Reimagining the Public High School in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Part 1)

Since 2016, the XQ Institute has awarded almost $140 million to 19 schools across the country to “reimagine” the American high school. They have had five years to do so. Backed by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, these high schools are in the midst of putting into practice the major changes they proposed for their schools.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck the U.S. Except for essential services, businesses, schools, and public services closed in March 2020. Of the 24,000 secondary schools in the U.S. (2018), nearly all shifted from in-person classroom interactions to remote instruction. Such an immediate and fundamental shift in the medium of instruction had never occurred before in the history of American public schools.

In effect, schooling, under the shadow of Covid-19, was forcibly reimagined by school boards and superintendents. Historically, reformers have talked about fundamental change for decades and have sought such planned changes in previous incarnations of high school reform. Now, massive, sudden, and I must add–unplanned basic changes in classroom teaching and learning happened over night.

While the pandemic caused the emergency closures, such fundamental change in instruction has been sought many times in the past.

Join me in touring the past century of high school reform.  

Knowing that public high schools have changed in small and big ways over the past century is essential in making wise decisions after the pandemic recedes and high schools re-open.

In the late-19th century, the high school was a strictly academic institution catering to less than 10 percent of eligible youth. Largely enrolling nearly all-white middle-and upper-middle class sons and daughters (there were also segregated Black academic high schools such as Dunbar in Washington, D.C.), the academic course of study prepared students to attend college or go immediately into white-collar jobs in newly emerging companies and corporations. Most boys and girls at the end of the 19th century and opening decades of the 20th, however, left for industrial jobs after completing 8th grade, if they got that far.

Progressive high school reformers reimagined high school as encompassing all students from all social classes and preparing them for both the economy and living in a democracy. Thus, Progressives created a new kind of high school. The original comprehensive high school in the 1920s with its diversified curriculum catered to the broad range of student interests and aptitudes. It was an innovation that “transformed” the previous academically narrow high school of the 1890s. Since then, repeated efforts to reform the reform have occurred.

In the late 1930s, a group of Progressive educators designed an experiment for 30 high schools across the country. Called the “Eight Year Study” (1934-1942), students in these schools would not be subject to college admission requirements. Teachers and administrators, then, would have free reign to re-design–yes, re-imagine– high school in the midst of the Great Depression. No foundation stepped forward to give these schools that entered the experiment funds to carry off their re-designed schools. They did it on their own dime. Published evaluations of these re-imagined schools and outcomes for students who went to college were favorable (see here and here)

Then in the late- 1950s, former Harvard University president, James Bryce Conant, called for an overhaul of the high school; a decade later, attacks on the sterile comprehensive high school produced a flurry of alternative and “free” high schools. Ted Sizer launched the Coalition of Essential Schools in the late 1980s with its nine “common principles” and hundreds of those high schools sprang up across the nation. In the early 1990s, a privately funded venture called the New American Schools Development Corporation, later shortened to New American Schools, spread “whole school reform” models to elementary and secondary schools throughout the U.S. As one advocate put it: those seeking grants from NASDC will have to “cast aside their old notions about schooling–to start with a clean sheet of paper, and be bold and creative in their thinking, and to give us ideas that address comprehensive, systemic change for all students for whole schools.” And in the early 2000s, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation poured over $2 billion into creating small high schools. That effort shut down in 2009.

My point is that the XQ effort to “transform” high school is in a long line of very smart, well-intentioned reformers some of whom were well endowed with thick wallets. Again and again, they have tried to alter the comprehensive high school. And that model has changed but only incrementally. It has never been frozen in amber.

In all of those previous reforms, answers to basic questions divided those seeking major changes in the comprehensive high school then and now.

*What should students learn?

*Should all students learn the same thing?

*how should students best learn?

*Who should decide answers to these questions?

Every attempt to “transform” the comprehensive high school since the 1920s wrestled with these questions. Each generation of reformers came up with answers only to see that a subsequent generation of reformers supplied different answers to the same questions. Knowing that history and the particulars of past efforts to “transform” the high school is essential to the current cohort of XQ reformers.

Historians have gained a bad reputation by pointing out previous failures in trying to reform government, medical practice, the criminal justice system, and yes, public schools. What historians do know is that economic, political, and social contexts change and when past reformers bent their minds and hearts to “transforming” the public high school in the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s, 1960s, 1980s, and since the 1990s those times differed greatly one from the other. History as a wise observer once said, surely doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.

For those seeking to rethink the high school, ignoring earlier reformers’ efforts is worse than burying one’s head in the sand.


Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

6 responses to “Reimagining the Public High School in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Part 1)

  1. jeffreybowen

    I truly appreciate your broad and deep historical grasp of the changes or lack thereof in Americam public education. You are focusing on systemic change agents. To this I would add three big picture ideas: (1) inertia produced by not addressing the “whole child” (housing, food, transportation, child care, family dynamics, etc ; (2) the roots and growth of charter schools and vouchers; (3) the phenomenon of homeostasis, in nature, policy, bureaucracy and so on. I suggest your historical themes might be helped by taking a good long look at a 40-year-old set of futuring predictions found in Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. We should be freeing ourselves of historical dead ends, and instead looking at futuristic big trends, just as Toffler did so amazingly well! Best regards!

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