Primary tabs

You are viewing a wiki page. You are welcome to edit.


American colonists first began establishing elementary schools for their children in the early 17th century. These schools were private, and only the wealthiest families could afford to enroll students in them. The main purpose of these early schools was to teach the students religion due to its major role in colonial life. Reading, writing, and arithmetic weren’t considered as important.

Before 1642, only 10 percent of the young children in the colonies attended school. That year, the colony that would eventually become Massachusetts passed a law stating that parents must teach their children to read. By 1647, the colony mandated that every town with 50 families or more must establish an elementary school. This paved the way for widespread education for children. However, it wasn’t until more than 200 years later, in 1852, that the state of Massachusetts passed the first law in the country making school attendance compulsory. By 1918, all states had such laws.

The earliest secondary school was located in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Boston Latin School opened in 1635 with the purpose of training children, primarily boys, to become well-read members of the clergy. Like the Boston Latin School, many of the early secondary schools focused on the language of Latin. In the 1700s, the colonists, led by Benjamin Franklin, founded another type of secondary school called the academy. Academies offered a wide variety of subjects in addition to religion, but they were all private schools that charged tuition and catered to the sons and daughters of affluent families.

Public education did not really take hold until the early 1800s, after the Revolutionary War had ended and the country was beginning to unite. Boston was the site of the first public high school, which opened in 1821. After fighting the war, many Americans wanted children to learn about patriotism and about becoming morally upstanding individuals. Many also wanted to de-emphasize religion in the schools. The growing spirit of unity in the country had another important effect on public education, namely the movement toward using standard texts in all schools.

The first college in the United States was Harvard, founded in 1636. By 1833, Ohio boasted the country’s first coeducational college, Oberlin.

This kindergarten teacher is helping her students learn to tell time. (Corbis.)

The concept of kindergarten (meaning children’s garden in German) came to the United States from Germany in 1856, when Margaretha Schurz opened a private kindergarten in Watertown, Wisconsin. The first public kindergarten was established in St. Louis in 1873.

In 1901, the first public two-year college in the United States, Joliet Junior College, was founded in Illinois. Today, there are nearly 1,200 community colleges in the United States.

Education went through many changes in the 1900s. One such change was a declining emphasis on strictness and rote learning (memorization) and a greater emphasis on developing the whole person. Educators added elementary school courses in science and geography, as well as fun classroom activities and field trips.

Although World War II caused many people to leave school, the public school system continued to expand and take on more significance, even in the political and social arenas. One of the most important educational reforms of the 20th century was the 1954 Supreme Court decision forbidding racial segregation in public schools.

School systems have suffered many crises in recent years. Reports by the National Commission on Excellence in Education stress the widespread public perception that something is seriously amiss in the existing educational system. Many feel that educational systems fall far short of the goal of cultivating a learning society and that U.S. students lag far behind their counterparts in other developed nations.

Urban schools, in particular, have suffered in the last decade from the problems of violence, drug abuse, gang activity, and high dropout rates, in addition to diminishing student performance. Experts say that as many as 20 percent of Americans are functionally illiterate. Many different reasons have been cited for these declines: too little federal funding, poor parental influence, poverty, irrelevant or uninspired curricula, the lack of national standards and a national curriculum, poorly motivated students, and poorly trained teachers.

The No Child Left Behind Act was enacted into law in 2002. The Act does the following: (1) sets achievement goals for teachers and paraprofessionals; (2) holds states to higher accountability for the educational achievement of their students in exchange for more flexibility in how they can use federal education funds; (3) stresses the importance of using scientific research to determine what educational programs and practices are most effective for students and educators; and (4) gives parents with children in schools that do not meet state standards for at least two straight years the option to transfer their children to a better-performing public school or public charter school. The full impact of the Act is as yet unknown, but supporters feel that it will greatly reduce the achievement gap between rich and poor students and white and minority students, while opponents note that these programs have not received promised funding and that the testing mandates of the Act distract from other educational goals.

Despite problems with the nation’s school systems, teaching careers have broad appeal and offer varied opportunities. Teaching attracts people with a keen interest in a particular subject area, a desire to work with people, a commitment to social service, a wish for a life of scholarship and study, and a desire for a secure professional career.


These first-and second-graders are working with blocks to show mathematical relationships and help them to understand basic concepts. (Donald R. Downey, New Standard Encyclopedia.)

