Skip to content

The Development of Elementary and Secondary Education in New York

The history of education in New York has no single beginning date. Wherever people have lived, they have educated themselves and their children. The process and content of education and the institutions developed to perform this function have changed over time. Only part of the task of education has ever been carried out by the schools. Newspapers, libraries, apprenticeships, churches, and especially families, have been key educators, transmitting knowledge, skills, and attitudes to successive generations. If you were a farmer's son or daughter in New York two hundred years ago, you might have attended school some of the time, but your family or neighbors would have been primarily responsible for teaching the skills and attitudes most essential to rural life. Even today, when most students spend twelve years in elementary and high school and additional time at college, the educational significance of family, church, and television cannot be overestimated. 

Yet the role of the school is crucial. Schools are the key elements in a formal, organized education system. They systematically organize and present information, develop skills, and perpetuate a people's values and heritage. The development of schools and the education of young people have long been regarded as important public responsibilities here in New York. The State's first Governor, George Clinton, summed up this attitude well in a 1792 message to the legislature urging "the promotion and encouragement of learning" by the State. It was, he explained, the peculiar duty of the government of a free state, where the highest employments are open to citizens of every rank, to endeavor by the establishment of schools and seminaries, to diffuse that degree of literature which is necessary to the due discharge of public trusts.

Schools in Colonial New York

Colonial New York did not have a school system, but it did have individual schools. As communities were settled and assumed a degree of permanence, a variety of types of schools arose. These included church-and town-sponsored schools as well as schools conducted by independent schoolmasters. In some of the towns of the Hudson Valley and on Long Island, where Dutch settlers predominated, schooling was a community responsibility carried out through the Dutch Reformed Church. The people of the town of Brooklyn, for example, appointed their first schoolmaster in 1661, whose responsibilities included those of court messenger, "voorlezer" (reader in church), "voorsanger" (singer of psalms), sexton, bellringer, and gravedigger.

In New York City, with its more cosmopolitan population, many alternative forms of schooling were created. Anglican, Dutch, and Jewish groups established "charity" schools, teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, primarily to poor children. Independent schoolmasters, charging a relatively low tuition, taught elementary subjects as well as such practical topics as navigation and surveying. Some schoolmasters offered more advanced studies, including Latin and Greek, as preparation for college. In 1754, Kings College was opened, with Anglican support, completing the range of schooling available in the City. None of the schools of the colonial period were "public" schools in the modern sense. Many had religious sponsorship, most charged tuition, and attendance was voluntary. Yet, in the context of their time, they were perceived as carrying out the public's desire to provide educational opportunities. Education in the New State George Clinton was not alone in believing that a revolutionary republic had to assume increased responsibility for the education of its citizens. This was a common thread of republican thinking of the late 1700s and early 1800s and was a major reason for the establishment of the Regents of The University of the State of New York in 1784. The function of the Regents was to encourage the creation of a network of educational institutions throughout the State. Under the revised law of 1787, Columbia College (the new post-revolutionary name for Kings College) was given a new charter, and the Regents received authority to charter additional colleges and academies (secondary schools) and to conduct a general oversight of these institutions. Among the first academies chartered by the Regents, in 1787, were Erasmus Hall, in Flatbush, Kings County; North Salem Academy, in Westchester; and Clinton Academy, in Suffolk County. These were followed by over 400 more academies during the late 1700s and 1800s, including some chartered directly by the Legislature. Until the late 1800s the academies served as the major form of secondary school in the State. Generally established by a board of trustees made up of community leaders, academies were a public/private hybrid. Most academies charged tuition and some placed town officials on their boards and gave preferred admission to local pupils. They were an educational hybrid as well. Most offered standard college-preparatory subjects like Latin, Greek, and mathematics, but since pupils and their tuition were in high demand, academies also offered whatever subjects of study seemed likely to appeal. They frequently offered elementary-level instruction and non-classical academic subjects as well as more "practical" topics ranging from engineering to embroidery. Although independently governed, the academies were seen as public institutions because they carried out the State's public educational purposes. Therefore, from time to time, funds were appropriated to the Regents for distribution to academies, and in 1813 a "Literature Fund" was created to provide regular State subsidies to the academies. Creation of a State Common School System It may seem odd to modern educators that the State acted to develop a system of private academies for more advanced students, before it created an elementary public school system. In fact, the Regents declared in 1787 that:

the erecting [of] Public Schools for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic is an object of very great importance which ought not to be left to the discretion of private men but be promoted by public authority. Of so much knowledge no citizen ought to be destitute, and yet it is a reflection as true as it is painful that but too many of our youth are brought up in ignorance.

