In reviewing the history of American schooling, the rather complex and dynamic relationship between education and social change is quite apparent when considering the educational system’s crucial role of imparting culture, knowledge, and values across generations. Schools have been influenced by forces in the economic, political, and social realm while being responsive to the needs and demands of American society. Some of the social transformations to which schools have responded were economic, such as the rise of the factory system, the onset of full‑scale industrialization, the growth of cities and urbanized areas, technological change, the human capital revolution, and globalization. Others involved ideological shifts related to politics, law, race, and gender.

Educational institutions also have influenced social change, serving as a vehicle of social betterment by affording opportunities to improve the moral sensibility and skills of students. Schooling has provided a means to challenge dominant forms of ideology and the social norms and practices that accompany them, such as racism and sexism. While these ideological forces have not been completely undone, education became a primary means of confronting and contesting the discriminatory treatment of groups of people.

Despite progress in these areas, patterns of inequality are clearly visible in the ways in which educational success has been determined in American society. Divisions in the educational experiences and academic outcomes of children living in poverty and those from families with greater resources have grown in prominence and severity. These divisions also exist between two-parent and single-parent families, as well as between children living in urban, suburban, and rural America. Attempts at alleviating these inequities by way of legal remedies and school funding redistributions have proved to be politically and socially difficult.

The politics of educational reform and policymaking reached a fever pitch as educational credentials and returns to education rose in importance. Calls to restore core academic subjects and a resistance to liberal policies and curricular practices characterized the 1980s and beyond. With a growing understanding of the link between the educational system and economic growth, the public began to question the ability of the U.S. to compete in a global marketplace, which led to a mounting dissatisfaction with American schools. This discontent led to cries for accountability through testing, “school choice,” and neo-liberal reforms. Each of these measures was touted as necessary to make education more efficient and productive, yet, in most cases they appeared to contribute to inequality. The historical and contemporary symbiotic relationship between education and social change highlights the central and increasingly important role schooling plays in addressing issues of democracy, inequality, and opportunity in American life.