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Secondary Education

Current Trends, International IssuesHISTORY OF

Susan L. Mintz

N. Tirozzi

Donald B. Holsinger


In the mid-to late nineteenth century, the United States became the first country to open secondary education to the general public. In the early twenty-first century, secondary education follows a common elementary school experience, typically beginning at age twelve and continuing through age seventeen or eighteen. Elementary education deals with the rudimentary skills of reading, writing, and computation, as well as social goals deemed important by curriculum developers. Secondary education, however, extends beyond the elementary curriculum and addresses a combination of the personal, intellectual, vocational, and social needs of adolescents in society. Educators and policymakers have engaged in ongoing debate over what should be included in the secondary curriculum. In fact, the emphases of the secondary curriculum have shifted according to local and national goals; the historical, philosophical, and intellectual context; and societal beliefs about the role of youth in society, as well as other factors.

The Beginnings of Secondary Education

Public secondary schools began to proliferate throughout the United States in the mid-to late nineteenth century. Before then, private endeavors provided a variety of educational experiences. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, private academies and tutors prepared wealthy boys for college. Academies, controlled by an independent board, required tuition and were distinguished from one another by regional and local needs. As a result, the curriculum and religious orientation were not the same at each school. The college preparatory curriculum was classical in nature, focusing on Greek and Latin. Boston Latin Grammar School epitomizes an example of such an academy. Opened in 1635 with some public funding and control, Boston Latin was designed to give boys from elite families the education they needed in order to attend college and take their place in society.

As the merchant and craftsmen class grew, private academies began to cater to the sons of the middle class in order to prepare these young men to succeed in commerce. These academies, called English academies, offered classes in modern languages, literature, mathematics, natural science, history, and geography, rather than Latin and Greek. Both English and Latin academies offered admission through examination. The differences in these academy curricula foreshadowed what would become the continuing debate over what should constitute the secondary curriculum–a question that has been addressed throughout the history of American high schools.

The First Public High Schools

The first public high school opened in Boston in 1821. What became known as English High School was established as an alternative to private academies that offered a college preparatory curriculum. Boys who passed the entrance examination participated in a three-year English curriculum. High schools became more common in Massachusetts after an 1827 law required towns to provide a free public high school. Other early high schools could be found across the United States, although the biggest growth came in urban areas. Many early high schools did not admit girls and minorities. Boston opened a High School for Girls in 1826 that closed within two years. It was not until Boston Girls High and Normal School opened in 1857 that young women had the opportunity to attend a public secondary school. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for urban schools to include a normal curriculum at the secondary level. Normal schools trained young women to teach in local elementary schools.

Growth of Public High Schools

The public high school movement gained momentum following the Civil War (1861–1865). Only 300 high schools existed in the United States prior to the war; by 1900 there were more than 6,000 high schools annually graduating 6 percent of American seventeen-year-olds. Public high schools, however, had their detractors as well as supporters. Advocates argued that high schools completed the public school system, could attract businesses by providing competent labor, and increased the value of land. Opponents viewed the taxes that supported high schools as a burden. In many cases, families could not afford to send their children to school. Family economic stability was needed for high school attendance, and some families did not have this luxury. In other cases, families might choose to send their children to private schools and not get the direct benefit of the public high school. The tax question was resolved in 1872 when the Michigan Supreme Court (in what became known as the Kalamazoo Case) heard arguments for and against using taxes for secondary schools. The ruling favored tax support of public high schools, which subsequently became common practice throughout the United States.

Curriculum Standardization

As the number of public high schools grew, the variety among curricula increased. No standards existed concerning curriculum or organization. Curriculum decisions made by local school boards hampered the links between colleges and high schools. Entrance to college was usually determined by examinations that had specific, individual requirements, making it difficult to anticipate the necessary preparation. To provide more standardization in the curriculum and help untangle the college admission process, the National Education Association sponsored the Committee of Ten in 1892. Ten influential educators, mostly from colleges and universities, debated the appropriate role of secondary schools. The report of this committee examined a central question in the ongoing curriculum debate–what constitutes a good secondary education?

The Committee of Ten recommended a rigorous academic curriculum for all students, regardless of their future plans, and elucidated the pursuit of knowledge and training of the intellect as the mission of secondary schools. High schools held the responsibility for designing courses of study that focused on the nine core subjects: Latin, Greek, English, modern languages, mathematics, sciences, natural history, history (including economics and government), and geography. College admission would follow for interested students who successfully completed this course of study. But the desire to attend college was not the only reason to partake of these classes. The committee argued that in order for students to be educated, college bound or not, an academic curriculum was necessary. Criticisms of the report abounded. Many academicians believed that there was too little rigor; others commented that the courses were too impractical.

