Creating the Dropout: An Institutional and Social History of School Failure

By Sherman Dorn | Go to book overview

2
The Changing Mission of High Schools

The increased likelihood of graduating from high school was the demographic foundation for our current expectation of universal (or near universal) graduation. It is unlikely that graduation could have become a widespread expectation of adolescents when only a small fraction graduated. In addition to demographic changes, though, the definition of dropping out as a serious problem required the belief that everyone should attend high schools. Dropping out is a concern precisely because of deeply held views that the high school is an essential part of formal education. This role for high schools is an historical artifact. The common view of high schools as comprehensive was not inevitable in North America and became entrenched only after World War II. Until then, high schools were selective institutions, enrolling and graduating only a portion of adolescents.

Some suggested, early in the century, that high schools be universal, yet no consensus existed about the proper extent of high school attendance for several decades. Slowly, high schools evolved into mass institutions. As they did so, the presumed purpose changed. Over the first half of this century, high schools became community institutions in many towns, perhaps more known for their sports than their graduates. During the Great Depression, school officials added custodianship of youth to the mission of high schools. By the end of World War II, educators had expanded the mission of high schools to include the vague goal that schools should help students adjust to adult life. Here, then, was a mission that fit universal attendance, though it landed administrators in hot water in the 1950s.

This shift in goals was by no means uncontested. In every decade, cynics questioned the propriety of broader high school attendance as school officials and their critics fought over the appropriateness of high school expansion ( Angus 1965). Yet the opponents of universal high school attendance were fighting a

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Creating the Dropout: An Institutional and Social History of School Failure
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Tables vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Long-Term Demographic Patterns 11
  • 2 - The Changing Mission of High Schools 33
  • 3 - Early Attitudes toward Attrition 51
  • 4 - Social Dynamite 65
  • 5 - The Limits of Dropout Programs 81
  • 6 - Omissions 99
  • 7 - Dropout Tides 119
  • 8 - The Demeaning Dropout Debate 131
  • Bibliography 147
  • Index 165
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