Origin of Colonial Schools in the United States

Colonial education in the United States dates back to the 17th century. In general, the characteristics of education in the United States can be divided into three regions, which are…

  • New England schools
  • Middle colonies
  • Southern Colonies

We will explore each of these areas briefly in this post.

New England Schools

New England Schools included the colonies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and other colonies of the utmost northern part of the American colonies. Schools were initially started in this area through the establishment of various laws. For example, Massachusetts, in 1642, passed a law that required parents to teach their children to read and understand the bible and the laws of the colony. In 1647, the “Old Deluder Satan” act was passed. This law stipulated that towns of a certain size had to employ teachers. This law provides an insight into how important religion was at this time in American history. The example of Massachusetts was followed by most of the other New England colonies.

Middle Colony Schools

The Middle Colonies, which included New York, New Jersey, and other colonies, were never able to adopt a single system of education as was found in the New England Colonies. In comparison to the New England Colonies, there was much more religious and political variety in the Middle Colonies. As such, this independence of thought and action was seen in the establishment of schools. In the Middle Colonies, one will find independent and parochial schools to match the many different flavors of ethnicities and religions. Schools were usually locally controlled.

Southern Colonies

The Southern Colonies had the most independent spirit in term of education than the New England or Middle Colonies. In the South, the education of children was left to the family with almost no state interference. For poor children, the most education they could hope for was training in some sort of vocation, which did not include learning to read and write. For children of affluence, such as the plantation owners, the best education was provided through private tutors. For slaves, it was actually illegal to even learn to read and write. The political system of the South prevented the growth of a school system since a widely available education was seen as a threat to the established order.


As one moves from North to South, one will see that the control over schools gradually decreases. From the religiously inspired laws of the North to the independent spirit of the South, the control over education varied greatly. This can be seen in who goes to school. In the North, everyone was “required” to go to. school. In the South, some were “required” to not go to school.

The curriculum of all areas consisted of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Learning emphasized memorizing and conformity. These values would endure for almost the first 200 years of American history.

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