High Standards for All? The Struggle for Equality in the American High School Curriculum, 1890-1990

Jeff Mirel & David Angus
Northern Illinois University

[Reprinted with permission from the American Educator, Summer 1994. Jeffrey Mirel is associate professor of leadership and educational policy studies and a fellow at the Social Science Research Institute, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-1981 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993). David Angus is professor of education and chair of the program in Educational Foundations at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Material for this article was taken from a book they are currently writing entitled Conflict and Curriculum in the American High School, 1890-1990 (Teachers College Press, in progress).]

All children, like all men, rise easily to the common level. There the mass stop; strong minds only ascend higher. But raise the standard, and, by a spontaneous movement, the mass will rise again and reach it.--from Horace Mann's First Annual Report (1837)

For most of this century the people who shaped the curriculum of the American high school were philosophically in line with many of the critics of national goals and standards today. They wholeheartedly believed that blanketly imposing high academic standards on all high school students would create greater educational inequality, arguing that such standards would reinforce and accentuate educational disparities between socio-economic and racial groups. Close investigation of actual trends in high school student course-taking since the 1920s, however, does not validate that belief. To the contrary, our analysis of data shows that it was curricular differentiation that had a profoundly negative effect on the education of large numbers of American young people, particularly working class and black students. We focus on these trends in 20th-century American high schools in order to provide some insights into the current debate about national goals and standards. Our study leads us to believe that national goals and standards, wisely developed and applied, can greatly benefit American education. Such measures could constitute major steps toward equalizing educational quality and ensuring that all American students, particularly poor and minority students, have access to the same challenging programs and courses that students in the nation's best schools now receive.

This essay is based on findings from a study of high school course-taking that we conducted for the U.S. Department of Education./1/ In that study we analyzed a series of national surveys of high school course-taking conducted by the U.S. Office of Education (USOE) from 1928, 1934, 1949, 1961, and 1973. These surveys grew out of a group of USOE studies beginning in the 1890s. While some of the earlier studies focused on specific courses such as Latin and Greek or on a limited range of subjects, by 1922 the studies were national in scope and comprehensive enough to provide a national perspective on curriculum change over time. For example, we found that between 1922 and 1973 the number of distinct courses reported to the USOE rose from about 175 titles to more than 2,100. It is impossible to sort out the extent to which this increase represented new courses or merely variations or elaborations on older themes, but its magnitude makes it difficult to avoid the impression of curricular expansion running amok.

These surveys provide historians of the American high school with a series of increasingly detailed and trust-worthy snapshots of high school course enrollments spanning the years from 1890 to 1973. In addition, researchers under contract to the National Center for Education Statistics have gathered similar data in 1982, 1987, and 1990, usually from student transcripts, which we linked to the earlier studies. All combined, the USOE surveys and the recent transcript studies provide a sweeping picture of high school curriculum development in the 20th century. Unfortunately, these data have rarely been utilized by scholars in describing the modern history of secondary education generally or the high school curriculum specifically./2/

As rich as these data are, there are some limits to what they can show. Our study of course-taking and transcripts investigated only the courses that students took, not the content of courses nor the effectiveness of teaching and learning in these courses. Yet despite these limitations, our study highlights several important developments and trends in American secondary education.

We will discuss each of these findings in turn.

The Great Debate About the High School Curriculum

From their inception in the first half of the 19th century, high schools in the United States have been flash points of controversy about who would use them and what courses students would take. In 1893, these controversies coalesced around a report issued by the Committee of Ten, a group composed largely of college presidents who had been asked by the National Education Association to investigate the condition of high school education and recommend improvements. Chaired by Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, the committee argued that all high school students should receive an academic education. The Committee concluded that curricular standards must be high and, most importantly, they must be the same for all students regardless of whether these students drop out of school after only a few years, graduate from high school but do not seek further education, or go on to college.

As the Committee put it, "every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease.... Not that all the pupils should pursue every subject for the same number of years; but so long as they do pursue it, they should all be treated aIike."/3/ Equal educational opportunity, in this report, primarily refers to the means of education, the courses that students take, as they move toward graduation. Schools fulfill the promise of equal educational opportunity by insisting that all students take essentially the same rigorous academic courses. Anticipating the accusation that this academic program of study would appeal mainly to the small number of high school students planning to go to college, the Committee argued simply that academic education was the best preparation for life regardless of students' future plans. Needless to say, such a program of study was also the best preparation for college.

