Between 1933-1941, thirty high schools in the country and over 300 universities and colleges joined an 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 80 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 Progressive 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 prepared, involved in their communities, and thoughtful problem-solvers.
4. Standards of excellence that work in schools can be set and done locally by adults and students—not imposed from the top-down.
In 2020, federal and state decision-makers and policy elites drive school reform. They set standards, test students, and hold schools and students accountable for their performance. What “The Eight Year Study” (recall that it was sponsored by the Progressive Education Association) demonstrated nearly a century ago is that there are locals–districts, schools, and practitioners—who have the expertise and can be trusted to design and implement different ways to organize schools.
Am I suggesting that this is what all U.S. high schools should do? No, I am not. There are, for example, schools in largely poor urban and rural areas—both minority and white—that can use far more state and federal aid in supplying experienced teachers and coaches, reducing class size and expanding community services. And, yes, even the freedom to try different ways of organizing schools for better teaching and learning.
If only those who govern and fund schools could learn the essential lesson that every parent with more than one child and every experienced teacher and principal has learned over the years:
*There is no one best way to learn.
*There is no one best way to teach.
*There is no one best way to organize schools.
*Additional sources for the Eight Year Study are:
William Wraga, Democracy’s High School: The Comprehensive High School and Educational Reform in the United States. University Press of America. pp. 61–65.
Craig Kridel and Robert Bullough Jr. (2012). Stories of the Eight-Year Study: Reexamining Secondary Education in America. SUNY Press.