A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (The Comprehensive High School)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 45th 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.]

After the failure to establish separate vocational training schools for non-college-bound high school students, the battle for the future of American education shifted to the comprehensive model, which would accommodate academic, vocational, and commercial curricula within the same structure. This move allowed educators to adhere to the principle of the common schools while allowing for the separation necessary to provide training for commercial and vocational skills. However, it also created a dilemma: how to balance the school’s civic responsibility with the new commitment to curricular differentiation.

One potential answer came in a 1918 report by the NEA, called the “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education,” spearheaded by New York City teacher Clarence Kingsley. According to the report, the objectives of a high school education were the same for all students. They included “health, command of fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, worthy use of leisure, and ethical character.”[1]

The report viewed the high school’s role as preparing students to become both democratic citizens and workers, which involved helping students understand their strengths and weaknesses and choosing the appropriate curriculum for their future social and vocational roles. Though the report’s goal was to combine the administrative and pedagogical progressives’ views, the new comprehensive high school was most successful in its economic sorting function.

In the 1920s, a process of rigid tracking, usually correlated with a student’s social class before school attendance, became the norm. It reflected the growth of individualism in the populace, combined with educational experts’ enthrallment with the “scientific” tests they believed provided data on a student’s potential and pressure from privileged constituencies that wanted an education that provided secure employment for all while retaining the social privilege of some. In essence, the ideal of unification and equality became lost in the larger context of real-world issues.

Curricular change did come, but it wasn’t nearly as drastic as advocates hoped for or opponents feared. The core subjects remained: math, English, science, and history. What did change was that students were tracked into different groups based on test scores. That meant that, while everyone took math and English, the content differed from one class to another, depending on students’ aptitude. Groupings served to reinforce gender, ethnic, and class distinctions, and this differentiation “safeguarded” the value of a high school diploma for those at the highest levels. After all, if everyone received the same content and graduated with the same diploma, that diploma wouldn’t have much meaning as a credential for further education or a position in the workforce.

It would be wrong to believe that academic differentiation represented the entire picture. There was a strong undercurrent of unity, but it was one that served to reinforce Anglo-Protestant norms. The Scopes Monkey Trial, while demeaned in the big city papers, effectively ended the teaching of evolution for more than 30 years. Bilingual education fell to a surge of patriotism following World War I; by 1923, 34 states passed legislation requiring that English be the only language taught and used in the public schools, and some states tried to suppress private instruction in other languages as well. History texts, too, were filled with sentimental patriotic nationalism, failing to portray the realities of what had occurred in the past.

Science, though, saw a large shift in curriculum during the 1920s, even as it became increasingly tailored to class and gender. The science instruction of the late 19th century had been mostly hands-on and equated with nature. The comprehensive high schools, though, replaced it with didactic instruction in the “scientific method”: students read about a topic, memorized the information, and then parroted it back to the teacher. Science as a specific subject was also changing, geared toward the male world of engineering, industrial technology, and the military, which only furthered the stereotype that science was not for girls. And vocational education advocated a gendered and practical curriculum, where boys learned applied science topics as they related to shop work, and girls learned the science of “homemaking.”

Finally, Latin, which had once been the mainstay of education in this country, started to fall out of favor. Colleges and universities moved away from requiring the subject for admission, and progressive academics derided it as a needed component of mental discipline. It remained a respected subject but became increasingly marginalized, serving as one of many options students could choose to fulfill a foreign language requirement. Its place at the heart of a high school humanities curriculum was usurped by English literature.


Next week: Comprehensive High School Subjects


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.

To read part 41, Curricular Differentiation, click here.

To read part 42, The Great War, click here.

To read part 43, the Educational Ladder, click here.

To read part 44, Two New Rungs, click here.




[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 205-207.


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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