Over the next quarter of a century, educators and scholars debated the appropriateness of the Committee of Ten's recommendations for the rapidly growing high school population. Between 1890 and 1930, the number of 14- to 17-year-olds attending high school soared from 359,949, under 7 percent of the age group, to 4,804,255, over 51 percent of the age group./4/ Educators widely believed that many of these new students pouring into high schools were less academically talented than previous generations of pupils. Based on this belief, critics of the Committee of Ten argued that the new students had neither the ability, interest, nor need for the rigorous academic program proposed by the Committee.

Leading this attack was the eminent psychologist G. Stanley Hall. As early as 1904, Hall denounced the idea that all students should follow the same academic program. Distorting the Committee's argument by reversing its terms, Hall chastised the Committee for assuming that the best preparation for college was also the best preparation for life. Moreover, he argued that such an academic program would inevitably be diluted in order to accommodate the flood of new students who were entering the high school. He deemed the new students a "great army of incapables...who should be in schools for the dullards or subnormal children." For this diverse and increasingly large group of students, Hall proposed a wide-ranging program of instruction that would not be dominated by academic courses./5/

Hall's critique of the Committee of Ten contained a number of assumptions that became central to the debate about standards and equality in the American high school. First, he assumed that a uniform, academic program stifled adolescents' needs to spontaneously explore the world around them. Second, he maintained that holding all pupils to high academic standards favored the small number of students planning to go to college. From this perspective the Committee's report became an elitist document representing the biases of the college presidents who helped draft it. Third, Hall presumed that the majority of young people entering high schools in this era were inferior students. Supported by this belief, Hall and other critics of the Committee of Ten contended that it had totally ignored the different needs and aspirations of these students.

Eventually, opponents of the Committee added a fourth assumption: that a rigorous, uniform academic program significantly contributed to high rates of student dropouts. In this line of reasoning, students were essentially forced out of school by difficult academic classes that were irrelevant to their lives, boring, and damaging to their self-esteem. Advocating curricular differentiation as the solution to these problems, critics of the Committee maintained that a uniform academic course of study actually violated the principle of equal educational opportunity because it increased the dropout rate and stratified society more rigidly along the lines of high school graduates and dropouts.

In 1918, another National Education Association report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, captured these critics' sentiments precisely. Thoroughly rejecting the uniform, academic approach of the Committee of Ten, Cardinal Principles instead proposed a multifaceted high school offering students choices among distinct courses of study. The report declared, "The work of the senior high school should be organized into differentiated curriculums [sic].... The basis of differentiation should be, in the broad sense of the term, vocational, thus justifying the names commonly given, such as agricultural, business, clerical, industrial, fine arts, and household-arts curriculums. Provisions should be made also for those having distinctively academic needs and interests."/6/

Supporters of these multifaceted or, as the report labeled them, "comprehensive," high schools defined equal educational opportunity as equal access to different programs for different students. In this definition, equality was assured by permitting young people to choose from an array of courses suited to their individual needs, abilities, and interests. Although the reality of curricular tracking, which was well established in the nation's leading urban school districts by the 1930s, often belied this egalitarian rhetoric, educators hailed differentiated high school programs as the key to democratizing the high school. Specifically, they argued that relevant and practical curricular options would encourage larger and larger numbers of students to stay in school and ultimately graduate. This view of equal educational opportunity referred primarily to the diploma that students received upon graduation, not to the actual education they had received. All graduates would receive the same ultimate credential despite having taken very different courses and having met very different standards along the way./7/

For over a century, supporters of the Committee of Ten and Cardinal Principles have been debating these different definitions of equality of educational opportunity and the value of their respective curricular manifestations. It has become routine for historians to figuratively describe 20th century educational reform as a series of pendulum swings between these two distinct philosophical and curricular programs. Educational historians, for example, portray the 1950s as a period in which the curriculum swung away from the relevance-based Life Adjustment Movement (a movement that drew heavily from the philosophy of Cardinal Principles) toward the more academic (and thus Committee of Ten-style) demands of the post-Sputnik era. During the 1960s, the pendulum then returned to a curriculum aimed at greater relevance, often implemented in "open classrooms." Finally in the 1970s, the pendulum swung once again toward academics in the back-to-basics movement.

