Secondary Education

views updated Jun 08 2018


history of
susan l. mintz

current trends gerald
n. tirozzi

international issues
donald b. holsinger


In the mid-to late nineteenth century, the United States became the first country to open secondary education to the general public. In the early twenty-first century, secondary education follows a common elementary school experience, typically beginning at age twelve and continuing through age seventeen or eighteen. Elementary education deals with the rudimentary skills of reading, writing, and computation, as well as social goals deemed important by curriculum developers. Secondary education, however, extends beyond the elementary curriculum and addresses a combination of the personal, intellectual, vocational, and social needs of adolescents in society. Educators and policymakers have engaged in ongoing debate over what should be included in the secondary curriculum. In fact, the emphases of the secondary curriculum have shifted according to local and national goals; the historical, philosophical, and intellectual context; and societal beliefs about the role of youth in society, as well as other factors.

The Beginnings of Secondary Education

Public secondary schools began to proliferate throughout the United States in the mid-to late nineteenth century. Before then, private endeavors provided a variety of educational experiences. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, private academies and tutors prepared wealthy boys for college. Academies, controlled by an independent board, required tuition and were distinguished from one another by regional and local needs. As a result, the curriculum and religious orientation were not the same at each school. The college preparatory curriculum was classical in nature, focusing on Greek and Latin. Boston Latin Grammar School epitomizes an example of such an academy. Opened in 1635 with some public funding and control, Boston Latin was designed to give boys from elite families the education they needed in order to attend college and take their place in society.

As the merchant and craftsmen class grew, private academies began to cater to the sons of the middle class in order to prepare these young men to succeed in commerce. These academies, called English academies, offered classes in modern languages, literature, mathematics, natural science, history, and geography, rather than Latin and Greek. Both English and Latin academies offered admission through examination. The differences in these academy curricula foreshadowed what would become the continuing debate over what should constitute the secondary curriculuma question that has been addressed throughout the history of American high schools.

The First Public High Schools

The first public high school opened in Boston in 1821. What became known as English High School was established as an alternative to private academies that offered a college preparatory curriculum. Boys who passed the entrance examination participated in a three-year English curriculum. High schools became more common in Massachusetts after an 1827 law required towns to provide a free public high school. Other early high schools could be found across the United States, although the biggest growth came in urban areas. Many early high schools did not admit girls and minorities. Boston opened a High School for Girls in 1826 that closed within two years. It was not until Boston Girls High and Normal School opened in 1857 that young women had the opportunity to attend a public secondary school. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for urban schools to include a normal curriculum at the secondary level. Normal schools trained young women to teach in local elementary schools.

Growth of Public High Schools

The public high school movement gained momentum following the Civil War (18611865). Only 300 high schools existed in the United States prior to the war; by 1900 there were more than 6,000 high schools annually graduating 6 percent of American seventeen-year-olds. Public high schools, however, had their detractors as well as supporters. Advocates argued that high schools completed the public school system, could attract businesses by providing competent labor, and increased the value of land. Opponents viewed the taxes that supported high schools as a burden. In many cases, families could not afford to send their children to school. Family economic stability was needed for high school attendance, and some families did not have this luxury. In other cases, families might choose to send their children to private schools and not get the direct benefit of the public high school. The tax question was resolved in 1872 when the Michigan Supreme Court (in what became known as the Kalamazoo Case) heard arguments for and against using taxes for secondary schools. The ruling favored tax support of public high schools, which subsequently became common practice throughout the United States.

Curriculum Standardization

As the number of public high schools grew, the variety among curricula increased. No standards existed concerning curriculum or organization. Curriculum decisions made by local school boards hampered the links between colleges and high schools. Entrance to college was usually determined by examinations that had specific, individual requirements, making it difficult to anticipate the necessary preparation. To provide more standardization in the curriculum and help untangle the college admission process, the National Education Association sponsored the Committee of Ten in 1892. Ten influential educators, mostly from colleges and universities, debated the appropriate role of secondary schools. The report of this committee examined a central question in the ongoing curriculum debatewhat constitutes a good secondary education?

The Committee of Ten recommended a rigorous academic curriculum for all students, regardless of their future plans, and elucidated the pursuit of knowledge and training of the intellect as the mission of secondary schools. High schools held the responsibility for designing courses of study that focused on the nine core subjects: Latin, Greek, English, modern languages, mathematics, sciences, natural history, history (including economics and government), and geography. College admission would follow for interested students who successfully completed this course of study. But the desire to attend college was not the only reason to partake of these classes. The committee argued that in order for students to be educated, college bound or not, an academic curriculum was necessary. Criticisms of the report abounded. Many academicians believed that there was too little rigor; others commented that the courses were too impractical.

