A History of Education: The American Educational System, Common School Period (Compulsory Education)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 32nd 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.]

In 1852, Massachusetts enacted the Compulsory Attendance Act of 1852, the first general law attempting to control the education of the country’s children. Included in the law was mandatory attendance for those between 8-16 for at least three months out of each year; at least six weeks of the 12 had to be consecutive.

The only exceptions to this attendance policy were a child’s attendance at another school for the same duration, proof the child had already mastered the subjects, poverty, or any physical or mental disability that would prohibit the child from attending.

The penalty for failing to send your child to school was a fine not greater than $20, which was levied by the city. The local school committee didn’t have the authority to enforce the law. And while the law was ultimately ineffective, it helped form a positive public opinion of education and reminded citizens of the importance of school.

In 1873, the law was revised, reducing the age limit to 12 but increasing attendance to 20 weeks per year. In addition, the state tried to provide a measure of enforcement, hiring truant officers to follow up on absences and forming jurisdictions for prosecution.

Connecticut had enacted a law in 1842 that stated any child under 15 couldn’t be employed in any business in the state without proof of school attendance for at least three out of 12 months. The penalty was $25, and the business was responsible for paying the fine, something that forced businesses to be socially responsible for children’s welfare. By law, children also couldn’t work more than 10 hours a day; failure to comply invoked a $7 per day fine. By 1918, all states in the country had passed a compulsory attendance law.

Many current education laws grew from these early laws and expanded upon them. Children are required to have a physical exam before starting elementary school and again before high school. They’re also required to be immunized against a variety of diseases, both for their own safety and as a part of public health.

The states also restrict the working conditions of school-age children. A child must obtain an “intent to hire” form from their potential employer and take it to the school to be approved. If approved, there are additional restrictions on the type of work they can do, the number of hours they can put in, and the time of day they must leave.

What we see from the compulsory education and child labor laws is that they work hand-in-hand, preparing children for their future roles in society while advancing their rights.


Next week: African American Education


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.



[1] Grocke, Vicky. (June 15, 2004). “Compulsory Education.” The History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/compulso.html.


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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