Our study finds little evidence that these pendulum-like swings of curricular reform actually typify historical trends in secondary education. The rhetoric of curricular reform does not coincide with the reality of student course-taking. Rhetorically, 20th-century school reform has swung between the curricular options noted above with the ideas and language of "relevance" aIternating with those of "academic rigor." Our data, however, demonstrate that until the late-1970s these rhetorical swings did not correspond with student course-taking in high schools. Rather, what occurred from the 1920s to the 1970s was the steady triumph of the philosophy embodied in Cardinal Principles. This triumph was marked by an unbroken decline in the percentage of courses that high school students took in such core academic areas as English, foreign language, math, science, and social studies. Instead, students took increasing percentages of less demanding, non-academic courses including physical education, health, and vocational education.

The crucial period of change was the Great Depression and the immediate post-World War II years. Prior to this time, high schools across the nation appeared to have followed a middle path in regard to the Committee of Ten-Cardinal Principles debate. Most schools strongly stressed an academic program but, by 1930, offered an increasing number and variety of vocational and elective courses to meet the more "practical" needs of youth. The situation, however, changed drastically in the 1930s when the national economic collapse sent a huge wave of new students into high schools. By 1940, 7,123,009 students between the ages of 14 to 17 were in high school, over 73 percent of the age group./8/

This unprecedented flood of new pupils reinforced two key assumptions about high school students noted earlier. First, educational leaders believed that most of these students were even less academically talented (and therefore less worthy of a strong academic program) than previous generations of students. As a 1934 National Education Association report stated, "a very considerable portion of the new enrollment is comprised of pupils of a different sort--boys and girls who are almost mature physically, who are normal mentally, in the sense that they are capable of holding their own with the ordinary adult, but who are unwilling to deal successfully with continued study under the type of program which the secondary school is accustomed to provide [i.e., the traditional academic program]."/9/

Second, educational leaders assumed and feared that a regimen of tough academic courses would force many of these students to drop out, a particularly awful prospect in the 1930s given the desperate shortage of jobs. As a result, educators channeled increasing numbers of these students into undemanding, non-academic courses. In addition, we found in an earlier study, that in keeping with their definition of equal educational opportunity (holding students in school long enough to obtain a diploma), educational leaders diluted content and lowered standards in the remaining academic courses that these students were required to take. While these curricular decisions sought to promote equal educational opportunity, in reality they had a grossly unequal impact on working-class and black children who were beginning to attend high school in greater numbers during this time. Beginning in the 1930s, these students were disproportionately assigned to non-academic tracks and courses and to academic classes that had lower standards and less rigorous content./10/

These Depression-era developments received an additional boost in the post-World War II years with the creation of the Life Adjustment Movement, a federally sponsored curricular reform effort that both justified and encouraged these anti-academic trends in American high schools./11/ These trends had a profound impact on the course-taking patterns of students for much of this century. In 1928, over 67 percent of the courses taken by American students were academic. Six years later, the amount of academic course-taking had dropped to slightly more than 62 percent. Over the next two decades the percentage of academic courses taken by U.S. high school students continued to fall from just over 59 percent in 1949 to 57 percent in 1961 and then returned to 59 percent in 1973.

The growth of the non-academic share of the curriculum can be gauged by one startling fact: In 1910, the share of high school work devoted to each of the five basic academic subjects--English, foreign language, mathematics, science, and history--enrolled more students than all of the non-academic courses combined. Moreover, these data do not reveal the more subtle changes within academic subjects in which English courses were reorganized to relate "literature and life," and history and government courses were transformed into the social studies./12/

Furthermore, and contrary to recent historical interpretation, the relative decline in academic enrollments was not matched by increases in vocational enrollments, except briefly during World War II. Rather, as noted above, a large proportion of the curricular shift is accounted for by such "personal development" courses as driver's training, health, and physical education. Behind this development was the generally negative assessment of both the academic and vocational abilities of the new waves of students who entered the high school in the 1930s and after the war. What many historians fail to recognize, but our data show quite clearly, is that these students were often tracked away not only from academic courses but from vocational ones as well.

