A Fairy Tale?

Once upon a time, there was much unemployment, poverty, and homelessness in the 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.

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 Progressive 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. And some district school boards dropped out of the Study.

While there was much variation among high 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 80years 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 80 year 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 not necessarily imposed from top-down but ones set and put into practice locally by adults and students.

Since the late-1980s, federal and state decision-makers have driven school reform. Policymakers 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 can get engaged and produce results that still stagger us looking back over three-quarters of a century.

And that is no fairy tale.



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14 responses to “A Fairy Tale?

  1. Good read. That might work today if given the chance. Education now is really, no education. Thanks for the research, I have not heard of this experiment, but it makes sense that it would work.

  2. Jean Sanders

    my supervisor designed an experimental school in the 1960s and it included “houses” where the students were assigned with specific staff and resources (spaces etc). In the model developed by Klausmeier at Madison WI he included “instructional units” for the elementary rather than the “house” term used for the high school. Those experiments continued into the 1970s and hopefully the concepts were enabled in the design and programs of more schools. We used the term “bleed” to indicate we wanted the concepts to “bleed” into the instructional programs as ideas and creative energy for teachers to adapt. Some Title III and then Title IV money went into the adaptations in MA. Klausmeier was in the psych department — not just education policy or finance department so the design elements were advanced … how much we were able to put in place? it varied from school to school…. and the research needs were met so the concepts shifted somewhat for more R&D but using different terminology (you need a thesaurus to figure out how the idea generation and creativity emerged even as the terms shifted).

  3. Jean Sanders

    In addition to. Kettering Foundation and others that sponsored this work, Ron Havelock and his wife Mary were systematically seeking through the country models of how these “innovations” were being disseminated; as I mentioned, Title III paid for some of the work. The study of diffusion and how things change over time was the focus of Havelock’s work. (again these terms change but there is a thread you can follow over the decades — USOE, “Diffusion” studies; IES, and different research approaches — Title III and Title IV were funds well spent (at least in MA).

  4. Jean Sanders

    sorry I have become “preachy” here — but basically the capitalist system took over. Ron Havelock captured what was happening. In MA we had Commissioner Greg Anrig who was a strong New England leader ; NY was trying to figure out how to share with CA (hey had some kind of Rockefeller funding) and then we had the “back to basics” push. Greg Anrig went to ETS and it was the measurement movement so in MA we said “just send the money to ETS”. Thus, was born the corporate model and now we have Pearson doing the R&D for MA — teachers have become “neanderthals” and the technology and AI , in particular, will save the planet because someone will make money (like Bill Gates, or Elon Musk or the McKinseys etc). Sad to see over my life time. Now we have IES and the trump – appointed person at the head and politicians who like the “philanthropy” they get for their campaigns so the corporate model is the only surviving relic. Tina Packer says “when Rome failed we were left with the Catholic Church and when U.S. falls we have only the corporation.”

  5. Thanks for sharing a study on this! I know it’s true because I have lived it as a student, teacher, and parent. But evidence is required to convince others. Much appreciated.

  6. For many years I was blessed to teach ethics in a Catholic high school. When I first started at the school, I was paired with another theology teacher with whom I swapped my five classes at the end of the semester. He was a historian who disliked teaching ethics, while I loved ethics and endured teaching church history. The obvious solution was for him to teach church history all year and for me to teach ethics. Thankfully, the principal agreed, so for the second year, we both taught what we were best at and created a win-win solution. That’s the first step. Getting teachers to teach subjects they are passionate about and skilled in.

    Secondly, I didn’t follow the curriculum. I started to teach ethical subjects that really touched the lives of teenagers, e.g. racism, sexuality, disability, respect, crime and punishment, drugs and alcohol. Bingo. The students were engaged in ways that they never were when they had to study dry church documents on social justice issues. The curriculum had previously been designed to meet the approval of elderly bishops who hadn’t been in a classroom for many years. With all due respect, they had no idea how to engage young people. I’ve yet to meet a teen who can comprehend a paragraph of any conciliar document, let alone a chapter.

    One day I got a call to see the principal who had just been called by the Archbishop. I have never been summoned to the principal’s office to be told that I’m a great teacher, so I was wondering what I had done wrong. Apparently, the bishop had called in to a local church confirmation group which had two of my students in it. He was so amazed at their sophisticated ability to engage in complex moral matters that he asked them where they had learned such matters. Not many teens can differentiate between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith or explain the difference between the kerygma and dogmatic teachings of the Church. The students cited me and my colleague as their inspiration to take theology seriously. So, of course, we were both commended and asked to keep doing what we were doing so well.

    The moral: give good teachers the autonomy to devise their own courses and reign them in only when there is clear evidence that what they are doing isn’t working. Most teenagers forget the content of their learning in high school, but what they retain is the ability to think critically and independently. They rarely remember much of the WHAT but they just as rarely forget the HOW. Teach teenagers what they can enjoy learning, not what someone three times their age thinks they should learn. I always invited students to tell me when they weren’t engaged by a topic we had studied so I could drop it. We can’t cover every ethical issue anyway, so why retain the ones that don’t engage?

    I call it ‘Sexy theology’ because it turns kids on to God rather than switching them off.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much for your extended comment and description of your experience teaching ethics in a Catholic high school. The lesson you draw from your experience gibes with mine as a high school teacher and superintendent.

      • I am sure as a superintendent, you would have been a listener. I wrote a book a few years ago on the study skills and mindset that transformed so many of my students’ lives. I received almost 50 5-star reviews on Amazon, and yet went I sent a free copy of my book to every superintendent in the State, I didn’t get so much as a curt ‘thank you’ slip back from any of them. Not one of them was interested in learning from a successful teacher. Who on earth are they listening to?

  7. Pingback: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same - The Learner-Centered Leader

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