Curriculum standardization was not the only approach to articulating the secondary schoolcollege divide. As noted, in the late nineteenth century admission to most colleges was determined by an entrance examination. High school and state educators wanted to use a diploma admission requirement rather than have to prepare students for the wide range of college admissions tests. The University of Michigan began diploma admission as early as 1871, but this practice did not become common until accreditation became popular.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges was founded in 1885 and is the oldest of the six regional accrediting agencies servicing the United States in the early twenty-first century. These accreditation agencies helped to cement the distinctions between colleges and universities and standardize the evaluation of high school programs. Accreditation continues to be voluntary and involves parents, teachers, students, and community members. A school self-study that is based on regional standards and is tied to state standards is the basis of the accreditation evaluation. In another regulatory push, the College Entrance Examination Board came into existence in 1899 with the goal of providing uniform examinations for college admission.

The Carnegie unit also played a role in the standardization of high schools in the early part of the twentieth century. Again, the issue was how to report high school experiences to colleges. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a nonprofit corporation founded in 1906, developed the Carnegie unit as a measure of the amount of time a student had studied a subject. One Carnegie unit was equivalent to 120 hours of contact time, and fourteen units was established as the minimum for an academic high school course of study.

Curriculum Differentiation

Early in the twentieth century the population of secondary schools increased dramatically. In 1910, 8.8 percent of seventeen-year-olds were in high school; by 1930 this figure rose to almost 30 percent. Progressive educators took note of both this increase and that many of the students in secondary schools would not be attending college. They believed schools needed to expand the rigorous academic curriculum to include more practical subjects and in this way create more equitable schools. Rather than focusing solely on intellectual training, high schools began to emphasize social and vocational skills that prepared students for later life. Social skills were necessary to assimilate the large wave of immigrants and to promote democratic ideals so that new Americans could function in society.

The term curriculum differentiation means different courses of study for different students. The comprehensive high school attempts to meet the needs of a variety of students in one location. Curriculum differentiation was championed in another National Education Association report, the Cardinal Principles of Education. This report, released in 1918 and authored by the NEA's Committee on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, did not emphasize intellectual skills or the standard school subjects. Rather, the committee recommended that secondary education focus on health, the command of fundamental processes, worthy home membership, vocation, citizenship, worthy use of leisure time, and ethical character. As high school education became universal, comprehensive high schools, the committee argued, should meet the needs of the widely diverse student population. These needs could be met through varied curriculum options relevant to the lives of current students. Guidance departments would help students make appropriate selections from the available choices by determining the students' strengths and weaknesses. IQ tests would be used to determine student placement. The committee emphasized that offering a wide variety of relevant choices for students was the only way universal secondary education could provide equal educational opportunity and allow all students to succeed. Using the high school curriculum to solve social problems was compatible with the relevant curriculum choices in the Cardinal Principles. This trend has continued in high schools as seen in the substance abuse programs, family life education, and driver's education courses at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Secondary School Structures

The development of secondary schools led to a number of different structural arrangements. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the prevalent pattern was eight years of graded elementary school followed by four years of high school. The first junior high schools, grades seven through nine, were established in California and Ohio around 1910. This organization allowed for greater flexibility in the curriculum and slowly assimilated students into the world of high school subjects, classes, and teaching styles. The junior high school pattern typically includes six years of elementary school, three years of junior high school, and three years of senior high school. There were more than 7,000 junior high schools by the 1960s.

Middle schools evolved in the 1960s with a new patternfive years of elementary, three years of middle school, and four years of high school. Middle schools were designed to meet the intellectual, social, and physical needs of young adolescents rather than to help these students get ready for high school. The structural and curricular changes in middle schools included advisories (long-term student groups that meet with one faculty member over a period of time), team planning and teaching, exploratory classes, and adequate health and physical education classes. Middle schools are currently the predominant mode of organization in grades six through eight.

Minorities in Public High Schools

The idea of a public high school education had taken hold in the white, middle-class population by the late 1800s. High schools were mostly coeducational and, in fact, girls made up the majority of the high school population by the late 1800s. The education of blacks and Native Americans, however, took a different turn. During Reconstruction education was aimed at helping African Americans adjust to the prevailing political and social norms. The separate but equal doctrine elucidated in the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 severely curtailed the development of black high schools, yet the perennial high school curriculum debate was also relevant to the education of African Americans. The educators W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington disagreed about the course that black education should take. Du Bois believed in an academic curriculum allowing talented students to excel, a curriculum promoting intellectual life, whereas Washington favored industrial and agricultural training, a curriculum promoting the worthiness of hard work.

