It was, the Life magazine story began, “the frantic fraction of the morning when 2,003 boys and girls swarm about the Davenport High School and funnel themselves inside to be exposed to what eager adults who await them term secondary education.” The story, “U.S. Public High School,” appeared in the magazine’s December 14, 1953, issue, the inaugural article in a series on the American high school—then, as now, a subject of concern—and it had chosen Davenport to represent what had become the most characteristic of these institutions: the comprehensive high school, where students could study the traditional liberal arts curriculum but also make use of nonacademic offerings ranging from vocational training to commercial and business courses. “The students still get classics,” Life wrote, “but their courses are no longer confined to subjects given mainly for those going to college. . . . Into Davenport High each day come students with different backgrounds, racial, religious and economic, each with his own problem of how to fit into a changing society and each with his own prospects and aspirations for the future.”

Davenport High exemplified the comprehensive high school, starting with its size. (Two of its silent study-hall periods accommodated 389 students each.) It offered classes in 127 subjects, “from algebra to zoology,” and while students had to take some English, math, science, and history, they could, through electives, study a broad range of noncollege-track material. Two student report cards illustrated the variety of options. A senior, Lon Fagner, who hoped to study dentistry at Northwestern University, was taking Grammar, American Government, Algebra III, Chemistry I, and Phys. Ed. A sophomore, James M. Jones, took English I, Biology I, Electricity I, Machine Shop I, Phys. Ed., and Occupations, a required course that included vocational testing. Life’s well-illustrated story—the opening shot, showing a crowd of teenagers moving toward Davenport High’s large sandstone structure, would resonate with anyone who ever attended a large or midsize American public high school—pictured students working on everything from advanced mathematics and science labs to music and dressmaking. A senior, Carol Jasper, stood on a desk while her fellow students checked her hemline. The young woman, hoping to find office work when she graduated, wanted to learn how to make some of her own clothes to save money.

None of this would strike contemporary readers as new, but in 1953, only a small portion of the grandparents of these Davenport students would have had anything like this kind of schooling. Before the early twentieth century, few Americans had been educated beyond the eighth grade; the same was true in other countries. The ambitious attempt to deliver mass secondary education has become known as the American high school movement, and “American” it surely was—from its democratic underpinnings and grass-roots organization to its inspiring, yet sobering, legacy. The movement helped propel the United States into world leadership, but the institution of the high school would reflect key conflicts that have defined American education ever since.

Only a nation founded on principles of equality and self-government would have contemplated mass secondary education—and only then, after having mastered mass primary and elementary education, at which the United States had also blazed a path, with the common school movement of the nineteenth century, which itself had roots dating back to the nation’s founding. “Our educational thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the schools as the central and main hope for the preservation of democratic ideals and the endurance of the nation as a republic,” writes education scholar E. D. Hirsch. They “consistently alluded to the fact that republics have been among the least stable forms of government and were always collapsing from their internal antagonisms and self-seeking citizens.” In Massachusetts, Horace Mann, who would become known as the Father of the Common School, worked tirelessly to improve schools, which should be, he urged, nonsectarian, open to all, and guided by the principles of a free society. By the mid-1800s, common schools had proliferated so widely that American enrollment levels eclipsed those of Germany; by late in the nineteenth century, the U.S. had taken the worldwide lead in elementary education. European countries didn’t catch up until the turn of the twentieth century.

By then, the United States was poised for a new transformation. Economic changes during the last two decades of the nineteenth century made clear that a better-educated workforce was now necessary. Most Americans had traditionally worked in jobs that required little schooling. As late as 1870, according to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, “only about 10 percent of the labor force were employed in an occupation that typically required an education beyond the elementary school years, whereas the other 90 percent were employed in jobs that did not.” Fifty years later, in 1920, more than 25 percent of American workers held jobs that required a high school diploma or college degree.

