Cohen and Neufeld: The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education

This post is a tribute to a seminal essay by David Cohen and Barbara Neufeld, which was published in Daedalus in 1981.  Here’s a link to a PDF of the original.  It’s a piece of writing that had a major impact on my own work (e.g., here and here) and I have assigned it frequently in classes.

The essay is about “the paradoxes of educational equality in a competitive society.”  High school is the case in point.  As the authors point out, one of the great accomplishments of American education is the way it opened up access to secondary education for the entire population and did so earlier than any other country. But this expansion of access led to a decline in the high school’s reputation. 

In a highly stratified society that thinks it’s a meritocracy, the most valuable goods are those that are most difficult to attain.  So institutions that are exclusive are worthy of respect and those that are inclusive are the object of disdain.  The high school started out quite exclusive in the 19th century when enrollments were small — consisting of students who passed a competitive entrance exam and who came primarily from wealthy families who could afford the opportunity cost of keeping their children out of the workforce.  But when high schools came under political pressure to open up access late in the century, they expanded capacity and abandoned the entrance exam.  As a result, enrollments shot up, doubling every decade between 1890 and 1940, and at the same time the institution lost its luster.  Increasingly,   college became the exclusive tier of the educational system and thus the object of social envy.

The high school’s success as an engine of democracy, by providing access to everyone, therefore signaled its failure as an engine of merit.  The story Cohen and Neufeld tell here is parable of the paradoxes that arise in a liberal democracy.

I think you’ll learn a lot from reading this essay, and I hope you’ll pass it along to others.

MastermanNewer High School

The Failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education

David K Cohen and Barbara Neufeld

For many Americans, the verdict is in: the high schools are failing. Americans are better educated and have higher standards of living than ever, but popular magazines and academic journals attack the decline of academic standards. Public schools have made considerable progress toward equality for students from poor or minority backgrounds in recent decades, yet newspapers feature stories about student disobedience and violence. More high-school students than ever are working, yet educators fret about the “weakening connection” between school and work. For many, the evidence is convincing. In the sixties we worried chiefly about elementary schools and concentrated most improvement efforts there. Toward the end of the decade the problems of adolescence began to claim more attention, and within a few years collective attention seemed riveted on the disobedience of teenagers and the disasters in their schools. Since then the news has been steadily bad.

The high schools are a paradox, yet there has been little debate about the diagnosis of failure. There has, however, been considerable dispute about what caused the problems. Among the most popular explanations are a decline in the quality of  teaching, the growth of  an anti-intellectual “youth culture,” the replacement of reading by viewing, and the daily curriculum of explicit sex, violence, and insubordination offered by television and movies. The decline of the family, for several centuries Americans’ favorite explanation for whatever ails them, is also high on the list. Each of these accounts has something to recommend it, but each evokes a time when things generally did work well.2 The satisfactions of this belief about the past seem to be a partial compensation for the sense that our time is out of joint.

Appealing as these explanations may be, we prefer a contrary notion­ namely, that the problems we see now are in good measure the result of past educational successes. Perhaps the most  signal success of American public education has been providing nearly equal access to elementary and secondary school for all; an achievement quite distinct in human history. The high schools have been charged with providing equal education since early in this century, but for a long time students from the working class and from minority groups stayed  away in disproportionately large numbers. As a result, high schools remained a special institution for many decades — special, because although they were open to the public and thus in some sense egalitarian, their enrollment was drawn heavily from those most willing and able to use the education provided.

This special quality had a considerable impact on the importance attributed to high-school education and to the seriousness with which all concerned treated it. In a sense, the public high school was not yet fully public. But high-school attendance grew during the century; by the 1960s nearly everyone of suitable age was enrolled in secondary school, and by the late 1970s roughly three out of every four were graduating.

As a result of these enrollment changes, the high schools have become much more fully public. And that has made them seem much less special in Americans’ eyes, and much more problematic. In addition, the high schools have made adjustments in organization, curriculum, and standards to accommodate­ date an increasingly diverse student population. One effect of these adjustments has been to make high-school education seem poorer, or less serious, or both.3 Indeed, once high schools moved decisively toward universal attendance, Americans not only lost the sense that public high schools were a special, desirable institution, but they began also to view the high schools as a social problem, and began searching for more or better education elsewhere. In America, equality is at once an achievement to be celebrated and a degradation to be avoided.

This essay considers the current high-school problem by developing these ideas about secondary education. Our major theme concerns the paradoxes of educational equality in a competitive society. To explore this theme, we attempt a historical analysis of equality and inequality in U.S. secondary education. Our minor theme concerns the nature of social problem-solving, in education or elsewhere, and particularly the ways in which current problems are connected to past problem-solving efforts. The problems we see in secondary education today, for example, occur in high schools that have virtually universal attendance. Because social and economic inequalities in secondary attendance have been very sharply reduced, it is now easier to see the many problems of providing equal education for students from neglected or rejected segments of society. Yet we see these problems in high schools that were organized to solve other problems, and that worked in part because many of the potentially most difficult students did not attend. In present problem­ solving we come to grips with the possibilities and limits of past efforts. 4 We can imagine these accumulated results as a sort of social geology, a layered configuration of ideas and institutions that limit what those living in any present can see-or do. Reform is always shaped, and often crippled, by the fruits of past problem-solving.

Equal Access in an Unequal Society

Public schools are one of the few American institutions that try to take equality seriously. Yet their service in this cause has been ambiguous and frequently compromised, for the schools are a public institution oriented to equality in a society dominated by private institutions oriented to the market. In the schools America seeks to foster equality-and individual Americans seek to realize it. But in the market, Americans seek to maintain or improve their economic and social position, thereby contributing to inequality even if they individually wish the reverse. This paradoxical relation between education and capitalism has had an enormous impact on the schools and on the role education plays in American life.

