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The American High School Has Failed Its Missions

This article was originally published in 1989 in the MSU Alumni Magazine.  Here’s a link to the original.

It came out right after publication of my first book, The Making of an American High School, and introduces the scheme of three conflicting goals for US education — democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility — that I went on to milk ad nauseam for the next 30 years.

I decided to resurrect it, in spite of its histrionic title, for two reasons.  First, since it appeared only in the alumni magazine, no one ever saw it.  Second, it has an attractively nonacademic quality to it (no data, no citations, no jargon), aims at a general audience, and draws a lot of movies (which I used to love using in my teaching).  Check out the photos in the published version; can’t believe I was ever that young and skinny.

Check it out.



 By David F. Labaree

Everyone is unhappy with the American high school these days and the reason may be that we can’t decide what we want it to do.

If movies are any indicator of the public temper, the American public high school is not held in very high esteem these days. In Teachers, a former student sues his high school for graduating him in a state of functional illiteracy, and view­ers are forced to agree with him that stu­dents learn little during their time in the school. For example, one teacher, known to one and all as “Ditto,” provides in­struction entirely through the medium of a stack of worksheets which students fill out while he sleeps behind a newspaper. When he dies one morning in class, it takes several periods before anyone no­tices.

Under educational circumstances such as these, it is hardly surprising to find that cinematic high school students are gener­ally bored and demoralized, driven to express their discontent through acts of resistance, evasion, and rebellion. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a burned out student played by Sean Penn orders pizza delivered to him in class. And in Ferris Bueller’s  Day Off, Matthew Broderick, the title character, employs all of his con­siderable skill and  intelligence to get himself and his girl friend out of school for a day. The movie encourages the  audi­ence to cheer for Ferris in his pursuit of the kinds of creative and engaging activ­ities that  are denied him at school and in his humiliation of the dogged vice princi­pal who seeks to catch  him playing hooky.


Teenage audiences are not the only ones who find fault with the high school, however. In the  past few years, a large number of research reports and policy documents have been sharply  critical of this institution. Produced by educational researchers, presidential commissions,  state task forces, and foundations, these reports argue that the high school is re­markably  ineffective at providing stu­dents with what they need to know and motivating them to learn  it.

In short, almost everyone, from lead­ing educators to the students sitting in the last row, seem to consider the high school a failure. The question is how an institu­tion that has been the embodiment of American hopes for so long could have fallen on such hard times. The answer is not, as some have suggested, that our expectations for the high school have been unrealistically high but instead that they have been, in a fundamental way, contradictory. The apparent failure of the American high school, I suggest, is the result of its attempt to adapt itself to purposes that are mutually exclusive. Suc­cess at achieving one of these goals has led to failure at another, and the conse­quence is an institution grounded in a compromise that satisfies no one.

Over the years, Americans have asked the public high school to serve three pur­poses, which I will refer to as democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mo­bility. The first is a political goal, accord­ing to which the high school should serve the needs of a democratic society; the other two are largely economic goals, according to which the high school should adapt itself to the requirements of the marketplace. Let’s look at how each of these goals has helped to shape different parts of the contemporary high school and then consider what happens when all of these parts are assembled into a single institution.

The founders of the high school in the mid-nineteenth century saw it as a cru­cial mechanism for building the Ameri­can republic by — in the words of Horace Mann — “making republicans.”  This meant that the early high school focused primarily on the political and moral train­ing of future citizens. In order to accom­plish this goal, it had to be accessible to all segments of the population and had to provide its students with a common edu­cational experience which would draw them together into a single political com­munity.

MSU Mag Cover

The form of the school that emerged at the turn of the century and persists to the present day — the regional comprehen­sive public high school — shows the con­tinuing influence of this  purpose. Pres­sure for democratic equality brought about the rapid expansion of the high  school, with enrollments doubling every decade between 1890 and 1940, and before the end  of the Great Depression state laws had made attendance compulsory. As a result, everyone in  a given community came to acquire a secondary education and they generally did so within  the walls of the same school, making the high school a powerful force for social integra­tion. In  the last couple of decades our egalitarian aspirations have grown to the point where we now  expect everyone to graduate as well, and we consider those who don’t (“dropouts”) to  represent a serious failure of democratic process. This expectation puts high schools under  considerable pressure to grease the student’s path toward graduation, using a combination of easy grading and auto­matic promotion, which makes a high school diploma into more of a  certificate of attendance than a badge of achievement. All too frequently the result is that  students like the character in Teachers manage to graduate without learning much of  anything.

