School & District Management Opinion

Is the Comprehensive High School Doomed?

By W. Norton Grubb & Marvin Lazerson — September 21, 2004 8 min read
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The rise and fall of the public comprehensive high school is one of the great tragedies of American education. When it took form in the first decades of the 20th century, the high school embodied enormous expectations: preparing youths for a labor market that offered serious jobs, facilitating access to college, and channeling the Sturm und Drang of adolescence into productive forms of citizenship.

The comprehensive high school was a uniquely American phenomenon. It sought to gather all youths into a single institution that would prepare them for different roles, in workplaces, in civic life, in families and communities. It was, of course, suffused with stereotypical assumptions and invidious discriminations. The primary occupational preparation of girls was assumed to be domestic science and, later, secretarial training; African- Americans prepared for manual labor; many immigrant youths were thought genetically incapable of preparing for college. These assumptions all reinforced conditions of inequality that existed outside the schools. But the historical success of the high school in educating nearly all 14- to 17-year- olds and in providing genuine opportunities to overcome invidious distinctions has been substantial. Through much of the 20th century, it stood as the centerpiece of America’s educational system, the embodiment of the American Dream of getting ahead through schooling.

No one would make that claim today. The comprehensive high school is a blighted institution, with its academic purpose reduced to preparing some students for vocational study in college and its direct vocational role eliminated by the collapse of the youth labor market. It is now a place to warehouse young people until they move on to somewhere else.

What happened?

A century ago, the high school was primarily an academic institution, in the specific sense that its curriculum was dominated by academic subjects and in the more disparaging sense that formal schooling was distant from the political, community, and economic life outside its doors. The dominance of academic subjects gave way under pressure to vocationalize the curriculum, to prepare students directly for entry-level jobs that traditionally did not require secondary schooling. The vocational education movement changed the high school, as trade and industrial training, secretarial and clerical preparation, home economics, agricultural education, and all the mechanisms of tracking became routine.

The comprehensive high school is a blighted institution.

But the broader significance of vocational education lay in its role in transforming the conception of schooling to one of getting all students better jobs, not just those in voc. ed. What we call the American system of vocationalism came to dominate all segments of schooling, from the high school to the university, so that the only real measuring rod was whether the schooling moved individuals into better jobs.

Through the first half of the 20th century, the public comprehensive high school continued to look like a good bet. Suburban expansion was based in part on the hope for better schools, to help young people get ahead. Then the bottom seemed to fall out. In the 1950s, competition with the Soviet Union led to attacks on low academic standards. The 1960s saw unruly youths demand civil rights. The 1970s witnessed sharp criticism over the high school’s isolation from the world of adults and the world of work. The 1980s returned to 1950s-style attacks on low academic standards, followed by two decades of attempts to raise standards while everyone scrambled to find yet other cures. At century’s end, what had once been viewed as the strongest part of the education system had become its weakest link.

Why did it happen?

The deterioration occurred for many reasons, but a primary one was the virtual disappearance of a labor market for youths. The jobs that now exist for high school graduates are dreary—with low wages in a world of conspicuous consumption, no security, no benefits, no career ladders, requiring no training and little literacy since they have been dumbed down. For high school dropouts, the situation is even worse.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Staying in school in order to go to college is another matter. In the last decades of the century, economic returns to college graduation relative to high school graduation grew substantially. Those with two-year associate’s degrees also do substantially better than high school graduates, though not as well as those with baccalaureate degrees.

Almost all discussions about secondary education today involve the reality that its only real purpose is to facilitate college entry. And, within that mandate, serious concerns with learning exist only among those few students, perhaps 5 percent to 10 percent, who aspire to highly selective colleges. For the rest, the academic curriculum is something to be endured; the goal is simply to accumulate credits and a minimal grade point average to get into some college. The overwhelming majority of undergraduate colleges and universities are not especially competitive, since they accept 80 percent to 90 percent of applicants, and the community colleges, which now enroll almost 50 percent of all entering freshmen, are open to anyone who wants to enter.

The vocational curriculum is no longer serious, as it has become small and fragmented. It focuses on low-level jobs without any real benefits in employment, and students drift through with low aspirations. What is euphemistically referred to as the general track, with “life skills” and watered-down “academic” courses for students likely to enter unskilled jobs, has never offered serious options, from the time it was labeled “Life Adjustment” after World War II to the present.

Most students meander through high school with no clear ideas about the future, caught between the belief that finishing will get them better jobs and the fact that there is no longer any obvious connection between staying in school and the labor market—other than “going to college.” The students hoping for vocational training get virtually none. Most teachers and counselors now preach “college for all,” partly because they fear being charged with tracking students, but in the process furthering the sense that college is the only goal.

Most students have become disengaged from learning of any sort. They belive getting a degree will help them, but they don't associate that achievement with learning.

Most students have become disengaged from learning of any sort. They believe that getting a degree will help them, but they do not associate that achievement with learning, at least not what schools have to teach. What counts in the labor market is the quantity of schooling an individual has completed, not the quality of learning, and so students have an incentive to continue as long as possible without expending more than the minimum amount of effort to pass. This leads to overeducation, or more accurately overschooling, in which students get more schooling than they need for the jobs they are likely to get. But even the incentive simply to stay in school doesn’t work. For some, the level of disengagement is so high that they drop out before graduation. Despite the century-long hope of “high school for all,” dropout rates are high, between 25 percent and 30 percent nationally, and considerably worse in urban districts and for minority students, where they run as high as 50 percent to 60 percent. And despite the efforts of the standards movement to invigorate learning and academic achievement in the high schools, little has been accomplished.

What can we do?

The future need not be all doom and gloom. There are innovations developing that could help. Efforts to reconstitute high schools as small communities with a clear sense of purpose and with something serious to accomplish in their own right can be encouraged. Large comprehensive high schools are a disaster—chaotic, fragmented, purposeless factories. In contrast, schools-within-schools, theme-based schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and schools where teachers stay with their students as they progress hold out some hope that common purposes, built on a community of learners, can restore coherence, engagement, and motivation.

One example includes programs that we call “education through occupations.” These emphasize broad occupational areas, elastic enough to encompass standard academic subjects and to integrate occupational content as well. The “college and careers” approach, as the University of California, Berkeley, professor David Stern calls it, can prepare students in the same program for college and for employment and future work responsibilities.

Academic learning and school experiences can also be connected to life outside the school—through student projects, service learning, environmental protection, work-based internships, and co-op placements. These are hard to establish and harder to maintain at a high level of learning aligned with in-school instruction. But the alternative is to continue the high school as an institution cloistered from political, economic, and community life, to the detriment of students looking for something real to do.

If the curriculum is important only in instrumental ways, as preparation for college or later employment, then it is simply something to endure while waiting for something else.

The list of possibilities that flow from these approaches is substantial—improved guidance to clarify students’ future options and their relationships to both secondary and postsecondary education, a dismantling of the inequities of the formal and informal tracking system, the integration of nontraditional teachers into secondary education. And, of course, there are some issues, like the poor labor market for young people, that the schools can do little about, but which need serious attention from more active government.

Reconstructing the high school requires giving it some meaning of its own. If the curriculum is important only in instrumental ways, as preparation for college or later employment, then it is simply something to endure while waiting for something else. If the curriculum has no intrinsic value, calls to learn will continue to fall by the wayside, and threats to enforce learning through high-stakes tests are unlikely to do much good.

The real challenge is to tie educational standards to the world around us in ways that recast academic disciplines and vocational education. Only then will young people understand the world’s richness and start formulating roles in it for themselves. Only then will the high school save itself.

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