Designing the Common School: The First Educational Reform

Designing the Common School: The First Educational Reform
Dolley Madison: Education, Arts, Letters and Ideas

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Three to four class periods


Few students or teachers realize the challenges teachers had to overcome as schools became more commonplace in early American society.  During Dolley Madison’s life,  the transition from family-provided, or private education, to the creation of a public education system was underway.


Students will perform preliminary research to learn about education before public (common) education was in place. 

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet. Word Processor (paper and writing utensil).  Video on American schools (optional).  Research tools: books, magazines, and articles.


  1. Introduce the concept of a common school by locating and playing a video on this topic, using the library, or using the internet.  If available, the website accompanying the PBS documentary, "Only a Teacher," is helpful for use as a timeline. 
  2. Instruct students – either in groups or individually – to research and write a report outlining ways in which individuals and communities made the transition between the time when there were no public schools and the development of common schools.
  3. Instruct students to locate a picture of an old school house on the internet as part of the report.
  4. If students find writing about this topic a challenge, you may want to allow them to experience a common school firsthand.  As a teacher, research the operation of a common school classroom and simulate a class with your students.  Or, alternatively, search for web sites that show pictures of the early schools, or, if there is a “living” museum near you, take the students to visit a real or a replica common school.
  5. When the students have researched and written their reports, they may share them with the class in any of a variety of modes: papers, PowerPoints, posters, etc.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson may be extended by having students make a photo album (scrap book) of all the pictures of schools they have located.  Students could write a story written from a first-person perspective, as a student would see a common school when they began.

Sources & Resources:


Before the Common School Era

        Education in the Colonies

        Colonial Education

Designing the Common School

        Horace Mann and the Common School

        The Common School Movement

       Only a Teacher

       Teaching Timeline

       School: The Development of Public Education


This lesson was developed by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University