The decline in the percentage of academic course-taking and the rise in less demanding "personal service" courses by American high school students should have given many Americans serious cause for concern. Certainly some critics, most notably Arthur Bestor in 1953, decried the expanding "educational wastelands."/13/ But many, if not most, Americans--even those deeply concerned about the future of the academic subjects--simply ignored the problem. Why? The simplest explanation lies in the rising number of high school students. Between 1949-50 and 1969-70, the number of students in grades nine through twelve more than doubled from 6,397,000 to 14,322,000./14/ Growing high school enrollments masked the steady decline in the percentage of academic course-taking because the absolute number of students in various academic courses was increasing steadily. Between 1928 and 1973, for example, while the share of the total courses devoted to foreign language fell from 9.5 percent to 3.9 percent, the enrollment in such classes rose from 1,377,000 to 3,659,000. Such trends tended to mute criticism by Bestor and others because high school leaders routinely pointed out that more students were taking academic courses than ever before and because the high schools were supplying enough students to fill college classrooms. However, what these defenders of the status quo failed to mention was that at the same time more students than ever before were also enrolling in less rigorous, non-academic courses.

Occasionally, social commentators voiced concern that high school graduates did not seem as well prepared for jobs or higher education as students in the past, which was probably the case. One newspaper exposé in Detroit at this time, for example, found that students in the college preparatory track in 1958 took fewer academic courses than did students in the general track in 1933. In other words, in the late 1950s students in both the college preparatory and non-college tracks received a less rigorous education than did the non-college bound students of the 1930s. Such criticism, however, had little effect on school policy or practice./15/

Over the next two decades a number of policy changes in schools across the country helped sustain this transformation of the high school curriculum. The first involved a subtle but important shift in the way some academic courses were delivered to students. In 1960, 93 percent of students enrolled in English courses took these courses in a two-semester sequence. Twelve years later, this proportion dropped to only 63 percent. We found the same trend in social studies. These changes indicate that by the early 1970s schools were increasingly offering English and social studies courses in a one semester rather than two-semester format. Students still had to take two courses to get a year's credit, but the courses that they took to get that credit did not necessarily have to relate to one another. The one-semester format fit quite nicely into educational programs that placed a high priority on catering to students' needs, interests, and scheduling demands. However, it reduced the opportunity for students to explore complex topics in a continuous and in-depth manner over the course of an entire year.

In addition, our analysis reveals an expansion in the range of activities that school leaders deem worthy of academic credit, specifically granting Carnegie credits to activities that formerly had been labeled extracurricular. The most notable examples of this trend include giving course credit for working on the school newspaper and yearbook. Undoubtedly students gain important skills and knowledge in these activities. Nonetheless, granting them credit further diminished the role that academic courses play in high school education. Finally, we find evidence of students receiving credit for such courses as Consumer Math and Refresher Math, largely non-academic courses that many school systems use to fulfill graduation requirements in mathematics.

In all, our study finds clear evidence of a decline in academic course-taking beginning in the 1930s. As in economics where bad money drives out good, so in education for much of this century easier and weaker curricula appear to have driven out strong. Until the 1970s, however, few people were disturbed enough about these trends to take action.

The Positive Impact of the "Excellence" Reforms

In the late-1970s, the decline in academic course-taking began to reverse, and high school students increased the percentage of these courses for the first time in almost half a century. Throughout the 1980s, that trend gained momentum, and by 1990 a full-fledged shift toward greater academic course-taking was under way. Between 1973 and 1990, the percentage of academic course-taking jumped from 59 percent to over two-thirds. This substantial increase in the percentage of academic courses taken by American students in the past 20 years is as great as the decline that took place between 1928 and 1961.