Responding to this and similar appeals, the Legislature in 1795 inaugurated a system of State aid to encourage establishment and support of common schools. Each year, $50,000 was to be divided among the various towns. In each town, the citizens were supposed to create school districts, and each district would receive the State subsidy and a matching town subsidy, in proportion to pupil attendance. Within a few years, over 1,300 schools, enrolling almost 60,000 pupils, qualified for State aid under this law. In 1800, however, the program of aid to common schools lapsed (although the schools did not necessarily close). The first step toward revival of the State program was the creation, in 1805, of a Common School Fund, based on proceeds from sale of State lands. In 1812, as the annual income of the Fund approached $50,000, a new Common School Law reestablished the system of school districts, supported by State and local funds (as well as by tuition) and administered by a State Superintendent of Common Schools. Many of the present-day school districts of the State date to the years immediately following implementation of the 1812 law. It was a period of rapid growth in the State's population, of active settlement of the State's northern and western regions, and of the extension of schooling to the newer communities. Indeed, in 1812, a Legislative commission had pointed to the "remote and thinly populated parts of the state" as the areas where: education stands greatly in need of encouragement. The people here living far from each other, make it difficult so to establish schools, as to render them convenient or accessible to all. Every family, therefore, must either educate its own children or the children must forego the advantages of education. These inconveniences can be remedied best by the establishment of common schools, under the direction and patronage of the State. In these schools should be taught, at least, those branches of education which are indispensably necessary to every person in his intercourse with the world, and to the performance of his duty as a useful citizen. Reading, writing, arithmetic, and the principles of morality, are essential to every person, however humble his situation in life. This need to encourage education, especially in the less prosperous rural areas, remained a major theme of the State's educational system well into the twentieth century. City Schools Nineteenth-century cities, like those of today, mixed wealth and poverty. As centers of commerce and industry, cities had great resources, but they also had many poor families in need of assistance in educating their children. The pattern that developed in New York City reflected this dichotomy. While many families continued to patronize private schools and independent schoolmasters, a parallel system of urban schools for the poor was created. In 1805, some of the City's leaders formed the Free School Society, to conduct schools for "all children who are the proper objects of a gratuitous education." This society, later known as the Public School Society, gradually expanded its system of schools and served as the major provider of public education in New York City through the 1840s. The schools of the Public School Society were conducted according to a distinctive scheme known as the Lancasterian or "monitorial" system of instruction. In such schools, the teacher instructed a group of older pupils, or monitors, who in turn instructed squads of younger pupils. Such schools, where one teacher might serve several hundred pupils altogether, were obviously quite economical, a feature attractive to their promoters. By the 1840s, however, controversy had developed over the apparent Protestant orientation of the Public School Society. Many of the poorer families of the city were Catholic immigrants who doubted the impartiality of the Society's schools. The outcome was the creation, in New York City, of a Board of Education to operate a system of "ward" schools, more nearly comparable to the district schools of the rural towns. In effect, public education had become defined as schooling provided by a governmental agency under public control. Students and Teachers Outside the cities, the typical school of mid-nineteenth century New York was a one-room, one-teacher school, in which pupils of varied ages took their lessons. Larger villages might have an academy, and in the cities, larger schools enrolling several hundred pupils were the norm. Attendance was voluntary, but an impressively large proportion of children attended school. It has been estimated that, as early as the 1830s, as many as 90 percent of all nonurban youth in New York attended school for at least a period of time. A child's school years might be intermittent, however, especially for older children who often attended school in winter and worked on the farm in other seasons. Relatively few stayed in school past age fifteen. The teaching staff of rural schools varied with the seasons. Traditionally, a man taught the winter session, in which the older boys generally enrolled, while a woman taught in summer, when the pupils tended to be younger. Men were paid more than women, and it was presumed that men had better powers of discipline over older children. Gradually, the attractiveness of savings from hiring women, together with a growing sense of women's suitability as educators, led to a feminization of the teaching force. By the 1880s, most teachers, year-round, were women, many of whom made a career of teaching. In the cities, where seasonal considerations were less significant, both men and women tended to teach year-round, with men teaching the older pupils or holding supervisory positions. Schooling in an Industrial Era Late nineteenth-century New York experienced rapid growth in both population and industrial activity. Its cities overflowed, as migrants from the farms of the Northeast and immigrants from overseas poured in, seeking opportunity. Education reflected this trend, as the growing thousands of children enrolled in schools that were themselves increasingly large and complex in organization and linked with others in vast systems. Schools also found themselves turned to as agencies that might facilitate the new industrial era and ameliorate some of its rough spots. The public hoped that schools might contribute to the "Americanizing" of immigrants, to the social sorting of youth destined for factory or shop, and to the reduction of social class conflict.

