A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (Progressive Education: Curricular Differentiation)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 41st in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Curricular differentiation in high schools did a 180 on what the common schools had been trying to achieve, which was to provide the same education for all students. However, by the 1920s, it became necessary to offer different curricula for different kinds of students.

One of the primary reasons for the change was a new idea of the purpose of education. The common curriculum arose from the belief that schooling was, at its most fundamental level, a moral endeavor, aimed at preparing students for citizenship and moral and political action when they came of age. Differentiation, on the other hand, reflected a more economic reason for education. It attempted to accommodate the different economic roles the students would come to have, and, as such, was believed to provide equal opportunity for all students to develop their abilities to the fullest.

High schools had existed for some time, but they weren’t the only source of secondary education; they had to compete with private academies, preparatory schools, and tutors to prepare students for college entrance examinations. However, high schools educated a number of students, such as girls, who had no college ambitions, so a movement emerged to introduce more technical and commercial subjects into public high school curricula to equip students with the skills they’d need for modern life.

In 1893, a high school study committee of the National Education Association, popularly called the Committee of Ten, published a report on how to alter high school curricula to better meet students’ — and society’s — needs. The committee offered four alternative curricula for four-year high schools, which allowed the students to select their courses from a menu of options according to their goals and interests, essentially offering an “elective” system like the one that had been implemented at Harvard College.

The four courses proposed by the Committee of Ten were: Classical, Latin-Scientific, Modern Languages, and English. The biggest difference between the four were the number and nature of foreign languages required. The courses chosen to replace classical and modern language curricula were almost all in the nonphysical sciences, including botany, zoology, and anatomy.

The committee also proposed two other tenets. First, the members believed there shouldn’t be any difference in course of study if the student was college-bound or not; any of the four tracks were appropriate no matter what the student’s decision. They held that choices appropriate for college preparation were equally valid for those entering the work force directly after graduation.

Second, though they offered three alternative courses to the traditional Classical approach, they believed all the choices were satisfactory for college entrance. They didn’t differentiate in any intellectual, vocational, or social sense among the purposes of the different curricula.

The committee’s report generated a lot of anger, especially among educational traditionalists who believed classical languages were the foundation of intellectual and cultural achievement. These same people were offended that the committee assumed those looking to go to college and those who were to go directly into the workforce could use the same curriculum.

The report was quickly labeled a “conservative” document because it didn’t accommodate those looking to diversify the high school curriculum with subjects more relevant and practical in the wider commercial and industrial world. Advocates of such reform felt the committee had turned its back on the needs of most high school graduates, who would opt to enter the workforce rather than continue their education.

The next two decades saw heated debate about how to reverse the Committee of Ten’s support of solely academic studies. Many of the most outspoken protestors were young men and women who planned to go directly into the workforce and wanted specific, hands-on training in fields like metallurgy or woodworking. And many advocated for separate commercial and manual training high schools that wouldn’t abandon traditional studies but would offer more practical classes in addition to them. It wasn’t long before this need was addressed directly.


Next week: The Great War, a Turning Point


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.

To read part 29, Common School Period, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke College, click here.

To read part 30, Common School Period, McGuffey Readers, click here.

To read part 31, Common School Period, Catholic vs. Protestant Education, click here.

To read part 32, Common School Period, Compulsory Education, click here.

To read part 33, Common School Period, African American Education, click here.

To read part 34, Common School Period, National Education Association, click here.

To read part 35, Common School Period, Morrill Land Grant Acts, click here.

To read part 36, Common School Period Wrap-Up, click here.

To read part 37,  Leadership in Transition, click here.

To read part 38,  A Time of Reform, click here.

To read part 39,  School Choice and Structure, click here.

To read part 40, Vocational Education, click here.




[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 176-178.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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