Curriculum standardization was not the only approach to articulating the secondary school–college divide. As noted, in the late nineteenth century admission to most colleges was determined by an entrance examination. High school and state educators wanted to use a diploma admission requirement rather than have to prepare students for the wide range of college admissions tests. The University of Michigan began diploma admission as early as 1871, but this practice did not become common until accreditation became popular.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges was founded in 1885 and is the oldest of the six regional accrediting agencies servicing the United States in the early twenty-first century. These accreditation agencies helped to cement the distinctions between colleges and universities and standardize the evaluation of high school programs. Accreditation continues to be voluntary and involves parents, teachers, students, and community members. A school self-study that is based on regional standards and is tied to state standards is the basis of the accreditation evaluation. In another regulatory push, the College Entrance Examination Board came into existence in 1899 with the goal of providing uniform examinations for college admission.

The Carnegie unit also played a role in the standardization of high schools in the early part of the twentieth century. Again, the issue was how to report high school experiences to colleges. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1906, developed the Carnegie unit as a measure of the amount of time a student had studied a subject. One Carnegie unit was equivalent to 120 hours of contact time, and fourteen units was established as the minimum for an academic high school course of study.

Curriculum Differentiation

Early in the twentieth century the population of secondary schools increased dramatically. In 1910, 8.8 percent of seventeen-year-olds were in high school; by 1930 this figure rose to almost 30 percent. Progressive educators took note of both this increase and that many of the students in secondary schools would not be attending college. They believed schools needed to expand the rigorous academic curriculum to include more practical subjects and in this way create more equitable schools. Rather than focusing solely on intellectual training, high schools began to emphasize social and vocational skills that prepared students for later life. Social skills were necessary to assimilate the large wave of immigrants and to promote democratic ideals so that new Americans could function in society.

The term curriculum differentiation means different courses of study for different students. The comprehensive high school attempts to meet the needs of a variety of students in one location. Curriculum differentiation was championed in another National Education Association report, the Cardinal Principles of Education. This report, released in 1918 and authored by the NEA's Committee on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, did not emphasize intellectual skills or the standard school subjects. Rather, the committee recommended that secondary education focus on health, the command of fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, worthy use of leisure time, and ethical character. As high school education became universal, comprehensive high schools, the committee argued, should meet the needs of the widely diverse student population. These needs could be met through varied curriculum options relevant to the lives of current students. Guidance departments would help students make appropriate selections from the available choices by determining the students' strengths and weaknesses. IQ tests would be used to determine student placement. The committee emphasized that offering a wide variety of relevant choices for students was the only way universal secondary education could provide equal educational opportunity and allow all students to succeed. Using the high school curriculum to solve social problems was compatible with the relevant curriculum choices in the Cardinal Principles. This trend has continued in high schools as seen in the substance abuse programs, family life education, and driver's education courses at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Secondary School Structures

The development of secondary schools led to a number of different structural arrangements. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the prevalent pattern was eight years of graded elementary school followed by four years of high school. The first junior high schools, grades seven through nine, were established in California and Ohio around 1910. This organization allowed for greater flexibility in the curriculum and slowly assimilated students into the world of high school subjects, classes, and teaching styles. The junior high school pattern typically includes six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, and three years of senior high school. There were more than 7,000 junior high schools by the 1960s.

Middle schools evolved in the 1960s with a new pattern–five years of elementary, three years of middle school, and four years of high school. Middle schools were designed to meet the intellectual, social, and physical needs of young adolescents rather than to help these students get ready for high school. The structural and curricular changes in middle schools included advisories (long-term student groups that meet with one faculty member over a period of time), team planning and teaching, exploratory classes, and adequate health and physical education classes. Middle schools are currently the predominant mode of organization in grades six through eight.

Minorities in Public High Schools

The idea of a public high school education had taken hold in the white, middle-class population by the late 1800s. High schools were mostly coeducational and, in fact, girls made up the majority of the high school population by the late 1800s. The education of blacks and Native Americans, however, took a different turn. During Reconstruction education was aimed at helping African Americans adjust to the prevailing political and social norms. The separate but equal doctrine elucidated in the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 severely curtailed the development of black high schools, yet the perennial high school curriculum debate was also relevant to the education of African Americans. The educators W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington disagreed about the course that black education should take. Du Bois believed in an academic curriculum allowing talented students to excel, a curriculum promoting intellectual life, whereas Washington favored industrial and agricultural training, a curriculum promoting the worthiness of hard work.

