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Elementary Education

Current Trends, Preparation Of TeachersHISTORY OF

Gerald L. Gutek

Jane Mccarthy
Linda F. Quinn

Kenneth R. Howey
Linda M. Post


Elementary schools exist worldwide as the basic foundational institution in the formal educational structure. Elementary schooling, which prepares children in fundamental skills and knowledge areas, can be defined as the early stages of formal, or organized, education that are prior to secondary school. The age range of pupils who attend elementary schools in the United States is from six to twelve, thirteen, or fourteen, depending on the organizational pattern of the particular state or school district. While a few, mainly small rural, districts, retain the traditional pattern of grades one through eight, a more common pattern is grades one through six. In most school districts as well as in many teacher preparation programs, elementary education is organized into the following levels: primary, which includes kindergarten and grades one, two, and three; intermediate, which includes grades four, five, and six; and upper, which includes grades seven and eight. A commonly found organizational pattern places grades seven and eight, and sometimes grade six and nine, into middle or junior high schools. When the middle school and junior high school pattern is followed, these institutions are usually linked into secondary education, encompassing grades six through twelve.

In comparing elementary schools in the United States with those of other countries, some distinctions in terminology are necessary. In the United States, elementary education refers to children's first formal schooling prior to secondary school. (Although kindergartens, enrolling children at age five, are part of public schools, attendance is not compulsory.) In school systems in many other countries, the term primary covers what in the United States is designated as elementary schooling. In American elementary schools, the term primary refers to the first level, namely kindergarten through grades one, two, and three.

The elementary school curriculum provides work in the educational basics–reading, writing, arithmetic, an introduction to natural and social sciences, health, arts and crafts, and physical education. An important part of elementary schooling is socialization with peers and the creating of an identification of the child with the community and nation.

History of Elementary Education in the United States

The European settlers in the North American colonies, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, initially recreated the school systems of their homelands. They established a two-track school system in which the lower socioeconomic classes attended primary vernacular schools and upper class males attended separate preparatory schools and colleges. The primary schools–elementary institutions under church control–offered a basic curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion.

Colonial period. While many similarities existed in the colonial schools, there were some important differences between New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South. The New England colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, which were settled primarily by Puritans, were characterized by a strong sense of religious and social conformity. Because of their Calvinistic emphasis on reading the Bible and other religious literature, the Puritans quickly established elementary schools. In 1642 the Massachusetts General Court, the colony's legislative body, made parents and guardians responsible for making sure that children were taught reading and religion. In 1647 the General Court enacted the Old Deluder Satan Act, which virtually established elementary education by requiring every town of fifty or more families to appoint a reading and writing teacher. Massachusetts and the other New England colonies developed the town school, a locally controlled, usually coeducational elementary school, attended by pupils ranging in age from six to thirteen or fourteen. The school's curriculum included reading, writing, arithmetic, catechism, and religious hymns. The model of the town school, governed by its local trustees or board, became an important feature of later U.S. elementary schooling.

The Middle Atlantic colonies of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania were settled by diverse ethnic and religious groups. In addition to English, Scots, and Scotch-Irish, there were Dutch in New York, Swedes in Delaware, and Germans in Pennsylvania. The Middle Atlantic colonies' religious and language diversity had important educational implications. Elementary schools were usually parochial institutions, supported and governed by the various churches.

In the southern colonies–Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia–enslaved Africans were used as forced labor on the plantations. Wealthy families employed private teachers or tutors to educate their children. Enslaved Africans were trained to be agricultural workers, field hands, craftspeople, or domestic servants, but they were legally forbidden to learn to read or write. There were some notable exceptions who learned to read secretly.

Early national period. After the establishment of the United States as an independent nation, the earliest U.S. federal legislation relating to education was included in the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. The ordinance divided the Northwest Territory into townships of thirty-six square miles, and each township was subdivided into thirty-six 640-acre sections. Each township's sixteenth section was to be used to support education. Unlike constitutions or basic laws in other nations, the U.S. Constitution, ratified as the law of the land in 1789, did not refer specifically to education. The Tenth Amendment's "reserved powers" clause (which reserved to the states all powers not specifically delegated to the federal government or prohibited to the states by the Constitution) left education as a responsibility of each individual state.

During the early national period, the first half of the nineteenth century, American leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), argued that the United States needed to develop republican schools that were different from those found in the European monarchies. Jefferson's "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," introduced in the Virginia legislature in 1779, would have made the state responsible for providing both girls and boys with a basic elementary education, in a local ward school, at public expense. Although not enacted, Jefferson's bill had an important influence on later developments.

