High school as it developed over the middle decades of the nineteenth century was diverse in its instantiations–as variable, in fact, as the cities that gave it birth. An array of secondary educational alternatives included everything from a few courses in the "higher branches" offered to a handful of students in a solitary room of a city's "union" school to Boston's precocious English Classical School, established in 1821. Between these extremes lay the ACADEMIES, commercial institutes, seminaries, and proprietary schools that dotted the landscape of midcentury American education. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, indeed, until the 1880s, the high school was more easily defined by what it was not than by what it was: neither a college nor the classical GRAMMAR SCHOOL that prepared future collegians, the high school of the mid-nineteenth century both sprang from and was instituted in contradistinction to classical grammar schools, which prepared young people for college.
While high schools across the United States would continue to vary widely throughout the next seventy years in response to the highly specific needs of populations experiencing rapidly changing social conditions and political alignments, the very construction of a high school, whether in Kalamazoo or Philadelphia, demanded a shoring up of the school system that supported it. Age-grading and sequencing the curriculum became necessary to differentiate the offerings of the high school from its tributaries and to legitimize those offerings. This in turn was made easier by the adoption of standard textbooks and uniform high school entrance examinations. And since public schools largely justified their existence by offering education inexpensively, they hired the cheapest labor to teach their growing enrollments. Therefore, educated women, with few other avenues of employment open to them, soon replaced male faculty at the primary levels of public schooling. In some instances this ordering of the lower schools prepared the way for the building of a high school. In others, the "high" school, however modest its accommodations, preceded the reorganization of the lower schools or even the passage of COMPULSORY SCHOOLATTENDANCE legislation. Yet all attempts to bring order and predictability were predicated upon the larger movement to centralize school bureaucracy locally.
By the end of the nineteenth century in the northeastern and midwestern United States this process had been largely completed, and the high school stood poised to become an extension of the American COMMON SCHOOL. Entrance examinations, widely employed during the middle decades of the century, were used to screen out students of lower aptitude and achievement in an effort to erect a perfect meritocracy. In one important respect this approach had been an unqualified success: before the turn of the century, once a student had entered the elite confines of the public high school, his or her grades were the best predictor of graduation; working-class pupils, whose chances of gaining entrance to high school were significantly diminished by their social background, performed just as well in high school as students of higher socioeconomic status. Their achievement after graduation, moreover, was rewarded in ways comparable to their graduate-peers across the social spectrum.
As high schools multiplied across the nation, one era came to a close and another beckoned. In response to this unruly expansion, the National Education Association convened the country's leading educators to suggest ways to rectify the uneven shape of the secondary school curriculum. "The Committee of Ten," chaired by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot, issued a report in 1893 recommending that the secondary school curriculum rededicate itself nationally to the goal of "training and disciplining the mind through academic studies," thus creating a better fit between the subjects offered by the high schools and the colleges receiving their students. Yet, in effect, as Jurgen Herbst has observed, the Committee of Ten had "written an epitaph instead of a blueprint for the future" (p. 108).
Left out of the report was any consideration of the demand for a curriculum that was becoming more, rather than less, variegated: one which included not just the call for "industrial arts" training in the Prussian mode but also for "commercial" courses–training in the new technologies of business and commerce such as typing, stenography, sales, accounting, bookkeeping, and French and other modern languages which had been excluded historically from the classical curriculum. From its origins the high school, like its closest cousin, the academy, had offered an alternative to the classical training of the grammar school. It was to be practical in orientation and so was inclined to expand in this direction as its embrace of young people was enlarged. Indeed, by the time the Committee of Ten had issued its recommendations, most public high schools in the United States had abandoned the use of entrance examinations as a device to restrict enrollments.
Between 1900 and 1940 the ratio of seventeen year olds graduating from high school nationwide shot up from 7 percent to 49 percent. As the great boom in high school attendance got underway during the 1910s and 1920s, high schools across the nation assumed broad similarities however much they differed in their particulars. These similarities were enhanced by the next major report on the status and purpose of secondary education, which was issued by the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. Its Cardinal Principles (1918) stressed the importance of making secondary education available to the great majority of young people and dampened the emphasis of the Committee of Ten on strengthening connections between the high school curriculum and the mission of college education.
