The Education Reform Primer: How did Horace Mann reform public school education?

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

This blog will explore some of the influences from the last 375 years (mostly from the last 100 or so) that have shaped public school education and made it what it is today (for better or worse). So stay tuned, add this to your favorites, and prepare to receive a bit of education on education.

How did Horace Mann reform public school education?

by Matthew R. Plain

Following the inception of public-supported schooling in Massachusetts in the 1600s, public school education would evolve in relative short order. Then-colonies (and later states) introduced a variety of pedagogical concepts, broadened outreach to different groups within the population, created private partnerships, and attempted to organize the structure of education as a public service/obligation. Notwithstanding various attempts to systematically improve education, and some commonalities among cities, towns, and states, it did not appear that education across the country progressed along a common path. Then, in the mid-1800s, a different type of reform movement in Massachusetts commenced.

In 1837, Massachusetts created its Board of Education, one of the first in the country, and named Horace Mann as its first Secretary. Mann, a Brown University-educated lawyer, had served in both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate. Mann lectured frequently on education, published a newsletter for teachers, and visited Europe to learn more about sound education practices and principles. You may remember him for the following:

  • His relatively famous quote: “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”
  • His push for the “common school” model: free, universal, non-sectarian, public schools, staffed by professional educators, as the best means for a community to progress morally, socially, and economically
  • His development of teacher training academies, then called “normal schools”

Mann’s ideas and concepts were not, as you can likely imagine, universally accepted. Nevertheless, these innovations, or versions of them, would take hold not only in Massachusetts, but far beyond. For these reasons, Horace Mann is often credited as a major player in the education reform movement.

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including charter schools, charter management organizations, private schools, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York City. For more information, please click here.

Matt Plain is a Partner at Barton Gilman focusing his practice on education law, including school governance, administrative law, labor and employment, special education, and contract drafting and disputes. In addition, Matt is currently serving his second term as an elected member of the East Greenwich School Committee. In this capacity, he chairs the district’s policy subcommittee and serves on the negotiating team. Matt also teaches Education Reform and Policy at Roger Williams University School of Education. He is a former public school teacher and holds a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction. Matt has been named a 2018 Best Lawyer in America in Education Law, a New England Super Lawyer Rising Star, and a 40 Under Forty honoree by Providence Business News.