The country’s new high schools provided not only academic skills but also training for the working world, from welding to dressmaking. (Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
The country’s new high schools provided not only academic skills but also training for the working world, from welding to dressmaking. (Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Factors driving the need for more educated workers included increasing use of office technologies, from typewriters to adding machines; the growth of large, complex corporate entities, with offices in multiple cities; and the expansion of industries—including banking, insurance, and retail but also manufacturing—that sought employees with more schooling. As early as 1902, a manager of the Deere Tractor Company specified that prospective male office hires should be “at least high school graduates.” The preference was not confined to white-collar positions, though. “In the factory, we like the boys to have a high school education if possible,” said the hiring director at National Cash Register that same year. The demand for professionals—doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business managers—was also bursting. These job categories grew 50 percent faster than all other employment groups from 1870 to 1920.

“Only a nation founded on principles of equality and self-government would have contemplated mass secondary education.”

Secondary schools had been around for about as long as the common schools, but only a small proportion of American teenagers attended them. Most large cities had public high schools; but in less populated areas, families seeking secondary education for their children paid tuition at private academies. Now, eager to meet the challenges of a new economy, the United States entered uncharted waters, building public high schools and enrolling students on a mass scale, with a goal of preparing the emerging generation not just academically but also vocationally for the adult world. With this new practical focus, the American high school movement was born.

Scholars generally date the movement from 1910 to 1940, since these are the years when the greatest growth took place, both in opening high schools and in enrolling students. The impetus and the execution came from local communities, not from federal, or even state, government. Goldin’s extensive scholarship reveals that even major statutes, like compulsory-schooling and child-labor laws, had little impact on how things developed. More than anything else, it was the United States’ decentralized structure—with some 125,000 self-governing school districts, in contrast with Europe’s centrally run educational system—that played the crucial role. If enough support existed in a community to raise the taxes necessary to build a big (or small) public high school, up went the school. The schools proliferated rapidly, in the old American can-do way—from 7,200 public high schools in 1903 to 10,213 in 1910 to 14,326 in 1920.

One of those schools was Central High in St. Paul, the oldest continuously operating high school in Minnesota. From 1902 to 1955, Central High graduated 11 Rhodes Scholars, more than any school in America. Central had opened with just two students, one boy and one girl, in 1870. Its first diplomas were hand-printed on sheepskin. Its modern building was erected in 1912, after enrollment pushed past 1,300. A history of St. Paul, published that year, described the new high school:

This school, now completed and occupied, besides being an exceptionally handsome structure, is sanitary, fireproof, light and convenient. In addition to the twenty-six recitation rooms, and ample lecture rooms and laboratories, it has an auditorium with a balcony, and with a stage 22 by 57 feet. It has dressing, scenery and property rooms; a large gymnasium with shower and dressing rooms; a students’ lunch room with kitchen and pantry, and all manner of rooms for domestic and manual training, including kitchen and dining rooms, sewing room, machine shop, forge room and foundry. It . . . is a building of which not the school board alone, but the entire city may well be proud.

Student Alice Short described the school cafeteria’s industrial-size accommodations: “On its hungriest day, 30 dozen bun sandwiches, 30 dozen loaves of bread made into sandwiches, 30 dozen cup cakes, beside apples, sweet chocolate, doughnuts, ice cream cones and other things in proportion disappeared before the hungry crowd in 10 minutes.” Demand was so great that Central’s facility was expanded in 1924; by 1936, Central swelled with 2,900 students.

The story was the same elsewhere. Philadelphia’s Central High School relocated to a new building in 1900 as class sizes swelled. Grand Rapids, Michigan, opened its Central High School in 1910. By 1915, it was crammed with more than 1,800 students; to accommodate demand, the city established an additional comprehensive school, South High School. Enrollment in the city’s high schools increased 160 percent between 1910 and 1920.

These figures reflected national trends. High school enrollment in the United States doubled between 1900 and 1910; it quadrupled between 1900 and 1920, when more than 2 million American teenagers were enrolled. The numbers kept rising, so that by 1940, there were about 6.6 million high school students in the United States. The mushrooming enrollments reflected a larger and larger proportion of American teenagers. In 1910, less than 10 percent of American 18-year-olds graduated from high school, and only 19 percent of 15-to-18-year-olds were enrolled. By 1940, the date usually designated as the end of the high school movement, 51 percent of 18-year-olds graduated from high school, and nearly three-quarters of 15-to-18-year-olds were attending. (Not surprisingly, given segregation and racial discrimination, enrollment rates for blacks lagged far behind those for whites.)

