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120 Years of Literacy

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Literacy from 1870 to 1979:

Excerpts are taken from Chapter 1 of 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait (Edited by Tom Snyder, National Center for Education Statistics, 1993).


This section, Historical Data, presents information from 1869-70-the date of the first Office of Education report-to the late 1970s on. The creation of the Federal Department of Education in 1867 highlighted the importance of education. The Act of 1867 directed the Department of Education to collect and report the "condition and progress of education" in annual reports to Congress. In the first report of 1870, the Commissioner proudly reported that nearly 7 million children were enrolled in elementary schools and 80,000 were enrolled in secondary schools. Also some 9,000 college degrees had been awarded. This contrasts with 1990, when 30 million enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools and 11 million enrolled in secondary schools. Over 1.5 million bachelor's and higher degrees were awarded.

What path has American education taken from such modest beginnings to such an impressive present? These and other questions prompted the Office of Educational Research and Improvement to review historical data and report on historical education statistics. This publication presents information from the first Office of Education report for 1869-70 to current day studies. It charts the development of the U.S. education enterprise from its past to the present day, pointing towards its future.


Educational Characteristics of the Population

One of the important determinants of the scope of an education system is the size of the population base. Changes in the birth rates and consequential shifts in the population profoundly influence society for decades as larger or smaller groups (birth cohorts) move through school, adulthood, work force, and finally into retirement. Larger birth cohorts can cause pressure for building schools, hiring more teachers and expanding medical services; reduced cohorts can have the opposite effect. During the historical period covered by this publication, there have been several of these population expansions and contractions that have impacted on public school systems.

The early years of the United States were marked by very rapid population growth. Between 1790 and 1860 the U.S. population grew by about a third each decade. This rate of growth is more than 3 times the population growth that has occurred in the past decade. These rises occurred despite the declines in the birth rate during the 19th century. Increases in immigration and in the number of women of child-bearing age apparently compensated for the birth rate declines.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the population growth rate fell to 22 percent and the drops continued into the first 2 decades of the 20th century. The 1920s marked a period of shifts in the population outlook. The birth rate continued to fall, dropping from 118 per 1,000 women 15 to 44-years-old in 1920 to 89 in 1930. But also, the actual number of births fell by 11 percent during the 1920s, marking a divergence from the relative stability of the teens. The decline in the birth rates stabilized during the 1930s, and then rose dramatically following World War II, reaching a peak of 123 births per 1,000 women in 1957. This post-war birth rate was nearly as high as those registered in the early teens. After this peak of the "baby boom," birth rates resumed their historical decline. The low points in birth rates so far this century were in 1984 and in 1986, when there were 65 births per 1,000 women. The U.S. is now experiencing a surge in the number of births caused by the large number of "baby boomers" at child-bearing age. The 4.1 million births in 1991 is nearly as high as the peak of 4.3 million in 1957.

The number of births and the population size are important determinants of the scope of the school system. But the relative size of the school-age population is also an important consideration when examining the impact of the cost of education on the adult population. In 1870, about 35 percent of the population was 5- to 17-years-old. This proportion fell rapidly to 28 percent at the turn of the century, but further changes in the beginning of the century were very small. In the 1930s, the percentage of 5- to 17-years-olds in the population began to decline, reaching a low point of 20 percent in 1947. During the late 1960s, the proportion of 5- to 17-year-olds rose to 26 percent. However, this proportion has fallen in recent years, hitting 18 percent in 1991. Thus, the proportion of the population requiring elementary and secondary school services is at or near a record low level. Given the recent rises in births, significant decreases in this proportion are not anticipated for the near future.


Enrollment Rates

The proportion of young people enrolled in school remained relatively low in the last half of the 19th century. Although enrollment rates fluctuated, roughly half of all 5- to 19-year-olds enrolled in school. Rates for males and females were roughly similar throughout the period, but rates for blacks were much lower than for whites. Prior to the emancipation of Southern blacks, school enrollment for blacks largely was limited to only a small number in Northern states. Following the Civil War, enrollment rates for blacks rose rapidly from 10 percent in 1870 to 34 percent in 1880.

However, in the ensuing 20 years there was essentially no change in the enrollment rates for blacks and the rate for whites actually fell. The beginning of the 20th century brought sustained increases in enrollment rates for both white and minority children. The overall enrollment rates for 5- to 19-year-olds rose from 51 percent in 1900 to 75 percent in 1940. The difference in the white and black enrollment rates narrowed from 23 points in 1900 to 7 points in 1940.

Enrollment rates continued to rise in the post-war period for all race groups. By the early 1970s, enrollment rates for both whites and blacks had risen to about 90 percent and these rates have remained relatively stable since then. In 1991, the enrollment rate for 5- to 19-year-olds was 93 percent for blacks, whites, males, and females.