The causes of this shift are varied, but they unquestionably include the following: a changing economic situation in which a high school diploma carried less value than previously; demands of parents for higher quality education for their children; alarm about the steady decline in SAT scores; the publication of such manifestos as A Nation at Risk; enactment of more stringent high school graduation requirements by state legislatures; and the setting of higher standards for student performance by school districts. By late 1986, for example, 45 states and the District of Columbia had raised their graduation requirements, 42 states increased math requirements, and 34 states bolstered science requirements./16/

Two additional factors are also worth noting. First, school leaders could no longer rely on demographic trends to mask the decline in the percentage of academic course-taking by American students. Between 1976 and 1991, the number of students in grades nine through twelve fell steadily from 15,656,000 to 12,655,000./17/ Had earlier policies continued unchanged, both the absolute number of students in academic courses and the percentage of these courses taken by students would have been falling by the late 1970s. Second, many colleges and universities (at times prompted by state boards of higher education) increased entrance requirements for incoming freshmen, thereby adding considerable support to complementary efforts on the high school level regarding graduation requirements.

As positive as these trends in academic course-taking are, some very important questions still need to be asked. Specifically, are the courses that we identified as academic truly academic in content or have we simply cataloged changes in course titles while content has either remained unchanged or has been diluted? As noted earlier, our data could not answer these questions. However, a new study conducted by the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research (WCER) does provide some answers at least in regard to math and science courses. Led by WCER Director Andrew Porter, researchers intensively studied course content and teaching strategies in 18 schools in six states. These states--Arizona, California, Florida, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina--all had introduced "relatively major increases in their standards for high school mathematics and science." Porter summarized the results of the study noting, "Some education scholars wondered if course content would get watered down as more average and below average students enrolled in more advanced courses. However, our data indicate that, in the schools in the states that we studied, the content of the math and science was as rigorous after standards were increased."/18/ These are very exciting findings that support our belief that the trend toward greater academic course-taking is more than a cosmetic change. However, additional studies need to be conducted to see if the same patterns regarding the quality of teaching and material hold true in other content areas.

As promising as these trends are, much remains to be done. As late as 1990, when the percentage of academic course-taking had improved to over 66 percent, the ratio of academic to non-academic courses still had not returned to 1928 levels. In other words, the progress that has been made should be viewed as a first step but not an end in itself.

The Impact of "Excellence" Reforms on the Dropout Problem and Minority Students

Any demand for more rigorous curricula and higher academic standards inevitably must confront the question, won't such curricula and standards increase the dropout rate in general and have a negative impact on the educational opportunities of poor and minority students in particular? As noted earlier, for more than half a century, educational policy makers have made decisions based on the presumption that tougher course requirements automatically increase the dropout rate, especially among poor and minority students. Moreover, these policy makers assumed that the only way to keep the dropout rate from soaring was to make the high school curriculum less challenging and more entertaining. Consequently, these educational leaders routinely condemned efforts to raise academic standards because of their fear that such measures would contribute to greater educational inequality.

Is that specter of higher dropout rates validated by findings on the effects of academically oriented reforms? The short answer is no. Between 1973 and 1990, when higher standards and tougher graduation requirements were widely enacted and the percentage of academic course-taking jumped by almost 10 percent, the national dropout rate declined from 14 percent to 11 percent. These numbers are even more impressive for minority students. Between 1982 and 1990, African Americans and Hispanics increased their academic course-taking to a greater extent than whites and Asian Americans. In 1982, only 28 percent of African Americans and a quarter of Hispanic students took a regimen of four years of English, three years of social studies, and two years of math and science. By 1990, the percentages had nearly tripled to 72 percent and 70 percent respectively. The share of minority students taking three years of math and science has risen even more dramatically, from 10 per cent to 41 percent of black students and from 6 percent to a third of Hispanic students. During the same period the dropout rate for black students fell from 18 percent to 13 percent while the dropout rate for Hispanic students remained unchanged at about 32 percent./19/ These data should put to rest the ritualized invocation of the threat of increased dropouts every time someone suggests that U.S. schools demand more from their students.

