April 28, 2007

Education history and school renewal

Today's brief N.Y. Times story, Massachusetts Acts To Save the Country's First Public High School, is about efforts to revive academics in the first public high school, which opened in the 1820s. The school is troubled, far from its origins as part of the 19th century expansion of the public sphere into tertiary education

English High was neither the first secondary school nor the first "public school" (a concept that only became clearly distinguished from private schooling later in the 19th century). There were plenty of schools called academies, seminaries, colleges, and so forth, and their curriculum, academic intensity, and potential student pool all overlapped. As Nancy Beadie and Kim Tolley have documented, New York state provided partial support of academies for part of the 19th century.

But English High represented an idea that was controversial for much of the 19th century: using public funds to provide more advanced education for a small group of students. Today, we think of high school as a universal adolescent experience, but it wasn't until the middle third of the 20th century. In Massachusetts, the legislature repeatedly required towns of a certain size to have high schools, a requirement that was generally ignored until the 1850s. In one case famous among education historians, the town of Beverly, Massachusetts, first started a high school when the state sued.  Then a few years later, the town voted to abolish the school. (The reasons why have been argued over for the last 40 years: see Michael B. Katz's The Irony of Early School Reform and Maris Vinovskis's The Origins of Public High Schools.)

Part of the reason for the controversy in Beverly and elsewhere was the limited enrollment in high schools; few could afford to keep their kids out of work long enough to attend, but taxes still supported the schools. Part also came from competition for legitimacy (and students) from academies. High schools didn't really acquire political legitimacy until after an 1873 lawsuit filed to block public tax support of the Kalamazoo Union High School. The suit failed, and while the state supreme court only had precedential power over Michigan, it essentially knocked the legs out of the anti-high-school movement.

Many interpret the growth of high schools in the late 19th and early 20th century as a direct outgrowth of the Kalamazoo case, and the webpage linked above includes a similar argument:

Although this issue had been heard by other courts, Justice Cooley's prestige helped to make the Kalamazoo School Case a leading decision that was cited in many courts in surrounding states. In Michigan the effect was profound. The number of high schools in the state increased from 107 in the early 1870's to 278 by 1890.

But that's not quite true. As David Labaree notes in The Making of an American High School, the growing credential value of high schools gave people in cities a powerful incentive to push for more access to high schools. That growth in high schools eliminated the institutional prestige of the earlier high schools, such as English High in Boston or Central High in Philadelphia.  Central High reacquired higher status in the 1940s when the city differentiated its high schools, creating an elite tier.

The history of English High would make a wonderful dissertation project, from its origins through various phases: A quick search of Worldcat reveals enough secondary materials to make a go of it.

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Posted in Education policy on April 28, 2007 4:06 PM |