Tax-supported public high schools go back to the 1820s. Open then to the children of wealthy landowners and successful merchants as well as to those of farmers’ and laborers’ — the small number of high school students who passed exacting entrance examinations took the same rigorous academic subjects. Most, however, never completed the four-year curriculum, leaving high school to enter business as clerks and bookkeepers or to teach in elementary schools.
After the Civil War, high schools slowly spread to accommodate more upper- and middle-class children always including small percentages of working- class children. Still, the “people’s colleges,” as they were called, remained small operations scattered in towns and cities. Even by the 1870s, less than 4 percent of all students were enrolled in high schools. The average urban high school in these years had only 85 students and 3 teachers. Less than one-third of those who passed the entrance exams and enrolled ever gained a diploma.
The original purposes of the high school were to create an aristocracy of academic excellence from children of all social classes. Yet these high schools were also to prepare youth for college and the workplace if they left before graduating. Being democratic — provide access to all — , meritocratic — only the best graduate — , and practical — preparing all students for jobs, business, and the professions —have been deeply embedded and competing purposes for the high school ever since the 1820s.
Tensions over reaching these competing purposes escalated greatly in the decades following World War I as more students entered high school. In 1900, one in ten youth, ages fourteen to seventeen, was enrolled in high school; by 1940, seven of ten were.
To ease these strains, progressive educators, believing that they could predict the vocational futures of high school students, created multiple curricula for those preparing for college, those who entered commercial jobs, those who sought industrial work, and others uncertain of their work futures. Using tests developed during World War I, progressives determined which students would be placed in which curriculum. High school tracking became a “best practice” of its day. Vocational education and college preparation became separate worlds.
Juggling the varied democratic, meritocratic, and practical purposes embedded in high schools along with intense parental aspirations for their children — all within the framework of the comprehensive high school — has produced severe strains among reformers and confusion among parents, especially since World War II. Writers have often reduced these conflicting purposes to labels of “conservative” and “progressive.” While what happens in schools is far more complex and nuanced than these labels allow, these words appeared constantly in public discussions of school reform among policy makerspolicymakers, media, and elected officials.
Consider the late-19th and early 20th century college preparatory high school as an incarnation of the conservative purpose. Past and present, public and private, such schools as Boston Latin, Bronx School of Science, Lowell High School (in San Francisco), testify to the continuing strength of highly competitive and selective schools in preparing the young from all backgrounds for college and for eventual high-paying professional, business, and managerial posts in the workplace and civic life.
Also consider other kinds of high schools, not as prevalent as traditional college preparatory types, but seeking the progressive purposes of a schooling with cross-disciplinary curricula, active–not passive–learning, and programs that promote personal wellbeing by creating communities where teachers and students work to improve both the neighborhood and the larger society. Consider community-based and social- action-oriented high schools such as: the Robert F. Kennedy Community High School in Queens, New York City; Hanover High School in Hanover, New Hampshire;, and Metropolitan Regional, Technical, and Academic High School in Providence, Rhode Island.
Although I have presented these purposes and the examples of schools as mutually exclusive, there is clearly overlap in practice among them, including many hybrids of both types of schools. A college preparatory high school in which 99 percent of its students attend four-year universities, for example, can be a humane community where cooperation and community service are prized. The overlap in particular features or hybrids, however, should not obscure the deep ideological differences in overall social purposes for these schools and the language that has historically divided partisans of each kind of high school. It was precisely these battles of words and policy conflict over the competing purposes of the high school (i.e., democratic, meritocratic, and practical) in the past century that continued through the Great Depression and after World War II..
The next post will take up the history of high school reform since the 1950s.
*These posts on the history of high school reform have been adapted from an article I wrote for MDRC. See: https://www.mdrc.org/publications/391/conf_agenda.html