In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Schooling in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Handbooks and Encyclopedias
  • Professional Associations
  • Journals
  • Elementary and Secondary Schools
  • Functional Explanations of Educational Expansion
  • Conflict Theory Explanations
  • Neo-institutional Theory Explanations
  • Do Schools Help Reduce Inequality?
  • Early Childhood Education
  • College for All
  • Women in Higher Education
  • The Rise of Community Colleges
  • For-Profit Higher Education

Childhood Studies Schooling in the United States
Floyd M. Hammack
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0129


The rise of schooling, from a peripheral activity of religious groups and some elites to a virtually universal and global experience of nearly all children, has been the object of study for over a century. Socialization, usually accomplished within the family, is how young people were traditionally brought into the skills and knowledge required by adult status. A few were chosen for more specialized and formalized education, among them priests, but “going to school” was a very uncommon human experience until the 19th century in the United States, when the “common school movement” established schools in rural areas and cities. By the second half of the 19th century, mass elementary schooling was in place and the expansion of “comprehensive” secondary education had begun. After World War II, a similar pattern of growth in higher education began to take shape. Increasingly called “postsecondary schooling,” the kinds of organizations offering this level of education were diverse, with a large expansion of public institutions, two- and four-year degree programs, and a robust private sector. As this expansion has taken place, the content of schooling, as well as the forms it has assumed, has grown. The questions scholars have asked about this phenomenon include “why has it taken place?” and “what are its consequences?” This article will focus on the literature documenting the expansion of schooling in the United States, the explanations that have been developed for this expansion, and assessments of its consequences. “Functional” (including human capital) explanations have stressed the technical demands of the labor market as the economy has moved from one based on extraction of resources (like farming) to manufacturing, and on to service activities. This view asserts that formal schooling needed to be expanded to transfer the cognitive skills required to attain independent adult status in the new economy. Alternatively, “conflict” theories see education as a tool used by competing groups to exclude nonmembers from eligibility for positions that provide high rewards. Dominant groups shape educational expectations and content in ways that privilege their own members, thus sustaining their dominance. Finally, “neo-institutional” explanations emphasize how education has become the chief legitimate mechanism for selection of people to adult statuses in society. These perspectives include a vast literature into which this essay will provide entrée. After assaying the theoretical literature, this report will examine the consequences of educational expansion for some specific educational topics, including early childhood education, the “college for all” movement, women in higher education, and the rise of community colleges and for-profit colleges.

General Overviews

The following books and articles specifically address the questions associated with documenting and describing how educational systems have grown and changed. In particular, they address whether the expansion of education has had an effect over time on the social stratification of society. In general, these books and articles look to the degree to which educational criteria that have been achieved by individuals have replaced attributes over which individuals have no control (gender, race, and socioeconomic background, for example). In addition, they ask how the expansion of education has changed the other structures of society. Barnhouse 2000 provides an excellent overview of educational expansion and whether it has changed societal elites. Heidenheimer, et al. 1990, by political scientists, contrasts the expansion of education in the United States and in Europe and develops a very interesting hypothesis about why they differed so much. Mare 1981 examines the conditions under which significant expansion takes place. Trow 2010 is an astute description of the transformation of higher education in the United States.

  • Barnhouse Walters, Pamela. “The Limits of Growth: School Expansion and School Reform in Historical Perspective.” In Handbook of the Sociology of Education. Edited by Maureen T. Hallinan, 241–261. New York: Kluwer Academic-Plenum, 2000.

    Argues that growth in educational opportunity has allowed greater access to education and helped to satisfy demands for greater equity without fundamentally jeopardizing the benefits accruing to advantaged groups.

  • Heidenheimer, Arnold J., Hugh Helco, and Carolyn Teich Adams. “Education Policy.” In Comparative Public Policy. 3d ed. Edited by Arnold J. Heidenheimer, Hugh Helco, and Carolyn Teich Adams, 21–51. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990.

    Noting the very early expansion of educational opportunity in the United States, this essay argues that in the United States, educational expansion took place instead of the expansion of other welfare rights such as occurred in Europe. The second edition was published in 1983.

  • Mare, Robert D. “Change and Stability in Educational Stratification.” American Sociological Review 46 (1981): 72–87.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095027

    An early formulation of the Maintaining Maximum Inequality hypothesis, which predicts that educational expansion occurs only when advantaged groups in a society have taken full benefit of that level of education.

  • Trow, Martin, and Michael Burrage, ed. 2010. Twentieth-Century Higher Education: Elite to Mass to Universal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    A collection of the writing of Trow, an influential and prolific observer of the expansion of US higher education since 1950.

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