Educational Systems in North America Research Paper

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North America is home to two national systems of public, compulsory education that differ in size, degree of centralization and/organizational structure, but have been shaped by similar historical and cultural forces. In this research paper, common cultural dynamics are discussed and an overview of other sub-systems of education, such as military schools and religious schools, is provided.

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1. The Effect Of Religion And Language On Early Forms Of Schooling

Early in the seventeenth century, Father Superior Paul Le Jeune sat down with ‘a small Indian boy on one side and a small Negro on the other’ and attempted to instruct the children in the Catholic faith. While brief and ineffective, ‘as neither of the three understood the language of the others,’ Le Jeune’s efforts epitomize the tenor and focus of schooling in North America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Parkman 1983, p. 413).

In both the French and English colonies, schools were used to maintain existing social hierarchies and assimilate non-European populations by disseminating religious views, inculcating moral virtues (European), and instilling literacy. Early colleges, (e.g., the Jesuit College in Quebec, or Harvard College) provided instruction in religious dogma and the Christian sacral languages. Literacy was tied to religious indoctrination, and the Bible was probably the most common school ‘text’ (see Kett 1977 or Sutton 1988). As Cremin noted: ‘during the first phases of the Virginia settlement, for example, education was in the hands of the ministers, who used it both as an instrument for promoting discipline and/order among the colonists, and as a device for winning the loyalty of the natives, (Cremin 1970, p. 9).

The impact of schooling was limited though, due to the fact that during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries most of the population received little if any formal education. There were early attempts at vocational (or domestic) education—for example, the Ursuline nuns of Montreal received ‘a thousand francs to buy wool, and a thousand more for teaching girls to knit.’ (Parkman, 1983, 1357), but most ‘education’ consisted of skills learned in the family or apprenticeships. Even slaves participated in these forms to a wide extent: Equiano notes that he was trained as a ship’s pilot as a slave (Equiano 1995, p. ix). Education in the colonies was unsystematic, polymorphous, and above all, practical.

2. Emerging Systems: Education To Transform Society

In the USA, networks of public schools developed rapidly in the early 1800s. Early architects of the public education system, such as Thomas Jefferson, believed that a secular, public system of schools would serve as the foundation of democracy in the new republic. Benjamin Rush, lobbied (albeit unsuccessfully) to create a state-funded system of education in the US State of Pennsylvania. Horace Mann worked tirelessly in the cause of the ‘common school’ in Massachusetts and worked to establish ‘normal schools’ to train teachers—a group whose educational accomplishments were often astonishingly meager in the 1800s.

Driving these movements for educational reform was a widespread belief in the transformative power of education and a desire to build a system of education that would change society—a cultural tendency that has been piquantly labeled as a propensity to ‘tinker toward utopia’ (Tyack and Cuban 1995). Rush was one of the first to articulate these ideas in a systematic way. He noted: ‘Our schools of learning … will render the mass of people more homogenous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.’ Enumerating ‘a few advantages of learning upon mankind,’ he wrote ‘A free government can only exist in an equal diffusion of literature … and where learning is confined to a ‘‘few’’ people, we always find monarchy, aristocracy, and slavery’ (Rush 1787, pp. 1–2, 14).

Yet, during this same period, many state legislatures began to systematically prohibit literacy and other forms of schooling to both slave and free African populations by denying them access to education. Nearly 150 years after thinkers like Thomas Jefferson proposed universal schooling as the foundation of a democratic society, racially segregated schools were common in the USA. At the same time that profound educational experiments, such as Lowell’s incorporation of educational programs for his mill workers were occurring, African-Americans were denied the opportunity to learn to read.

It was not until the late 1800s when educational progressives like the philosopher John Dewey gained widespread political ascendancy and began to ‘tinker’ with public schools in order to transform the social order. From the late 1800s through to the end of the World War II, scholars and politicians from a wide range of backgrounds worked to extend and systematize public schooling. Yet these reformers typically assumed, as did Rush, that schooling would homogenize new waves of immigrants and make them ‘good citizens’ of Canada or the USA.

3. Conflict Of Ideals: Maintaining Society Or Transforming It Through Schooling?

The historical development of the North American school systems was affected by conflicting ideals about what schools should do for society. One end of the continuum is the view that school should be a vehicle for instilling morals, proper behavior, and transmitting a stable social order. At the other is the view that schools should allow students the widest range of self-determination and exploration and eliminate old prejudices thereby paving the way for a new, and better, social order.

3.1 Colonization, Native Peoples And Schooling

Early in the development of both the US and Canadian systems of education, special schools were created for the children of Native or First Peoples that stripped them of their culture and language and attempted to replace them with English, European moral sensibilities, and ‘Christian’ virtue. These sub-systems of education, including Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in the USA and church-run boarding schools in Canada, continued to function in this manner well into the twentieth century. At the start of the twenty-first century, some groups in Canada are still pursuing legal action against such schools for the abusive treatment of children. From the 1960s on, there has been considerable educational reform among Native communities including the development of a system of tribal colleges in the USA.

