Why High School?

A History

There is a reason high school looms so large in the American consciousness. These are the years when young people, ready or not, are hurtling toward adulthood. With hormones peaking, they experience the wonderment and agony of romance, the freedom of driving and the exhilaration of visualizing life beyond their parents' home—all for the first time. It's also a time when many are confronted with less savory adult realities: violence, racism, economic inequality and political instability.

So how has high school historically fit into all this—and prepared young people to launch and be productive members of American society? For decades, government officials and social reformers have struggled to agree on what the purpose of high school should be. Political trends have continually informed their ideas—and radically shifted the experience. So have wars, racial strife, economics and pop culture. In short, the history of high school reflects the broader narrative of America.

The only thing that has remained a constant in the American high school experience is growth. Today, about 16 million students pour through high school doors every morning, compared with about 200,000 in 1892. Here is the story of high school in the United States over the last roughly 125 years, told through the 10 most important moments in education reform. Pay attention! There may be a pop quiz at the end.

Setting the First Standards:
The Committee of Ten (1892)

Number of high school students in 1892: About 200,000
Percentage of white kids from age 5 to 19 enrolled in school: Roughly 60
Percentage of black kids: Roughly 30

In the 1890s, high school was like the proverbial wild west. Each one ran itself according to the whims of whomever was in charge, so a school in rural Colorado and one in Manhattan would be radically different in terms of curriculum, hours in a school day, whether or not teachers had training and whether they could use corporal punishment. The one thing most had in common: They were segregated.

Under Republican President Benjamin Harrison, a group called the Committee of Ten gathered at Columbia College in New York in 1892 to hammer out for the first time standards for the nation's high schools. Among this group was Washington D.C.'s Commissioner of Education, some college presidents (Harvard, Vassar, the Universities of Michigan, Missouri and Colorado), and a few high school educators. They took for granted, according to their official report, that course study should go "approximately from the age of six years to eighteen." Then they issued what amounted to the first standards for what high school kids should be studying:

"1. Latin; 2. Greek; 3. English; 4. Other Modern Languages; 5. Mathematics; 6. Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry; 7. Natural History (Biology, including Botany, Zoölogy, and Physiology); 8. History, Civil Government, and Political Economy; 9. Geography (Physical Geography, Geology, and Meteorology)."

The committee's report became the most important educational document in U.S. history up to this time, and a reason why students were forced to endure Latin studies for years to come—ad absurdum.

Mechanic's apprentices in school in Brooklyn, NY
Mechanic's apprentices in school in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

A Focus on Vocations:
Charles Prosser and the Smith-Hughes Act (1917)

Number of high school students in 1918: About 2.4 million
Percentage of female teachers: More than 80

Charles Allen Prosser—the son of a steelworker and the so-called father of vocational education—began his crusade for school reform early in the century. But it was World War I that gave a platform to his ideas: that schools should provide real training in mechanics, agriculture and other vocations—and that Latin studies for most kids was a waste of time. The newly industrialized army needed trained mechanics. "We are beginning to realize," Prosser said in 1917, "that a study of 'L'Allegro' will not win a battle."

The world was changing, Prosser argued, and so should the role of schools. The war, industrialization, farming and population growth, the emerging auto industry—these were the factors shaping a future for which students had to prepare. Destiny lay in auto garages, not in libraries.

Prosser’s ultimate victory was the Smith-Hughes Act, which allotted federal funds to states to create school programs to teach “agriculture, trade, industrial, and home economics subjects.” The law had one side effect Prosser never intended: It strengthened the class structure and gender politics that were so much a fabric of American life. The haves were college bound. The have-nots were factory or farm bound. Women were kitchen bound.

Acclimating Immigrants:
The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (1918)

Number of high school students in 1918: About 2.5 million
Number of 12th graders in public school: 269,000, up from 145,000 seven years earlier

Huge waves of immigrants poured into the country during the first two decades of the 20th century, peaking in 1907, when 1.25 million came legally into the U.S. The nation's schools were flooded with kids who spoke little English, and who came from backgrounds that had fostered all kinds of ideas about things like hygiene, sartorial appropriateness and civic duty. High school hallways became cultural melting pots, and reformers concluded that the role of schools had to change again.

In 1918, a federal panel released a report—three years in the making—titled The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. These ideas emphasized citizenship and health as the primary goals of high school, making academics secondary to "life skills." The seven principles were: health, "command of fundamental processes" (reading, writing, speaking, etc.), worthy home membership ("the development of those qualities that make the individual a worthy member of a family"), vocation, civic education, worthy use of leisure and ethical character.