This debate, centering on how African-American youth should be educated in high school, was a moot point for many years because most localities, particularly in the South, did not provide public high schools for blacks. In an 1899 decision (Cummings v. School Board of Richmond County, Georgia), the Supreme Court decided that school boards were not required to provide public secondary education for African Americans. This decision restrained the evolution of black secondary education. Only a few black public high schools managed to struggle into existence. In general, these high schools focused on a college preparatory curriculum. Nevertheless, once the population of African-American youth in urban areas increased, local officials, and later northern philanthropists, promoted black secondary schools focusing on industrial education. Many believed that this curriculum would train students for the kinds of employment then available. Black leaders, however, often argued for a curriculum that would prepare students for college, not work.

In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the Plessy v. Ferguson separate but equal ruling, arguing that the separation of children in public schools by race violates the Fourteenth Amendment. This 1954 ruling sent shock waves through the state of Kansas and several other states that had segregated school systems. The Brown decision did not solve all of the problems associated with black education. Desegregation did not come easily, and only a year later the Supreme Court needed to create procedures for school boards to integrate schools "with deliberate speed." In 1957 federal troops had to be called into Little Rock, Arkansas, so that nine black students could attend the previously all-white Central High School. Although high school graduation rates for African-American students have improved since the Brown decision, the historic exclusion of black youth from secondary schools continues to be reflected in the discrepancies in the dropout rates and standardized test scores of white and black adolescents.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, D.C., was in charge of the education of American Indian youth and developed an official policy of detribalization. Many Native Americans were sent away from their families to boarding schools to be immersed in white culture and values. For example, the curriculum of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 and closed in 1918, was designed with the intention of transforming Native American children by focusing on the vocational skills that Booker T. Washington was promoting for the education of African Americans. After the U.S. government granted citizenship to Native Americans following World War I (1914–1918), local schools replaced boarding schools.

In the early twenty-first century, Native American schools on reservations are still controlled by the BIA, and Native American students are the least successful students in the public school system. Poverty, low attendance rates, and the lack of exposure to a rigorous academic curriculum directly contribute to high failure rates among Native American students. Almost 50 percent of Native American students drop out of high school, and only 17 percent continue on to college.

Education and the Economy

The economy directly influenced secondary schools from the time such schools were created. Access to transportation and family economic stability influenced high school enrollment rates, but as jobs required more education, a higher number of students stayed in high school. In the late 1920s youth unemployment emerged as a contentious political and social issue. Politicians and educators wanted students to remain in high school in order to reduce increased delinquency, crime, and political radicalization. With millions of youth unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, every attempt was made to keep more students in school. At the same time, budgets were reduced, putting a major strain on most schools. During the 1920s and 1930s the school curriculum became more custodial in nature in order to meet the immediate needs of youth. Consequently, emphasis shifted from academic courses to consumer-oriented classes, and life skills were emphasized.

In the 1940s and 1950s the common form of secondary education was a comprehensive high school with differentiated curriculum tracks. During World War II (1939–1945), enrollment in secondary schools dipped, but the curricular trends of making courses relevant to the lives of students continued to be important. In 1944 the Educational Policies Commission released Education for All American Youth, a report calling for a highly practical curriculum similar to that described in the Cardinal Principles. Many feared that the economic difficulties that occurred before the war would continue after the war, so the push continued to keep students in school. American youth would not be competing for jobs with returning servicemen.

The economy continued to influence educational decisions in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but clearly played a central role in the 1980s. A Nation at Risk, a report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, published in 1983, directly tied the quality of American schooling to the strength and position of the American economy in the global marketplace. Alarmed by the economic advances made by Japan and other countries, the commission argued that schools in the United States were declining, which presented an immediate threat to the country's well-being and economic strength.

Education and the National Defense

The cold war of the 1950s and 1960s brought further challenges to the schools. Many people called for strengthening academics in secondary schools by removing the popular but less rigorous life-adjustment classes. The launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 instigated loud cries for educational reform. As a result, the National Defense Education Act that was passed in 1958 provided financial aid to states for the improvement of the teaching of science, mathematics, and foreign languages.

As a result of the cold war, the debate over the public high school curriculum shifted to how the educational system could ensure the survival of the United States and its democratic ideals. Many asserted that American youth could be protected from the ideas of communism and fascism through universal secondary education that emphasized equality of educational opportunity. A central question emerged: Is educational opportunity best served through curriculum differentiation and good guidance services or through a rigorous academic curriculum? The educator James B. Conant studied American high schools and concluded that the solution was universal enrollment in a comprehensive high school that met the needs of all students by providing the opportunity to succeed. He noted that the comprehensive high school also allowed for student interaction among academic tracks, which facilitated the development of the social skills that are necessary in productive citizens. Conant also suggested that authorities strengthen the differentiation in secondary schools with an increased focus on the gifted. He believed talented students must be exposed to advanced classes in mathematics and science. To this end, there were a number of curricular reform efforts that found their way into secondary schools, several sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Most of these reforms failed because the science and mathematics programs were designed by academicians who paid little attention to the day-to-day realities of schools.


