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Homestead History
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Written by Christopher W. Czajka

"Usually, the teacher has nothing to say about the situation of the schoolhouse. But he should have intelligent views on this subject, as well as on all others connected to his business."
-- A TREATISE ON PEDAGOGY FOR YOUNG TEACHERS, by Edwin C. Hewett, President of the Illinois State Normal University, 1884

Sod school house in Cherry County, Nebraska. Denver Public Library.
ore often than not, the twenty-first century media paints a dismal picture of the state of America's schools. Classrooms are overcrowded and schools lack equipment. Test scores are substandard. Teachers are overworked and underpaid. Violence in schools is frighteningly familiar. The accomplishments and achievements of American schools are frequently overshadowed by these concerns. Many contemporary education reformers argue that the best way to get education on track is go "back to the basics" and eliminate the frills and distractions of the modern school. But 19th-century schools -- particularly schools on the frontier -- faced challenges that are surprisingly and frustratingly similar to our own.

quote Public education has not been a constant in American history. While wealthy families had hired tutors and governesses for years, and sometimes sent their children (albeit mostly their sons) to private schools, it was not until the 1830s that reformers began clamoring for a publicly funded school system. Public schools, they believed, could turn America's increasingly diverse youth into morally upstanding, model citizens who were outfitted to deal with the future's challenges. In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state with compulsory, free public education. By 1883, the year in which FRONTIER HOUSE is set, education was required by law in the Montana Territory, and by 1918, all states had passed laws requiring children to attend elementary school.

frontier fact In 1883, the year in which FRONTIER HOUSE is set, roughly 45% of all school-age children in Montana did not attend school.
Westward expansion and the Homestead Act had a profound impact on American education. Prior to the 1840s and 1850s, men dominated the teaching profession. According to beliefs of the day, a woman's place was in the home, and besides, there was no way a woman could be expected to maintain discipline in a classroom full of unruly students. However, by mid-century, rising immigration, ballooning birth rates, and rapid territorial expansion had caused a crisis in education. There were simply not enough good teachers to go around.

In 1847, the ubiquitous Catharine Beecher, sister of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN author Harriet Beecher Stowe, founded the Board of National Popular Education to Send Women West. In her book THE DUTY OF AMERICAN WOMEN TO THEIR COUNTRY, Beecher argued, "It is woman who is to come in at this emergency and meet the demand; woman, whom experience and testing has shown to be the best, as well as the cheapest, guardian and teacher of childhood, in the school as well as in the nursery."

And women certainly were the cheapest choice when it came to teaching. The average female teacher in the latter half of the 19th century received only 40 to 60% of male teachers' salaries. This may have perpetuated a trend that continues to this day; it has been argued that teachers' salaries today would be higher if more males had stayed in the teaching profession 150 years ago.

Despite the lower wages, hundreds of women rose to the challenge in the 1850s and set off to teach in the West. Teacher training, or "normal schools" -- the predecessors of today's state universities -- began to open in numerous eastern states. In 1853, historian J.L. McConley noted that "a competent number of women have been found willing to give up the comforts of home for the benefit of the barbarous West." Soldiers returning from the Civil War were amazed to find their teaching positions filled by women.

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