Essential to any broad social role for schools was their universality. In rural areas, this meant the improvement of sometimes rudimentary schools through the raising of standards of teaching and by extending the school year. This cost money, and major steps were taken in the 1850s to expand the State's financial assistance to the poorer rural school districts. Along with this money came an effort to eliminate tuition fees which were believed to exclude some pupils. Most cities eliminated tuition in the 1840s and 1850s, and it ended statewide in 1867. As the proportion of urban youth increased, the idea of compulsory school attendance was frequently proposed. This was a controversial question, since such deprivation of liberty, practiced in some European countries, seemed contrary to our democratic traditions. On the other hand, the State's responsibility to care for neglected and disorderly youth, who neither attended school nor worked, was generally acknowledged. The State's first compulsory attendance law was adopted in 1874, but like similar laws elsewhere, it was susceptible to only incomplete enforcement. In fact, city schools were so overcrowded that they had to turn away many eligible applicants, and would have had no way to accommodate all the truants had they returned. While the schools of the State theoretically sought to enroll all the children of the State, one group was conspicuously excluded. Before the Civil War, most cities of the State required Black children to attend separate "Colored" schools, sometimes taught by Black teachers. After the War, a trend toward desegregation reflected the principles of racial equality of the Reconstruction era. In part as a result of the State Civil Rights Act of 1873, and in part because of organized pressure from Black citizens, most cities opened their regular schools to Black children in the 1870s and 1880s. As urban school systems grew, educational leaders perceived a need for a more elaborate and refined organizational structure. By the late 1800s the typical urban school was graded, with pupils divided into 12 or 14 half-year grade levels, each taught by a separate female teacher. These teachers were generally governed by a male principal who, in turn, reported to a professional city superintendent of schools. The role of citizens in this arrangement was a subject of controversy. While some people favored the virtues of citizen participation typical of rural school districts, the trend was towards the insulation of schools from the influence of parents and other average citizens. In New York City, for example, a reorganization of the Board of Education in 1896 eliminated the previously powerful local Ward School Trustees. In 1917, the Board's membership was further reduced to just seven, chosen from the citywide elite. Under such a board, it was argued, the professional educators would be more free to shape a modern school system, designed to meet the complex needs of the industrial city. Twentieth-Century Trends A major educational development of the early twentieth century was the rise of high schools. Public high schools gradually replaced the academies in the late 1800s. This change arose partly from the changing notion of "public," with independent schools no longer seen as completely fulfilling public education responsibilities. The rising cost of first-rate secondary education and the emerging urban middle class that desired it, also contributed to the move toward high schools. In city after city, academies were transformed into public secondary schools and architecturally impressive public high schools opened. By 1910, a dramatic expansion of secondary school attendance had begun. School districts raced to build new high schools to meet the demand, adapting the high school program to the varying perceived needs and interests of a diverse student body. Typically, high schools offered separate courses of study for students planning for college, for those seeking to enter industry, and for those preparing for white-collar commercial occupations. The role of schools in sorting pupils and in defining their future status in society became a controversial one, especially as aptitude testing and guidance programs proliferated. From one perspective, the schools were helping pupils by providing an education adapted to their abilities and future needs. In another view, the schools were narrowing the opportunities available to students, often on a basis reflective of social class and ethnic origins. Nonetheless, high schools grew ever more popular. By 1940, high school attendance had come to be the normal occupation of the teenager, and the most general culmination of formal education. If you were an elementary school pupil in 1930, you would have much in common with pupils of one hundred years before. Reading, writing, and arithmetic would still be core subjects. But much would be changed. The schools of New York not only kept up with modern curricular innovations, but were often the testing grounds for them. Progressive ideas about how children learn and about the nature of the classroom as a social setting were reflected in the work of pupils in many schools--in activity programs and group projects, in social studies, and in the encouragement of artistic expression. The trend to recognition of a need to educate "the whole child" was spurred by publication, in 1929, of the State Education Department's "Cardinal Objectives of Elementary Education," which declared: It is the function of the public elementary school to help every child: (1) to understand and practice desirable social relationships; (2) to discover and develop his own desirable individual aptitudes; (3) to cultivate the habit of critical thinking; (4) to appreciate and desire worth-while activities; (5) to gain command of the common integrating knowledge and skills; and (6) to develop a sound body and normal mental attitudes.iv Similarly, the concerns of citizens and educators through succeeding decades permeated the school curriculum. Economic concerns of the Depression, patriotic and democratic preoccupations during World War II, issues of war and peace, race and ethnicity, world survival and environmental survival, have all had their impacts. The early twentieth-century school teacher, as well as his or her students, could have recognized similarities and differences compared to his or her nineteenth-century counterpart. Most concrete, perhaps, was the progress towards equal rights for women teachers. Equalization of pay scales for women and men began in New York City in 1911 and was extended statewide in 1924. During the same years, women teachers generally gained the right to retain their jobs after marriage.