This debate, centering on how African-American youth should be educated in high school, was a moot point for many years because most localities, particularly in the South, did not provide public high schools for blacks. In an 1899 decision (Cummings v. School Board of Richmond County, Georgia ), the Supreme Court decided that school boards were not required to provide public secondary education for African Americans. This decision restrained the evolution of black secondary education. Only a few black public high schools managed to struggle into existence. In general, these high schools focused on a college preparatory curriculum. Nevertheless, once the population of African-American youth in urban areas increased, local officials, and later northern philanthropists, promoted black secondary schools focusing on industrial education. Many believed that this curriculum would train students for the kinds of employment then available. Black leaders, however, often argued for a curriculum that would prepare students for college, not work.

In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the Plessy v. Ferguson separate but equal ruling, arguing that the separation of children in public schools by race violates the Fourteenth Amendment. This 1954 ruling sent shock waves through the state of Kansas and several other states that had segregated school systems. The Brown decision did not solve all of the problems associated with black education. Desegregation did not come easily, and only a year later the Supreme Court needed to create procedures for school boards to integrate schools "with deliberate speed." In 1957 federal troops had to be called into Little Rock, Arkansas, so that nine black students could attend the previously all-white Central High School. Although high school graduation rates for African-American students have improved since the Brown decision, the historic exclusion of black youth from secondary schools continues to be reflected in the discrepancies in the dropout rates and standardized test scores of white and black adolescents.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in Washington, D.C., was in charge of the education of American Indian youth and developed an official policy of detribalization. Many Native Americans were sent away from their families to boarding schools to be immersed in white culture and values. For example, the curriculum of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 and closed in 1918, was designed with the intention of transforming Native American children by focusing on the vocational skills that Booker T. Washington was promoting for the education of African Americans. After the U.S. government granted citizenship to Native Americans following World War I (19141918), local schools replaced boarding schools.

In the early twenty-first century, Native American schools on reservations are still controlled by the BIA, and Native American students are the least successful students in the public school system. Poverty, low attendance rates, and the lack of exposure to a rigorous academic curriculum directly contribute to high failure rates among Native American students. Almost 50 percent of Native American students drop out of high school, and only 17 percent continue on to college.

Education and the Economy

The economy directly influenced secondary schools from the time such schools were created. Access to transportation and family economic stability influenced high school enrollment rates, but as jobs required more education, a higher number of students stayed in high school. In the late 1920s youth unemployment emerged as a contentious political and social issue. Politicians and educators wanted students to remain in high school in order to reduce increased delinquency, crime, and political radicalization. With millions of youth unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, every attempt was made to keep more students in school. At the same time, budgets were reduced, putting a major strain on most schools. During the 1920s and 1930s the school curriculum became more custodial in nature in order to meet the immediate needs of youth. Consequently, emphasis shifted from academic courses to consumer-oriented classes, and life skills were emphasized.

In the 1940s and 1950s the common form of secondary education was a comprehensive high school with differentiated curriculum tracks. During World War II (19391945), enrollment in secondary schools dipped, but the curricular trends of making courses relevant to the lives of students continued to be important. In 1944 the Educational Policies Commission released Education for All American Youth, a report calling for a highly practical curriculum similar to that described in the Cardinal Principles. Many feared that the economic difficulties that occurred before the war would continue after the war, so the push continued to keep students in school. American youth would not be competing for jobs with returning servicemen.

The economy continued to influence educational decisions in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but clearly played a central role in the 1980s. A Nation at Risk, a report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, published in 1983, directly tied the quality of American schooling to the strength and position of the American economy in the global marketplace. Alarmed by the economic advances made by Japan and other countries, the commission argued that schools in the United States were declining, which presented an immediate threat to the country's well-being and economic strength.

Education and the National Defense

The cold war of the 1950s and 1960s brought further challenges to the schools. Many people called for strengthening academics in secondary schools by removing the popular but less rigorous life-adjustment classes. The launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 instigated loud cries for educational reform. As a result, the National Defense Education Act that was passed in 1958 provided financial aid to states for the improvement of the teaching of science, mathematics, and foreign languages.