3.2 From Segregation To ‘A Nation At Risk’: The Federal Role In US Public Schools

In the former Confederate States of the USA, freed slaves made significant educational advances during Reconstruction until 1873, when the political imposition of Jim Crow laws and subsequent legalized segregation (flowing from the Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896) reversed the educational advancement of African-Americans and held it in abeyance until the 1950s. Beginning with the early Civil Rights movement in the USA, renewed political battles occurred over the role of the nation’s schools. The US Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) overturned the legal support for school segregation, fomenting widespread social unrest and unprecedented school reform. In one of the few instances where federal troops have been used to countermand the orders of state leaders, national guardsmen opened a high school in Birmingham, Alabama and allowed a handful of black teenagers to enter. The US federal role in public elementary and secondary schools has continued to grow, and has increasingly become the focus of intense political conflict. Events such as the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik and the publication of A Nation at Risk set off tremendous public debate about how schools were failing children and what could be done about it. While many have interpreted school reform since 1980 as an ‘attack on the public schools,’ attempts to create charter schools, provide vouchers for parents to send children to private schools, or pass laws making home schooling easier, are evidence of a continued belief that education is the best tool for creating a better society.

3.3 Achieving Equity: Conflict Over Language, Religion, And The Curriculum

A concern with educational equity has dominated educational concerns since the 1960s but the focus has shifted from assuring equal access to ethnic or racial minorities to one of who ultimately controls what values the school will transmit. These battles—over language, the teaching of religion (e.g., offering Creation Science), and general course content—have been far more vociferous in the USA than in Canada. In the US constitution, there is no clear enumeration of educational rights comparable to that found in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which specifically details the educational rights of language minority parents. This leaves open the possibility of political referendums, like the California act ending bilingual education, to substantially change the focus of schooling.

4. The Systems Today

Despite the progress made in establishing comprehensive, egalitarian systems of public education through the secondary level, the public school systems in the USA and Canada have not yet been able to fully rectify persistent problems of social inequality and conflicting cultural values. Yet the history of tension and educational experimentation has resulted in highly decentralized systems of free, public education, often emulated by other industrialized nations. In the Canadian system, under the British North America Act of 1867, provinces have wide discretion in setting educational policy, and there is no national ministry of education. In the USA, individual states have broad powers to set educational standards but locally elected school boards exert considerable control on the day-to-day operation of the schools. Federal control over schools in the USA is indirect, typically using laws that require states to meet certain standards in schools in order to obtain federal funds for education to ensure compliance.

In both nations education is compulsory from about ages 6 or 7 to about age 16. In Canada, students make the transition from elementary to secondary schooling between sixth and eighth grade (with a slightly different system in Quebec). In the USA, despite the highly successful junior high school movement of the early twentieth century, there is no standard form of early secondary school organization. Completion rates for schooling are similar for the two nations: roughly 85 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds in 1996 had completed upper-secondary school (OECD 1998, p. 39). However, this statistic belies the fact that many US students do not complete high school but later complete general educational development (GED) tests. This statistic also fails to document the fact that minority students have statistically significant lower mean achievement scores, higher dropout rates, and lower rates of college enrollment than the majority students do. Detailed statistical reports on enrollment and other educational indicators are published yearly by the National Center for Education Statistics in the USA and by Statistics Canada.

The cultural emphasis on public school as the means of promoting social change or maintaining a peaceful and/orderly society has often led scholars to ignore other nation-wide systems of education. In any catholic assessment of systems of education in North America, the role of tertiary education, military schools, and religious schools must be addressed.

4.1 The Tertiary Sector: Dominance In The World System

At the university level, in the USA, and to some extent in Canada, the cultural oppositions that affect elementary and secondary education have largely disappeared. If we compare two institutions that have had a profound impact on the development of college education in general—Harvard University and the University of Virginia—we find two distinct historical roles. For much of its history, Harvard educated the New England social elite and the Protestant clergy. UVA, while also transmitting social privilege, had a secular orientation that was replicated in the land-grant colleges set up around the US. Although land-

grant colleges were sometimes modeled on elite private colleges (e.g. the University of Georgia and Yale University), these institutions focused on improving the conditions of the state populace and offered courses in pedestrian subjects such as agricultural or domestic science. Enrollment grew rapidly; most states now boast a network of high quality public colleges or universities accessible to a large segment of the populace.

Over time the differences between highly ranked private and public universities has declined, giving rise to the ‘research university’ that combines undergraduate training with advanced research in virtually every discipline currently studied. Many US and Canadian universities have eclipsed the European institutions on which they were originally modeled as international centers of knowledge production, and the USA is widely recognized as the world leader in the production of Ph.D. recipients.

4.2 Military Schools And Education

Over half of high school graduates go on to some form of college in the USA and Canada, but a large percentage of the population still uses the military as a means for educational advancement. For children of working-class families, military training and military service offer low-cost educational opportunities. Not only does the military provide basic instruction to its enlisted men and women, in both nations it also runs an independent system of elementary and secondary schools for the children of military personnel.