The movement to establish an American version of elementary education was promoted by Noah Webster (1758–1843), who sought to create an American version of the English language and instill an American identity into the young through language instruction. Webster's American Spelling Book and American Dictionary were widely used in schools.

The movement to common or public schools. In the 1830s and 1840s, several Western nations began to develop national elementary or primary school systems that were intended to augment or replace the existing church-controlled institutions. In France, Francois Guizot, the Minister of Education in the regime of Louis Philippe, promoted national elementary schools. In the United States, with its historic tradition of local and state control, the movement to establish public elementary schools was not national but carried on in the various states.

Before public elementary schools were established, attempts were made in the United States to establish various kinds of philanthropic elementary schools, such as the Sunday and monitorial schools. The United Kingdom, a leading industrial nation, also experimented with these approaches to primary education. The Sunday school, developed by Robert Raikes, an English religious leader, sought to provide children with basic literacy and religious instruction on the one day that factories were closed. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, Sunday schools were established in the larger cities.

Monitorialism, also known as mutual instruction, was a popular method of elementary education in the early nineteenth century in the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries. Two rival English educators, Andrew Bell, an Anglican churchman, and Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker teacher, promoted monitorialism independently. The monitorial method relied heavily on monitors–more advanced pupils, trained by a master teacher–to teach younger children. Monitors aided teachers in conducting classes, taking attendance, and maintaining order. In using this method, the master teacher trained a selected group of older students as monitors in a particular skill, such as adding single-digit numbers or reading simple words. These monitors then taught that particular skill to subgroups of less advanced pupils. Since the monitorial method promised to teach large numbers of pupils basic literacy and numeracy skills, it gained the support of those who wanted to provide basic elementary education at limited costs.

Initially, monitorial schools were popular in the larger American cities such as New York and Philadelphia, where they were typically supported by private philanthropists and occasionally received some public funds. In the early 1840s monitorial schooling experienced a rapid decline and virtually disappeared. By the time that the New York Free School Society, which had operated monitorial schools, turned them over to the public school system in 1853, more than 600,000 children had attended its schools.

The common school. The common school movement refers to the establishment of state elementary school systems in the first half of the nineteenth century. The term common meant that these state-supported public elementary schools, exalted as the school that "educated the children of all the people," were open to children of all socioeconomic classes and ethnic and racial groups. Nevertheless, many children, particularly enslaved African Americans, did not attend.

Not a selective academic institution, the common school sought to develop the literacy and numeracy needed in everyday life and work. Its basic curriculum stressed reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, history, and geography. Emphasizing American patriotism and Christian piety, it was regarded as the educational agency that would assimilate and Americanize the children of immigrants.

The common school movement in the United States paralleled some trends taking place in western Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the 1830s the British parliament, though not creating a state school system, began to provide grants to educational societies for primary schooling. In France, under Guizot, a primary school system, too, was established during the regime of Louis Philippe. These transnational trends, found in Europe and America, indicated that governments were beginning to take the responsibility for providing some kind of elementary schooling. Unlike in France, which was beginning to create a highly centralized national educational system, U.S. public schools were decentralized. The U.S. Constitution's Tenth Amendment reserved education to each state. The states, in turn, delegated considerable responsibility for providing and maintaining schools to local districts. Even within a particular state, especially on the frontier where many small school districts were created, resources available for schooling varied considerably from district to district.

The common school movement scored its initial successes in New England, particularly in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Massachusetts, in 1826, required every town to elect a school committee to provide and set policy for the local schools. The Massachusetts legislature established the first state board of education in 1837. It named Horace Mann (1796–1859), an eloquent spokesman for common schooling, as its secretary. Mann, as editor of the Common School Journal and a popular orator, gained considerable support for public schools.

Other northern states emulated New England's common school model. As the frontier moved westward and new states joined the Union, they, too, followed the model and passed laws to create public elementary school systems. In the South, with a few exceptions, common schools were rare until the post–Civil War Reconstruction.

A unique feature in the United States was the small one-room school, found in rural areas and small towns across the country. These schools served local school districts, governed by elected boards. Although small one-room village schools existed in other countries, the American ones were local creations rather than impositions of a national government. The American school's immediacy to its people made the local school a trusted institution rather than an alien intruder into small town life. In contrast, the teacher in France might be suspected as an outsider, a representative of the intrusive central government. Similarly, in tsarist Russia, the zemstvo school, established in the villages, was often extraneous to the needs of life in the countryside. The zemstvo teachers often were not accepted by the peasants whose children they tried to teach or were regarded as rivals of the village priest. In America's one-room schools, the elected school board determined the tax levy and hired and supervised the teacher. This pattern of local control contrasted with the visiting school inspectors sent to inspect teachers and schools in France or even with the royal inspectors in the United Kingdom.

