A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (A Time of Reform)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 38th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

The period of 1890-1920 was a time of upheaval in modern American society. Industrialization and urbanization continued to grow, bringing with them a slew of economic, political, and social problems. Added to this was a massive wave of new immigrants competing for work and housing and the rewards of a growing society. The time for reform was at hand. Before we can address the reforms in education, though, it helps to understand some of the reforms taking place throughout the country.

A chief economic reform of the period was the antitrust movement, the attempt to bust up the monopolies that flourished in the 1890s and put a stranglehold on any business that tried to compete with them. Theodore Roosevelt, when in office at the turn of the century, used the power of government to regulate business activities under his “new nationalism” program. Woodrow Wilson, campaigning in the 1912 presidential election, offered a “new freedom” approach, breaking up the trusts and revitalizing the depressed economy by supporting small-scale endeavors and the power of widespread competition. They were different paths, but they were aimed at the same goal.

At the same time, organized labor, aimed at breaking up economic privilege, was on the rise. Trade unions grew to combat the power of the wealthy elite who sought to limit workers’ rights and wages. The American Federation of Labor developed to preserve the autonomy and practices of individual artisans losing the battle to the rise of scientifically organized factories aimed at mass production of common goods. And labor also pressed government for legislation to protect the oft-exploited workers, including child labor laws, workman’s compensation, and unemployment insurance.

Two types of progressives emerged from the fray. Liberal progressives sought out social justice by throwing out restrictions placed on political, economic, or social endeavors. Conservative progressives wanted social order gained by centrally administered regulatory programs. The conservatives were the larger group and more influential, though both groups helped shape the school reforms of the time.

Educational reform during this three-decade era often produced contradictory attempts at achieving the same ideal, but looking at the progressive era as a whole, we can see some commonalities between ideas.

As a whole, the progressive education movement sought:

  • Increased educational opportunity
  • Reorganization of the curriculum
  • Addition of extracurricular activities
  • Reorganization of classes based on student test results
  • Innovation in pedagogy and curriculum based on an evidence-based approach
  • Improvement of school design and quality
  • Improvement of teacher education
  • Changes in school administration

What these items share is they were all part of a larger effort to expand school function and limit restricted definitions of “schooling.” They also led to reforms aimed at educating a wider range of students from more diverse economic, social, and cultural backgrounds, while guiding them to take their place in a more industrialized and scientific society.


Next week: 20th Century, Establishment Clause


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.

To read part 29, Common School Period, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke College, click here.

To read part 30, Common School Period, McGuffey Readers, click here.

To read part 31, Common School Period, Catholic vs. Protestant Education, click here.

To read part 32, Common School Period, Compulsory Education, click here.

To read part 33, Common School Period, African American Education, click here.

To read part 34, Common School Period, National Education Association, click here.

To read part 35, Common School Period, Morrill Land Grant Acts, click here.

To read part 36, Common School Period Wrap-Up, click here.

To read part 37,  Leadership in Transition, click here.



[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 169-172.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

1 thought on “A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (A Time of Reform)”

Leave a Reply