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United States

Secondary Education


Origins: The concept of a "high school" can be traced back to Massachusetts in the 1820s. In Boston, the English Classical School took on the name of the English High School in 1824 and embarked on a mission to educate the majority of males that likely would not attend college. A female high school opened in Boston in 1826. In the three decades following passage of a bill in Massachusetts to make these mandatory, high schools were very slow to catch on outside that state. By means of comparison, while by 1860 Massachusetts boasted about 100 high schools, only 200 existed in the rest of the Union, whose population then was 30 million. One state similar to Massachusetts was Ohio; in 1830 after Calvin E. Stowe, a professor and husband of author Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote a report on education in Ohio after having also looked into European school systems, a number of townships in the state formed elementary and high schools.

Between 1900 and 1915, Americans searching for upward mobility became concerned that there should be high schools operating to provide an equal opportunity for all. It would take several more decades, however, for families in need of income from all sources to allow their children to take advantage of such opportunities. Also in the beginning of the twentieth century, the eight- and four-year elementary/high school programs began giving way to junior high schools and middle schools. One of the major reasons for the change was to isolate youngsters just before and after the start of adolescence.


Secondary School Projections: U.S. secondary schools will see increasing enrollments in secondary schools through 2007. However, based on U.S. birth rate figures, the population of adolescents aged 14 through 17 will experience a reduction in numbers from 2007 through 2010. Nonetheless, the higher enrollments through 2007 will produce a higher total number of secondary students during the first decade of the twenty-first century than was counted during the 1990s.

To be more specific, enrollment in grades 9 through 12 rose from 12.5 million in 1990 to about 14.9 million in 2000—a leap of about 19 percent. Expectations are that enrollment in secondary school (grades 9 through 12) will show an increase in 2006 as the number of enrollees reaches 16 million.

According to government records, the highest total for secondary school enrollment to date was 15.7 million in the fall of 1976. If estimates hold, the number of students attending grades 9 through 12 will eclipse that number, with a total registration of 15.9 million in 2005 and 16.0 million in 2006. The following year through 2010, the number of students should decline, leveling out to 15.5 million in 2010.


Teachers: Increases in student enrollments have emphasized the need for qualified secondary education teachers. Critics of education complained in 2001 about the number of secondary teachers responsible for courses outside their major, and that criticism likely will increase unless the teaching shortage can be addressed.

As subject matter in the twenty-first century becomes even more complex, secondary teachers are being expected not just to demonstrate a general knowledge of their subject matter, but actually to display mastery. Unlike elementary school teachers, who tend to teach a number of subjects, secondary teachers are assigned one or more subjects, such as history, English, physics, and or a foreign language, that require their students in turn to display wide knowledge on state-mandated tests. One of the problems frequently cited by accreditation teams is that too often secondary school teachers get asked to teach subjects outside their specialty areas due to teacher and budget shortages. In addition to the specialty, teachers likely will teach electives to students with even more specialized interests. A secondary school English teacher, for example, may teach a class in journalism or drama, as well as participate in after-class activities, such as advising student publications or directing a school musical.


Dropouts: According to the National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students, there are many disagreements among educators, critics of education, politicians, and parents as to what constitutes a dropout and what the actual percentage of dropouts is nationally and state by state. Many students who for marriage, a job, or other reasons voluntarily leave school (or are expelled by the system) end up obtaining a high school diploma nonetheless, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate or state-issued certificate of completion with requirements generally less rigorous than traditional diploma requirements. Adding to the confusion, there is no single Department of Education definition of a dropout that all school districts follow, leading to media exposés that tend to show more students leaving school than statistics imply.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) does offer some specifics regarding dropout rates. These include rates in a single year and rates for the national population in a particular age range. Perhaps a truer picture of the dropout rate can be seen from the second category, where NCES reported that the 1993 national dropout rate for people aged 16 to 24 was 11 percent (roughly 3.4 million people). In spite of low student scores on state tests and continued concern over dropouts among minority populations, that figure marks an improvement compared to the 1970s, when the dropout rate for that age category was 14.6 percent.

Critics of education point out that the loss of more than 1 out of every 10 students in American schools remains a troubling figure. In 1993, some 381,000 students dropped out of school from grades 10, 11, and 12. Rates for males and females are about the same. Rates for Hispanics and African-Americans continue to exceed rates for Caucasian students, in part because the number of minority teachers continues to be lower than optimum. In 1993, only 7.9 percent of dropouts were Caucasian, compared to 13.6 percent for African-American students and 27.5 percent for Hispanic students, according to NCES. In addition, rates for Native Americans were high. Breaking the trend, students from Asian-American families tended to have low dropout rates, according to NCES figures of 1993.

Socioeconomic statistics regarding dropouts show convincing evidence that most dropouts, overwhelmingly, are poor. NCES recorded about a 3 percent dropout rate for students whose families had an above-poverty line income level, compared to about a 24 percent dropout rate for students from poor households.


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