Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"Leaving No 'Unbridged Chasm'": The Office of the High School Visitor at the University of Illinois, 1896-1948

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

"Leaving No 'Unbridged Chasm'": The Office of the High School Visitor at the University of Illinois, 1896-1948

Article excerpt

The University of Illinois, through its Office of the High School Visitor, played an integral role during the first half of the twentieth century in promoting school accreditation and curriculum standards as a way to distinguish the goals and purposes of high school. The articulation between universities and secondary schools in fact served as a focal point of the organizational transformation of education in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Historian Edward Krug described the problem of articulation as such: "The lines between school and college had been uncertain in the 1880s and were no less so throughout the 1890s. In part, then, standards promised deliverance from confusion."1

At the secondary level, universities and professional organizations set initial accreditation standards for high school curricula to establish more uniformity in the college admissions process. Beyond establishing admission criteria, accreditation also focused on reshaping secondary education in the United States and developing standards that would produce a common American high school. This movement rooted its authority in the technical expertise of those carrying out accreditation reviews, but while universities and professional organizations stepped up their activities, they often needed to coordinate or reconcile their efforts with those of state offices of public instruction.

National and state-level leaders in education used accreditation to address that lack of definition between secondary schools and high schools during a period of heightened bureaucratization in business, industry, and public institutions. Private and public sectors rushed to professionalize their respective fields in the pursuit of efficiency.2 These notions of efficiency were soon adopted by those interested in using science to bring order and stability to social institutions during a time of great change.3

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century educational leaders worked hard to increase the efficiency of schools during this time of extraordinary growth in the numbers of children attending school. Child labor laws, compulsory school attendance legislation, and the arrival of large numbers of immigrants and migrants heightened the need for urban schools to build their capacity to educate a diverse and growing population. The standardization of educational institutions through accreditation provided a powerful tool for universities, professional organizations, and state departments of education to shape secondary schools through "scientific" inspections and evaluations to increase their efficiency. Although often voluntary, accreditation furthered the cause of social efficiency with subtle coercion. Heavily influenced by the corporate "cult of efficiency," philanthropic foundations such as the Carnegie Foundation and Rockefeller's General Education Board, gave significant financial support to universities willing to subject themselves to "scientific" surveys to identify and eliminate their inefficiencies and reorganize their institutions to address them. Avoiding such evaluations threatened a school's survival.4 For universities, choosing to reject accreditation meant losing private funding; for high schools it often meant denying their graduates access to higher education and professional occupations.

The significant growth of secondary school enrollments in the early twentieth century led to an increase in accountability of these schools to state offices, universities, and professional organizations. In 1948 Illinois public high school enrollment reached 310,176, more than ten times the number of students enrolled in 1896.5 This rapid growth of the school population and the concern over the quality of instruction, especially ensuring that students received adequate preparation for college-level work, resulted in a rather unique development of several systems of accreditation and recognition in Illinois. The State of Illinois called for annual reports and periodically conducted school inspections as part of officially recognizing a school, while the University of Illinois, through its Office of the High School Visitor, carried out regular visits and required annual reports for a school to earn accreditation. …

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