Academic journal article The Future of Children

Can the American High School Become an Avenue of Advancement for All?

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Can the American High School Become an Avenue of Advancement for All?

Article excerpt

A much maligned but durable institution, the American high school has played a key role in shaping the nation since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. It has provided a means of upward mobility, served as an engine of economic growth, and played a vital role as a community-building and socializing institution. At the same time, it has perpetuated inequalities and often fallen short of its ideals. (1) At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the American high school is once again being called on to help promote the nation's success--this time, by ensuring that all adolescents graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary schooling and training. This new challenge is in many ways the end point of a 150-year evolution.

Begun as a college-preparatory institution for a small fraction of society in the nineteenth century, the American high school added a workforce-preparation mission in the early twentieth century. (2) As it became a mass institution through mid-century, it took on a socialization role, as a way station where adolescents moved from childhood to adulthood. The curriculum was modified, and a general course of study filled with life-adjustment courses joined the academic and vocational components. (3) Through the 1960s and 1970s, extensions to compulsory schooling laws and changes in the labor market helped make attending high school the norm for all adolescents. To retain students' interest and participation, the American high school tried to offer something for everyone to the point that it came to be described, aptly, as a shopping mall. (4) Beginning in the 1980s and accelerating to the present day, the mission shifted once again. In response to the nation's transition from an industrial to an information economy, academic preparation once again became a priority. No longer an end point in the public education system, the American high school is now being asked to prepare all its students for the postsecondary schooling and training required for full economic and social participation in U.S. society. In short, it is being challenged to make good on its potential and become an avenue of advancement for all.

In this article I examine the state of the American high school at the start of the twenty-first century and ask how well it is succeeding in this new role and what its prospects are for ultimately fulfilling this mission. I first examine the structure and demographics of the American high school, then look in more depth at its current goals and outcomes. Next I explore the prospects that the American high school will be able to reformulate itself and successfully prepare all students for additional schooling or training. I evaluate its ability to change by looking in depth at its evolution over the past twenty-five years and considering the forces that might both advance and constrain its success.

The American High School Today

Understanding where the American high school is headed requires taking a close look at what it is today. In this section I examine how it is organized, where it is located, and who attends it.

A Common Structure

Across the nation the great majority of high school students share a common experience. They attend a public, regular high school that begins in the ninth grade and concludes in the twelfth grade. In 2006, 90 percent of high school students attended a public school. Less than 3 percent attended an alternative school, and less than 2 percent a vocational high school. Only a small fraction of high school students attended a charter school (3 percent) or a magnet school (8 percent). Today close to eight out of ten students go to a high school that begins in the ninth grade. Twelve percent go to combined middle and high schools that begin in the sixth, seventh, or eighth grade and conclude in the twelfth grade, and fewer than 4 percent attend senior highs that begin in the tenth grade. (5)

Distinct Environments

Variations in school location and size begin to differentiate students' high school experiences. …

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