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Defining Events

The Common School Movement

Up until the 1800s, public schools were governed entirely by local authorities. The quality of education varied greatly from region to region, and in many areas of the country there were no public schools at all. As a result, in the early 19th century, a reform movement began, with the goal of standardizing education throughout the United States through government regulations. One of the reformers’ primary goals was to organize state departments of education that would oversee the activities of local school districts. Another goal was to de-emphasize the role of religious studies in public education, placing a greater emphasis on civic instruction, which they believed was key to helping the growing immigrant population become integrated into American life.

The reformists’ activities, known as the Common School Movement, were controversial at the time. Industry leaders resisted the idea of mandatory school attendance because this would deprive them of child laborers. And Roman Catholics feared that the new public school systems would have a bias toward Protestant values. However, in the end, the Common School Movement was largely successful in changing the structure of public education in America.

Despite the widespread reforms, the Common School Movement extended only to K–8 education. Public high schools were relatively rare until well into the 20th century, existing only in large cities. Throughout the 20th century, secondary, high school education became increasingly available. Now all 50 states have laws requiring children to attend school until the age of 16, with some states mandating students attend to the age of 17 or 18.

Brown vs. the Board of Education

Public schools in the United States were plagued by racial inequality from the beginning. Prior to the Civil War, African-Americans were rarely educated in a formal school setting. The Common School Movement’s goal of making public education available to “all children” only extended to the education of all white children.

Eventually, public education was made available to children of all races, but in many parts of the United States schools were segregated. The legality of this was established by a ruling in the late 1800s, which stated that government-funded facilities could be segregated by race, so long as they were “separate but equal.” In 1951, a group of parents from Topeka, Kansas, challenged this idea in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case was considered to be representative of several similar legal battles taking place in southern cities. The plaintiffs argued that segregated schools, by their very nature, were unequal, and the Supreme Court agreed.

The process of desegregation lasted until well into the second part of the 20th century. In fact, many experts in the field of education believe that the fight for truly integrated schools continues into the present, because of the many low-performing schools that exist in low-income, minority communities throughout the country.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The foundation for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which the United States Congress enacted in 1975, to ensure that children with disabilities had fair access to education. Prior to 1975, schools were not federally obligated to provide education to students with disabilities. These students had few options to receive an education: Some were placed in specialized institutions while others stayed at home and received no education.

Under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, states with federal education funding were mandated to create a policy that assured all children with physical and mental disabilities the right to free, appropriate public education, and one free meal at school each day. Other requirements of the act included that disabled students be integrated into regular classrooms, and in the least restrictive environments, to the best degree possible, while also having access to extra help and services. The act covered students ages 5 to 21, and has since been amended to include children from birth to five years old. In 1990, the EAHCA was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and included replacing the phrase "handicapped child" with "child with a disability."

The No Child Left Behind Act and Every Student Succeeds Act

In 2001, Congress, led by President George W. Bush, passed a law regulating public education programs across the country. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was created with the purpose of setting equal expectations for all public schools in the United States, by holding them accountable for the performance of their students. In 2015, it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, to ensure that all K–12 public schools provide all students with quality education.

The specific mandates of the NCLB Act covered a great deal of territory, from requiring schools to administer standardized tests at regular intervals to requiring that public schools give lists of student names and addresses to military recruiters. NCLB was a historic law, in that it is the first sweeping educational reform law ever to be passed by the federal government, taking much of the decision-making power away from the state departments of education.

NCLB was controversial within the education community for several reasons. For one thing, although it imposed dozens of mandates on public schools, it did not allocate any federal funding toward the implementation of these mandates. As a result, many school districts were forced to cut existing programs in order to comply with NCLB. A large percentage of educators also felt that NCLB, while effective at identifying failing schools, did little to help them improve student performance.

Although NCLB initially passed through Congress with a majority of votes, many representatives—from both sides of the political spectrum—wanted it to be reformed. In July 2015, the Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, expanding on the NCLB and allowing states to have more input into public schools' account for student achievement. Under the ESSA, states are provided with a framework from the federal government for education plans for schools. ESSA also enables parents to review and provide feedback on these education plans. Other ESSA requirements include: states must identify the schools that are struggling and come up with plans to help students at these schools get back on track; and states must test and measure students' performance and improvement. ESSA also assists schools by providing funding for optional programs that help motivate and inspire students, such as reading and literacy programs.

Common Core State Standards Initiative

Up until the early 2000s, each state had its own set of education standards to determine what students in the third through 12th grades should know and be able to do. The Common Core State Standards were created to standardize the levels of proficiency expected of students across the states. The groundwork for the Common Core State Standards Initiative began in 2008, when a taskforce of educators, governors, corporate chief executives, and experts in higher education released a report on the benefits of developing standards-based education. In 2009, the Common Core State Standards was launched.

According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative Web site (, consistent standards across the states gives teachers, parents, and students clear expectations to ensure that students have the required knowledge and skills to succeed in college, career, and life after graduation from high school, no matter where they live. The standards aim to align with what colleges, workforce training programs, and employers require, and to promote equity by ensuring all students are well prepared to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad. The Common Core also enables collaboration among states on a range of tools and policies, such as the development of teaching materials and common systems to measure students' performance.

To date, 41 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards. The standards have not been met with open arms, however. Some states have introduced legislation to repeal the Common Core Standards. New York State, for example, recently introduced the Next Generation Learning Standards, which defines what students should know and be able to do in various grade levels. Several states that had initially adopted the Common Core have since withdrawn. There remains much controversy surrounding the standards. Many teachers and students find the learning goals challenging, and parents are concerned about the pressures placed on their children to perform according to standardized expectations. Teachers have had to adjust to teaching according to the standards and older students have had to adapt to a new way of learning, causing additional frustration, stress, and anxiety.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 disrupted all traditional models of education. In an effort to slow transmission of the virus and protect the public, many school systems in the United States closed to in-person education, forcing students out of classrooms and onto virtual platforms. Educators and students adapted to videoconferencing platforms such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and many others to continue a regular class schedule. The sudden shift to virtual learning created much uncertainty. Educators struggled to reinvent their lessons and plans, adapting them from the classroom to the Internet. Many longtime teachers found themselves frustrated by the need to master new skills and technology. Later in the pandemic, when schools returned to in-person instruction or hybrid models that combined in-person and virtual learning, they also faced risk of infection. Schools required students, teachers, and other staff to wear face masks, installed plexiglass screens on teachers desks, reorganized classroom seating to create social distancing, and many other steps to reduce the risk of COVID infection. The many changes and adaptations created anxiety and stress for educators and students alike. Districts around the United States lost some teachers and staff who chose to retire rather than face these obstacles. As the spread of COVID slowed and the pandemic waned, schools largely returned to in-person instruction by the 2022-2023 school year. Many studies and surveys found that the pandemic shutdown had several negative consequences including adversely affecting the mental health of children, setting students behind in their learning path, interfering with normal social development, and other consequences.