can also impact education.

Social and cultural changes influence approaches to education, including what is taught and approaches to teaching and learning. The civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the disability rights movement have all impacted education in the United States. Important trends in the 21st century include high-stakes testing, charter schools, and homeschooling. One issue of concern to many is the school-to-prison pipeline, the funneling of disadvantaged children into the criminal justice system. Zero-tolerance discipline policies are linked to the development of this trend. Finally, the education market in the United States in an important sector of the economy. Costs and funding for higher education, including student debt, have a significant impact on universities and on society at large.

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