During the late nineteenth century the very meaning and social purpose of education changed in response to the growing importance of market relations, or perhaps in response to beliefs about their growing importance. For most of those who struggled to create public schools in the 1830s and 1840s, education was valued for its moral and political content. The common school crusaders sought to assure that all Americans would attend elementary school and would be exposed to the same curriculum. One view, associated with egalitarian hopes, was that such schools would reduce the effects of economic class divisions by educating children from different groups and classes in the same schools and distributing knowledge more equally among rich and poor. By providing equality of educational condition for children, common schools would help create an equality of political condition among adults, thereby improving the chances that the great experiment in political democracy would succeed. 5 Another view, associated with conservative fears, was that such schools would resocialize immigrants and the poor to instill the appropriate beliefs about crime, private property, obedience, and work. In this view, schools would inculcate those beliefs that conservative reformers thought families and churches were no longer instilling effectively. In either view, schools were understood as a moral and political force, an agency for affecting beliefs, ideas, and political relations. And in either view also, schools were important because they would strengthen community ties.

With the growth of industrial capitalism, however, education came to be valued more in technical and economic terms. Part of the folklore of modernization is the notion that specialized technical knowledge is the key to economic development. This idea took hold powerfully in America, and by the early part of this century it was already an article of faith that special technical knowledge was the key to prosperity in the modern age. The flowering of this idea brought a wave of enthusiasm for science, technology, and the professions, and a passion for specialized formal education. One early fruit of this enthusiasm was a remarkable multiplication in the 1890s of career-oriented high-school courses in accounting, secretarial work, surveying, drafting, and similar fields.

Another theme in the folklore of modernization, especially pronounced in the United States, was the view of life as capitalist competition. Entrepreneurial success stories became a staple of popular culture in the late nineteenth century, and small epics of competitive success dotted newspapers and magazines. As visions of rags-to-riches infected the American imagination, competitive success became a popular commodity. Capitalist competition was democratized-it was not only the preserve of Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Morgans, nor did success depend on the accumulation of such gargantuan fortunes. Ordinary families could compete on a more lifelike scale, among other ways, by “investing in the future” with more education for their children. And schoolpeople, struggling to find a place in the new world of modern industry and competition, began to advertise education as a technical preparation for economic success. The 1890s saw the first large flowering of the notion, later to become dogma, that schooling and the formal, technical knowledge it imparted were essential commodities in capitalist competition, commodities required for the economy’s  advance, for any individual’s economic advantage, and for stable social organization. The social meaning of schooling was transformed: schools, formerly an agent of moral cohesion and political equality, became the agency for forming “human capital.”6

This changed vision of education affected the spirit in which Americans went to school: educational attainment became a crucial step in the race for economic and social position. This, in turn, had an enormous impact on American conceptions of equality. Its first manifestation came around the turn of the century, when the older policy of universal elementary schooling began to approach realization. The common school crusaders had assumed that, with few exceptions, eight years of education would be all that most Americans needed. But as the elementary schools filled up in the increasingly competitive atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, the realization of this egalitarian dream encouraged many middle-class and lower-middle-class Americans to believe that finishing elementary school was no longer enough for their children. They began to see the lack of high schools as a social problem. Americans who  were eager to have their children make  a better place for themselves thought that sending them to high school was one way to do it. There they could get more education, and it would be more specialized than that of elementary schools, giving high-school students an edge in competition for jobs and social status. Educators echoed and stimulated these sentiments with now-familiar arguments about the ever increasing requirements for ever more highly trained labor in modern societies. The changes were swift. Public high schools were an uncommon institution as late as the 1870s and 1880s, with selective admission, based on entrance exams,  and modest enrollments. But they fast became popular, especially among the middle and lower middle classes. Between 1870 and 1900 enrollment increased six and a half times, from 80,000 to 519,000. High schools sprang up like mushrooms after a spring rain. In 1870 there were about five hundred public high schools; in 1900 there were about six thousand.7 Most important, entrance requirements were changed: the admissions exams were dropped in favor of simple elementary school completion. This marked the beginning of the high schools’ transition from an elite to a mass institution. It marked the beginning of the end of the half-century struggle to provide universal elementary education. And it marked the beginning of a long struggle for a new social goal-universal high-school attendance.

In a certain sense, then, the expansion of public high-school enrollment was a solution to the “problem” of universal elementary attendance. This last became a problem partly because, although growing numbers of Americans wanted to provide their children with a social and economic advantage beyond the elementary education that more and more were completing, they could not finance private education or did not have access to it. Public high schools supported by everyone’s taxes offered these families the hope that their children could still enjoy a competitive advantage over all the others who were rapidly filling the elementary school; at the least, they offered the promise of a decent competitive position vis-a-vis one another. In addition, attending the “people’s college” permitted families of the middling sort a favorite democratic pastime-­ the opportunity to emulate the monied classes, and perhaps, who knew, even to pursue them to the heights.


This was the first in a long series of uneasy accommodations between the old democratic goals of equal access and universal attendance and the competitive economic meaning that became attached to school achievement later in the century. Americans have pursued equal access enthusiastically, but their beliefs about the competitive importance of schooling also have encouraged them to pursue policies and practices that pull in the opposite direction. One example of this, noted just above, has been the persistent tendency to greet the approaching achievement of equal access at any level of the school system with fevered enthusiasm for more education at the next higher level. Upward expansion protects competitive advantages for those who can purchase more-schooling, but it also reduces the value of the soon to be universally held lower diploma, thus creating a relative disadvantage for those who cannot afford more schooling. Inequality, reduced at one level, is simply moved up a notch.