As with the common school movement, the leaders at the outset were found in New England; the laggards were in the South. Soon pacesetters appeared in other places, such as the Midwest. By 1928, enrollment rates in New York and New Jersey were just half those of Nebraska and Iowa. The sterling performance of these breadbasket states led Goldin to a finding reminiscent of Robert Putnam’s insights about diversity and community cohesion: high school enrollments were highest in the most homogeneous communities, with shared values and common ambitions. The smallest communities had the highest rates of all. (In 1920, 50 percent of Americans still lived in small towns.) The tiniest hamlet tended to have a higher proportion of high school enrollment than small towns; small towns had higher enrollments than small cities; small cities higher than midsize cities; and midsize cities higher than big cities like New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia. In gross, the big cities enrolled the most high school students, but their proportions lagged in part because of greater work opportunities for teenagers.

If the high school movement’s appeal can be found in expanding enrollments, its success can be glimpsed in a statistic that, to modern eyes, might appear discouraging: the declining proportion of graduates who went on to college. When the high school movement got under way, roughly half of graduates went on to some form of postsecondary education. Goldin found that, as the high school graduation rate climbed, crossing over 50 percent by 1940, the proportion of graduates who pursued higher education declined by half—even if, in gross numbers, more students were pursuing college than ever before. These numbers suggest that the economic value of a high school diploma was such that graduates did not feel the need to pursue college. Even low-level white-collar work paid, on average, twice what workers earned in occupations that didn’t require high school diplomas.

Mass secondary education propelled the United States from strength to strength: with the highest standard of living and best-educated population in the world, Americans found themselves uniquely qualified for the leadership role that they would assume after World War II. Returning veterans, many already holding high school diplomas, would take advantage of the GI Bill, helping to start what Goldin calls America’s third education revolution, after the common school and high school movements: mass college attainment. “Americans were keenly aware that they were involved in an historic achievement and knew, as well, that they were setting the United States on a course far different from that being followed elsewhere in the world,” Goldin writes. “They were embarking on an experiment as grand as any in American history.”

After much success, the experiment would eventually abandon the aspirations that launched it. The seeds of that abandonment were planted early. In 1912, The Saturday Evening Post published an article by William Mearns, who taught creative writing at Teachers College: “Our Medieval High Schools: Shall We Educate Children for the Twelfth or the Twentieth Century?” Mearns attacked the traditional high school curriculum—English, classical literature, advanced mathematics, history—and asked whether such material had any relevance for the vast majority of high school kids. He belittled the traditional course of study and asked what good it was if a high school student couldn’t “pound hot bolts, or stoke a stationary engine, or tie up a decent package.” High school education, he wrote, should be devoted to “individual needs and an attempt to fit that individual for what the best wisdom of the moment considers his welfare.”

Mearns had his finger on the pulse of what modern educators, especially progressives, believed: that most of the new students streaming into the high schools—especially children from immigrant families—were less intelligent than the typical student and thus unsuited for the academic curriculum. Many of these students would rather be working, anyway, than in school, progressives reasoned. Shouldn’t the high schools give them something that would prepare them for practical work, rather than filling their heads with Shakespeare? The schools should vastly expand their offerings of nontraditional, vocational, and commercial courses.

The progressives, Diane Ravitch wrote in her 2000 education history, Left Back, wanted to take “a grim pruning hook to the dead limbs of tradition.” They argued that the modern high school should reject the “elitist” academic curriculum, left over from its nineteenth-century predecessor, which had been designed mainly for the college-bound. (In fact, earlier high schools were far from exclusively college-prep institutions, but the mischaracterization proved useful for the reformers.) In their determination to fit children from working-class and immigrant homes to what one educator called their “probable destinies,” the progressives set themselves against the supposedly antidemocratic defenders of traditional courses, who argued that, for as long as children remained in school, they should have access to a traditional academic curriculum. Somehow, the progressives succeeded in casting themselves as advocates of democracy and equal opportunity, even as they pushed for differential treatment of students, depending on perceived aptitudes and intelligence. As they saw it, their mission was to give children the training they needed for their self-evident future roles in life.

