History Unlocked – September 2017, Early Education in PA

The Early Education of Pennsylvania

By: Karen Dingle Kendus, Concord Township Historical Society

Interior of the #4 School, a typical one-room classroom for 8 grades

My mother became a teacher as a second career, after I was already a teenager. She is going into her 15th year and could not be happier with her career choice. She takes each new technology in stride, and learns it completely. Her living room has been covered in textbooks, teacher books, activity manuals, and lab experiments for the past month while she was prepping her lesson plans and writing curriculum. My mother is a biology teacher, but that was not an original offering of early colonial schools in Pennsylvania. As a matter of fact, there are very few similarities between today’s public education and William Penn’s idea of education when he acquired Pennsylvania. Obvious differences are the technology involved. Students now are submitting their work through Google Docs and researching reports on their smart devices. However, even the subject matter, duration of the school day, and the fact that education was not free separates early schools from current education.

William Penn did not know if pursuit of knowledge was worthwhile, but he felt

Initially a subscription school, became the #2 school. Photo of schoolchildren 1884

strongly enough about education to give the governor power to erect and order all public schools for the teaching of reading, writing, religion and arithmetic in his Two Frames of Government (1682-1683). This first call for public education met resistance by other sectarian groups who worried that the Society of Friends, who controlled the Assembly, would use the schools to propagate the Quaker faith. As a compromise, a law was passed that allowed all religious societies, assemblies, and congregations of Protestant faith to erect schools. Quaker schools did not progress very rapidly until 1778 when the Quarterly and Monthly Meetings created an Education Committee. With help from the Education Committee, by 1782, the Society of Friends established subscription schools.

Early subscription school 1826, became the #3 school. Photo taken 1940

Subscription schools required that one person in the community donate land for a schoolhouse if enough neighbors were willing to contribute funds for the construction. The Subscription collected would apply to the master’s salary and go toward the tuition of poor Friends children. Original subscribers and any subsequent donors would have the use of the school for the education of their children and their children’s children. While this was considered “public education,” these schools were only open to those who could afford to pay the fee. Additional subscription schools were built by nondenominational groups as well.

The curriculum for early schools consisted mostly of religion and spelling. The earliest textbook was most likely the hornbook, which had the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer in it. If arithmetic, called cyphering or “casting accounts,” was offered, it was only taught by the master and through oral lessons. Paper was too scarce to use for arithmetic. Spellers came into wider use in the early 18th century. Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book was a standard text after the Revolution. John Comly’s Speller was also popular in this area probably because he taught at the Westtown School. Grammar became part of the curriculum at the end of the 18th century but was not universally taught, as it was not seen as useful.

Schoolhouses in southeastern Pennsylvania were architecturally distinct. The early schoolhouses were built in an octagonal shape, with the idea that they were easier to heat. In practical terms, the schoolhouses offered more space for blackboards and exhibits, areas for separate study, and had an acoustic design that lessened noise. Teachers appreciated the practical uses of octagonal schoolhouses.

Of all the issues facing the Education Committee, one of the most difficult was the lack of qualified instructors. Unfortunately, society did not have a positive view of teachers. They were seen as being of low quality and incapable of doing anything else. And society’s view of teachers was not the only deterrent. Teachers had low salaries, taught large classes for short sessions, and teaching was not a fulfilling profession. All this being said, if one had the money for a tutor or to attend one of the few quality schools, a worthwhile education was possible. In 1764, one could take English, history, Roman history, poetry, Latin and English grammar, and Bible and geography at the Union School (near Chadds Ford). These and the subscription schools were students’ only options until 1834 when Pennsylvania passed a law mandating a system of public education.

The third iteration of the #1 school, built in 1874 for a growing population. Photo late 1800’s.

As the 2017-2018 school year begins, it is worthwhile to see how far we have come. Teachers have become an integral part of society and are well-respected as scholars. Students attend school for the better part of a day, for most of the year. It took many years for society to value education and it remains free for all, as well as compulsory, today. Enjoy the new beginnings!


Ashmead, Henry Graham. 1884. History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co. pp. 488.

Case, Robert P. 1983. Prosperity and Progress: Concord Township Pennsylvania, 1683-1983. Chester, Pa.: John Spencer, Inc. pp. 66-68.