Further evidence of competition has been the effort to protect competitive advantages by means of internal differentiation, especially within the transition­ al level of schooling. Within two or three decades of the outbreak of the high­ school fever, for example, skyrocketing enrollments brought an increasingly diverse population into secondary schools. Although students from middle-class and lower-middle-class families were still much overrepresented, more and more children from working-class backgrounds were enrolling. By the second decade of this century the high schools were on the way to becoming a mass institution  with a quite diverse population. To accommodate these developments within the framework of intensifying competition over education, the schools dramatically changed their internal organization. Secondary schools had begun to multiply their offerings in the 1880s and 1890s to meet their students’ more varied academic and occupational interests, but the basis of assignment was student choice. Shortly after the turn of the century the high schools were reorganized in a stratified fashion on the basis of student ability and occupation­ al destination, with educators claiming much more authority over student assignment. Both the curriculum and the schools’ organization were reshaped, roughly along the lines of the American class structure. Preparation for professional and technical jobs was allocated to academic and college entrance tracks, while preparation for lesser jobs was handled by several other curricula, ranging from general through clerical to vocational and manual trades.  The social-prestige structure within the high schools followed this hierarchy. Educators spun elaborate technocratic fantasies, advertising the new organization as the centerpiece of the industrial system, a finely tuned mechanism designed to finish its human “raw materials”. according to the varied skill demands of different occupational strata and to channel the finished products toward their proper occupational destination.8 If overheated prose could have done the trick, schoolmen would have taken their place at the tables of the mighty, making weighty decisions about the destiny of the industrial system and those toiling in it.

Although no such reshuffling occurred, there was a radical redefinition of educational equality. The older doctrine of equality of condition was amended, or partly replaced, by a doctrine of equal opportunity. The former had stressed the importance of mixed attendance in common schools and exposure to a common curriculum as means of reducing the educational and political effects of economic inequality. It also had assumed rough equality of educational achievement–eight years of school attendance should be enough for nearly everyone. The newer doctrine of equal opportunity, by contrast, stressed the importance of exposing high-school students to different curricula in order to prepare them for the different work they would do as adults. And the new doctrine did not assume that schools would reduce the effects of class difference: schools would accept the class structure as a requirement of industrial efficiency and would train students for their places in it. Equality meant fair chances to compete for the best places in the occupational hierarchy, not equal exposure to the same curriculum. And the fairness of these chances would, in principle, hinge on “scientific” determinations of ability, as measured by IQ tests. Students with higher scores were assumed to be better suited for the top tracks in school and society, while those with lower scores were thought to be destined for smaller futures. If one were to believe the arguments of American educators at the time, the high schools were becoming paragons of meritocratic efficiency, making fair determinations about who was best for what, and training them accordingly.9

Things did not work out quite that way, but for a time the new ideas and organization held sway. The high schools certainly were seen as a great success, and enrollments continued to climb through the first half of this  century. Americans could agree on the value of high-school attendance without facing hard questions about how the new organization actually worked and how it would affect the allocation of competitive advantages. One reason for this agreement was simply that the notion of fair competition had great  appeal among those at the bottom of the heap as well as those better situated to compete. Another was that the new doctrines were implemented in a very imperfect fashion, leaving more room for teachers’ judgments, parents’ wishes, and students’ interests than the technocratic fantasies would suggest. Still another reason for the broad agreement on the fairness of differentiated high schools was that, though testing and tracking were problematic in many ways, the high schools in which they occurred did represent appreciably increased opportunity for many American families. Some high school was better than no high school for many Americans newly arrived or from poor families, and the opportunity to crack the fop track by means of a scientific test was better than no opportunity at all. Only a few voices rose to challenge the scientific validity of the tests or their fairness, or to question the extent to which testing and tracking passed on economic and social advantages from one generation to another. Walter Lippmann mounted perhaps the most cogent attack on the tests; George Counts exposed class bias in high-school curriculum assignment and graduation; and the Chicago Labor Federation attacked testing on the grounds that it discriminated against workers’ children.10 Had anyone wanted to listen, the arguments were there to be heard. But these dissenting voices found few others to amplify their message or carry it on.

Another reason that Americans could agree on the value of the new high­ school education was the many students who did not get it. As long as those adolescents who did not care for school, and those from the most oppressed and deprived segments of the society, were mostly absent, the schools were not hard-pressed to figure out how to educate their most difficult potential students. As long as those for whom schooling was as much a problem as an opportunity stayed away in droves, it was hard to imagine the difficulties in providing them with a usable secondary education. As long as not graduating from high school remained socially legitimate, these adolescents could easily see other paths, and when there were jobs, take them. AU of this meant that, prior to attendance laws, high schools were still schools of choice. They were still special, which in capitalist America meant that they were seen as a selective institution, middle class and white, not as a universally subscribed institution, proletarian and minority.

One consequence of selectivity concerned the terms on which education could be offered and received: it was harder for students to object to unfairness in education, and easier for educators to insist that the students who came play by the schools’ rules. Because the institution was in some sense not yet fully public, the implied contract between students and schools was much stiffer than it has become, and easier to enforce. Schools could get more of the commitment they wanted from students because so many potential students were elsewhere.

