A History of Education: The American Educational System, 20th Century (Two New Rungs)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 44th in a series of blogs that examines how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Following World War I, two additional rungs were added to the educational ladder: the junior high school and the junior (community) college.

The junior high school was introduced in the largest cities early in the century, becoming a fixture during the 1920s. It was established for two reasons: 1) to provide services targeted to the specific needs of early adolescence; and 2) to prepare students for the new curricula requirements of the comprehensive high school. While advocates of the new institution most often cited the first reason to support their position, it was the second reason that established the junior high school firmly within the educational system.

The junior high curriculum introduced students to subjects and teaching methods that most would face when they entered the comprehensive high school. Vocational subjects weren’t generally offered, but prevocational classes, such as manual training, gave students an idea of what they would encounter later on.

Junior high also began to differentiate students by background and presumed future endeavors, which naturally facilitated later placement in a high school track. In addition, the schools sorted boys and girls by curriculum areas, such as shop work for the former and home economics for the latter, corresponding to what would be “expected” of them in their adult lives.

The junior high school was structured more similarly to the comprehensive high school than to the common elementary school, and it moved sorting and tracking down into two previously elementary grades. Not unexpectedly, the sorting reflected differences in social class despite being based on supposedly objective test results. These tests were interpreted for students and their parents by the growing ranks of vocational guidance counselors, who became fixtures in the new educational rung.

The junior college was first introduced at the University of Chicago under then-president William Rainey Harper. With funding from John D. Rockefeller, Harper was re-envisioning a small Baptist college into a large, powerful university. Concerned about what he saw as declining standards and a wayward “general education” in the first two preparatory years of college before students chose their “major” field of study, Harper wanted to move those two years downward into secondary education and elevate the second two years into university status. It should be noted that his concern was more about protecting students in the upper levels from the “lack of seriousness” found in the first two years than it was to increase access to a wider group of students seeking higher education.

At the Chicago junior college, the heart of the curriculum were subjects extending from traditional high school studies, while electives introduced students to higher-level subjects they’d encounter if they continued with their education. Early supporters of this new educational rung believed it could upgrade the high school curriculum by adding two more grades of college prep studies.

However, during the 1920s, the junior college headed in an unexpected direction. It became neither the summative years of high school nor the junior part of a university. Instead, it became an entirely separate institution. In addition to providing a two-year curriculum of college preparatory studies, it began to serve as a remedial period for under- or unprepared students, both academically and socially. Students having difficulty with college-level material could retreat and regroup at a junior college before moving up to the more academically challenging university. The new Associate in Arts degree became an academic end-of-line for those then wishing to enter the workforce and a jumping off point for those wishing to continue their education.

Later in the century, the junior college morphed into a public community college, where the traditional college-prep curriculum was augmented with a variety of vocational and life-related courses. In that form, it became a great success story in education. Its proximity to students’ homes and low tuition made it the only option for postsecondary education for low-income families, as well as a good choice for students still undecided about their future. And by the end of the 20th century, the community college claimed the largest share of the college population, providing an additional option in educating America’s students.


Next week: The Comprehensive High School


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.



[1] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 210-211.


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.