When “formal” education came to America, it differed greatly from the English models on which most new American ideas were founded. England had academic schools, but mainly for the privileged. All other “students”, trained as apprentices, often starting as very young children placed in fostership with a master who taught them the trade or skill they would practice during their lifetime.
The first schools in America, including that of Joseph Cotton, established in Mass. In 1633, were more academically inclined but still limited in content. Basic reading skills and memorization comprised the mainstay of the curriculum, with Greek and Latin for scholars in upper levels.
Formal schools started wherever space could be found, whether it be a meeting hall, barn, or spare room in a large home. Eventually it came to be recognized that focus on the subjects at hand, was better achieved in their own, stable environment, and the better established and richer settlements began building schoolhouses.
There were no examples to model their schools after, and so they ended up being the most practical of shelters: one room, with benches, and a stove. Desks would not appear for many years yet, and blackboards wouldn’t be seen until the 1820s.
In the town or city where the teacher lived nearby and so did the students, this kind of institution was all very well, but in the country it was a different matter. Teachers were charged with clearing away heavy snowfalls, and arriving early enough to bring wood in from outside and have the stove going before students arrived. There were no “snow” days, and the teacher was expected to be there, even if the students didn’t show up. In the country, that could mean anything from a walk of several miles, to a horse struggling over roads blocked by snowdrifts.
There were no grades in the beginning, simply children learning at their own pace, something which may very well have been an advantage over today’s system. Certainly, the benefit of having children older or more advanced than others helping those struggling or at lower levels of achievement, was preferable to some school situations now faced in cities where classrooms are overcrowded, teachers overworked, and students under-assisted.
Some of the first one-room schoolhouses in America, are still standing, including the Old West Street Schoolhouse in Southington, Conn. which accepted its first students in 1750. The single room institution would remain as the standard educational centre for elementary students until well into the 20th century. In 1939, there were 150,000 one-teacher schools in America. By 1995, that figure had fallen to 428.
Despite having only one teacher, and multiple grades in a single class, one-room schoolhouses graduated some of America’s greatest legislators, teachers, writers, and modern day heroes, including Alan Shepard, the first man in space.