Another consequence of selective high-school attendance earlier in this century was that no one could see the great problems that would arise if the crusade for universal secondary attendance succeeded. As is often the case with policies of equal provision, it is easy to overestimate their advantages, and easier still to underestimate their limitations, when only partial coverage has been achieved. The limits of equal access policies are really clear only when, once access is equalized, the results stubbornly remain much more unequal than had been hoped. This realization is at the core of current ideas about the high-school problem, just as it was at the core of turn-of-the-century ideas about elementary school problems. Selective coverage under a policy of universal access has more than once allowed Americans to think they could have their cake and eat it, too. Their disappointment when others, less fortunate, try to take their own slice is an old story, but like many such stories, it apparently must be experienced anew each time to be believed.


In the first half of this century, then, Americans struggled to realize the promise of secondary education for all. Yet the closer they came to success, the more evident the problematic consequences of equality became; the more nearly universal secondary education became, the more this seeming victory for equality took on the color of a competitive defeat. In 1900 only slightly more than six out of every one hundred seventeen-year-olds graduated from high school; by 1930 the figure had risen to nearly thirty; and by 1950 it was fifty­ nine.11

One result of these enrollment increases was that the social definition of high school changed radically between 1930 and 1950: by 1950 one was a failure if one did not graduate. The “high-school dropout” became a term of opprobrium as the high-school diploma became the new social minimum. A second result was that the focus of competition began to shift to postsecondary schools. High school was no longer enough-more education began to seem a necessity. College attendance zoomed upward, from 1.1 million in 1930 to 2.6 million in 1950. By 1960 attendance was 3.2 million. In these decades college became what high schools had been in the two decades embracing the turn of this century-the new arena for competition over education, an arena in which American families of middle-class and lower-class origins struggled to maintain their children’s competitive advantage vis-a-vis those around them or below. Between the thirties and the fifties such families began to work and sacrifice on a large scale to provide higher education for their children, just as an earlier generation had struggled to accomplish this at the secondary level. Their endeavors helped to press the expansion of public higher education into a mass system and to support the allocation of state tax monies to help finance free education at state universities, just as similarly situated families had supported the use of local taxes for public high schools a generation or two earlier. And as before, while these developments expressed what might be termed class conflict, the conflict was not overt. The ethic of fair competition was widely accepted, and in certain important respects it worked. Both high schools and public colleges did become broadly available, and many children from lower­ middle-class and working-class families did make it in-and up. From one perspective, then, raising the level of economic and social competition over education yet another notch seemed to do the trick-for a few decades at least. The competitive problems produced by approaching universal high-school attendance were deferred once again, as the focus of competition shifted upward to universities.

The rapid expansion of high schools had a variety of important indirect effects. One of these concerned elementary education. Once high schools began to assume the main burden of what is now termed “preparation for adulthood,” a more relaxed approach to elementary school became possible. For most students in the late nineteenth century, elementary school was the only institutional step between childhood and work. Educators were therefore much interested in how elementary schools could help prepare their students for work in the new industrial age. 12 But within a few decades the high schools began to take over the burden of preparation for adulthood, and with this change, the elementary schools’ mission began to shift: once the grammar school certificate was no longer the terminal degree, the competitive pressures on elementary schools started to diminish. The lower schools grew somewhat more open to new ideas about democracy and variations in individual development. Such ideas had been discussed and explored on a modest scale in the United States since the mid-1800s, but the progress of child-centered education was consider­ ably enhanced by the growing sense, early in this century, that working life did not begin right after elementary school. This notion gained force as high-school enrollments grew during the twentieth century. Child-centered practices gained a larger foothold in the elementary schools, along with efforts to eliminate ability grouping, to remove vocational elements from the curriculum, to create a less competitive climate in classrooms, and to establish a less competitive and more egalitarian basis for treating students.13 These changes in elementary schools have regularly been contested on the grounds that they were only a

relaxation of academic standards to accommodate a more diverse student population. That was often the case, but despite these arguments, child­ centered reform has made continuing, though not steady, headway since early in this century. More relaxed schooling became possible at the elementary level as long as the market-oriented competition was maintained in the high schools.

A second indirect effect of rapidly increasing secondary school enrollment appeared in Americans’ vision of the high school. By 1950 roughly seventy­ seven out of every hundred adolescents old enough for high school were enrolled, a huge jump over the figure just two decades earlier. And a disproportionately large part of the increase comprised black students and those from poor families. In consequence, in the 1950s the high schools became a social problem. Prior to that time the chief problem of secondary education that occupied popular attention had been getting more students to attend. But once attendance was well on the way to becoming universal, the situation  was reversed: high schools themselves, rather than the lack of students in them, became the problem.

The history of the high-school problem began in the 1950s, then, and appropriately enough, in its first incarnation the problem seemed to be a decline in the quality of education, a weakening of the curriculum, and a relaxation of academic standards. University academics from Arthur Bestor 14 to Jerrold Zacharias attacked the quality of education. With the launch of Sputnik, federal funds for improved curriculum and teaching followed in short order, especially in science and language, and exclusively for college-bound students. In 1959 James Conant’s The American High School Today 15 was published, attacking the low quality of education available and proposing the creation of large consolidated schools to improve offerings. Perhaps Conant’s chief concern was the education of academically talented students, which he felt was slipping badly. The book was a great success. The tone in these developments was nicely captured by the central query of John Gardner’s Excellence in 1961: “Can we be equal and excellent too?” 16

In the mid-1960s concern about the quality of secondary education shifted briefly from excellence for the talented to equality for the disadvantaged. Indeed, the high-school problem temporarily receded during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, overshadowed by broader worries about the caliber of education generally available to the poor and to minorities, and by a sense that intervention earlier in children’s lives was crucial. But by the late 1960s the high-school problem had returned, this time in a somewhat different incarnation; it now seemed to center in student protest, school disorder, and drugs. A panel of President Nixon’s Science Advisory Council headed by James Coleman produced Youth: Transition to Adulthood’7 in 1973, a volume that announced the existence of a separate “youth culture” that tended to create hostility to adults and work and that shielded adolescents from proper socialization to adulthood. High schools were a central villain in Coleman’s vision of the problem, for in his view these schools reinforced the youth culture by isolating students from the social and economic realities of adult life. Coleman prescribed a range of endeavors to break down the barriers between school and work, to reduce the school’s grip on youth, and to promote more contact between adolescents and adults-a category in Coleman’s analysis that seemed not to include high-school teachers. Other reports during these years proposed dismantling the large comprehensive schools that had been built partly in response to Conant’s book, and to get high-school students out of school by reducing compulsory attendance requirements.