The majority of people involved in education are engaged in teaching. Teaching responsibilities vary greatly from job to job in terms of subjects, schedules, and assigned duties. For example, elementary school teachers typically work with one group of children all day, while middle and secondary school teachers teach four, five, or more groups of students throughout the day. College professors may only present a few lectures a day, but also conduct scholarly research.

Teachers of younger children perform many of the roles of a parent, so the jobs of the preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school teachers include the personal and social responsibilities that are assumed by parents at home. These jobs, of course, include the full gamut of responsibilities for the emotional and intellectual growth of children. Responsibilities of teachers of grades K–6 include teaching, selecting and planning course work, grading homework, and evaluating student achievement. They participate in conferences with parents, other teachers, and administrators on problems with curriculum, instruction, and guidance. They meet with social workers and psychologists regarding students with mental, emotional, behavioral, physical, or learning disabilities.

High school teachers have basic responsibilities similar to those of elementary school teachers, but they act less as parent substitutes and are more concerned with academics. Typically, high school teachers specialize in one or two subjects. But even at the high school level, teachers are concerned about more than the students’ academic progress. They help students deal with personal problems and advise them in matters concerning their future, such as selecting colleges and careers.

Similar to the high school teacher, the college professor shares the commitment to a specific field of knowledge, but such commitment is more intense. College professors are expected to participate in the activities of a professional society or association. Increasingly, professors are sought out as consultants in business, government, and public service. With more demands on their time outside of the classroom, college teachers have less time to spend with students than they would like. Professors with years of experience and a high level of specialization may choose to teach at the graduate level. These teachers spend more time in research activities and work with a small number of graduate students.

At all levels of the profession, teachers today are generally better educated than they were years ago. All states require the minimum of a bachelor’s degree for a beginning position, and many teachers have graduate degrees.

A variety of new opportunities for educators have evolved in nontraditional areas. Qualified education professionals are needed to work in agencies such as adult education programs, recreation departments, drug and alcohol abuse programs, Planned Parenthood units, and government organizations such as the Peace Corps and Job Corps. Teachers are finding more opportunities in business, vocational, and special interest training, where a degree in education is not as important as work and life experience.

Thousands of people are employed by professional organizations, private agencies with educational programs, and government offices of education. Every state in the United States has an office of education, which hires professionals to monitor and make recommendations for local school policies. The federal government also employs professionals to ensure that legislative mandates regarding education are carried out at the state and local levels. Federal education officials are concerned with such areas as early childhood education, bilingual education, inclusion of students with disabilities, transportation, and school health.

School districts and schools at all grade levels hire workers with education backgrounds to work as administrators. School and college administrators, including superintendents and principals, often first work as teachers. Administrators for elementary and secondary public schools handle finances, record keeping, course development, hiring, enforcement of state requirements, union negotiations, maintenance of school properties, and other management duties. At the college level, administrators act as presidents, vice presidents, deans, admissions officers, financial aid managers, student advisors, buildings and grounds managers, and department heads.

Association leaders and educators in government offices also often begin their careers as teachers. To be qualified and experienced for these higher-level positions, most education administrators and government officials have completed graduate study in education. Many educational publishing houses prefer to hire textbook editors with teaching experience. As former teachers, these editors are not only experts in the subject matter, but are also better able to determine whether the material is appropriate for the age and reading level a book is intended for, and whether instructions are clear and easy for a teacher to use.

Many teachers belong to a professional union such as the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers. Most teachers also join other associations or societies that represent their own subject areas or fields of specialization. Professional organizations and unions help teachers attain improvements in education, such as reduced teaching loads to allow more time for planning and evaluating, increased pay and benefits, and budgetary allowances that permit teachers to attend professional meetings. Other policy changes benefiting teachers include laws guaranteeing due process, establishing grievance procedures, ensuring fair dismissal procedures, and protecting teachers’ rights and academic freedom.

Teachers must be extremely dedicated to their students, to the subjects they teach, and to the notion of education in general. Perhaps it is for this reason that teaching is frequently referred to as a calling rather than a career. It is generally regarded as a noble profession, yet teachers continue to receive low pay, work long hours, and have limited resources, particularly at the elementary and secondary school levels.


Words to Know

Academic adviser: A faculty or staff member who helps college students choose majors, course plans, and professors.

Bilingual education: Classes in which students with limited English-speaking skills are taught in their native languages.

