A Fairy Tale?

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness in this land. Leaders tried one thing after another to end these grim conditions. Nothing worked.

In the midst of these bad times, however, a small group of educators, upset over what our youth were learning in high schools decided to take action.

These schools were dull places. Students listened to teachers, read books, and took exams. Schools were supposed to prepare students for life but much of what they studied they forgot after graduating. Worse yet, what they had learned in school did not prepare them to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or fulfill their civic duties. Complaints to school officials got the same answer repeatedly: little could be done because college entrance requirements determined what courses students took in high school.

So to give high schools the freedom to try new ways of schooling in a democracy, a small band of reformers convinced the best universities to waive their admission requirements and accept graduates from high schools that designed new programs.

Dozens of schools joined the experiment. Teachers, administrators, parents, and students created new courses and ways of teaching teenagers to become active members of the community and still attend college. For eight years, these schools educated students and universities admitted their graduates. And then a war came and the experiment ended. After years passed, few could recall what these schools and colleges did.

A fairy tale? Nope.

Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined the experiment sponsored by the Progressive Education Association.

Called “The Eight Year Study,” each high school decided for itself what curricula, schedules, and class sizes would be. There were no college admission requirements or must-take tests. Old lesson plans were scrapped. One school sent classes into the West Virginia coal region to study unions. Science, history, art, and math were often combined in projects that students and teachers planned together.

Needless to say, there were stumbles also. A few principals blocked the experiment. Some school faculties divided into warring factions.

While there was much variation among the schools, there were also common elements. Many of the large public high schools (of the 30, fifteen were private) created small schools within the larger one. Principals increased the authority of teachers to design and steer the program; teachers crossed departmental boundaries and created a core curriculum (math/science and English/social studies), set aside three hours a day for teams to work with groups of students, and planned weekly units with students.

What happened to these students when they attended college? To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance. They then compared their performance in college.

Evaluators found that graduates of the thirty schools earned a slightly higher grade average and more academic honors than those who attended regular high school. Furthermore, the “guinea pigs,” as they were called, were more precise in their thinking, displayed more ingenuity in meeting new situations, and demonstrated an active interest in national and world issues than their matched counterpart.

What these startling results showed over 70 years ago was that there was no one single best way of schooling teenagers. The fears that parents and taxpayers had about experimenting with high school courses, organization, and teaching proved hollow in “The Eight Year Study.”

The results of these studies appeared during World War II. The war effort swallowed up any further interest in experimenting with high school programs. Whatever the reasons, “The Eight Year Study” lapsed into the obscurity of scholarly footnotes. Later generations of reformers seldom inquired or cared about this large-scale, non-federally funded experiment that showed convincingly that schools, given the freedom to experiment, could produce graduates that not only did well academically in college but, far more important, displayed an active interest in civic affairs, were resourceful in handling new situations, and could think clearly.

So what does this half-century old experiment say to us in the in the 21st century about school reform?

1. When engaged teachers, administrators, and students are given the freedom to experiment and the help to do it, they will come through.
2. There is no one best way of schooling youth.
3. Students can graduate high school who are academically engaged, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools are those that are set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.

In 2010, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, test, and punish low performance. What “The Eight Year Study” demonstrated is that locals–districts, schools, and practitioners—have the expertise and can be trusted. When locals are trusted they get engaged and produce results that still stagger us looking back nearly three-quarters of a century.



Filed under Reforming schools

10 responses to “A Fairy Tale?

  1. Wow! Thank you for posting this. What exciting information.

    Do you know about this other experiment, by L.P. Benezet?

    I haven’t found anything that discusses how these students did later, but I’ve only looked online.

  2. Charles Murray discovered something quite similar, but took home quite a different conclusion.

    • Steve Davis

      I am not so sure that Charles Murray’s conclusion is too different than Larry Cuban’s.

      While Murray focuses on school choice and charter schools and Cuban appears to focus on traditional high schools, it seems that both authors use the results of studies to support their similar views that if schools were free from the burdens of high-stakes testing and or college admissions requirements, then schools could provide students with more authentic and or uniquely tailored learning/schooling experiences.

      Murray’s opinion does diverge from Cuban’s in that Murray advocates for a “traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition, taught with structure and discipline” (Murray), while Cuban (in this case) seems to advocate for a progressive curriculum that will “prepare them [students] to face the problems of life, think clearly, be creative, or [and] fulfill their civic duties” (Cuban).

      Murray asks, “Why not…finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another?” Cuban would agree with Murray; however, he would also add “there was [is] no one single best way of schooling teenagers” (Cuban). Murray would counter that students should “be taught the content that I think they need to learn, in a manner that I consider appropriate” (Murray).

      Murray’s mindset about schooling makes me think of Cuban’s post “Arguing about “Good” Schools” where he parses out the different expectations that parents have of schools and how these “differences in purpose” have led to schools becoming ideological battlegrounds (Cuban).

      • Bob Calder

        Steven Jay Gould had some choice words about the way Murray thinks about heritability and behavioral expression. (pp 35 Mismeasure of Man)

      • Steve Davis

        Charles Murray’s notions of cognitive ability may be specious; however, that was neither the NY Times article’s emphasis nor its conclusion. His conclusion (as I understand it) was that schools’ curriculums could be tailored to match parental expectations if high-stakes tests didn’t drive curriculum.

  3. Jane

    Fascinating. Can you tell us whether students in the “schools within schools” had a choice between typical education and the experimental version?

    • larrycuban

      In How Teachers Taught (1993), I have an entire section on the Eight-Year Study focusing on five Denver high schools. Students volunteered to be in the “progressive” classes–as they were called. Pundits dubbed the students in the 30 high schools, “guinea pigs.” No more than 20 percent of the students were in the “experiment.” thus, a school-within-a-school.

  4. David B. Cohen

    Imagine how innovative and creative students and teachers could get with current technology (as long as the technology is a means and not an end)? Of course, in a data-driven education climate with Common Core Standards, we won’t even need innovation or creativity.

  5. teachingbattleground

    “To find an answer, evaluators established 1,475 pairs of college students, each consisting of a graduate from an experimental school and one graduate of another high school matched as closely as possible as to age, sex, race, social class, and academic performance.”

    Isn’t this a bit of an odd form of evaluation? If you match high school performance and compare college performance then any difference between the two groups is at least as likely (if not more likely) to be a result of poorer performance at high school, rather than stronger performance at college?

    • larrycuban

      Without looking at the study or data, you might have something. But you do need to look at the design and methodology that Ralph Tyler created in the mid-1930s and the results reported in volume III (Eugene Smith and Ralph Tyler, “Adventures in American Education: Appraising and Recording Student Progress,” New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942

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