Battles between reformers and traditionalists were hard-fought, with the reformers mostly prevailing—at least, in their goal of expanding the curriculum to include nonacademic subjects. In the early going, this mostly meant adding commercial courses such as typing, bookkeeping, and stenography, and vocational subjects such as electricity, metals, and woodworking. Another area that expanded greatly was home economics. The push to open up the curriculum took place at the same time that public high schools were proliferating around the country. As a result, the comprehensive high school took on the shape familiar to us today. In its early incarnation, it was highly effective at its goal of training teenagers for success in the adult world—in no small part because, while the reformers had succeeded in expanding course offerings, they were less effective, up to about 1930, in their second goal: deemphasizing the traditional curriculum of English, math, science, and history. Most students continued to take these classes, according to extensive research by David L. Angus and Jeffrey Mirel. Despite progressives’ warnings that the traditional curriculum was keeping less inclined students away from high school and sending them into the workforce, enrollments kept rising.

The Great Depression flooded the schools with still more new students. With jobs scarce, adults increasingly wanted teenagers out of the job market and in school—no matter what they did there. In what had by now become a generational refrain, educators worried that the incoming students were less intellectually able than their predecessors; as proof, they cited IQ scores, though some studies suggest that the intelligence-test results contradicted their claims. Whereas earlier reformers had sought mostly to slot students into either academic or vocational/commercial courses of study, reformers in the Great Depression, war, and postwar years increasingly came to believe that most students weren’t capable of success in either of these tracks.

It is at this point, Angus and Mirel write, that educators began reconfiguring the high school more drastically. They assigned more students to the general track, where they could get appropriate instruction in developing “life-skills” that addressed their immediate needs, down to the most trivial topics, such as how to act on dates. The National Education Association’s Department of Secondary School Principals declared that traditional courses should be replaced with “fundamental categories of genuine student experiences.” Harvard president James B. Conant argued that parents should accept educators’ judgments as to the best future for their intellectually limited kids. The American high school began to change, note Angus and Mirel, from “an institution that prepared young people academically and vocationally for the adult world” to a “custodial” institution, more devoted to social management and conformity.

“In its early incarnation, the comprehensive high school was highly effective in training teenagers for success.”

The intellectual barrenness that resulted was a direct product of progressives’ dim view of most young people’s mental capacities and future prospects. In Minneapolis, where high school enrollments grew by nearly a third between 1930 and 1934, school officials designed a freshman class, Community Life Problems, that took students on field trips to government agencies and businesses. In lieu of economics and American government, seniors took Modern Problems, which focused on issues such as “population, labor, housing, family life, and consumer needs.” As Ravitch chronicled in Left Back, Denver’s Manual Training High School created a two-hour daily program on “common problems of youth,” in which the students started by “getting to know the school; they then moved onto problems of health, appearance, conduct, and `friendly adjustment to others.’ ” An Evanston, Illinois, high school replaced its traditional curriculum with a program in “community living.” Its ten-point list of themes, with deadening language so characteristic of the discipline known as “social studies,” seemed designed to narcotize students into apathy: “1. Understanding the Community Setting; 2. Protecting Life and Health; 3. Making a Home; 4. Getting a Living; 5. Expressing Religious Impulses; 6. Satisfying the Desire for Beauty; 7. Securing an Education; 8. Cooperating in Social and Civic Action; 9. Engaging in Recreation; 10. Improving Material Conditions.” Postwar, these and related approaches became known as “life-adjustment” education.

By the time Life’s 1953 Davenport story appeared, national voices had been raised for years against the watering-down of curricular content. “The best education for the best is the best education for all,” said Robert Maynard Hutchins, who, along with others—Arthur Bestor, Isaac Kandel, Mortimer Adler, William Bagley—railed against the anti-intellectual curricular trends. A 1946 Detroit Free Press series concluded that high schools were failing to prepare young people for the world because they had gone too far in replacing the traditional curriculum with “socialized” education. In 1958, the Free Press did another series, with even more damning findings. The paper found that college-track high school students were taking barely more academic courses than general-track students of a generation earlier. Nine out of ten high school graduates failed exams for entry-level civil-service jobs in Detroit’s Wayne County. And hiring managers at major firms told the paper that they didn’t put much stock in high school diplomas any more, since the schools had degraded standards so severely. That observation made a stinging contrast with the wishes of the National Cash Register manager of a half-century earlier—“We like the boys to have a high school education if possible”—as did the title of the Free Press’s series: “What is a high school diploma worth?”