Another goal, social efficiency, was embedded in the high school from the beginning, but it didn’t become a major influence until the start of the twentieth century. From this point of view, the high school is supposed to provide students with the skills they will need on  the job The argument is that vocational skills ac quired in high school make workers more  productive and therefore lead to economic expansion. This goal is compatible with the open accessibility of the democratic high school (since everyone need to be trained for some sort  of  economically useful job); but in order to pursue it the high school had to turn away from  the grand mission of making republicans to ward the more mundane task of producing  workers. This shift has had the effect of reducing high school teachers and students to the  status of cogs in the machinery of economic development, thus undermining their political  and moral zeal for secondary education. It also has changed the basis of public support for the high school by portraying the latter as a simple investment, whose soundness is measured in  the growth of GNP rather than the expansion of human potential.

In addition, the pursuit of social efficiency has led to the formation of two of the most distinctive characteristics of the contemporary high school curriculum, both of which are contradictory to the first goal. One is the presence of explicitly vocational courses, which  provide students with specific skills required to carry out particular jobs. This narrow  vocationalism runs directly counter to the kind of broad-based citizenship training that is  promoted by the democratic model.

Social efficiency has also shown its effect in the powerful tendency toward tracking. All the  students in a community may attend the same comprehensive high school, but they do not  receive an equal educational experience within that institution. Instead the high school sorts  then (and encourages them to sort themselves) into a variety of different courses. These  courses differ in degree of difficulty­ such as, for example, an array of twelfth grade English  classes ranging from remedial to advanced placement. They also differ in terms of projected  occupational outcomes — such as a vocational track that prepares a student to work as an  auto mechanic or beautician and the academic track that prepares him or her for admission to college and eventual entry into a managerial or professional job. Tracking therefore leads to  an inequality of educational experience and social outcomes that is in direct opposition to the goal of democratic equality.

The third goal for the high school, social mobility, emerged early in the his­tory of the high school, as families dis covered that a high school diploma pro­ vided their sons and daughters with a competitive advantage in the pursuit of a good job. This purpose is closely related to social efficiency in that both see the high school primarily as a preparation for work.

In addition, both accept the fact that jobs are unequal in terms of required skills and promised rewards, and both assert that the high school curriculum should reflect this inequality. However, supporters of the social efficiency goal look on the relationship between school and work from the perspective of the economy as a whole, and from this perspective the high school should be training students for whatever positions are currently in demand by employers. But the supporters of the social mobility goal approach this relationship from the point of view of the individual student, and from this angle the high school should be providing that individual with privileged access to the better jobs — without regard for the labor requirements of the econ­omy.

The consequence is that the pursuit of social mobility tends to undermine social efficiency,  since it encourages the high school to prepare too many students for the limited number of  more attractive jobs and not enough students for the larger number of less attractive jobs. In soap operas everyone seems to be a doctor or business executive, but in the real world  most people are needed to do less exalted things, such as typing letters and delivering the  mail.

The high school as an institution of social mobility, therefore, stands for individual opportunity in a way that is con­trary to the slot-filling perspective of so­cial efficiency and quite compatible with democratic equality. Both the demand for mobility and the demand for equality lead to an expansion in the public access to secondary education. But in a crucial  way, the mobility goal is in sharp contra­diction with the equality goal as well as the efficiency goal. The problem is that a high school diploma can provide individ­uals with a chance to get ahead only if these diplomas are distributed unequally. If everyone has a high school degree, then no one gains a competitive advantage from this acquisition. So if the high school  is going to serve the social mo­bility needs of at least some students, it must do so by keeping its credentials from falling into too many other hands. Yet the demand for access to high school in this country has meant that there is a glut of high school credentials on the market.

In the face of this glut, the high school has adapted to the demand for social mo­bility through tracking and through the upward expansion of educational opportunity. With tracking, a high school can provide access to secondary education for an entire community while at the same time providing a select group of high track students with credentials that can be exchanged for good jobs. In addition, students can acquire valuable credentials by pursuing education at the next higher level, college, where the credentials are not yet so widely held.

Note the dizzying way in which these three purposes for the American high school interlock in a tight spiral of alternately reinforcing and contradicting tendencies. As a consequence, the institution serves none of these purposes with any real effectiveness. Within the compromised American high school, democratic equality comes to mean little more that equal access, as the ideals of equal treatment and citizenship training get pushed off to the side; social efficiency becomes a process of sorting kids into tracks, which tend to block opportunity and which also fail to meet workforce requirements; and social mobility be­ comes a chase after credentials whose value is threatened by the growing number of people holding these credentials.

As a result, the American high school is an institution with a confused identity and an inability to keep its promises. It is little wonder that students, teachers, and parents all find themselves in an uneasy relationship with the institution that has traditionally served as the capstone of  community education.

We aren’t happy with it, but we can’t seem to live without it either. Unless we are willing to concentrate on one of its contradictory purposes at the expense of others — and there is no indication of a movement in this direction — then we are struck with the high school in something like its current form. And our Ferris Buellers may continue to find the halls of this compromised institution too confin­ing for the realization of their educational aspirations.

1 comment

  1. Thanx for this analysis.

    Have pressures to achieve the social efficiency and social mobility purposes subsequently migrated to college, reducing the pressures on contemporary high schools to achieve these purposes?


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