Since Youth: Transition to Adulthood, the high-school problem has resumed something like its earlier guise. In the mid-1970s attention was focused on the decline of SAT scores, a phenomenon extensively reported in the national press and repeatedly investigated by blue-ribbon panels and academic experts. Although the actual scope and origin of the decline remain in doubt, most commentators held that the lowering of academic standards in high schools was an important cause. Frank Armbruster, a defense analyst and a colleague of Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute, published an extensive attack on liberal curriculum reform and progressive teaching methods in high schools. He regarded these as prime causes of the decline of test scores.18

Later in the decade attention turned to what some observers saw as an explosion of private secondary schools. The growth of Christian academies, among others, seemed evidence to many commentators that the public high schools could no longer educate for “character,” as presumably they had once done. The moral failures of high-school education now occupy center stage. James Coleman has just published another study, this one of public and private high schools. The results, he announced, show that private school students produce better academic work than similarly situated public school students, and that they do so because private schools are better able to enforce a moral climate in schools oriented to achievement. 19 Character,  a journal concerned with high schools and their students, recently began publication. If anything, concern about high-school problems appears to  be growing. The Carnegie Corporation of New York has just announced its support of two national studies of American high schools-one headed by Ernest Boyer, a former U.S. commissioner of education, the other, by Theodore Sizer, a former dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and, until recently, headmaster at Phillips Andover.


The sense that there is a grave high-school problem is thus itself one effect of the changes in American high schools that came about as the schools became more equal, at least in enrollment. In part this is due to the anxieties that accompany egalitarian achievements in a highly competitive society. With only one exception, American attention to high-school problems since 1950 has been focused principally on the problems of advantaged students; and those worrying about the problem have, with few exceptions, been drawn chiefly from the intelligentsia, not the working class or minority groups.

But, the worries about academic standards have also been a sane response to the paradoxical consequences of equality in U.S. education. Viewed from one perspective, by reducing great inequalities of access, America has made great strides in  secondary education since World War II. By 1979 state reports showed that roughly ninety-nine out of every hundred students were enrolled in secondary schools, and that about seventy-five out of every one hundred seventeen-year-olds were graduating from high school. 20 These developments mean that inherited economic and social status is no longer as powerful a determinant of high-school completion as it once was, though those who do not graduate are still disproportionately drawn from society’s lower orders. There has also been a dramatic reduction in racial disparities in high-school attendance; black-white gaps in attendance and graduation have closed considerably, though blacks are still overrepresented among those who do not complete high school. And these enrollment changes reflect changes in policy and practice vis­ a-vis children with physical and emotional handicaps. The passage of Public Law 94-142 was only the most recent and far-reaching of recent efforts to make education available to all students.21

As attendance has expanded, so have the services schools provide. Children who once could not attend school because there were no appropriate programs or physical facilities can attend, because schools now have such programs and facilities or are trying to provide them. Also, many children with less severe handicaps who were in school but were not receiving special help now have educational programs designed to meet their needs. And as recent immigration has once again expanded America’s language minorities, legislative and judicial actions have considerably enlarged the schools’ responsibilities in dealing with such minorities. All of these steps and others signal an expansion of equality and at least partial fulfillment of earlier hopes for education. 22

But because these victories for equality occurred in the context of intense competition over education, the competitive response to equality has tarnished the victory in several respects. The expansion of higher education meant that more equality was possible at lower levels because inequality was now maintained in postsecondary schools. This, in turn, meant that egalitarian gains in public secondary schools became possible largely because the A.B. superseded the high-school degree as the diploma of merit. In effect, the competitive zeal for higher education debased the value of the high-school diploma, just as the zeal for high school had earlier deflated the value of an elementary education. Gains for equality seem real enough, but because they occur in the context of fierce competition over schooling, they are compromised as they  are being made. Education is more equal in one respect, but it also is devalued in response to equality.

Historically, this paradox has been most clear in the changes in curriculum and in requirements for graduation that have accompanied increasingly universal access to high school. In the case of curriculum, as more and more immigrants and working-class children attended high schools early in this century, educators began to move the focus of high-school studies away from traditional academic work toward what they judged to be the “practical” needs of such students. By the end of  World War I the announced aim of high schools, according to a national blue-ribbon panel of educators, was to “adjust” students to the practical requirements of their lives as citizens and workers. 23 Although some educators continued to follow Charles Eliot and his earlier Report from the Committee of Ten, holding that rigorous intellectual training was important to all students because it taught them how to think, more and more educators argued that such training was useless for everyday life. One essential element in this view was the belief that the new students in the high schools were unable to cope with a serious academic curriculum. Ideas about the new students’ mental capacity had been shaped in part by results of standardized tests that had been devised and administered during the first two decades of the century. On the basis of these tests, particularly those given to army recruits during World War I, many educators concluded that 60 percent of high-school students were not bright enough to benefit from the academic curriculum of the high school. Instead, it was thought that they could benefit from a less demanding course of study geared to their “interests” and “needs.” Course offerings of this sort multiplied in high schools early in the century, and requirements for English, mathematics, and foreign language study were slowly relaxed.