Leaders in Washington realized that the nation was going to emerge from World War I as the first global superpower. High school became about teaching young people to be "good Americans."

Portrait of the African-American students for whom the famous Brown vs Board of Education case was brought and their parents.
Portrait of the African-American students for whom the famous Brown vs Board of Education case was brought and their parents: (front row L-R) Vicki Henderson, Donald Henderson, Linda Brown, James Emanuel, Nancy Todd, and Katherine Carper; (back row L-R) Zelma Henderson, Oliver Brown, Sadie Emanuel, Lucinda Todd, & Lena Carper, Topeka, Kansas, 1953. (Photo by Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Challenging Segregation:
Brown vs. Board of Education (1954)

Number of high school students in 1954: about 7 million
Percentage of black Americans between age 5-19 enrolled in school: About 80, compared to about 35% a half-century earlier

In the early 1950s, the U.S. Supreme Court had numerous cases in the docket challenging the legality of segregation in schools, in Delaware, Kansas, the District of Columbia, South Carolina and Virginia. The court decided to combine them, putting Kansas first, "so that the whole question would not smack of being a purely Southern one." Thus began Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka, named for Oliver Brown, a Kansas railroad man and future minister, whose 8-year-old daughter was denied admission to a whites-only school. Enter the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP's lead counsel Thurgood Marshall, Chief Justice Earl Warren and a host of others who played major roles in outlawing school segregation.

Segregation didn't end overnight. Some would say that even today many African-American high school students are struggling for equal education. Still, Brown vs. the Board of Education changed the secondary schooling experience as much as any reform in history, and remains one of the most important cases ever argued in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Education as National Security:
The Sputnik Effect (starting in 1957)

Number of high school students in 1957: About 8.2 million
Percentage of Americans age 14 and older who were illiterate: About 2.3, down from 10.7 at the turn of the century

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union won the race to launch the first artificial satellite into space—Sputnik. The historian Walter McDougall later wrote that "no event since Pearl Harbor set off such repercussions in public life." Or as the famed writer Tom Wolfe put it: "Control of the very heavens was at stake." Americans feared that they were falling behind the USSR, and reformers saw this as a wake-up call.

The so-called Sputnik Effect resulted in the National Defense Education Act, which President Eisenhower signed into law on September 2, 1958. Federal funds flooded school systems for new science labs, foreign-language classes and more. Now, high schools had to do more than educate students. They had to "insure [that there would be] trained manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States," as the new law put it.

Education was now a matter of national security. Students were indoctrinated into the Cold War mindset, while huddled under their desks during duck-and-cover drills.

Closing the Poverty Gap:
Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' program (1964-65)

Number of high school students in 1965: About 13 million
Percentage of 17-year old Americans who graduated high school in 1965: 72.1, up from 42.1 some 30 years earlier
Average number of days attended by pupils in public school: 160, up from 118 a half century earlier.

By 1965, the baby boomers were coming of age, and there had never been so many young people. Ford had launched the Mustang. The Beatles would rock Shea Stadium that summer. It was a heady time to be in high school, but also a controversial time.

Lyndon Johnson was coming off a landslide victory in the 1964 presidential election. He won the largest percentage of the popular vote since 1820 (61%), and he saw this as a clear mandate that Americans wanted Democratic party social initiatives. A big part of it was school reform, which would become a hallmark of Johnson's "Great Society" program.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was the first major government program to recognize the startling difference between the education experience for middle-class and poverty-stricken kids in America. The law unleashed vast sums of money to help those who were more disadvantaged. The ultimate goal: to close the gap between rich and poor. During the 1963-64 school year, federal money made up 4.4% of school budgets across the country (the highest it had ever been). Two years later, that number hit 7.9%.

Still, the biggest story for high school kids in 1965? Vietnam and the draft.

President Ronald Reagan gets some instructions on computer operations.
President Ronald Reagan gets some instructions on computer operations while visiting the Congress Heights Elementary School in Washington. (Photo by Scott Applewhite/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

No More Slacking Off:
A Nation at Risk (starting in 1983)

Number of high school students in 1983: About 13.7 million
Portion of Americans who took algebra in high school: Roughly a third, down from 56.3% at the turn of the century

"Our Nation is at risk," the now-famous Reagan-era report began. "Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world... The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

A Nation at Risk was a lightning-rod document produced by a government agency called the National Commission on Excellence in Education. For the first time, this commission argued, a generation of American students would get a lousier education than their parents did. The commission recommended specific curriculums, higher quality textbooks, higher pay for teachers and more time in the classroom.