While the enrollment rates for children of elementary school age have not shown major changes during the past 20 years, there have been some increases for younger students as well as for those persons attending high school and college. The enrollment rate for 7- to 13-year-olds has been 99 percent or better since the late 1940s, but the rate for the 14- to 17-year-olds has exhibited significant increases since that period. During the 1950s, the enrollment rate of 14- to 17-year-olds rose from 83 percent to 90 percent.

Further increases during the 1960s and 1980s brought the enrollment rate to a high of 96 percent by the late 1980s. The rates for 5- and 6-year-olds also rose, from 58 percent in 1950 to 95 percent in 1991. Rates those of college-age doubled or tripled throughout the 1950 to 1991 period, with much of the increase occurring during the 1980s. In 1950, only 30 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds were enrolled in school, compared to 60 percent in 1991. The rate for 20- to 24-year-olds rose from 9 percent in 1950 to 30 percent in 1990.


Educational Attainment

The increasing rates of school attendance have been reflected in rising proportions of adults completing high school and college. Progressively fewer adults have limited their education to completion of the 8th grade which was typical in the early part of the century. In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had completed no more than an eighth grade education. Only 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females had completed 4 years of college. The median years of school attained by the adult population, 25 years old and over, had registered only a scant rise from 8.1 to 8.6 years over a 30 year period from 1910 to 1940.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the more highly educated younger cohorts began to make their mark on the average for the entire adult population. More than half of the young adults of the 1940s and 1950s completed high school and the median educational attainment of 25- to 29-years-olds rose to 12 years. By 1960, 42 percent of males, 25 years old and over, still had completed no more than the eighth grade, but 40 percent had completed high school and 10 percent had completed 4 years of college. The corresponding proportion for women completing high school was about the same, but the proportion completing college was somewhat lower.

During the 1960s, there was a rise in the educational attainment of young adults, particularly for blacks. Between 1960 and 1970, the median years of school completed by black males, 25- to 29-years-old, rose from 10.5 to 12.2. From the middle 1970s to 1991, the educational attainment for all young adults remained very stable, with virtually no change among whites, blacks, males or females. The educational attainment average for the entire population continued to rise as the more highly educated younger cohorts replaced older Americans who had fewer educational opportunities.

In 1991, about 70 percent of black and other races males and 69 percent of black and other races females had completed high school. This is lower than the corresponding figures for white males and females (80 percent). However, the differences in these percentages have narrowed appreciably in recent years. Other data corroborate the rapid increase in the education level of the minority population. The proportion of black and other races males with 4 or more years of college rose from 12 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 1991, with a similar rise for black and other races females.



Illiteracy statistics give an important indication of the education level of the adult population. Today, illiteracy is a different issue than in earlier years. The more recent focus on illiteracy has centered on functional literacy, which addresses the issue of whether a person's educational level is sufficient to function in a modern society. The earlier surveys of illiteracy examined a very fundamental level of reading and writing. The percent of illiteracy, according to earlier measurement methods, was less than 1 percent of persons 14 years old and over in 1979.

The data in this table for the years 1870 to 1930 come from direct questions from the decennial censuses of 1870 to 1930, and are therefore self-reported results. The data for 1947, 1952, 1959, 1969, and 1979 were obtained from sample surveys; they exclude the Armed Forces and inmates of institutions. The statistics for the census years 1940 and 1950 were derived by estimating procedures.

Percentage of persons 14 years old and over who were illiterate (unable to read or write in any language), by race and nativity: 1870 to 1979

Year Total White Black and other
Total Native Foreign-born
1870 20.0 11.5 79.9
1880 17.0 9.4 8.7 12.0 70.0
1890 13.3 7.7 6.2 13.1 56.8
1900 10.7 6.2 4.6 12.9 44.5
1910 7.7 5.0 3.0 12.7 30.5
1920 6.0 4.0 2.0 13.1 23.0
1930 4.3 3.0 1.6 10.8 16.4
1940 2.9 2.0 1.1 9.0 11.5
1947 2.7 1.8 11.0
1950 3.2
1952 2.5 1.8 10.2
1959 2.2 1.6 7.5
1969 1.0 0.7 3.6 *
1979 0.6 0.4 1.6 *
* Based on black population only
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970; and Current Population Reports, Series P-23, Ancestry and Language in the United States: November 1979. (This table was prepared in September 1992.)

For the later part of this century the illiteracy rates have been relatively low, registering only about 4 percent as early as 1930. However, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, illiteracy was very common. In 1870, 20 percent of the entire adult population was illiterate, and 80 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1900 the situation had improved somewhat, but still 44 percent of blacks remained illiterate. The statistical data show significant improvements for black and other races in the early portion of the 20th century as the former slaves who had no educational opportunities in their youth were replaced by younger individuals who grew up in the post Civil War period and often had some chance to obtain a basic education. The gap in illiteracy between white and black adults continued to narrow through the 20th century, and in 1979 the rates were about the same.



The historical data show large increases in enrollment rates over the past 125 years, with some significant rises even in more recent years. The higher levels of education attained by young adults in the most recent decades suggest that the overall education level of the population will continue to rise slowly into at least the early 21st century.


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