But if the presumed deficiencies of working-class and immigrant youth were one inspiration for these changes, the reorientation of curriculum toward the “practical” was not confined to the lower high-school tracks. As time passed, antipathy to academic training grew. With the “life adjustment education” movement that thrived in the thirties, many educators questioned the value of traditional academic training for all students, even the brightest. As a result, the less demanding, more diverse curriculum was gradually extended to all high­ school tracks. In several cities the responsibility for rigorous academic training began to pass from the academic tracks of all comprehensive high schools to a few specialized academic schools-the so-called examination high schools.

The argument between advocates of practical and academic training has been a long one and continues to the present. On the whole, however, the drift has been toward the practical, and in the course of the debate, the content of the positions has changed. In particular, the meaning of academic rigor has seriously eroded. For example, the return to academic rigor is currently espoused by those who want greater emphasis placed on “basic skills”; but one of the chief ambitions of this back-to-basics movement is to make sure that high­ school graduates can fill out a simple income tax form or a job application. That . conception of the aims of academic rigor is a far cry from that of Charles Eliot.

These changes in curriculum have been accompanied by a gradual relaxation of standards for promotion and graduation, principally by means of social promotion. Although historical evidence on this point is scarce, it appears that the practice of advancing students from year to year on the basis of age, rather than on the satisfactory completion of academic requirements, first  became widespread in elementary schools around the turn of this century, as a means of dealing with the consequences of universal attendance. The practice was extended to the nonacademic tracks of high schools, when filling up these tracks became the high schools’ first response to a more diverse and less select student body early in this century. In the 1930s life adjustment education provided a rationale for extending the practice to all high-school tracks, just as high-school attendance was being swelled by large numbers of students, especially those from poor and working-class families. And after World War II, when high­school attendance became more universal, social promotion appears to have become a nearly universal means of dealing with large numbers of students whose academic performance was insufficient to warrant promotion on academic grounds. By the 1960s, if students did not graduate from high school, it was more likely to be the result of ,nonattendance than of failing to pass through the grades. Social promotion is a way of coping with the effects of more equal attendance, though at the cost of debasing the value of the high-school diploma.

Taken by themselves, these changes have probably had a corrosive effect on academic performance. But to complicate matters further, it appears that as the high-school curriculum has been simplified over the decades, standards for literacy have been rising.24 When we speak of literacy today, we tend to mean the ability to read in order to learn something new, or more simply, to be able to follow written directions. However, not until the time of World War I did the ability to read silently and understand an unfamiliar text become the goal of mass education. Prior to this time literate individuals were those who could declaim familiar texts aloud. Getting new meaning from texts-in fact, getting any meaning from texts-was not the goal of reading instruction throughout the nineteenth century. Some educators encouraged reading for meaning, believing that it would make reading instruction more “palatable” to children, but their influence was not great.25

The pressure to change the old, simple conceptions of literacy and reading instruction grew slowly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the catalyst that first turned reading into a social problem was, again, the new standardized tests used on army recruits during World War I. When these tests were first given, a large proportion of recruits failed, even though they had completed enough years of schooling to support the assumption that they could read well enough to pass. However, the Army Alpha test required the reader to read silently and answer questions on new material. Reading instruction, as well as the definition of literacy, began to change, partly as a result of the test scores and partly in response to increasing levels of education in the population. The older definition of literacy slowly gave way to one that demanded a higher standard of achievement. But the tests that promoted a new and more difficult definition of literacy also convinced many educators, including the life adjustment advocates, that 60 percent of the population were not very bright. And this conviction reinforced efforts to water down the curriculum, including the slow decline of reading difficulty in textbooks over at least the last thirty years. Thus standards of literacy have been rising as high-school reading requirements have been relaxed.


Access to high school has become more equal during the course of this century, but educators have responded by reforms that have sometimes debased the content of secondary education. These developments have been complicated by others that followed World War II, when high-school attendance rose to more than three quarters of those eligible. At that point high school was no longer the last step before work: soon more than half of the eligible population was going on to some form of postsecondary education. One effect of moving the competition for educational attainment up a notch to college was to create a more socially sheltered atmosphere for the high schools, much as the high­ school fever deflected some competitive pressures from elementary schools, beginning earlier in this century. While postsecondary education may not become universal soon, its growth has encouraged expansion of the age boundaries of childhood. If high school is no longer the last stop before adulthood and work, then secondary students can be treated in a more informal and playful fashion. Deferring the immediacy of work defers the pressures of preparing for it, and permits a reinterpretation of the curriculum to suit students’ intellectual or cultural interests. During the last fifteen years or so these tendencies have been reflected in eased course requirements and in less formal social relations between many faculty and students. Courses and study programs organized around ethnic and racial differences have blossomed; alternative high schools within public systems have grown up; and courses that seek to use various elements of pop culture to catch students’ interest in deeper issues have become more popular. These developments have sometimes been accompanied by decreased academic rigor. Students in alternative programs have sometimes had few academic demands placed upon them; ethnic studies programs have sometimes been superficial or lacking in any element of study at all; and mini-courses on the detective novel or science fiction can never teach the more important elements of literature. In one sense, these reforms seem a step forward, since they are in part an effort to create a curriculum that is available to the very diverse student population that equal access has brought into the high schools. But in another sense they sometimes represent a dilution of curriculum, as education is extended to more students from the lower orders of society. Access is more equal, but the consequent upward expansion of child-centered education pas often reduced the rigor of academic offering.