The US military also has a substantial tertiary presence. It operates highly regarded military colleges such as the Army Academy at West Point and funds students in public and private colleges through the officer training (i.e., the Reserve Officer Training Corps). Less visible, but not less important to tertiary education, the US Department of Defense funds extensive research projects, providing substantial external sources of revenues for many colleges.

4.3 Religious Schools And Churches

Churches and religious schools form another diverse system outside of public schooling. ‘As in colonial times, the churches continued to serve as centers of formal and informal education.’ (Cremin 1970, p. 383). The role of churches as centers for disseminating education and promoting social change was dramatically seen in the USA, when in the 1960s, Sunday sermons melded into political calls for ending segregation. At present, US and Canadian churches are host to a wide array of meetings that have an explicitly educational component. Large suburban churches typically offer a range of weekly classes and meetings ranging from independent piano lessons to church sanctioned marriage classes. These activities are distinct from, and constitute a considerable educational impact over and beyond, the activities of private (US) or state-related (Canada) religious schools. Religious schools (primarily, but not exclusively Christian) are found throughout North America, ranging from local kindergarten programs up to world-class universities like Notre Dame. Both nations experienced considerable political conflict over the role government should play in supporting these schools. In the USA political battles and court challenges (such as the conflict in the 1840s regarding Catholic schools) have generally been resolved to reinforce the separation of church and state, although groups like the Amish have mounted successful court challenges that have limited the state’s ability to enforce compulsory schooling laws. In Canada many school boards were organized along denominational lines, and there is considerable variation in the relationship between provincial educational authorities and church-supported schools.

5. Experimentation And Innovation: The North American Educational Dynamic

Mr. Fredrick Douglas, a former slave, penned one of the most compelling statements of North American beliefs in the transformative power of education. Douglas wrote: ‘Mr. Auld [his owner] … at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, … that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, … served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering … and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn’ (Huggins 1980, pp. 42–3).

North Americans share a culture that places extreme emphasis on the power of education to transform both the individual and society and typically view schools as important institutions of social change or control. However, there is considerable cultural conflict over how schools are to be used: many citizens hold the view that a good government should mandate a system of free and comprehensive public education that is uniform for all, while others view any government intrusion into educational matters with extreme aversion.

North Americans also share a cultural tendency to engage each new educational innovation as a chance to move one step forward toward social utopia. This facet of North American culture may appear to others in the world as an obsession with educational reform, yet, this cultural dynamic has served to create a system of public education that is widely emulated. In the 1980s and 1990s, the performance of US and Canadian students on international tests of academic achievement caused many to declare the failure of North American schools and praise the educational culture of East Asia. Few saw the irony of the situation: educational reformers heavily influenced the Japanese school system. Educational policy makers in East Asia continue to look to North America as a center of educational reform and research.

Educational reform initiatives originating in North America will continue to influence educational systems around the globe. Looking toward the future, the most significant changes in systems of education will be wrought by the historical confluence of new electronic communication networks and a resurgence of political efforts to decentralize the control of schools. This can be seen in both the home schooling and charter school movements.

Widespread access to immense databases and electronic communication now allows parents to provide children with access to a world-class curriculum within the home, thereby weakening old claims that ‘home learning’ is greatly inferior to ‘schooling.’ While the majority of home-educated children belong to fundamentalist, Christian groups, a wide range of parents, anywhere from 300,000 to over half a million around 1995, now opt to school their children at home (US Department of Education 2000).

Charter schools, in the USA, have also increased in the wake of the educational restructuring movement of the 1980s and 1990s. These schools are publicly funded and are subject to governmental regulation but operate under fewer restrictions than ordinary public schools. There is great variation in state laws regarding the establishment of these schools, and only a small percentage of the US school-age population attend charter schools. But again, the ability of a small number of adults to access an immense amount of literature, music, and art via computer-based networks has made the establishment of such schools quite viable.

The demand for these, and other alternatives to public education, will continue to arise from the important cultural role that education has in North American society. The early part of the twentieth century saw the dramatic expansion of an organized public school system, then viewed as the best way to move society forward. The early part of the twenty-first century will no doubt see dramatic decentralization as families push for more autonomy over their child’s education and individuals of all ages continue to resist any attempt to control what they can, or cannot, learn.


  1. Cremin L 1970 American Education: The Colonial Experience 1607–1783, 1st edn. Harper and Row, New York
  2. Equiano O 1995 The Interesting Narrative. Penguin Books, New York
  3. Huggins N 1980 Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglas. Little, Brown and Company, Boston
  4. Kett J 1977 Rites of Passage Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. Basic Books, New York
  5. National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983 A Nation at Risk. Washington, DC
  6. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 1998 Education at a Glance, OECD Indicators. OECD, Paris
  7. Parkman F 1983 France and England in North America. Library of America, New York, Vol. 1
  8. Rush B 1786 A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania. Thomas Dobson, PA
  9. Sutton J 1988 Stubborn Children. University of California Press, Berkeley
  10. Tyack D, Cuban L 1995 Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  11. US Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. 2000 Issues Related to Estimating the Homeschooled Population in the United States With National Household Survey Data, NCES 2000–311. Washington, DC
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