The story that I’ve heard is this:
In the US, we care about education. We believe that all people should receive one, regardless of their family status. Therefore, states provide education directly.
There you have it. We provide education in the US so that everyone gets a more fair shake at education. We might disagree about the purpose of an education. Maybe it’s for improved job prospects, for a more informed citizenry, or for more unified values and experiences. One socially awkward answer is that state schools are, in part, a childcare service that permit parents to work. Except for these couple of reasons, school provision and compulsory education should, at the very least, increase literacy. That’s a low bar.
Given the above reasoning states began to pass compulsory school legislation. Massachusetts was first in 1852. Followed by DC and Vermont in the 1860s. Thirteen more adopted compulsory education legislation by 1880. By the year 1900, most states had compulsory schooling legislation on the books that was applicable to at least some age groups. See the figure. Thus, did the US achieve more equality, so goes the story.
The reasoning behind the story is sound. Without education of some sort, people will surely have less human capital. The vulnerability of the reasoning is that formal schooling is not the only form of education. A person who doesn’t attend school may help a parent at work or have a private tutor – or simply grow in a milieu of thoughtful exposure. Therefore, requiring that a child attend school may not improve human capital by a degree greater than what the child would have been doing otherwise. That’s an empirical matter.
The figure below illustrate the data for ‘white’ people and illustrates literacy between the ages of 20 and 30. Why that interval? At the lower end, we don’t have literacy data for people under the age of 20 in 1850 & 1860. On the higher end, any effects of compulsory schooling will only affect those who were children and subject to the law – older people are immune to compulsory schooling legislation.
The graph illustrates that state literacy rates were rising throughout the period. The main exception is 1870. Maybe the demands of the civil war caused children to work at home or otherwise and forego schooling. So the increase from 1870 to 1880 is more of a catch-up to a previous trend than anything else. While it’s true that several states passed compulsory schooling laws in the 1870s, that doesn’t explain the widespread literacy improvements across most states.
After 1860, we can examine the younger people who were subject to the schooling laws. The figure below for people ages 10-20 tells a similar story to the one above.
My biased reading of the data is that initial compulsory schooling laws had at least an ambiguous effect on the overall trend of improving literacy. I’ll delve deeper in future posts.
PS – The literacy data is from IPUMS.
PPS – The compulsory schooling law dates are allegedly from “Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2004.” But I couldn’t find the original source. Kudos to anyone in the comments who can find it.