Political leadership has affected the education systems of many countries in the 20th century. In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Communism and in Germany under the leadership of National Socialism, totalitarian systems of government imposed strict guidelines on the organization of national education systems. Many other countries during the 20th century—including the United States—have sought to balance control of their education systems between the federal government and local governments or private organizations. Most countries in the 20th century have also taken steps to increase access to education.


In the United States

One-Room Schoolhouse

One-room schoolhouses are usually associated with earlier eras in the history of education. A few, however, like the one at Living History Farm, are still in use. This farm aims to reconstruct pioneer life in Iowa.

Local and state governments have retained most of the responsibility for operating public education in the United States during the 20th century. Because individual communities often have different educational priorities and different abilities to finance public education systems, school systems vary from one region to another. State governments—and occasionally the federal government—attempt to reduce disparity between regions by establishing various requirements for school financing, academic standards, and curriculum. See Education in the United States: Tension Between Localism and Centralization.

In the early 20th century access to education in the United States was largely divided along racial lines. State laws segregated most schools in the American South by race. No such laws existed in northern states, but school districts there often established district boundaries to ensure separate facilities for black and white students. In both northern and southern states, school facilities for African American students were usually inadequate, public transportation to such schools was insufficient or nonexistent, and public expenditures per student fell well below that provided per student in white schools. In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate facilities for black and white students resulted in unequal educational opportunities, and that such segregation was unconstitutional. Since then, public school systems throughout the United States have attempted to desegregate schools and to provide equal educational opportunity for all students. Integration efforts and affirmative action programs in American schools have helped enable African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other minorities to increase high school and college attendance rates and to make impressive gains on standardized test scores. See Education in the United States: Education and Equality.


In the Soviet Union

After the Russian Revolution in 1917 the Communist Party’s Central Committee made the important educational decisions in the Soviet Union. In the 1920s Communist leader Joseph Stalin established a rigid curriculum for Soviet education that stressed science, mathematics, and Communist ideology. Soviet schools attracted large numbers of foreign visitors, especially individuals from developing countries. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite sent into space. To many educators around the world, this achievement indicated the advanced state of Soviet technological learning. Soviet educator Anton Semyonovich Makarenko also brought international recognition to the Soviet education system for his work on the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents.

Many observers criticized the rigidity and authoritarianism of the Soviet education system. In 1989 and 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev, then the general secretary of the Communist Party and the leader of the USSR, tried to reform the country’s education system by allowing schools more local control. However, the nation was suffering from political upheaval and a weak economy, which hampered efforts aimed at educational reform.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 the former Soviet republics, such as Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia, became independent nations that controlled their own political and education systems. Education in Russia and the other new countries faces especially daunting obstacles because the struggling economies of these nations often provide insufficient funds for education. Other problems in educational administration and schooling stem from tensions between the many different ethnic and language groups in most of these nations. While Russia has a predominantly Russian population, over 100 other ethnic groups also comprise its population.


In Germany

The fall of Communism has also affected education in Germany. The disintegration of the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991, and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 helped lead to the collapse of the Communist government in East Germany. East Germany reunified with West Germany in 1990 and the West German school system was extended throughout the reunited nation. The Federal Republic of Germany follows a joint federal-state system of education. The Grundgesetz (Basic Law) gives individual German states the major responsibility for primary and secondary education. In higher education, the federal government works in conjunction with the states.

The kindergarten, developed by Froebel in the 19th century, remains popular in Germany. Children begin compulsory education at age six in the Grundschule, the basic primary school, and continue there until they are nine years old. When they finish primary school, German students go to separate secondary schools, such as the Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium, and Gesamtschule. The Hauptschule offers a general education, the Realschule prepares students for middle-level careers as managers and supervisors, the Gymnasium is a university preparatory school, and the Gesamtschulen is a comprehensive secondary school. German education also includes extensive vocational, technical, and apprenticeship arrangements.


In France

The central government controls most education in France. A federal department, the Ministry of Education, sets the curriculum so that all students study the same subjects at the same ages throughout the country. French schools emphasize careful thinking and correct use of the French language. The lycee, the traditional academic secondary school, prepares students to attend universities. The grandes ├ęcoles, the great schools, are universities that train future leaders for government service, business administration, and engineering. Aside from providing free elementary and secondary education, the French central government provides financial aid to Catholic schools. In 1960 the government also began providing financial subsidies to private schools that meet state standards.


In Developing Nations

Education in Nepal

This is the situation of education in Nepal. Although nearly every country has adopted compulsory elementary education laws, many children in Nepal and other developing nations still lack access to adequate schools.

The 20th century has also been marked by the emergence of national school systems among developing nations, particularly in Asia and Africa. Compulsory elementary education has become nearly universal, but evidence indicates that large numbers of children—perhaps as many as 50 percent of those age 6 to 18 throughout the world—do not attend school. To improve education on the elementary and adult levels, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conducts literacy campaigns and other educational projects. UNESCO attempts to put every child in the world into school and to eliminate illiteracy. Some progress has been noted, but it has become obvious that considerable time and effort are needed to produce universal literacy.

For additional information on national systems of education, see the Education section in the articles on individual countries.


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