The Cardinal Principles laid the philosophical foundation for the adoption of the "comprehensive curriculum" and "tracking" during the 1920s and after–that is, the creation of curricular streams that channeled students according to aptitude, interest, and achievement into distinct courses of study judged to fit their individual abilities and inclinations. In practice, of course, this led to the reproduction of the very social structures that students experienced in the world out-side the school, as principals, teachers, and career counselors often guided adolescents into tracks based upon their parents' socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic backgrounds. As John Modell and J. Trent Alexander pointed out in 1997, in the "old regime" (high school before 1900) the school "reproduced the structures of the outside world by restricting admission." Under the new regime–high school as a mass institution–"schools reproduced the structures of the outside world through a variety of mechanisms that took place within the institutions themselves" (p. 23). Tracking was the curricular version of this device, indeed the major mechanism of sorting youths in the schools, but others arose in the form of the extracurriculum that emerged within the "new" high school of the 1920s and 1930s. The extracurriculum, which included every kind of student activity from sports to language clubs, was a way of engaging students in the values of high school outside the classroom. It was a means of extending enrollments by appealing to the interests of the average student, who a generation earlier would have "dropped out."
After World War II the great majority of adolescents attended and graduated from high schools. By 1967 graduation rates peaked at 76 percent and leveled off at around 75 percent for the remainder of the century. As high school graduation became normative, the financial consequences of not achieving a high school diploma became costly over the lifetime of those who failed to complete twelfth grade. The high school diploma had become a credential necessary both for employment after high school and for admission to college. On one hand, the expansion of higher education in the wake of the war fueled demand for this credential, and on the other, the collapse of the youth job market during the GREAT DEPRESSION and decline of the industrial sector of the U.S. economy and enlargement of the service sector after World War II discouraged leaving school early. Virtually as soon as high school became a mass institution, however, the problem of "warehousing" confronted educators. As greater numbers of adolescents entered high school for lack of economic opportunity, they were decreasingly likely, it seems, to find satisfaction in the school's offerings.
By the 1960s public high schools were criticized on a number of grounds: the bottom quintile of students who typically gravitated toward vocational offerings was incorporated into the comprehensive high school, but the skills imparted by the vocational curriculum had dubious application in the industrial workforce. The middle 60 percent, for whom a watered-down academic curriculum had been designed for "life adjustment," found the high school experience empty and irrelevant. And the top 20 percent of high school achievers, it was charged, were not being adequately prepared for the rigors of college. The most common criticism was that the social dimension of the high school experience was being overemphasized at the expense of academic achievement.
Roiling beneath the surface of these complaints was a more profound problem. If the Cardinal Principles early in the century had succeeded in shaping the high school into a meeting place for adolescents of diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, and racial backgrounds, the student culture was rent by very real out-of-school differences within the pupil population. In the wake of BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, the civil rights movement, and racial strife of the 1960s, middle-and working-class whites fled from inner-city high schools to new suburban schools. The effect of "white flight" was compounded by a plummeting birthrate among whites, so that by the 1980s it was commonplace for the composition of inner-city school populations to be composed of African-American and Latino students in excess of 90 percent. In addition to the detrimental social affects of such intensely segregated high schools, racial and ethnic segregation was accompanied by profound socioeconomic disadvantage. The separation of white suburban high school students from African-American and Latino central city students had erected a two-tiered, deeply unequal system of public schooling at every level.
Attempts to correct such imbalances have ranged from the use of vouchers in a handful of cities to the most pervasive approach, the creation of themed magnet high schools in inner-city districts. By attracting white students from the suburbs to take advantage of the specialized curricula of the magnets, the hope is to reintegrate the public high school. Thus far progress has been modest at best.
Despite its many problems, the high school became the institutional RITE OF PASSAGE for twentieth-century American youth. From a social standpoint it has provided the common basis for a youth experience that has included male and female, black and white, immigrant and native. It has served as an arena for the spread of youth styles and as an entry point for an expanding popular and YOUTH CULTURE. The high school, having largely abandoned its academic focus in the early twentieth century, found that by the twenty-first century, the search for academic retooling had become ever more difficult to achieve.
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