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What is the History of the K-12 Education System?

By J. Beam
Updated May 23, 2024
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The K-12 education system is the public education system that most people are familiar with today. Comprised of 13 grades, kindergarten through 12th, it refers to the public school system in all of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and parts of Europe as well. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact history of education, as it has been occurring in some form for centuries in all parts of the world.

Today, K-12 education represents the compulsory education required of all children in the US. Though this type of education can be attained from either publicly or privately funded institutions, children who have reached compulsory school age (ranging from age six to eight, depending on the state) are required by law to attend school. Compulsory education in the United States began over 150 years ago when Horace Mann established a statewide system of education in Massachusetts, which became the first state to pass school attendance laws in 1852. By 1918, children were required by law to receive an education in all states.

Kindergarten was actually developed prior to compulsory education. Though it is not compulsory in all states, children are required to start school in most states at the age of six. If the child is too young to start kindergarten the year he turns five, kindergarten may technically be required since he will be turning six that school year. The word kindergarten is of German origin and means “children’s garden.” The concept was the brainchild of Friedrich Froebel, a self-educated philosophical teacher, who sought to develop a place of guided play for children to “bloom.”

The first kindergarten established in England was in 1852, and the United States followed by establishing its first in 1856. Though education was required of all children in Massachusetts by that time and many other states were following suit, not all schools provided, nor required, kindergarten.

Similarly, not all schools required a student to stay in school beyond a certain grade, as compulsory education initially applied only to elementary aged children. Many children were also permitted to miss portions of the school year, especially farmers’ children who were needed at home for harvesting crops and preparing for the winter.

The Education Act of 1918, or the Fisher Act, was an act of British Parliament that implemented changes in progressive education and helped form many aspects of the K-12 education system used today. The Fisher Act raised the age at which children could leave school to 14 and addressed education needs, such as health inspections and accommodations for special needs children. This act also led to the development of a committee that reported to and made recommendations to policy makers regarding education.

In the United States, unlike England, public education was governed by each individual state. As early as 1791, seven states had specific provisions for education in their own individual constitutions and were formed partly on the basis of education without religious bias. Prior to the passing of compulsory school attendance laws, education was primarily localized and available only to the wealthy, and it often included religious teachings. Following the compulsory attendance laws, Catholics banned together in opposition of states mandating common schooling and created private Catholic schools. In 1925, the Supreme Court ruled that children could attend public or private schools for education.

Over time, each individual state developed its own department of education to oversee the public education system. Compulsory attendance grew to include kindergarten and mandate attendance through the age of 16. Funding sources for public education also grew to include federal, state and local sources. Federal funding was overseen by the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare from 1953 to 1979, until it was divided and the US Department of Education was formed as a stand-alone entity.

By the 1950s, compulsory education had become well established, but the K-12 education system was really still in its infancy. Schools were still primarily localized, but education was no longer available only to the wealthy. Even in the 1950s, however, segregation by race was still common practice in public schools in the US. Then came another landmark decision by the Supreme Court.

In 1954, in the US Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Though this decision was met with resistance and it took many years before legalized segregation was completely eliminated, especially in southern states, the federal courts eventually achieved success.

This achievement was not without its repercussions, and many urban and inner city schools saw an exodus of wealthy and middle-class white families, who moved to suburban districts. In time, many urban districts were left only with poor families and it became difficult to attract and pay for quality teachers and education.

Since the formation of the US Department of Education in 1979, the education system has been similar to what is found today, but has undergone a series of developments and amendments to accommodate the changing needs of education. Funding has always been a source of concern for public schools, especially in poor, urban districts, where the quality of education also came into question.

As a result, federal funding is now directly related to school performance as determined by standardized testing under the current No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB was signed into law by President George W. Bush 3 January 2002. Under this law, standards of accountability were increased in an effort to improve performance and to give parents flexibility in choosing schools.

NCLB requires states to administer assessments of basic skills to all students at certain grade levels and achieve the standards set forth by each state in order to receive federal funding. Specific and more rigorous goals were placed on reading achievements under this law and states also had to develop high school exit or graduation exams with specific measures of assessment in place as well. The intention was to hold schools to a higher level of accountability, but was debated from its inception.

Currently, the K-12 public education system provides a 12th grade education to eligible students for free. Families have the option of sending their children to private schools, but are then responsible for tuition. The future of education will undoubtedly experience change and social and economical challenges, just as it has in the past. Programs may soon expand to include pre-K compulsory attendance and could even expand to include options beyond the 12th grade, as these are concepts, in their earliest stages, currently being explored.

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Discussion Comments

By anon317230 — On Feb 01, 2013

Why is it that we were the tops in education until the feds took it over? And why did we drop even further and faster after NCLB? My parents are both teachers and counselors. Thanks to their encouragement, we home school our kids. Life is so much better this way. Get education back into the hands of the local people and away from a bloated federal government running amok.

By anon107398 — On Aug 30, 2010

Not so wise. The details of where exactly Mann got his ideas from, what the purpose of the system he copied actually was (hint: it had nothing to do with developing young minds to their best potential) who helped him to implement it, how the governor of MA was involved and where he got his education all missing. Very skimpy research. Look up Prussia, 18th and 19th centuries.

By anon54381 — On Nov 29, 2009

Why does America rank so low in education compared to other countries? We used to be the best.

By anon49724 — On Oct 22, 2009

The public school system from Kindergarten through college is afflicted with counterproductive bureaucracy. The U.S. Dept. of Education needs an in-depth overhaul. Presently, it does work function and only occupies space at taxpayers expense.

By anon41613 — On Aug 16, 2009

I am just thinking that the discussion about public schools in the early 20th century probably looked a lot like the discussion of health care today. So I guess to determine whether you believe in universal health care, people need to assess how you feel about public education. We still have private schools, but the vast majority of kids attend public schools, because it costs less for their parents. People without children are still required to fund the public schools through taxes, as are people who send their children to private schools.

By DNissen — On May 16, 2009

Compulsory public education has deteriorated to yet another money gathering system and the buck stops at the top. In my state they took the federal funds received for low performing schools meant to provide funding for better books and teachers and reversed it so that if a school was low performing they did not get any funds. A representative from the State Education Agency told me to sit down and be quiet at a School Board meeting when I questioned this reversal of policy. The system is outdated and falling into disrepair and becoming a large scale babysitter and penal colony.

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