Common school

Common school

A common school was a public school in the United States or Canada in the nineteenth century. The term 'common school' was coined by Horace Mann, and refers to the fact that they were meant to serve individuals of all social classes and religions.



Students often went to the common school from ages six to fourteen (predecessor of grades 1-8), although this could vary widely. The duration of the school year was often dictated by the agricultural needs of particular communities, with children being off when they would be needed on the family farm. Common schools were funded by local taxes, did not charge tuition, and were open to all children, at least all white children. Typically, with a small amount of state oversight, each district was controlled by an elected local school board; traditionally a county school superintendent or regional director was elected to supervise day-to-day activities of several common school districts.

Since common schools were locally controlled, and the United States was very rural in the nineteenth century, most common schools were small one-room schools. They typically had a single teacher (usually female) and all the students were taught together, regardless of age. Common school districts were nominally subject to their creator, either a county commission or a state regulatory agency.

Rural common schools of the nineteenth century differed from urban "charity" schools of the same period both in terms of organizational structure and funding sources.


Common schools typically taught The three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic), history, geography, and math. Evaluation of students was very varied (from 0-100 grading to no grades at all), but an end-of-the-year recitation was a common way that parents were informed about what their children were learning.

Although common schools were designed by Mann to be nonsectarian, there were several fierce battles, most notably in New York and Philadelphia, where Roman Catholic immigrants and Native Americans objected to the use of the King James Version of the Bible. Even without Bible readings, most common schools taught children the general Protestant values (e.g., work ethic) of nineteenth-century America.

Common school era

The common school era is viewed by many education scholars to have ended around 1900. In the early twentieth century, schools generally became more regional (as opposed to local), and control of schools moved away from elected school boards, and towards professional control. Because common schools were not a special-purpose district, voters often decided in called elections to join independent or unified school districts.


Cremin, Lawrence (1980). American Education: The National Experience. New York: Harper Collins. 

Kaestle, Carl (1983). Pillars of the Republic: Common schools and American society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill and Wang. 

Katz, Michael (1987). Reconstructing American Education. Cambridge: Harvard. 24-57.

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