Education Reform Movements in America: Definition & Leaders

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will learn more about some of the people who have led education reform movements in America, such as Horace Mann, Catharine Beecher, and John Dewey.

Systemic Change

What is education reform? Education reform encompasses any systemic change intended to alter the approach or outcomes of public education. Throughout the history of public education in the United States of America, change-makers such as Horace Mann, Catharine Beecher, and John Dewey have transformed educational practices for the benefit of students. Let's find out more about the differences these reformers have made.

Horace Mann

Who is considered the 'Father of American Public Education'? Horace Mann was a politician who served in both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate before being appointed the Massachusetts secretary of education in the 1830s. At that time, public education in Massachusetts desperately needed an overhaul. Mann stepped in, preaching his six principles of education to whomever would listen. Mann's principles of education are:

  • Freedom is dependent on knowledge.
  • The public should bear the expense and control the education of its citizens.
  • Schools should address the needs of students from various backgrounds.
  • Education should not be influenced by any religion or political affiliation.
  • Education should be taught under the principles of freedom.
  • Teachers must be well-trained.

Some of Mann's most notable achievements include the establishment of Normal schools (teacher's colleges for training), the inclusion of character education in public schools, and the view that education has the ability to equalize opportunities among children in poverty.

Catharine Beecher

You have probably heard of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the famous author of the anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, but did you realize that her older sister, Catharine Beecher was also an activist? Catharine Beecher's cause was education for women. Specifically, Beecher saw an opportunity for women to become teachers, as men began to leave the profession for more lucrative opportunities.

Catharine Beecher opened the first college for women, the Hartford Female Seminary, whose primary purpose was to educate women to be teachers and mothers. Beecher advocated for higher standards for teachers and promoted opportunities for women, but only in roles that she considered feminine. Beecher believed in educating women and that a woman did not have to marry to contribute to society, but she did not believe that women needed to hold the right to vote. She felt that a woman could best contribute to society through her work in a classroom or at home.

John Dewey

Early American education was primarily teacher-centered and authoritarian. So, what caused the evolution of student-centered learning? John Dewey was a pragmatic educator in the early 1800s who approached education from an experimental perspective that led to the Progressive Education Movement in America. Some of Dewey's innovative beliefs include:

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