These criticisms took place when America still held a world-beating lead in secondary-education attainment. As late as the mid-1950s, by Goldin’s reckoning, the United States was 35 years ahead of the United Kingdom on this metric. Yet the effects of eroding standards (at all levels) would soon be felt. American 12th-graders’ reading scores “have never come back from their high point around 1950,” according to E. D. Hirsch. In the more than half-century since then, students, parents, educators, and public officials have waged battles over curriculum and standards, over failing schools and school choice, and over the time-honored question of what purpose high schools should predominantly serve. The ambitious undertaking that launched all these debates—the America high school movement—faded into memory.

Taken all in all, the high school movement was an unprecedented effort by a huge nation with a diverse population to meet the challenges of a new economy. Its flaws were of a distinctively American character. The American commitment to democracy and opportunity powered the movement but made it easier for progressives to claim the mantle of equality in attacking “elitist” support for strong standards and rich curricula. The American passion for practicality, a disposition tracing back to the Mayflower, strengthened the high schools’ vocational content and helped produce the workers the economy needed, but it also made the schools increasingly vulnerable to a short-term view of education, whether dismissing the value of traditional academics or embracing vapid collectivist trends like “life adjustment.” And the local-authority orientation of American education, so vital to launching the high school movement, looked less like an unambiguous advantage after the 1950s, when other developed nations finally began catching up with the U.S. on secondary education, and eventually—in part because of their strict standards—leaving the U.S. behind on international measures.

Though analogies to today are inexact, the American high school movement does offer some important lessons. The first is a reminder of the fundamental importance of rigorous academic standards for all students—a principle championed by curriculum-reform groups like Core Knowledge and charter school networks, such as Great Hearts Academies and BASIS Charter Schools, among others. The high school movement in its heyday worked well because, even as substantial portions of students entered vocational tracks, they were still largely getting core academic instruction. When that changed, the results suffered. The two disciplines need not be separated—and traditional-curriculum advocates say so, too. “I’m a huge fan of high-quality liberal-arts education for everybody and really do think it would go far to prepare better citizens, neighbors, and consumer/transmitters of America’s cultural heritage and democratic underpinnings,” wrote education historian Chester Finn in 2012. “That said, I’m also becoming convinced that the future of our economy and the acquisition of good jobs will hinge as much on well-developed technical prowess as on Aristotle, Shakespeare, Darwin, Rembrandt, and Mozart.”

Today’s new model of vocational education has incorporated this holistic outlook: the best vocational-ed schools have reinstated academic standards, focusing on core knowledge in language and math. In some places, vocational-ed students are outperforming students in traditional high schools. (See “Vocational Ed, Reborn.”) The change stems largely from employers, who have made clear that they need job candidates who can read, write, think—and adapt to change. This echoes the beginning of the high school movement, which was also driven by employers’ needs for smarter, sharper workers. As was true 100 years ago, a core academic curriculum is not an obstacle to this goal but integral to it.

Second, attempts to phase out traditional, rigorous academics for “real-world” curricula—whether the “life-adjustment” training of the 1940s and 1950s or, say, social-justice instruction today—have never offered anything of lasting value, and they rob students of precious time that could be spent on building skills. As was true a century ago, schools should stick mostly to schooling and leave the bulk of “personal development” to parents, local communities, and churches.

Finally, the biggest difference between the era of the high school movement and our own time is the enormous increase in the number of children coming from single-parent families. Too often, the response of educational progressives has been—again, mirroring the response of their forebears—to lower standards or to offer therapeutic or culturally “appropriate” curricula for disadvantaged students. Here, again, the answer should be not to dispense with high standards but instead to find effective ways of imparting the indispensable knowledge of math, language, science, and humanities to students most in need of such learning. Some charter schools, which have experimented with longer school days, rigorous discipline, and other approaches, could point the way in this respect.

It would be too much to expect that the United States, in looking for answers to its present educational quandaries, will avoid mistakes such as the high school movement made. But if we even approximate its ingenuity and success, we will do well.

Top Photo: Students in a 1910 classroom in Iowa—one of the national leaders of the high school movement (Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)


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