What Happened To America’s Public Schools?

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After the Committee of Ten’s 1893 report, secondary education expanded rapidly, but it remained in disarray as educators debated what the curriculum should look like. The School Review , the principal journal of secondary education at the time, was filled with titles cast as questions: “What Should the Modern Secondary School Aim to Accomplish?"; “What Studies Should Predominate in Secondary School?”

As educators attempted to find answers, they didn’t even consider an issue that dominates current discussions: the ultimate goal of secondary education and its connection to career. Few students graduated from high school then, and far fewer went on to college, yet the secondary curriculum’s main aim was to provide courses acceptable to institutions of higher education. The Committee of Ten backed a high school curriculum aimed solely at preparing students for college.

To make matters worse, pedagogy at the time was dominated by “faculty psychology,” which contended that the mind consisted of “faculties.” Like muscles, faculties grew and were strengthened with exercise. The principal way they got their exercise was through the study of mathematics, Greek, and Latin. No one, of course, had developed any way to measure these faculties or determine how well the schools nourished them.

Furthermore, there was no thought at the time of any vocational role for schools. They had been recognized as ladders up the scale of individual economic well-being, but no one seems to have thought of them as important to the broader well-being of the nation. Too few people attended them for that.

Between 1910 and 1945 secondary schools expanded rapidly, the graduation rate rising from 10 percent to 45 percent. Their growth did not, however, mean any greater coherence. In 1932 the Progressive Education Association noted that secondary education “did not have a clear purpose . . . it did not prepare students adequately for the responsibilities of community life. . . . The high school seldom challenged the student of first-rate ability, . . .” and “the relation of school and college was unsatisfactory to both institutions.”

Criticism of the schools was always abundant during this period, but nobody was yet saying that they had gotten worse; more than anything else, people complained about inefficiency. Around 1912 Frederick Winslow Taylor had appeared on the national scene advocating what he called “scientific management,” and his ideas had become immensely popular. In the schools scientific management had little to do with learning; it was about saving money. In Education and the Cult of Efficiency , Raymond Callahan refers to this period as “The Descent into Trivia.” It produced books like Economy in Education , in which the U.S. Commissioner of Education, William J. Cooper, noted that one superintendent in Kansas had reported that through co-operative buying, “he was able to save over 40% on paper fasteners. ... If one makes ink from ink powder, he will usually have an article which is good enough for school work.” And so on.

The few studies that actually looked at academic results found them wanting, but their authors did not seem inclined to blame the schools. In 1943 The New York Times , with the help of the history department of Columbia University, investigated students’ knowledge of American history and geography. It found the results appalling: “A large majority of the students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt. . . . Most of our students do not have the faintest notion of what this country looks like. . . . Hundreds of students listed Walt Whitman as being an orchestra leader.”

The Times didn’t see the implication of what surely was the most damning aspect of its findings: The study had been conducted on college freshmen. At the time, about 45 percent of students graduated from high school, and about 15 percent of those graduates went on to college. Thus the survey had uncovered not just ignoramuses but an elite of ignoramuses.

The Times put the story on page one, next to its major headline of the day, PATTON ATTACKS EAST OF EL GUETTAR . It described the study as an effort to learn how much material absorbed in secondary school was retained in college, apparently assuming that the students had once known the material and simply forgotten it.