The pupils enrolled in the local one-room schools, often ranging in age from five to seventeen, studied a basic curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography, grammar, spelling, and hygiene. They were instructed by the recitation method in which each pupil stood and recited a previously assigned lesson. Group work might include writing exercises, arithmetic problems, and grammar lessons that stressed diagramming sentences. The values of punctuality, honesty, and hard work were given high priority.

African-American and Native American elementary education. The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States. Although a small number of free blacks had attended elementary school in some northern states before the war, southern slave states had prohibited instruction of African-American children. After the Civil War, the U.S. Congress, in 1865, established the Freedmen's Bureau, which established elementary schools for the children of former slaves. By 1869 more than 114,000 students were attending bureau schools. Many bureau schools functioned until 1872 when the bureau ceased operations.

In the late nineteenth century, the federal government, assisted by well-intentioned but often misguided reformers, sought to "civilize" Native Americans by assimilating them into white society. From 1890 to the 1930s the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in a policy of forced assimilation, relied heavily on boarding schools, many of which contained elementary divisions. Seeking to remove Native American youngsters from their tribal cultures, the students, forbidden to speak their native languages, were forced to use English. The boarding schools stressed a basic curriculum of reading, writing, arithmetic, and vocational training.

Nonpublic elementary schools. In addition to the public elementary school, the United States also has private elementary schools, many of which are church-related. Today, nonpublic schools enroll about 11 percent of the pupils in U.S. schools. Roman Catholic parochial schools, serving the children of a particular parish, represent the largest number of private elementary schools. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christian schools are the fastest growing sector in nonpublic elementary education.

Goals of Elementary Schools

Elementary schools in the United States, as in other countries, have the goals of providing children with fundamental academic skills, basic knowledge, and socialization strategies. They are key institutions in instilling a sense of national identity and citizenship in children.

In the United States, elementary schools prepare children to use language by teaching reading, writing, comprehension, and computation. Elementary schools worldwide devote considerable time and resources to teaching reading, decoding, and comprehending the written and spoken word. The stories and narratives children learn to read are key elements in political and cultural socialization, the forming of civic character, and the shaping of civility and behavior. Throughout the history of American education, the materials used to teach reading exemplified the nation's dominant values. For example, the New England Primer, used in colonial schools, stressed Puritanism's religious and ethical values. Noah Webster's spelling books and readers emphasized American national identity and patriotism. The McGuffey Readers, widely used in late nineteenth century schools, portrayed boys and girls who always told the truth, who worked diligently, and who honored their fathers and mothers and their country. McGuffey values were reinforced by the American flag, which hung at the front of elementary classrooms, flanked by portraits of Presidents Washington and Lincoln. The "Dick and Jane" readers of the 1930s and 1940s depicted the lifestyle and behaviors of the dominant white middle class. Contemporary reading books and materials portray a much more multicultural view of life and society.

The language of instruction in elementary or primary schools is often highly controversial in many countries, especially in multilingual ones. The ability to use the "official" language provides access to secondary and higher education and entry into professions. In such multilanguage nations as India, Canada, and Belgium, protracted controversies have occurred over which language should be the official one. In the United States, the dominant language of instruction in public schools has been English. The children of non-English-speaking immigrants were assimilated into American culture by the imposition of English through the elementary school curriculum. The later entry of bilingual education in the United States was an often controversial educational development, and remains so in the early twenty-first century.

Along with the development of language competencies, elementary education prepares children in the fundamental mathematical skills–in counting, using number systems, measuring, and performing the basic operations of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Further, the foundations of science, social science, health, art, music, and physical education are also taught.

Curriculum and Organization

In the United States at the primary level, the first level of organization, the curriculum is highly generalized into broad areas such as language arts or life sciences. It gradually becomes more specialized at the intermediate and upper grade levels into more specific subjects. Because of the generality of the elementary curriculum, especially at the primary and intermediate levels, there is likely to be a greater emphasis on methods and styles of teaching in elementary schools in the United States than in primary schools in other countries. For example, U.S. teachers, in their professional preparation and classroom practices, are more likely to emphasize the process of learning, inquiry skills, and social participation than teachers in other countries. Instruction in many other countries tends to be more oriented to specific skills and subjects. While elementary or primary classrooms in the United States and in other countries are likely to be self-contained, the American teacher generally has more autonomy and is not concerned with visitations by outside government inspectors.