This paradox is complicated by another. The high schools are populated by people who are biologically adult, and in the upper grades these people have long been defined as nearly adult in social and economic terms. Moreover, they are treated as adults in many ways by the economy and the culture. Their dress, their sexual habits, their entertainment, the advertising directed at them, all make it difficult to distinguish eleventh and twelfth graders from people ten years their seniors. Yet the changes in curriculum and organization of their schools just described are reminiscent of elementary education: the high schools seem to be less “businesslike” and, therefore, in terms of American experience, less serious. These crosscurrents perplex students, teachers, and others concerned with secondary schools, for in the competitive  context of American education, the recent  expansion of child-centered education into secondary schools looks like a relaxation of standards for those newly arrived.

The more relaxed character of life in high schools is not a response to equality alone. Recent developments in the economy and the culture have given powerful impetus to changes in high schools. We pointed out earlier that high schools worked for a long time because many students for whom the high schools could not provide a decent education simply stayed away–<>r if they came, kept quiet. But those days have been gone for some time, and their disappearance brought a fundamental change in what people expect from school, and a change in how students use high schools. The economy has not been pulling many students out of the high schools into work for several decades now; in fact, youth unemployment rates have been steadily increasing. This is not exactly a new development; high-school enrollment fluctuated with unemployment rates in earlier times, but the only change in the rates for decades now has been upward. In addition, the long improvement in economic conditions and social welfare since the bleak days of the late nineteenth century has provided many families, even poor ones, with resources that have substantially eased former pressures on adolescents to take work, any kind of work, to keep their families afloat. These changes, along with the growth of a national culture oriented to middle-class and cosmopolitan tastes, have made many once­ acceptable working-class jobs seem not only less acceptable, but also less necessary to accept. Education, among other factors, has helped convince many children of the working class and the poor that they deserve better jobs than they can find. 27

These developments mean that although high-school attendance is virtually universal, it is not due to a desire for learning nor even to a hunger for the presumed economic fruits of schooling. Often it is simply the result of having nothing better to do. The high schools now have large numbers of students for whom school is a problem, a bore, the best entertainment available in a poor selection, or a necessary evil to be borne grudgingly. Students who cause trouble or who do not do the work are more difficult to suspend or expel when attendance is universal, a point that has been reinforced by recent court decisions. And problem students often cannot be tactfully counseled out, in part because often there is little to counsel them toward.

In response to these developments, students and faculty have been converting their schools into a different sort of institution,  or perhaps only adding another facet to those already there. High schools are becoming a sort of state­ supported social service center for adolescents at loose ends. In addition to the many other purposes they serve, these schools are increasingly being turned into a place to hang out, an alternative to the street, to unemployment, or to unattractive work–even a place to find some diverting activities in the absence of anything else to do. In some schools, for example, a federal program that had originally been intended to teach students about various career opportunities has been transformed, by students and teachers, into a, means of getting adolescents out of school into part-time work28 • Many local projects permitted students to gain academic credit for their work experience, and permitted the schools to remake–and sometimes water down-the curriculum to suit the needs of students who were academically marginal. The students were pleased to get part-time jobs through the school and to get credit for work-which in some cases did include writing about it. The schools were pleased to find a way to do something for some students who were bored or restless and frequently quite uninterested in academic work. In other schools, faculty members have tried to adapt to universal attendance by devising courses and other activities that will interest students, or by creating activity areas where students can gather without cluttering up the halls, or simply not bothering those who come to school to hang out and see their friends rather than to attend class.

The spontaneous transformation of secondary education from below is a fascinating adaptation of an institution to changes in the character and purposes of its clients. The changes reflect in part the way adolescents have found to cope with the eased pressures to work full time and with the increased pressure to attend school. They also reflect the schools’ efforts to adapt to universal attendance and to the increasing difficulty of getting students out of school by other means than giving them a diploma. In practice, the definition of equality that has developed in American secondary education has left less and less room for schools to control student exit on grounds of achievement, a change that fits nicely with the more relaxed standards for academic performance and social deportment associated with the upward spread of child-centered reforms.

These changes in high schools have softened both academic and social standards. They have tended to weaken the value of the high-school diploma and to convey the sense that secondary education is less special-and less serious-than was once the case. But if the changes have pressed high schools in some new directions, they occur within an institution whose organization still embodies the old assumption that high school is a serious competition for educational achievements that will bring real economic rewards. The result has been to put into clearer relief the contradictions that riddle American high schools. The old assumptions are still dominant in official ideology and organization, but they are contradicted by new practices that seek peace with changed conditions. The schools thus profess both rigorous academic work and relaxed experiences, respect for the classical curriculum and regard for the mini­ course. They proclaim the economic value of academic struggle, yet they do so in the midst of an economic situation that seems to belie the proclamation. Indeed, the images of capitalist competition that once inspired and accompanied so much of the struggle for high-school education now seem a sad, even wicked parody.