The argument between high academic standards and life skills as the central focus of the American high school curriculum continued in the last three decades of the twentieth century. This debate also occurred internationally. Great Britain readjusted its system of examinations that put eleven-year-olds into specific secondary schools and replaced it with comprehensive schools similar to those in the United States. A Nation at Risk galvanized the United States into forming higher academic standards. Great Britain did the same with a national curriculum instituted in 1988.

The recommendations from the report A Nation at Risk were similar to those discussed by the Committee of Ten a century before. The report called for higher graduation requirements, including rigorous academic study for all students regardless of whether they were college bound. Curricular tracking, the report stated, had led to mediocrity. In response, the standards movement was born. By the end of the twentieth century, forty-nine of the fifty states had adopted academic standards based on the work of national organizations in the major subject areas. States began to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable to these standards through examinations. The reauthorization of the national Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, reconfirmed this push for accountability by requiring states to develop annual testing programs for students in grades three through eight in reading and mathematics. School districts must be able to show that all students reach proficiency or will be subject to corrective procedures.

Secondary Education Elsewhere

Many other countries have been faced with similar issues to the United States in terms of secondary education. Discussions about the purpose of secondary schools and the content and focus of the curriculum occur throughout the world. In some countries, vocational and technical programs run parallel to upper secondary education. For example, the Russian Federation and other former Soviet nations provide an eight-year general education program and then funnel qualified students to academic, vocational, or technical schools. At seventeen or eighteen, students are selected for higher education. Only 20 percent of graduates from secondary schools continue to college, whereas in the United States more than 60 percent of high school graduates go on to college.

Several European countries are also invested in secondary school curriculum reform with a stress on national standards. Throughout most of Europe, secondary education is compulsory up to the eighth grade. A large increase in secondary enrollment in the mid-twentieth century led schools to attempt to craft curricula that balanced cognitive, affective, and psychomotor needs of a diverse student population. The European nations also offered secondary options that include comprehensive high schools, parallel schools, and full-or part-time programs. Vocational education programs tend to lag behind general education programs in most countries.

The Republic of China also has a nine-year compulsory education program. The National Ministry of China controls the school curriculum, although there is diversity in secondary school options. Forty-five percent of Chinese secondary students attend the general secondary schools that are the gateway to higher education. Unlike the United States and many European countries, China does not have comprehensive secondary schools. There are vocational schools, teacher-training schools, and craftsmen schools, along with the general academic high schools. Examinations are used to categorize students into the appropriate educational track. After their junior year, secondary school students must pass an examination to go to the next level. The national higher education examination is given only once per year and is highly competitive.

Trends in Secondary Education

Secondary school reform represents a vitally important topic. In the early twenty-first century, the major goal is helping all students reach high academic standards. This has yielded a number of innovative programs that attempt to balance students' personal and academic needs. Effective curricula include core learning in discrete academic subjects, increased foreign languages, interdisciplinary courses, and alternative assessment approaches. The foundational skills of reading and writing are garnering more attention at the secondary level in all content area classes.

Along with high standards, public schools must meet the needs of all students and provide an appropriate education for students with many diverse needs. Inclusion of students with disabilities requires schools to rethink the way classes are tracked and how services are provided to students who have difficulty in the school environment. Coteaching arrangements, which allow subject area specialists to work with trained special educators in the same classroom, constitute one approach to meeting diverse needs.

Some research indicates that smaller high schools are better settings for meeting adolescent needs and helping students reach their full academic potential. In an attempt to break down large comprehensive high schools, a number of options are being tried. Small school alternatives include schools-within-schools and parallel schools sharing the same physical space with distinct missions and programs. Some large high schools separate students by grade level into separate wings.

Flexible scheduling is used so that students and teachers can have enough time for a variety of instructional strategies and more personalized interactions. Block scheduling, one form of flexible scheduling, has increased class time. These larger blocks allow teachers to use a variety of teaching strategies and provide time for differentiating instruction to meet specific student needs. In addition to academic gains, evidence shows a decrease in behavior problems when block scheduling is used.

Crime and violence in secondary schools garner extensive media attention. Many schools are attempting to circumvent alienated youth through social and emotional intelligence programs, organizational structures, and increased surveillance.

Where schooling takes place is also changing. In some areas, state-supported academies for gifted students have been established. Charter schools attempt to meet the needs of a diverse group of students by forming a specific vision and plan outside of the ordinary. Technology may also play a role in the place and mode of secondary instruction as distance learning becomes more popular. Secondary schools continue to experiment with a variety of ways to meet the social, intellectual, personal, and vocational needs of students.


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