Charter school: A public school that operates independently of the traditional public school system. Its curricula may be similar to that of traditional public schools or it may be designed to meet the specific educational needs of a community. Charter schools are usually sponsored by state or local school boards.

Distance education: Traditionally known as correspondence courses, these programs allow students to take courses by mail or via the Internet.

Elective: A high school or college course that is optional but counts toward graduation requirements.

English as a second language (ESL) class: English language class for people with limited English-speaking skills.

Enrollment: Total number of students registered for a class, program, or school.

Faculty: The staff of professors and instructors in a high school or college.

Financial aid: Funds, which may come from the government, private agencies, colleges, and banks, that help individuals pay tuition and other college expenses.

Humanities: College programs that include courses in foreign language, philosophy, and the visual and performing arts.

Interdisciplinary: Programs or courses that include instruction in a number of different academic areas.

Liberal arts: Academic work in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Life sciences: Academic programs, including biology, biophysics, and zoology, that involve the study of living organisms.

School district: A local agency that oversees the operation of the public schools of the area.

Syllabus: An outline, or schedule, for a course.

Technical education: A program that prepares people for positions in technical careers; usually includes the study of the principles of technology and the development of technical skills.

Tenure: Status granted to a faculty member that ensures job security and permanence.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment in the field of education is expected to increase by 20 percent through 2014, higher than the average growth rate projected for all industries. Aside from growth within the field, many job openings will arise from the need to replace workers who retire or change occupations.

Enrollments in elementary, middle, and secondary school are projected to remain flat, which will lead to average employment growth for preschool, elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers. Opportunities should be good, though, in schools in inner cities and rural areas, and in the following states that are predicted to have large increases in enrollment: California, Hawaii, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas. Opportunities should also be strong for educators who specialize in the teaching of mathematics, science (especially chemistry and physics), bilingual education, vocational education, and foreign languages.

Postsecondary student enrollments are expected to increase, spurring much faster than average employment growth for postsecondary teachers. Opportunities should be especially strong in Arizona, California, Florida, New York, and Texas. Although college enrollment is expected to increase, competition for full-time faculty and administrator positions will remain high. Lower paid, part-time instructors, such as visiting professors and graduate students, are replacing tenure-track faculty positions. Organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers are working to prevent the loss of full-time jobs, as well as to help part-time instructors receive better pay and benefits.

More instructors will find work in community colleges and other adult education programs. The federal government is committed to providing vocational training for high school graduates who choose not to enroll immediately in four-year colleges or universities. These school-to-work programs prepare graduating seniors for high-wage technical jobs and require trained adult and vocational education teachers.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that the number of special education teachers, speech-language pathologists and audiologists, and counselors will grow about as fast as the average occupation through 2014, because of increasing enrollment of special education students, continued emphasis on inclusion of disabled students in general education classrooms, and the effort to reach students with problems at younger ages. Jobs for teacher assistants also will grow somewhat faster than average in general, special education, and English-as-a-second-language classrooms.

For More Information

For information on community college education, contact
American Association of Community Colleges
One Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 410
Washington, DC 20036-1110
Tel: 202-728-0200
For information about careers in administration, contact
American Association of School Administrators
801 North Quincy Street, Suite 700
Arlington, VA 22203-1730
Tel: 703-528-0700
To read about issues in higher education, visit the AAUP Web site.
American Association of University Professors
1012 14th Street, NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20005-3465
Tel: 202-737-5900
For information on union membership, contact the following organizations:
American Federation of Teachers
555 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001-2029
Tel: 202-879-4400
National Education Association
1201 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036-3290
Tel: 202-833-4000
The DETC serves as a clearinghouse of information on distance learning. It also sponsors a nationally recognized accrediting agency and offers a list of accredited institutions at its Web site.
Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)
1601 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009-2529
Tel: 202-234-5100
For information about careers in education, scholarships, networking, and publications, contact the following organization:
National Association for the Education of Young
1509 16th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036-1426
Tel: 800-424-2460

See Also

Adult and Vocational Education Teacher; Career and Employment Counselor and Technician; College Administrator; College Professor; Computer Trainer; Education Director and Museum Teacher; Elementary School Teacher; English as a Second Language Teacher; Guidance Counselor; Interpreter and Translator; Mathematics Teacher; Medical Ethicist; Naturalist; Nursing Instructor; Preschool Teacher; School Administrator; School Nurse; Secondary School Teacher; Special Education Teacher; Teacher Aide

Add new comment