While the high schools are thus more of a puzzle, more a bundle of contradictory tendencies than ever before, students and faculty must somehow make sense of these contrary tendencies in their daily activities. For the first time in history the schools must contend with a large number of students who explicitly doubt that participating in the great academic competition will do them much good. Many reject the idea outright. And as belief that the competition makes sense declines, the legitimacy of the schools’ organization becomes less convincing. Of course, ever since early in the century there have been many students who knew that the competition was loaded against them, but some accepted it, hoping to make their way and perhaps even change its terms. Others accepted it even when ground down by it, because the selective character of attendance made challenges difficult. But recent developments have made it much easier to challenge the high schools’ organization and the ideas it embodies. The high schools have been at the center of political storms for two decades now, storms that often centered specifically on minority students or on issues close to them: desegregation; student rights; fair treatment of the handicapped; bilingual education; and more. In each of these cases the schools have come in for more explicit political criticism than ever before in their history: the discriminatory and often racist character of education in the United States has been well ventilated, and the schools’ treatment of less fortunate members of society has been under steady attack.  These attacks have been fundamental in character, raising explicit questions about the legitimacy of the enterprise. Challenges from the world of adult politics have spilled over into the everyday life of schools-in strikes, street demonstrations, court injunctions, and the like.

All this provides students with a political education of no mean importance, and raises doubts in the minds of students and teachers about the character and usefulness of their work. Academic and popular attacks on the legitimacy of both academic and capitalist competition have become easy and even fashion­ able, and have weakened the old assumption that doing well in school garners economic rewards in adult life. Whether researchers argue that schools do little to reduce economic inequality, or that schools do much to maintain and harden inequality, or that the economic returns of schooling have been exaggerated­ whether or not schools increase equality29- these challenges reinforce what students and teachers know about the economy, youth unemployment, and the like. Along with the broader conflicts that have been played out in schools, they have encouraged students and teachers to produce their own challenges, in the small political life of classrooms,  in teachers’ meetings, and the like. By now many students and faculty simply do not believe that the institution is fair, or that it is organized to serve them respectfully or well. For the first time many are willing to say so.

Awareness of social problems can be helpful in solving them. But the greater politicization of students and faculty itself contributes to the problems of high schools, because there is now a more widespread and forceful sense in the schools that they are in trouble-perhaps, in some sense, even illegitimate-and this makes them less viable. In many schools, teachers and administrators must work harder than ever to gain or maintain authority. The problems of inequality in education are now more visible to students and teachers. This awareness has made the schools livelier but in certain respects more difficult places to work.

High School Reform?

 Ours is not the only way to tell the story. High-school problems appear in a variety of distinct and vivid terms to those embroiled in them. Teachers may see them as a collapse of interest in academic work or as a loss of faith in teachers. Administrators worry about an upswing of defiant behavior. Parents are distressed that their children seem to take school so lightly and to disdain the path by which they made their way. Others see a loss of nerve or a relaxation of larger competitive energies. Whatever the diagnosis, together these ideas have once again added up to a sense of crisis in the high schools, to heated opposition to some recent developments, and to cries for reform. Some partisans focus on the quality of instruction in reading, writing, and mathematics; others object to recent curriculum reforms on the grounds that mini-courses and studies of academically marginal material reduce the opportunity to learn more basic subject matter; still others attack the new interest in ethnic studies as irrelevant or worse. And some reject these innovations as racist or discriminatory because they relax standards for minority groups or the poor while leaving more demanding work available to advantaged students. The objecting teachers, parents, and public officials support a list of counterreforms, perhaps the most popular being minimum competency testing. Advocates hope that these new tests will provide incentives for students and teachers to work harder. There is a revived interest in teaching “basic skills,” in private schools, and in religious education.

These school wars sometimes caricature sane reform impulses. The mini­ mum competency testing movement, for example, has spawned tests that are poorly made and that lack sensitivity to school curricula. To the extent that such tests affect anything besides the fleeting contents of the daily newspaper’s front page, they seem likely to degrade teaching and to turn sensible efforts to improve learning into defensive rearguard actions against badly constructed exams. And there are plenty of counterparts on the other side of the educational barricades-mini-courses on science fiction as literature or local history study that consists largely of neighborhood walks. These examples and the passions they stir up are only the most recent version of old shoot-outs that began over elementary education with Froebel, Colonel Parker, John Dewey, and their many enemies. The schools are a great theater in which we play out these conflicts in the culture; they are a stage for the long war over the character of adult life that Americans prefer to wage on the friendlier terrain of childhood. Generations of ordinary Americans have had front row seats, and often leading parts, as the opposing battalions drew up their forces at PT A or school board meetings. We know many of the roles and leading players; even the lines are by now quite familiar.

These reforms will undoubtedly affect high schools, some for the better and others not. But we doubt that the  current crop  of changes will produce fundamental improvements, because none respond to the dilemma these schools face: secondary education has made substantial advances in the direction of equality, but this has eroded the sense that high schools are special institutions with valuable things to offer those who labor in them. Without greater equality, the fundamental political promises America offers would remain hollow and defeating; but without the sense that their schools are special, valuable, and worth sacrificing for, students and teachers cannot generate the mutual commitment that every school and classroom must have if it is to be a good place to learn. The high schools have moved far in the direction of equal access, but because these steps occurred in the  context of fierce  social and economic competition, advances  for equality have been accompanied by the gradual debasement of secondary education. This debasement lies partly in the eyes of beholders who have difficulty believing that an equal institution can be excellent, and partly in the dilution of academic standards by educators and communities who cannot believe that excellent and demanding education is possible for most students. Public high schools cannot be made better by turning back the clock, reversing the fundamental gains for equality that have been made-though many who turn to private education or who worry about reinstating education for “character” seem to think that such movement is possible. On the contrary, that would almost surely further debase the character of public secondary education, either by depriving it of a democratic public or by eroding these schools’ sense of special value even more. Basic improvements in public high schools may require real inventiveness, designed to endow institutions that are public and universal with the sense that they are also institutions of special value, unique and attractive to students and teachers. Perhaps means can be found to marry equality with a sense of institutional uniqueness. If so, high schools could create and release the mutual commitment that is required for good teaching and learning.

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