School & District Management

The Legacy of an Influential Yet Often Forgotten Study

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — May 19, 1999 7 min read

Boxes of tarnished trophies and other long-forgotten memorabilia symbolizing East High School’s earliest sports triumphs lie in storage, replaced in school display cases by the honors bestowed on more recent generations. Even fewer traces of the Denver school’s academic legacy endure.

No plaques identify it as one of 30 schools and school districts initially selected for the historic experiment in high school curriculum that came to be known as the Eight-Year Study. And today’s administrators, teachers, and students are virtually unaware of the national reputation for innovation that their school earned some six decades ago.

But there is some evidence, however scant, that the study begun in 1932, and ending in 1940, has had a lasting impact on East and other high schools throughout the country. The project allowed participating schools and districts to depart from the college-preparatory curriculum that dominated secondary education and to design courses and programs that better related to the lives of individual students.

The 1,600-student school still maintains a “school-within-a-school,” with a special program for at-risk students, a concept that took root there in the 1930s when a portion of the student body participated in the study. Cooperative learning and curricula that are more relevant to students’ lives are also mainstays.

But when the Commission on the Relation of School and College released its five-volume report on the study in 1942, it’s title hailed the experiment as an “Adventure in American Education.”

The details of the study reveal what a daring endeavor it was.

Appointed by the Progressive Education Association, the commission set out to prove that the conventional high school curriculum, and the fear that diverging from it would limit students’ options for higher education, squelched innovation in most secondary schools.

The 26-member commission believed that the curriculum no longer served the needs of the nation’s high school population, which had exploded from 1 million to 10 million in the first three decades of the 20th century. The high school, the commission concluded, could provide more relevant schooling for the five out of six students who did not go on to college, while giving the one student who did a stronger foundation on which to build.

And so, after two years of planning, and with a guarantee from hundreds of colleges that students could gain admission without the requisite coursework, the schools and districts selected for the study “set out upon their eight-year journey of exploration and trailblazing,” Wilford M. Aikin, who directed the study, wrote in Volume 1 of the report, The Story of the Eight-Year Study.

Frightened by Freedom

Even with the newfound freedom, a bold departure from tradition was difficult for many of the schools. As one participating principal put it: “My teachers and I do not know what to do with this freedom. It challenges and frightens us. I fear that we have come to love our chains.”

One school--Pelham Manor in New York City--dropped out of the experiment because of its commitment to another major study. Some schools opted for only subtle changes in the content of courses.

Others, though, took greater advantage of the flexibility their involvement in the study allowed and pushed at all the boundaries that had defined education for decades.

At Bronxville High School, in New York’s Westchester County, students abandoned traditional subjects to explore broad themes, as some schools do today. Instead of the conventional chemistry course, students studied “the physical environment and ... some aspects of the nature of matter, of the changes in matter, chemical and physical, and of the nature of the various energies.”

Students at the private Lincoln School at Teachers College, Columbia University, applied the problems of Greek civilization to modern American life when they “spent eight to 10 weeks being Greeks.”

“The students lived, worked, and thought as Spartans, Athenians, Corinthians, Syracusans, Thebans, and Milesians,” the report says. An early example of a multidisciplinary program, the course combined language and literature, art, music, civics, history, economics, mathematics, and science.

Seniors at Radnor High School in Wayne, Pa.--for whom employment, not college, was the next likely step--tested the job market, spending two weeks at a time working in various businesses and industries.

In school, they studied labor unions, collective bargaining, Social Security, housing, uses of leisure time, and becoming an informed consumer.

And in all of Denver’s five public high schools, the study gave momentum to the curriculum reforms there that had begun in the late 1920s. As part of the Progressive Education Association study, some boys and girls would spend only two hours a day with their teachers discussing various units of study encompassed in the districtwide core curriculum.

The remainder of the time was for independent exploration, with the overall goal being “a continuous attack upon the problems which are persistent in the lives of adolescents as members of a democratic society.”

Nationally, the schools in the study were both public and private, rural and urban, and served the children of the working class as well as the well-to-do. The directions they took were equally varied, but they had in common some of the progressive ideals that began influencing schools earlier in the century.

Most schools broke away from the strictures of the traditional classroom and school day. Teachers changed the way they taught, relying less on lectures and textbooks and more on informal exchanges with and among students.

Students who had been used to sitting straight and still in their desks, eyes focused on the teacher, were now free to roam the classroom, to sit in groups, or to work by themselves. They were encouraged to move beyond the memorization of material to develop reflective thinking and skill in problem-solving.

By most accounts, the initiative was a success. The nearly 1,500 students who participated in the program performed slightly better in college than a comparison group of students who had been exposed to a traditional high school curriculum.

The study was evidence, in the eyes of the progressives, that a lockstep sequence of courses was not the only way to prepare young adults for college or life.

Those skeptical of the results claimed the experiment was skewed because the youths selected to participate were primarily high-achieving students.

‘Never Fully Appreciated’

The Eight-Year Study has been called both the most influential curriculum study in American history and the most forgotten.

The first volume of the commission’s report was released in the spring of 1942, just months after the United States entered World War II. The war turned schools’ attention away from innovation.

“We went to war, and that was the end of that story because no one cared about public education when there was a war going on,” says Jon Snyder, the director of teacher education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a senior researcher for the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future.

But the study was not a total loss. Almost a decade later, representatives of half the participating schools and districts gathered for a post-mortem. While they lamented problems they had encountered implementing and maintaining changes, most agreed the effort had been worthwhile.

“In many ways, it’s a study that has never been fully appreciated, and it doesn’t get the scholarly attention it deserves,” says Frank B. Murray, a professor of education at the University of Delaware. “Yet, it is a gold mine of anecdotes and details of how these 30 high schools reformed themselves.”

While the details of the curricular overhaul had faded years later--many of the schools reported they had returned to a traditional curriculum within a few years of the study’s end--they left an impression on many of the schools. That was especially true of private institutions, such as the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, that had always been committed to a progressive approach.

Pride in Participating

In Denver, East High School’s reputation for innovation carried at least into the 1970s, recalls Robert L. Colwell, who was the principal from 1960 until he retired in 1974.

“I remember the pride of having been a part of the Eight-Year Study and recognized as one of the big progressive schools in the country,” Colwell says.

Aiming to maintain that reputation, Colwell started a Senior Seminar program for 100 students selected to reflect the makeup of the East High enrollment. Some spent the length of the six-week course living in a hogan with local Navajo families to study American Indian culture. Other students were paired with state legislators to learn about politics.

Modern-day reform efforts are also steeped in the ideals that fueled the Eight-Year Study, some scholars say, but they are linked only indirectly.

“In education, things have a tendency to come back around again,” says Victor L. Dupuis, a professor emeritus of education at Pennsylvania State University. “Things like independent study, guided education, the effective-schools movement are all the old ideas coming back, but the people who are doing them are not likely to know about the Eight-Year Study.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Legacy of an Influential Yet Often Forgotten Study

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