The typical U.S. elementary school curriculum is organized around broad fields such as language arts, social studies, mathematics, and the sciences. The essential strategy in this approach is to integrate and correlate rather than departmentalize areas of knowledge. Curricular departmentalization often begins earlier in some other countries such as Japan, China, and India than in the United States.

The language arts, a crucial curricular area, includes reading, handwriting, spelling, listening, and speaking. It includes the reading and discussing of stories, biographies, and other forms of children's literature. Here, the U.S. emphasis on reading and writing is replicated in other countries. The methods of teaching language, however, vary. In the United States, the teaching of reading is often controversial. Some teachers and school districts prefer phonics; others use the whole language approach or a combination of several methods such as phonics and guided oral reading.

Social studies, as a component of the U.S. elementary curriculum, represents a fusion and integration of selected elements of history, geography, economics, sociology, and anthropology. It often uses a gradual, step-by-step method of leading children from their immediate home, family, and neighborhood to the larger social and political world. While the U.S. approach to social education has been subject to frequent redefinition and reformulation, its defenders argue that the integration of elements of the various social sciences is a more appropriate way to introduce children to society than a strictly disciplinary approach. Critics, some of them educators from other countries, argue that American students lack the structured knowledge of place that comes from the systematic teaching of geography as a separate discipline or the sense of chronology that comes from the study of history.

Like social studies, science in the elementary curriculum consists of the teaching of selected and integrated concepts and materials from the various natural and physical sciences rather than a focus on the specific sciences. Frequently, science teaching will stress the life and earth sciences by way of field trips, demonstrations, and hands-on experiments. Critics contend that the elementary science curriculum in the United States is too unstructured and does not provide an adequate foundational base of knowledge. Defenders contend, however, that it is more important for students to develop a sense of science as a process and mode of inquiry than to amass scientific facts.

The main part of the elementary curriculum is completed by mathematics, with an emphasis on basic computational skills–addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, measuring, and graphing. The curriculum also includes health concepts and practices, games, safety, music, art, and physical education and fitness, which involves the development of motor skills.

As children in the United States progress from the primary to the intermediate grades, the emphasis on reading continues but changes from stories to more informational narratives. The goal is to develop students' interpretive skills as well as to continue to polish the basic decoding skills related to mechanics and comprehension that were stressed in the primary grades. The broad fields of the curriculum–social studies, mathematics, and science–are pursued but now become more disciplinary.

Depending on the particular organizational pattern being followed, the upper grades–six, seven, and eight–offer a more specialized and differentiated curriculum. Subject matters such as English, literature, social studies, history, natural and physical sciences, and mathematics are taught in a more differentiated way. In addition to the more conventional academic subjects, areas such as vocational, industrial, home arts, career, sex, and drug abuse prevention education appear, especially in the upper grades and in junior high and middle schools.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, curriculum is being shaped by an emphasis on subject-matter competencies in English, mathematics, and basic sciences. Computer literacy, computerassisted instruction, and other technologies in school programs reflect the nation's transition to a high-tech information society.

The Standards Movement

The standards movement, which gained momentum in the late 1990s, has required more standardized testing in U.S. elementary education. Standards advocates argue that academic achievement can be best assessed by using standardized tests to determine whether students are performing at prescribed levels in key areas such as reading and mathematics. Most of the states have established standards and require testing in these areas. Strongly endorsed by U.S. President George W. Bush, the standards approach was infused into the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The act requires that, in order to receive Title I funds, states and school districts must develop and conduct annual assessments in reading and mathematics in grades three through eight. Opponents of the standards movement argue that it is based on a narrow definition of education that encourages teachers to teach for the test rather than for the development of the whole child.


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BINDER, FREDERICK M. 1974. The Age of the Common School, 1830–1865. New York: Wiley.

CAMPBELL, ROALD F.; CUNNINGHAM, LUVERN L.; NYSTRAND, RAPHAEL O.; and USDAN, MICHAEL D. 1990. The Organization and Control of American Schools. COLUMBUS, OH: MERRILL.

CREMIN, LAWRENCE A. 1951. The American Common School. New York: Teachers College Press.

CREMIN, LAWRENCE A. 1970. American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607–1783. New York: Harper and Row.

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KAESTLE, CARL, et al. 1991. Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading Since 1880. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


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