Educational Reform: The Example of Horace Mann

Horace Mann championed education reform that helped to expand state-sponsored public education in the 1800s.


  • Describe the central reforms that Horace Mann brought to public education


    • Early public school curriculum was based on strict Calvinism and concentrated on teaching moral values.
    • Free public education was common in New England but rare in the south, where most education took place at home with family members or tutors.
    • Horace Mann of Massachusetts led the common school movement in the early 1800s, in which public schools were financed by local property taxes. Mann also emphasized positive reinforcement instead of punishment.
    • Mann promoted locally-controlled, often one-room "common schools" in which children of all ages and classes were taught together; later he introduced the age-grading system.
    • Each state used federal funding from the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts of 1862 and 1890 to set up "land grant colleges" that specialized in agriculture and engineering.
    • Many of what are now called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) had their origins in the Morrill Act of 1890.


  • Calvinism: The Christian denomination which places emphasis on the sovereignty of God and distinctively includes the doctrine of predestination (that a special few are predetermined for salvation, while others cannot attain it).
  • parochial school: A school associated with the parish of a church.
  • common school movement: The educational era associated with schools that were meant to serve individuals of all social classes and religions.
  • lyceum: A public hall designed for lectures or concerts.

History of Education in the United States

Prior to the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, education in the 13 colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries varied considerably depending on one's location, race, gender, and social class. Basic education in literacy and numeracy was widely available, especially to white males residing in the northern and middle colonies, and the literacy rate was relatively high among these people. Educational opportunities were much sparser in the rural South.

Education in the United States had long been a local affair, with schools governed by locally elected school boards. Public education was common in New England, although it was often class-based with the working class receiving few benefits. Instruction and curriculum were all locally determined, and teachers were expected to meet rigorous demands of strict moral behavior. Schools taught religious values and applied Calvinist philosophies of discipline, which included corporal punishment and public humiliation.

Excerpt from the New England Primer of 1690

Prior to 19th century reform, education was often the province of sectarian religious institutions, as evident in the religious bent of this popular textbook.

The public education system was less organized in the South. Public schools were rare, and most education took place in the home with the family acting as instructors. The wealthier planter families were able to bring in tutors for instruction in the Classics, but many yeoman farming families had little access to education outside of the family unit.

Horace Mann and Educational Reform

Education reform, championed by Horace Mann, helped to bring about state sponsored public education, including a statewide curriculum and a local property tax to finance public education. By the year 1870, all states had free elementary schools and the U.S. population boasted one of the highest literacy rates at the time. Private academies flourished in towns across the country, but rural areas (where most people lived) had few schools before the 1880s. By the close of the 1800s, public secondary schools began to outnumber private ones.

Horace Mann

The reform movement began in Massachusetts when Mann started the common school movement. Horace Mann (May 4, 1796 – August 2, 1859) was an American education reformer who served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1827-1833 and the Massachusetts Senate from 1834-1837. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1848 after serving as Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education since its creation. He is often called "the father of American public education."

Arguing that universal public education was the best way to turn the nation's unruly children into disciplined, judicious republican citizens, Mann won widespread approval from modernizers, especially in his Whig Party, for building public schools. Most states adopted one version or another of the system he established in Massachusetts, especially the program for "normal schools" to train professional teachers.

Common Schools

A "common school" was a public, often one-roomed school in the United States or Canada in the 1800s. The term was coined by Horace Mann and refers to the school's aim to serve individuals of all social classes and religions. Students often went to the common school from ages six to fourteen (predecessor of grades 1-8). The duration of the school year was often dictated by the agricultural needs of particular communities, with children on vacation from school when they needed to work on the family farm. Common schools were funded by local taxes, did not charge tuition, and were open to all white children. Each district was typically controlled by an elected local school board; a county school superintendent or regional director was usually elected to supervise day-to-day activities of several common school districts.

Mann's work revolutionized the approach of the common school system of Massachusetts, which in turn influenced the direction of other states. In 1838, he founded and edited The Common School Journal. In this journal, Mann targeted the problems of public schools. Mann hoped that by bringing children of all classes together, they could share a common learning experience. This would also give the less fortunate an opportunity to advance in society. Mann met with bitter opposition by some Boston schoolmasters who strongly disapproved of his innovative pedagogical ideas and by various religious sectarians who contended against the exclusion of all sectarian instruction from the schools.

Mann advocated a statewide curriculum and instituted school financing through local property taxes. Mann also fought protracted battles against the Calvinist influence on discipline, preferring positive reinforcement to physical punishment. Most children during that time learned to read, write, and spell from Noah Webster's Blue Backed Speller and later the McGuffey Readers. The readings inculcated moral values as well as literacy. Kindergartens and the gymnasium were introduced by German immigrants, while Yankee orators sponsored the Lyceum movement that provided popular education via lectures for hundreds of towns and small cities. Mann later advocated the Prussian model of schooling, which included the technique of age grading—students were assigned by age to different grades and progressed through them. Some students progressed with their grade and completed all courses the secondary school had to offer. These were "graduated," and were awarded a certificate of completion.

The McGuffey Reader

With 120 million copies sold since 1836, the McGuffey Reader taught many American children to read.

Parochial Schools

From 1750–1870, American Catholic parochial schools appeared as ad hoc efforts by parishes, and most Catholic children attended public schools. In addition to Catholics, German Lutherans, the Calvinist Dutch, and Orthodox Jews also began parochial schools. Starting from about 1876, 39 states (out of 50) passed a constitutional amendment to their state constitutions called the "Blaine Amendments" forbidding tax money to be used to fund parochial schools. In 2002, the United States Supreme Court upheld an Ohio law allowing aid under specific circumstances.

Morrill Land-Grant Acts

The Morrill Land-Grant Acts are United States statutes signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862 that allowed for the creation of land-grant colleges. For 20 years prior to the first introduction of the bill in 1857, there was a political movement calling for the creation of agriculture colleges. The movement was led by Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois College. On February 8, 1853, the Illinois Legislature adopted a resolution, drafted by Turner, calling for the Illinois congressional delegation to work to enact a land-grant bill to fund a system of industrial colleges - one in each state.

Under the act, each eligible state received a total of 30,000 acres of federal land, either within or contiguous with its boundaries, for each member of congress held by the state. This land, or the proceeds from its sale, was to be used toward establishing and funding educational institutions. The land-grant college system produced the agricultural scientists and industrial engineers who constituted the critical human resources of the managerial revolution in government and business of 1862–1917, laying the foundation of the world's preeminent educational infrastructure that supported the world's foremost technology-based economy.

Education for African Americans

In the era of reconstruction after the Civil War, the Freedmen's Bureau opened 1000 schools across the South for black children. Schooling was a high priority for the Freedmen, and enrollment was high and enthusiastic. Overall, the Bureau spent $5 million to set up schools for African Americans. By the end of 1865, more than 90,000 Freedmen were enrolled as students in public schools. The school curriculum resembled that of schools in the North.

A second Morrill Act was later introduced in 1890 that required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion, or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. Among the 70 colleges and universities which eventually evolved from the Morrill Acts are several of today's historically black colleges and universities.

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