Not only are more minority students taking an increasing percentage of tougher academic courses, but they are performing better on national standardized exams, as well. During the late 1970s and 1980s, SAT scores for both blacks and Hispanics rose significantly especially among students who took the most advanced academic courses. Between 1976 and 1993, black students' scores on the verbal section of the SAT rose 21 points and in math increased 34 points. During the same period, Mexican-American students' scores rose 21 points on the verbal section and 18 points in math, while Puerto Rican students' scores rose three points and eight points respectively. In addition, since 1988, the number of minority students taking Advanced Placement Tests has grown at "record rates" according to the College Board. The number of black students taking the tests grew from under 10,000 in 1988 to more than 15,000 in 1993, and the number of Latino students soared from just over 10,000 to just under 30,000 in the same period./20/

In short, demanding more academic course work from students appears to have contributed to improved student outcomes especially among minorities, and it has not led to increases in the dropout rate among these groups. Unfortunately, the increases in academic course taking by minority students have not resulted in subsequent increases in college enrollments, especially on the part of black students. In fact, that group's enrollment in colleges has fallen since the mid-1970s. Between 1976 and 1988, the proportion of black 18- to 24-year-olds going to college fell from 22.6 percent to 21.1 percent of the age group. At the same time, the percentage of whites rose from 27.1 to 31.3./21/

No finding from our research is more troubling than this one. If large numbers of black students are taking the courses that meet college entrance requirements but are still not entering college, something is seriously wrong. We suspect that economic factors rather than educational preparation have been primarily responsible for the decline in black college enrollment in the 1980s. Specifically, it appears that a 1975 change in federal student aid policy that replaced large numbers of grants (that did not have to be repaid) with loans (that did have to be repaid) had a negative impact on black college attendance. Black students generally come from poorer families than whites and consequently may be less willing and less able to accept the burden of long term debt./22/


How do these findings relate to the questions about goals and standards that we considered at the beginning of this essay? Our study of high school course-taking points to four important conclusions.

First, it is clear that equal educational opportunity was not achieved by lowering academic standards through curricular differentiation, tracking, shortening courses from two semesters to one, and giving academic credit to previously extracurricular activities. Indeed, the students most harmed by these policies were the children of working-class and minority families. Critics who argue that national standards and national assessment will damage the educational prospects for poor and minority students simply are ignoring the historical record. In the past, poor and minority students have been the most frequent casualties of such standard-lowering policies as allowing less rigorous courses to meet academic requirements for graduation or diluting content in academic courses while keeping course titles the same. The second-class education that resulted from these policies undoubtedly contributed to social, racial, and gender inequality. We believe that clearly articulated national content and performance standards and well designed national methods of assessment can make such policies more difficult to implement and thus make an important contribution to equality of educational opportunity.

Second, the recent process of raising academic standards in high schools by strengthening graduation requirements and reducing the number of electives that students may take has moved us closer to the goal of equal educational opportunity for larger numbers of students than ever before in our history. No group has responded more positively to these changes than African-American students who have increased their pro portion of academic course-taking more dramatically than whites. Equally striking is the fact that during the very time that high school standards were being raised, the dropout rate fell, particularly among black students.

Third, such factors as resources do play an important role in ensuring educational equality, but the struggle for greater equity in resources should not be allowed to sidetrack the push for national goals and standards. The decline in black college attendance, which appears to be due to changes in federal financial aid policy, provides evidence of the importance of adequate resources for achieving equal educational opportunity. However, we take issue with critics of Goals 2000 who argue that unless and until resources are equalized among school districts the setting of national goals and standards will increase educational inequality. That stance tacitly acquiesces to the low educational standards currently in place in many impoverished communities across the country. Moreover, if goals and standards are put on hold while activists, politicians, policy makers, and judges battle over equalization, the practical consequence will be to consign yet another generation of students in impoverished districts to a second-rate, second-class education. That stance seems to us sadly reminiscent of the arguments for curricular differentiation early in this century. While the reasons have changed, the theme remains the same, namely that children from poor and minority backgrounds cannot be expected to rise to the challenge of high academic standards. We reject that assumption.