Teachers' status rose, also, through their increased organizational efforts. The New York State Teachers Association, which had been founded in the mid-nineteenth century, affiliated with the National Education Association and expanded its role as an advocate for the professional status of teachers. Teachers' unions, including the New York City Teachers Union, founded in 1916, and its successor in the American Federation of Teachers, worked not only to improve wages and benefits, but also to promote measures they believed would benefit schools and pupils. It was not until the 1960s, however, that teacher unions generally attained the status of collective bargaining agents. (In 1972, the State's teachers organizations merged to form the New York State United Teachers.) Controversy and Change The inherent tension involved in attempting to provide a universal system of education in a society based on religious, ethnic, political, and economic diversity and freedom, has produced recurrent controversy throughout the State's history. Recent decades have seen new forms of controversy and new efforts to resolve long-standing problems. From the earliest years of public education, the question of the proper relationship between schooling and religion occupied educators. The schools of the Public School Society, in New York City, and the district schools upstate, were all, theoretically, nondenominational. But since the "principles of morality" were part of the core curriculum, the potential for controversy was unavoidable. In many schools, the Bible was made assigned reading; but which version of the Bible, Protestant or Catholic, was to be used? The intractability of such problems contributed to the decision of the Catholic church leaders, in the 1840s, to begin the development of a separate church-sponsored parochial school system. For the public schools, the State Superintendent of Common Schools ruled in 1853 that Bible-reading could not be required in violation of a pupil's conscience, but a kind of non-denominational Protestantism nonetheless became the norm, reflected in school prayers as well as holiday celebrations and the like. While public interest in this issue waxed and waned over the years, it remained unresolved. In 1951, during a period of increased interest in school prayers, the Board of Regents tried to find a solution by adopting an official State-written nondenominational prayer and recommending its use by all school districts. It was this Regents prayer which was found unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in a historic 1962 ruling. Educational equality also has been high among the issues of educational concern and controversy in this century. While generally accepted as a goal, equality has proven difficult to achieve. ,1 In the early years of the century, the most noticed inequality was between students in the prosperous cities and those in the poorer rural districts -exactly the inequality noted by the State's leaders in the early 1800s. As late as 1920, the State had over 10,000 school districts, of which over 8,000 had only a one-room elementary school. Many communities could not afford more elaborate schools. Educators argued that such schools could not meet modern standards, and that rural youngsters were therefore deprived of full educational opportunities. School consolidation was part of the solution proposed, along with increased financial support. In 1925, with the support of Governor Alfred E. Smith, the State adopted a landmark Equalization Law, basing State aid on a formula that recognized the disparities in school district wealth. This principle has remained a fundamental element of all State aid programs since that time. In recent decades, however, the wealth disparity has tended to reverse itself, with cities having inadequate resources, while some suburban districts are relatively wealthy. In the case of Levittown v. Nyquist (1982), the State's Court of Appeals ruled that equality of school finance was not mandated by the State Constitution. Equal educational opportunity for pupils of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds has been one of the fundamental challenges of the post-World War II decades. While official segregation of Black pupils was virtually ended in New York before 1900, the "unofficial" segregation of the schools became extremely apparent, especially with the growth of the Black community in many of the State's cities. Especially after the Supreme Court's historic ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that racially segregated schools are inherently unequal, Black parents and civil rights supporters sought to persuade or compel school districts to accomplish actual desegregation. Supporting this effort was the Board of Regents, which made progress towards desegregation one of its leading statewide priorities. Sometimes under pressure of court orders, many of the State's cities have taken action to desegregate some or all of their schools, but this process is far from complete. The 1960s and 1970s also brought a broad-based expansion of the rights of students. For handicapped children, these years saw the recognition of the fundamental right to education, from which many had been previously excluded. For children whose native language was not English, the rise of bilingual and multicultural programs was a virtual educational enfranchisement. For all pupils, the extension of civil liberties to the school setting, including freedom of expression, access to and privacy for pupil records, and due process in disciplinary matters, gave hope that the democratic rhetoric of education would be made reality. Conclusion The history of education in New York State has been, in part, the evolution of a school system. Over time, a network of schools was built up, reaching communities throughout the State, and supported and supervised by central educational authorities. But this history has been, as well, the story of the interrelation between changing educational patterns and the larger social forces shaping the lives of the people of the State. Both of these aspects of our history have made their mark on each of our schools and communities. The story of schools, education, and community impact, awaits those who would venture to rediscover it.