A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Sharing a Teaching Tip

Years ago Soviet born comedian Yakov Smirnoff popularized the phrase “What a country!” Humor pokes fun at truth. In my formal schooling years, science was easy and fun. History, not so much; boring names and dates in distant times and places. Fast forward to the “senior years” and a different perspective evolves. Suddenly, curiosity about how things came to be is now interesting. Schools, for instance, provoke questions. Were there always free public schools as we now have? Probably not. Are there free public schools found across the world. Sadly, no. In short, “What a country” we have!

old-schoolhouseDespite loud public debate about curriculums, testing, funding, etc., the fact remains that schools, despite their critics, are testimony to a long and firm commitment to educate our youth in everything from religious beliefs to career preparedness. If you are reading this you are aware that this website provides not only 30 Fun Science Lessons, but some brief tips on preparing and presenting a lesson. The teacher in me wanted to prepare a backdrop for teaching. A brief history of schools in our country got out of control. As internet sources began popping up it soon became evident that the saga of the evolution of education and schools in the Western World was a fascinating tale in itself. So, what follows is the product of several research hours combing through a Time Line and related sources. If this sounds interesting, take the detour; if your immediate needs are to “cut to the chase” the invitation still stands. Happy reading in either event.


A stroll thought the centuries that brought us to the threshold of modern schools.

What follows is a light-hearted fast read through about two thousand years!

History is filled with famous examples of teachers. The Jewish word for teacher is Rabbi. Technically, it means teacher of the Torah, but I’ll grant myself poetic license and broaden the meaning because my example is the famous teacher: Jesus Christ himself. Scripture is filled with his teaching of profound importance often clarified by parables. The early Greek philosophers were noted for their teaching style. The Socratic method, named after its founder, emphasized a running dialog of exchange of questions. Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions!

In fairness to the geniuses that never held a stick of chalk or talked their way through a 45-minute PowerPoint lecture there were gifted teachers: great artists, musicians, and poets may have taught us the visual beauty of a misty landscape, or the tenderness of a mother’s touch. Our musical sensitivities may have been awakened by a brilliant symphony, or a poet’s skill with words may have resonated with a soulful experience.

Sadly, for millennia, formal education was for the elite. Scholarship was often the province of religious scholars who confined their academic energies to scriptural interpretation and preservation. The invention of the printing press in 1439 brought Scripture to the masses and the need for literacy. With the Renaissance came a reawakening of classical ideas. Art, architecture, and discourse began to flourish. Early scientific theories challenged religious beliefs. The Enlightenment stimulated minds like Francis Bacon, Renee Descartes and Galileo. Yet, formal education was for the clergy, physicians or the few universities.

Fast forward and cross the Atlantic Ocean. The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 wishing to train their own clergy established the Harvard Divinity School with 9 students. The intellectual tumult of Europe was echoed in America. Thomas Jefferson, whose “Declaration of Independence” (1776) framed the American Revolution in terms taken from John Lock’s essays. Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 recommended a public education system: “promote… institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge… it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened”. Actually, Congress had already issued the Land Ordinance of 1785 ordering each township in the new western territories… “to have space set aside for a public school…”. To the dismay of the founding fathers the reality, however, was that the diversity of religious sects tended to slow the development of public schools as we know them. These schools sometimes required that students already knew how to read and write, girls were often excluded and tuition made them accessible only to the elite.

In 1805 The New York Public School Society created a school for poor children emphasizing rote lessons, discipline and obedience, qualities factories wanted in their workers. In the 1820s and 30s much of the population growth was immigration driven. Cries for public schools advised that: “Unless we educate our immigrants they will be our ruin. It is no longer a question of benevolence, or duty, we are prompted by the instinct of self preservation.” Horace Mann, a Massachusetts state senator lobbied successfully to create a state board of education, tax funding for public schools, and teacher training colleges. In 1848 the concept of age grading was introduced. Prior to this development classrooms might contain students from 6 to 14! In 1852 compulsory education became state law. Soon other states followed suit. In the South, Reconstruction tried with some success to institute integrated schools. In 1877 the Civil War was long over, Reconstruction ended, troops withdrew from the south and the legal foundations for segregated education were laid. In 1896 the Supreme Court approved railroad cars as schools for blacks and whites. Funding for black schools was slashed.

The history of schooling became entwined with developments in the field of psychology. In the early 1900s the French government commissioned psychologist Alfred Binet to create a test to determine which students would need additional assistance. The test purported to measure mental age, which could be compared to chronological age. The result, of course is the now famous IQ test. The test becomes widely used to place students in different educational tracts. During WWI the military made use of this test in placing recruits.

John Dewey (1859-1952) needs to be brought into this time travel through the history of educational theory and practice. Dewy was a significant figure. A college professor, he wrote widely in educational and psychological journals. His contributions threw a bright light upon pragmatic approaches to education. Emphasis was on life learning skills and the importance of education in a successful democracy. His works are still cited today!

As justifiably proud as we are today of the educational possibilities of the internet to store and disseminate educational material, 1917 saw the University of Wisconsin expand its Physics Department “wireless” station 9XM to begin broadcasting music for educational purposes. The call letters WHA were later assigned by the Federal government. Over the years regular programming to schools was beamed to network stations across Wisconsin.

Although not a direct effect on public schools, the GI Bill after WW2 funded college attendance for thousands of discharged veterans creating a huge group of educated workers. In 1948 The Educational Testing Services created the SAT test for selecting college applicants. Eugenicists like Carl Brigham used the test to “prove” that immigrants were feeble minded. In 1954 the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Was taken up by the Supreme Court, which unanimously agreed that segregated schools are “inherently unequal” and must be abolished.

