Public Person Education Michigan Democrat AdministratorMinister
Pierce is generally considered to be the father of Michigan's system of public education. He was born and raised in New Hampshire. He was unschooled but taught himself to read and write. So well in fact, that he was admitted to Brown University. After graduating from Brown he trained in the ministry at Princeton Theological. Upon his graduation in 1831, he worked with the American Home Missionary Society which assigned him to Marshall, Michigan. Pierce was much taken and inspired by the Prussian system of centralized education and soon wished to re-organize the state's school along similar lines. Pierce's program had much in common with Horace Mann's ideas but in other areas went well beyond Mann's. For example, both strongly supported public education as a responsibility of the state. However, Pierce also included higher education among the state's responsibilities.
Pierce's contributions to Michigan reform were in conjunction with his friend and fellow Marshall resident Isaac E. Crary. The two of them throughout 1834 and 1835 discussed ideas about public education. Many of these ideas became embodied in the state's first constitution of 1835. Crary, a delegate to the constitutional convention, also served as chair of the education committee which drafted Article X of the constitution dealing with education. One of the innovations adopted in the constitution was the creation of a State Superintendent of Public Instruction to develop policy for and oversee Michigan's public schools. On the advice of Crary, Governor Mason appointed Pierce to be the state's first superintendent, and Pierce served in that capacity until 1841.
As superintendent, Pierce proposed to the legislature a centralized system of public education. One of the superintendent's principal responsibilities was to safeguard the money generated through the sale of section 16 land in each township. This money was to go into a specialized "Primary School Fund", which was also the first of its kind in the U.S.
Pierce's plan for Michigan public education created school districts, set the length of the school year at forty weeks, set norms for teacher qualifications. His plan for the University of Michigan created an institution of three "departments"--or as they later became known, "colleges"--LS&A, Medical, and Law. A Board of Regents was established to oversee the institution. And a system of "branches" was established throughout the state in order to provide an intermediate step between the primary schools and the university. Lastly, Pierce arranged for the siting of the University in Ann Arbor after the Ann Arbor Land Company donated forty acres of land for the institution. That grant later became the "Diag".
In 1841, when the Whigs won control of the state government, Pierce was not re-appointed. He returned to Marshall but sat for office in 1847 and was elected to the state house of representatives. His most important accomplishment then was to help establish the first teachers' college west of the Appalachian Mountains, Michigan State Normal School? in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In 1952, when the Normal School began operations, Pierce gave the dedication address.
Pierce died in 1882.
Brouillette, Matthew J. "John Davis Pierce: Michigan's First Superintendent of Public Instruction." School Choice in Michigan: A Primer for Freedom in Education (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 1999).
Hoyt, Charles Oliver?, and Richard Clyde Ford?. John D. Pierce, Founder of the Michigan School System: A Study of Education in the Northwest. Ypsilanti, The Scharf tag, label & box co., 1905.
Historical Marker: http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=28391
Dunbar, Willis F., and George S. May. "Michigan Leads the Way in Education," chapter 14 in Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1995.
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