One of the most remarkable achievements of American democracy was its provision of free universal compulsory education for all its children and young people. No society had ever committed itself to universal education. The movement to get our children out of the fields and factories led every state by 1918 to set a minimum school leaving age ranging from 16 to 18. . That meant that publically supported high schools had to be available to all communities.
It also meant that schools had to develop ways of serving the full range of differences in language, culture, experiential background , values, goals and ability among the children coming to our schools . In earlier times the goals of general education were little more than the minimal three r’s with secondary education only to prepare the elite for higher education. To serve all pupils well, new institutions with new curricula had to evolve: schools needed a broad and variable curriculum to serve the all of the nation’s youth including the waves of young immigrants.
Much thought went into this curriculum. John Dewey said we could no longer make the students adjust to the school; we had to make the school fit the learners. We needed to prepare all learners for full participation in a democratic society, and also to accept difference, to start where the learners were and carry them as far as they were capable of going. One answer was the comprehensive high school. The central idea was that a single school could serve everyone in a community by offering varied curricula with many choices and options. That was particularly important in small and medium sized towns that could only support a single high school; but it was also important in the large cities. By having all young people in the same school, students could learn to participate in a diverse society. Schools could serve the college bound but they could also provide interesting and challenging sequences for those who would enter the work force when they left school.
The civil rights period extended this concept to eliminate racially segregated schools. New laws required inclusion of the full range of handicapped and special populations so that the schools were really serving all young people in the public schools of the community.
It wasn’t a perfect system but it worked well to keep virtually all young people in school, to educate them to a reasonable level, and to provide a unifying experience for new and native born citizens.
Now, however, there are strong pressures on state and federal levels to move to a one size fits all narrow curriculum. Choices, even for those college bound, have been largely eliminated and every student is required to complete the courses formerly required for those seeking college admission. Advanced math and science courses are required for all that were designed originally for those planning to follow college majors in math and science. And in many states all students have to pass the same tests at the same level to even get a high school diploma.
Ironically, as other developed and developing nations are moving toward universal education and a comprehensive secondary curricula, we ‘re driving pupils out of schools that are no longer willing or able to adjust to their needs and goals.
On the national level, the punitive No Child Left Behind law is requiring that schools not only narrow the curriculum but that all pupils reach the same high level of achievement previously only reached by the top 10-20 percent. Virtually every school and school district will be labeled as failing by 2014 according to several state studies because they can’t reach these impossible goals.
Our nation needs good mathematicians and scientists. But more than that it needs informed citizens with a broad education who can participate in a democratic society. In an increasingly diverse society we need schools that can adjust to differences among learners. For that we need to bring back the comprehensive high school.
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.