For a number of years the details of education like the exact curriculum or teaching methods were overshadowed by the nation’s attention to integrated vs. segregated schools. In 1957 Little Rock Arkansas became the flashpoint as the governor and U.S. President clashed over the issue with U.S. troops escorting 9 black students to classes. Civil Rights tied to voting continued to absorb national attention with the pivotal events near Selma Alabama in 1965. The backdrop to this domestic turmoil was the US involvement in war in Indo-China, known as the Viet Nam War spanning 20 years from 1955 to 1975.

During this period an event outside the U.S. triggered alarm bells in Congress setting off a renewed interest in U.S. Education. In October of 1957 Russia placed a small satellite into low earth orbit. The shock of a second rate nation embarrassing the U.S. prompted Congress to create the National Defense Act funding Science and Math Summer programs for teachers and funds to schools to upgrade math and science programs. The U.S. soon countered with ICBMs and an Apollo program culminating with landing a man on the moon! The assassination of JFK, an awakening of feminism, and cultural shifts drew attention away from schools.

The Mid 1960s saw several Federal initiatives shape U.S. Education. 1965 saw the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) creating the Title 1 Program, educational assistance to low-income families and bilingual education. The Teacher Corps and Head Start saw their beginning in this period. Five-year re-authorizations of this Act included “No Child Left Behind” in 2001.

1970 – Swiss educator, Jean Piaget, contemporary of Alfred Binet, published The Science of Education. Similar works by the author helped popularize discovery-based approaches, particularly in the sciences. 1972– Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 opens women’s participation in sports in schools. 1974 – a Federal Judge orders busing of African American students to predominantly white schools to achieve racial integration of public schools. 1977 – Apple Computer introduces the Apple IIe and becomes popular in schools as students learn with computer games. Four years later IBM introduces its version of the personal computer with its Model 5150. It’s operating system is MS-DOS.

1982 – Madeline C Hunter’s book Mastery Teaching, is published. Her teaching model becomes widely used as teachers throughout the country attend her workshops. 1983
The report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education: A Nation at Risk calls for sweeping reforms in public education, including computer science. 1986 – Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher-astronaut is killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.

1990 – Milwaukee Parental Choice program allows students to attend at no charge private sectarian and non-sectarian schools located in the city of Milwaukee. 1993 – The Massachusetts Education Act requires a common curriculum and statewide tests, other states follow. 1984 – As a backlash to illegal immigration, California voters pass Proposition 187, denying benefits, including public education, to undocumented aliens in California. It is challenged by the ACLU and other groups and eventually overturned. 1994 Netscape Communication release the first commercial web browser, Mozilla 1.0, 1995 – Whiteboards find their way into U.S. classrooms in increasing numbers and begin to replace the blackboard.

1996 – The Oakland, California School District sparks controversy as it proposes that Ebonics be recognized as the native language of African American children. 1998
California voters pass proposition 227 requiring that all public school instruction be in English. The law withstands legal challenges. 1998 – Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergy Brin set up a workplace for their newly incorporated search engine in a Menlo Park, California garage.

1999 – Two Columbine High School Students go on a killing Spree that leaves 15 dead and 23 wounded at the Litleton, Colorado School. 2001 – Nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists hijack four airliners on the morning of September 11. They crash two into the World trade Center, and another into the Pentagon. The fourth plane crashes in a rural area of Pennsylvania. A total of 2976 victims are killed. The attacks have a devastating effect on both the U.S. and world stock markets. Congress passes the Patriot Act, forming the Department of Homeland Security, and provide the impetus for two wars.

2001 – The controversial No Child Left Behind Act is approved by Congress. It mandates high stakes student testing, holds schools accountable for student achievement, and provides penalties for schools that do not make adequate yearly progress toward meeting the goals. 2005 – H.R. 1350 modifies the IEP (Individualized Educational Program) process requiring school districts to use means of early identification of students at risk for specific learning disabilities.

2005 – The U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania rules that teaching “Intelligent Design” as and alternative to evolution is a violation of the First Amendment. 2007– A 23 year old student kills 32 students on the campus of Virginia Tech University, making it the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. 2008 – A former graduate student kills five and wounds 17 in a classroom at Northern Illinois University. 2009 – The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act provided more than 90 billion dollars for education, nearly half of which went to prevent layoffs and for school modernization and repair.

2009 – Common Core State Standards Initiative, “a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers is launched. 2012 – By year end 36 states have requested and been granted waivers from the No Child Left Behind law. 2012, Dec. 14, a gunman enters Sandy Hook Elementary School and kills 20 children and six adults. 2013 – Chicago Board of Education votes to close 50 schools. The mayor and school officials claim the closures are necessary to reduce costs. Several other cities including Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. also close large numbers of schools.

2014 – The president signs the 1.1 trillion dollar bipartisan budget bill restoring some but not all of the cuts to federal education programs. 2015 – President Obama announces a plan to allow two years of free community college for all students.

If you have read this far, thanks for reading. You may have noted the name Madeline C. Hunter (1982). I had the privilege of meeting her and attending one of her workshops. What follows is an expansion of her famous Six Steps to Effective Instruction.

Note: The foregoing “stroll through 2000 years of schooling” was not without reliable sources. Students interested in expanding any time period can generally find a wealth of sources on the “net”. Of particular help was the on-line work of Edmund Sass, Ed.D, College of Saint Benedict/Saint John University, titled: American Educational History: A Hypertext Timeline.

updated: 2/2012