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What is a Common School?

By J.S. Metzker Erdemir
Updated May 17, 2024
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“Common school” was the name used for public school in the United States and Canada in the late 19th century. Unlike the modern public school, a common school was locally funded and managed. Common schools were developed to give free secular education to all children regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, religion, or national origin, and attendance was compulsory until the eighth grade.

Prior to the establishment of common schools, children's education was generally considered the responsibility of the family and religious institutions. Individual communities set up public schools as early as the mid 17th century, but these were usually not free and the focus was on teaching basic literacy rather than formal education. Most children were taught at home with private tutors, in private schools, or not at all. Families tended not to educate girls, and wealthy, urban children had far greater access to education than poor, rural children. African-American and Native-American children were rarely educated, although a few communities had charity schools that were funded by churches and private donors.

Following the American Revolution, early attempts to establish secular public eduction failed because of the increase in taxes that would be needed to fund it. People were also wary of the increased amount of federal control in decisions that were traditionally made by families and communities. In the 1840s, the idea that all children should have equal access to education began to grow in popularity, particularly in the Northern and Midwestern states. By the 1870s, most U.S. states and Canadian provinces had passed laws concerning common schools and compulsory public education.

The idea behind the common school was not only that it should be free and secular, but that there should be a certain amount of standardization of curricula and teaching practices. With the large number of immigrants entering the US and Canada at that time, the importance of assimilation and teaching children a common culture and values were stressed. Roman Catholics and indigenous groups in both countries often fiercely opposed compulsory attendance at common schools because Protestant morality and ethics were often a focus of common school education, and the King James Bible was widely used.

Community and local control were central to common schools, but state-mandated standardization became increasingly necessary to insure all schools were providing the same quality of education. Beginning in the early 20th century, education became increasingly federally and state-controlled, with most local counties and school districts voting to incorporate into larger districts.

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