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

[Editor’s Note: This is the 43rd in a series of blogs that examines how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

The educational ladder represents the hierarchical rungs that served students from the time they first entered their years of formal schooling through the highest level they reached. We have discussed the development of some of these in depth, but here we show how one progresses to the next, as well as introduce two new structures added by the end of the 1920s, when the progressive era gave way to the Great Depression and the limitations and opportunities of the new chapter in American history.

The ladder as we’ve seen up till this point includes:

  1. Kindergarten

As we’ve seen, kindergartens started in the late 19th century in different settings and for a range of purposes, but it became a well-established bridge between a student’s family life and their entrance into elementary school. In most large cities in the northern part of the country, public kindergartens were an accepted fact. In southern cities and rural areas, such programs didn’t exist. Instead, parents looking to educate their children turned to private institutions.

  1. Elementary school

A graded elementary school was also an established fact except in the most rural areas, and each child moved through the six grades in a lockstep progression with all the other children. Those who didn’t follow the progression were labeled “problematic,” with the basic explanations for their behavior outlined – and a solution provided – in the director of the Russel Sage Foundation’s book Laggards in Our Schools. His conclusions were that there were either deficiencies in the child’s background, or there was a lack of testing to determine exactly how they were performing in school.

His proposed solution was to expand standardized testing at every level of the educational ladder. However, it was ineffective. There’s evidence to support that elementary schools lowered their standards in the 1920s to ensure most students passed each grade level.[1]

  1. High school

In the last two weeks’ posts, we discussed the development of the new, comprehensive high school, which funneled students either into college or into the workplace, tailoring curricula to each group’s needs. The schools also served as a social centerpiece for its students and the surrounding community.

  1. Colleges and universities

A network of private and public colleges and universities thrived as institutions of higher learning, primarily for the middle and upper classes, which they trained for specialized professions. Undergraduates also played an important role in helping the schools maintain good relationships with the rest of society.

  1. Graduate and professional schools

At the largest universities, graduate and professional schools were established to translate the newest scientific advances into usable technologies to support new American industries. In addition, graduate schools trained the administrators for the upper ranks of the public school system and professors for colleges and universities.


Next week: Two new rungs

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.

To read part 38,  A Time of Reform, click here.

To read part 39,  School Choice and Structure, click here.

To read part 40, Vocational Education, click here.

To read part 41, Curricular Differentiation, click here.

To read part 42, The Great War, click here.




[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 209-210.


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.

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