Finally, we see the setting of national goals and standards as the beginning not the end of the struggle. What remains to be done will be extremely difficult because it demands a massive effort to create developmentally appropriate, challenging course materials and methods for students of differing ability on every grade level. The idea that all students should meet high standards (and essentially follow the same curriculum) does not deny that there are educationally relevant differences among individuals in interests and abilities. Nor does it rule out approaches that would recognize different levels of mastery or that would offer a solid core of academically rigorous courses within a career-related focus. But implicit in the idea of high standards for all is the belief that differences in students' interests and abilities should challenge educators to explore a host of alternative instructional methods and approaches that will enable students to meet demanding performance standards rather than adopt what has been the traditional policy of curricular differentiation.

Much of the modern failure of American K-12 education lies in our avoiding the formidable task of discovering how to teach difficult subjects in ways that are both accessible to young people and yet still true to the complexity and richness of the material. Over 30 years ago, Jerome Bruner declared that "any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development."/23/ Goals 2000 challenges us to make that happen.


  1. David Angus and Jeffrey Mirel, "Rhetoric and Reality: American High School Course Taking, 1928-1990" in Learning from the Past: What History Teaches Us About School Reform, ed. Diane Ravitch and Maris Vinovskis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming in 1995).[Back]

  2. There are two notable exceptions both of whom strongly influenced our interpretation of the history of high school curriculum. They are John F. Latimer, What's Happened to Our High Schools? (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1958) and David Cohen whose outstanding essay on the history of the high school can be found in Arthur Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen, The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985), 233-308.[Back]

  3. National Education Association, "The Report of the Committee of Ten on Secondary-School Studies" (Washington, D.C.: The Association, 1893) in Education in the United States: A Documentary History, Vol. 3, ed. Sol Cohen (New York: Random House, 1974), 1935.[Back]

  4. U.S. Office of Education, The Biennial Survey of Education in the United States, 1955-56 (Washington, D.C.: The Office, 1956), 30.[Back]

  5. On Hall's critique see Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), 14-15.[Back]

  6. National Education Association, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1918), 22.[Back]

  7. Indeed, Cardinal Principles explicitly declared that secondary "education should be so reorganized that every normal boy and girl will be encouraged to remain in school to the age of 18, on full time if possible, otherwise on part time." Ibid., 30.[Back]

  8. U.S. Office of Education, The Biennial Survey of Education in the United States, 1955-56, 30.[Back]

  9. Quoted in Jeffrey Mirel, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System: Detroit, 1907-1981 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 132.[Back]

  10. David Angus and Jeffrey Mirel, "Equality, Curriculum and the Decline of the Academic Ideal: Detroit, 1928-68," History of Education Quarterly 33 (Summer 1993): 179-209. See also, Patricia Cayo Sexton, Education and Income: Inequalities of Opportunity in Our Public Schools (New York: Viking, 1961).[Back]

  11. On these trends see, Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 43-80.[Back]

  12. On these changes see Latimer, What's Happened to Our High Schools?, 118.[Back]

  13. Arthur Bestor, Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1953/1985).[Back]

  14. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1988 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), 10, 98, 141, 142.[Back]

  15. Mirel, The Rise and Fall of an Urban School System, 235-39, 254-56.[Back]

  16. James B. Stedman and K. Forbis Jordan, Education Reform Reports: Content and Impact, Report No. 86-56 EPW (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 1986), 12-41.[Back]

  17. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1993 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993), 12.[Back]

  18. "Standard Setting in High School Mathematics and Science Has Positive Effect," WCER Highlights 5 (Winter 1993): 4.[Back]

  19. National Center for Education Statistics, Dropout Rates in the United States: 1991 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992), 83.[Back]

  20. Karen De Witt, "College Board Scores Are Up For Second Consecutive Year," The New York Times, 19 August 1993, Section I: 1,8; Meg Sommerfeld, "Number of Minorities Taking AP Exams Continues To Go Up," Education Week, 10 November 1993, 10.[Back]

  21. National Research Council, Committee on the Status of Black Americans, A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, Summary and Conclusions (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1989), 19; Thomas Byrne Edsall with Mary D. Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 245.[Back]

  22. Edsall and Edsall, Chain Reaction, 247. See also, National Research Council, Committee on the Status of Black Americans, A Common Destiny, 19.[Back]

  23. Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), 33.[Back]

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