What is a Normal School?

Written by Kerry Ellard on May 4, 2022

A normal school is a school for training schoolteachers in a standardized way. They are part of an education bureaucracy where granted credentials provide some sort of mobility across the system and a professional career path. Normal schools were introduced to America in the mid-19th century by Horace Mann, and focused on training primary school teachers for the newly semi-standardized and expanded common school system in Massachusetts. As the system grew, more teachers were needed and there had to be a certain level of consistency and structure for Mann’s plans to be carried out. During the Progressive Era in America, they became known as “teacher’s colleges,” and later in the 20th century, they became “schools of education” within the modern university system.


At the time Mann introduced normal schools, they were all the rage in Prussia, and other countries, like France, were starting to emulate them. The name says it all—they were intended to inculcate teachers with the same set of “norms,” which included training them according to certain procedures and methods, in order to regulate teacher training in line with the objectives of government-administrated school systems. They were necessary for the creation of any new or expanded “system” of education, which required coordinating people who had previously not been part of the system, or who had previously relied on more ad hoc arrangements.


The first public normal school in the United States was founded by Mann in 1839. It was located in Lexington, Massachusetts, and soon joined by two other Boston-area normal schools. Funding was provided by both Horace Mann himself and from the Massachusetts state legislature. Other states had difficulty acquiring public funding, and in Rhode Island, a local philanthropist who admired the Massachusetts model arranged to open the first normal school in his own state by means of private funding.


Zack Quaratella, who I will quote at length, explains of Mann’s normal schools, “the schools functioned like modern teaching colleges; students’ time was split between studying the theory of education and practicing in a ‘model school’ nearby,”

but even they got off to a rocky start:

“The first Massachusetts normal school arose amid controversy. Opposition forces stood against the normal school’s proposed cost and its redundancy with the already existing teachers’ institutes. Those temporary institutes lasted no more than a few months and could be taken without quitting work, so they attracted hundreds of teachers and prospective teachers. Many in the state legislature saw the creation of a normal school as unnecessary, given the efficacy of the institutes. There were also a number of private schools in Massachusetts that incorporated teacher training into their curriculum. Predictably, they too opposed the creation of normal schools. Reformers thought differently – as did a few philanthropists, namely Edmund Dwight. Mann convinced Dwight that the Prussian “norm schools” would improve education standards. Dwight pledged $10,000 if the state legislature agreed to equal it. The sympathetic Whig legislature acquiesced, and the normal school opened in 1839. The state charged no tuition, but many families still found it difficult to pledge their working-age daughter to a year without breadwinning.”


Still, Mann’s persistence won the day, and Quaratella provides interesting details:

“Lexington’s first class consisted entirely of girls aged fifteen to nineteen who generally came from the surrounding counties of Massachusetts. The normal school at Lexington was among a litany of places where women could receive a high school level education; normal schools doubled as high schools, giving girls training in higher education. According to historian Mary Kelley, by the early nineteenth century, “Approximately the same number of women and men were enrolled in institutions of higher learning.” Women saw the potential offered to them by education to affect public opinion by shaping the nation’s youth. Many of the famous female reformers of the antebellum era started their careers as teachers. In 1840, girls who wished to teach attended a seminary or normal school, or were hired by their local township. Lexington’s first classes were all female, but within a few years men enrolled in normal school at Lexington and two other institutions that opened in the state. However, women still represented the vast majority of attendees...”

Over time, these schools, concentrated around Northern cities like Boston and Providence, slowly replaced the decentralized arrangements I have described in earlier pieces about early education American education, allowing the modern public school system to take shape across the nation.

  1. See The Editors of Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “Normal School,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/normal-school.
  2. See ibid.
  3. See Zack Quaratella, "’The Ornament of Human Society"’: Anti-Southernism in New England Common Schools," Undergraduate Honors Theses, Paper 656, 2013, The College of William and Mary, https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/656.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.

Kerry Ellard

Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.