The History of the Future of High School

The problem with American secondary education is not that students haven’t learned the “right skills,” as the Betsy DeVoses of the world would have you believe.

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Oct 16 2018, 6:30pm

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High school is broken in America. Its buildings and classes are old and stodgy. As an institution, it’s unchanging, built to crank out factory workers and thus unsuited for our modern, high-tech era.

That’s the convenient fiction repeated by business-minded politicians and philanthropists for some time now. Consider what the US secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, told students in Wyoming last year: “For far too many kids,” DeVos said, “this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that.” Later, while visiting a charter school in Florida, DeVos again said as much: “Far too many schools have been stuck in a mode that is basically approaching things that have been done very similarly to 100 years ago, and the world today is much different.”

It’s a popular narrative reflecting the very real fears held by so many young people today when it comes to economic instability, inequality, and their future prospects in the labor market. The thing of it is, it’s just not true.

When folks like DeVos make the inaccurate claim that schools haven’t changed in a century, they often invoke the phrase “factory-model schooling,” implying that schools—the buildings, the curriculum, the practices—were established to prepare students for manufacturing work. America’s first high school opened in 1635, and taught religion and the classics to the sons of wealthy elites. High schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the US were likewise not designed to prepare students for work in factories, despite the pervasiveness of that “factory model” myth. Rather, most of these early learning institutions served academically talented students whose parents could afford to have their child pursue secondary education. That is, they could get by without their teenager working. Only a fraction of kids attended high school in those days, and an even smaller fraction of those students went on to university, in part because most professions did not require college degrees.

As the historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote in their 1995 history of school reform, Tinkering Toward Utopia, just one in every ten teens age 14 to 17 was enrolled in high school in 1900. By 1940, that number was up to seven in ten; by 1980, nine in ten. The percentage of kids enrolled in high school has continued to grow in the decades since Tinkering was published, as have graduation rates (8 percent in 1900, 51 percent in 1940, and about 83 percent today). These shifting demographics have transformed what schools do and are expected to do. A century ago, students of color were largely denied equal access to educational opportunities, for example, and special education as we know it didn’t exist. And though it’s not always the way it works out in practice, public high schools are now required to serve all students, and curriculum modifications along the way reflect that.

To meet the needs of these incoming students, schools started offering an inconsistent array of courses, from foreign to classical languages, English literature, civics, algebra, calculus, chemistry, physics, home economics, physical education, auto shop, sex and driver’s education, technical drawing, and typing. These classes weren’t always taught to everyone, if taught at all, and enrollment has accordingly risen and fallen as students and schools alike have responded to various trends beyond the “job market.” Take German language instruction, which ceased in many schools during World War I.

"Masking the real history of high school in America also helps the DeVoses of the world obscure legitimate problems the education system has always faced—problems that have been deliberately created and maintained. Funding inequality and racial segregation are rarely the focus of these sorts of stories about an ever-unchanging educational system."

And yet the myth of busted high schools and classes being taught as they were a century ago with no variation persists. It’s a product of business-minded interests pushing the “factory model” idea that schools were created to meet the needs of 19th-century industrialists and, as such, are stuck in the past. And further, that the purpose of high school should be to meet the needs of 21st-century employers, and that tomorrow’s education system ought to be shaped in that vision.

Indeed, these sorts of stories are often told by those who seek to privatize education in a way that functions to meet the needs of industry. Few people, after all, are clamoring to “rethink high schools” to produce more home health aides, one of the fastest growing occupations in the US despite a median annual pay of less than $24,000.

Masking the real history of high school in America also helps the DeVoses of the world obscure legitimate problems the education system has always faced—problems that have been deliberately created and maintained. Funding inequality and racial segregation are rarely the focus of these sorts of stories about an ever-unchanging educational system. The dominant narrative instead tends to point to teachers or curricula, or even bells and early start times, as the reason schools are “broken” and that students aren’t being adequately prepared for the future. That’s not to say students don’t feel unprepared for life ahead because of the quality of education they’re receiving, either. The overwhelming majority (97 percent) of respondents to VICE’s youth survey conducted earlier this year in the US and UK reported feeling “shortchanged” in one or more areas of their education.

But schools have always adapted—“tinkering” with various reforms, as Tyack and Cuban put it. These reforms, in turn, have affected different groups of students in different ways: more AP classes for the academic elites, say, or a disproportionate police presence in schools where students (typically those of color) have been deemed dangerous.

The problem with American high school education, it seems, is not that students haven’t learned the “right skills.” The problem is that the systemic inequality of the school system has ensured that many students have been unable to participate fully in either the economy or, more fundamentally, in democracy. It’s not that there has been no tinkering, but that those doing the tinkering often have their own interests, rather than students’ interests, in mind.


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