At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the USA had one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Already widespread were community supported elementary schools as well as private schools and academies. Education was most impressive at this time in New England, where, according to the 1840 census, only thirteen thousand of those over twenty were illiterate. The two big issues were that schools needed to be proliferated further (according to that same census about half of children attended elementary schools or academies) and that the quality of education was often found lacking. Generally, schools were locally run, so widely used education standards were not in practice. Moreover, with funds often lacking, there was generally only one teacher for a small town, who may not have been qualified, as there were no widespread standards for teachers). The Monitorial System was popular at this time for its cost saving benefits. In it, the older and abler students would act as assistants to the teachers, teaching the younger and less able students.
During the mid-century, people began to try to reform this state of affairs, Horace Mann, foremost among them. Horace Mann had traveled to Germany and was inspired by Prussia's national public education. In Prussia, tax revenue supported compulsory schooling with national curriculum and testing specific to each grade as well as standardized training of teachers. Horace Mann, who was the secretary of the newly created board of education in Massachusetts, began establishing normal schools (where education is normalized by training teachers) and founded The Common School Journal, in which he laid out his principles: that educations should be supported by the public, that all children should have access, that the schools should not serve to propagate sectarian values, that teaching should be standardized and that education should serve to enhance the life of a free, republican society. In 1852, Massachusetts set up a state wide public school system, and this served as a model for other states. The Whig party was most supportive of such reforms, as they generally supported the use of tax revenue for internal improvement of the nation. Their opponents, not against education, did not want as much centralized power in the educational sphere and they did not want a higher tax.
In higher education too, major developments took place. Educational opportunities started (slowly, to be sure) to open up for women and blacks. In 1837, Oberlin College admitted four women and seven years later graduated its first black student. Also, public universities became more widespread. In 1862, the Morrill Land Grant Acts were issued. These acts granted every state thirty thousand acres of federal land per representative in the house for establishing or funding universities. These acts also stipulated that the colleges established or funded with the land had to meet certain standards and maintain certain programs in specific fields.
By 1900, the vast majority of states had compulsory education until age fourteen. The education reforms that took place in this era would allow America to develop a skilled workforce of people that could adapt to city life. The reform movement thus was an essential development in the economic development of America and that country's rise to prominence in the world.
"The intellectual and moral nature of man is the one thing precious in the sight of God; and therefore, until this nature is cultivated, and enlightened, and purified, neither opulence, nor power, nor learning, nor genius, nor domestic sanctity, nor the holiness of God's altars, can ever be safe. Until the immortal and god-like capacities of every being that comes into the world are deemed more worthy, are watched more tenderly than any other thing, no dynasty of men, or form of government, can stand, or shall stand, upon the face of the earth; and the force or the fraud which would seek to uphold them, shall be but "as fetters of flax to bind the flame."
- Horace Mann
Mann expresses the view that learning is inextricably tied to one's morality and relationship with God, a common argument for education previously developed which retained influence in this era, but that has greatly diminished since then.