"Students in high schools should be assigned far more homework than is now the case," the commission reported, and universities should "raise their admissions requirements."

Suddenly, the debate over the fate of high schools became conversation at cookouts and cocktail parties. A flood of influential books hit shelves—High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America, Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School and Against Mediocrity: The Humanities in America's High Schools.

The term slacker was coined in 1990, but it described a stereotype that had come into being in the 1980s. Education reform in the Reagan-era sent a message to kids: Time to shape up.

Tax-Funded Alternatives:
The Charter-School Movement (1991)

Number of high school students in 1991: About 12.6 million
Percentage of Americans age 14-17 enrolled in school: 96, up from 78.4 at the end of World War II

In 1988, Albert Shanker, then President of the American Federation of Teachers, gave an address in which he outlined a new kind of public school that could free educators to create new ways of teaching. These tax-funded schools could run themselves relatively free of regulation, while still adhering to the academic standards of other institutions. Three years later, Minnesota legislators created the first charter-school laws, and a year after that, the first one opened its doors: the City Academy High School of St. Paul.

A charter school, in short, is an educational institution established by a charter, that operates without most regulations but does receive the same tax support as other schools. From the day the charter-school movement started, it created fiery debates—over their murky relationship with private-sector investors; over whether federal funds flowing to charters were draining crucial resources away from traditional public schools; whether their results stemmed from cherry-picking only high-performing students for admission even though these schools are supposed to be open-enrollment; and whether their freedom from regulation meant a lack of accountability. When California followed Minnesota in the creation of charter-school laws in 1992, a spokesman for the Los Angeles school district said, "There are no answers—it's unchartered grounds."

As of the 2016-17 school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are over 6,900 charter schools in the U.S., with an estimated 3.1 million students. California, Texas and Florida have the highest number, in that order. Advocates argue that charter schools have done wonders for inner-city education. Foes have come from teachers' unions, since charter schools are not beholden to hiring unionized educators. Blowback has also come from families stuck in bad school districts and have no access to a charter school, arguing that their kids are getting the short end of the stick.

There is no end in sight for this debate, nor much hope of consensus.

Teaching to the Test:
No Child Left Behind (2002)

Number of high school students in 2002: About 14 million
States with the most students participating in high school sports that year (among 6.8 million nationally): Texas, followed by California and New York

Remember the days when Democrats, Republicans and a President could agree on policy? George H.W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, with the support of just about everybody. It was an update of Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with similar goals—to use federal funds to hold schools to high academic standards, and to improve the educational process for those who needed it most: special-education students, poor children and English-language learners, among them.

No Child Left Behind attempted to force improvement upon schools and teachers by using quantitative data. If a school didn't hit goals in standardized test scores two years in a row, students would be allowed to transfer out. If a school missed scores three years in a row, it had to offer free tutoring.

Did this law work? That depends on whom you ask. As of 2010, 38 percent of schools failed to meet No Child Left Behind standards, up from 29 percent in 2006. By that time, however, a new president was in office, with a brand new plan.

President Barack Obama visits with students.
President Barack Obama visits with students in a 10th grade Microbiology class at Bladensburg High School April 7, 2014 in Bladensburg, Maryland. (Photo by Aude Guerrucci-Pool/GettyImages)

Tightening National Standards:
Common Core (2010)

Number of high school students in 2010: About 16 million
Percentage of Americans age 20-24 who had completed high school that year: 87.2, compared with 54.4 of that age group who had earned a Bachelor's Degree

More than a century after the Committee of Ten set out to standardize secondary education across the country for the first time, reformers in the Obama administration endeavored once again to accomplish this objective—only now on a more intensive scale, issuing learning goals that outline skills and knowledge each student should have mastered by the end of each grade. This meant more standardized testing, higher expectations of students and teachers and the now-familiar drumbeat first heard with the Sputnik Effect. Americans had to stop falling behind peer nations—particularly in math—or pay a critical price.

Seven years into the Common Core movement, 42 states, the District of Columbia, four territories and Department of Defense schools for military families have adopted the program. Its ambition points to the very kernel of the high school experience for the current generation: High school has become about competitiveness. Never has college acceptance been more competitive. Not since the Great Depression has it been harder for young people to break into the job market. Never have students been more competitive against each other.

As of 2017, a new administration is taking on the high school debate, with a new and controversial education secretary in Betsy DeVos. The only thing that seems assured? Latin studies will not be revived.

A.J. Baime is the author of numerous books, most recently The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World.