As a result of the cold war, the debate over the public high school curriculum shifted to how the educational system could ensure the survival of the United States and its democratic ideals. Many asserted that American youth could be protected from the ideas of communism and fascism through universal secondary education that emphasized equality of educational opportunity. A central question emerged: Is educational opportunity best served through curriculum differentiation and good guidance services or through a rigorous academic curriculum? The educator James B. Conant studied American high schools and concluded that the solution was universal enrollment in a comprehensive high school that met the needs of all students by providing the opportunity to succeed. He noted that the comprehensive high school also allowed for student interaction among academic tracks, which facilitated the development of the social skills that are necessary in productive citizens. Conant also suggested that authorities strengthen the differentiation in secondary schools with an increased focus on the gifted. He believed talented students must be exposed to advanced classes in mathematics and science. To this end, there were a number of curricular reform efforts that found their way into secondary schools, several sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Most of these reforms failed because the science and mathematics programs were designed by academicians who paid little attention to the day-to-day realities of schools.


The argument between high academic standards and life skills as the central focus of the American high school curriculum continued in the last three decades of the twentieth century. This debate also occurred internationally. Great Britain readjusted its system of examinations that put eleven-year-olds into specific secondary schools and replaced it with comprehensive schools similar to those in the United States. A Nation at Risk galvanized the United States into forming higher academic standards. Great Britain did the same with a national curriculum instituted in 1988.

The recommendations from the report A Nation at Risk were similar to those discussed by the Committee of Ten a century before. The report called for higher graduation requirements, including rigorous academic study for all students regardless of whether they were college bound. Curricular tracking, the report stated, had led to mediocrity. In response, the standards movement was born. By the end of the twentieth century, forty-nine of the fifty states had adopted academic standards based on the work of national organizations in the major subject areas. States began to hold students, teachers, and schools accountable to these standards through examinations. The reauthorization of the national Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, reconfirmed this push for accountability by requiring states to develop annual testing programs for students in grades three through eight in reading and mathematics. School districts must be able to show that all students reach proficiency or will be subject to corrective procedures.

Secondary Education Elsewhere

Many other countries have been faced with similar issues to the United States in terms of secondary education. Discussions about the purpose of secondary schools and the content and focus of the curriculum occur throughout the world. In some countries, vocational and technical programs run parallel to upper secondary education. For example, the Russian Federation and other former Soviet nations provide an eight-year general education program and then funnel qualified students to academic, vocational, or technical schools. At seventeen or eighteen, students are selected for higher education. Only 20 percent of graduates from secondary schools continue to college, whereas in the United States more than 60 percent of high school graduates go on to college.

Several European countries are also invested in secondary school curriculum reform with a stress on national standards. Throughout most of Europe, secondary education is compulsory up to the eighth grade. A large increase in secondary enrollment in the mid-twentieth century led schools to attempt to craft curricula that balanced cognitive, affective, and psychomotor needs of a diverse student population. The European nations also offered secondary options that include comprehensive high schools, parallel schools, and full-or part-time programs. Vocational education programs tend to lag behind general education programs in most countries.

The Republic of China also has a nine-year compulsory education program. The National Ministry of China controls the school curriculum, although there is diversity in secondary school options. Forty-five percent of Chinese secondary students attend the general secondary schools that are the gateway to higher education. Unlike the United States and many European countries, China does not have comprehensive secondary schools. There are vocational schools, teacher-training schools, and craftsmen schools, along with the general academic high schools. Examinations are used to categorize students into the appropriate educational track. After their junior year, secondary school students must pass an examination to go to the next level. The national higher education examination is given only once per year and is highly competitive.

Trends in Secondary Education

Secondary school reform represents a vitally important topic. In the early twenty-first century, the major goal is helping all students reach high academic standards. This has yielded a number of innovative programs that attempt to balance students' personal and academic needs. Effective curricula include core learning in discrete academic subjects, increased foreign languages, interdisciplinary courses, and alternative assessment approaches. The foundational skills of reading and writing are garnering more attention at the secondary level in all content area classes.

Along with high standards, public schools must meet the needs of all students and provide an appropriate education for students with many diverse needs. Inclusion of students with disabilities requires schools to rethink the way classes are tracked and how services are provided to students who have difficulty in the school environment. Coteaching arrangements, which allow subject area specialists to work with trained special educators in the same classroom, constitute one approach to meeting diverse needs.

Some research indicates that smaller high schools are better settings for meeting adolescent needs and helping students reach their full academic potential. In an attempt to break down large comprehensive high schools, a number of options are being tried. Small school alternatives include schools-within-schools and parallel schools sharing the same physical space with distinct missions and programs. Some large high schools separate students by grade level into separate wings.

Flexible scheduling is used so that students and teachers can have enough time for a variety of instructional strategies and more personalized interactions. Block scheduling, one form of flexible scheduling, has increased class time. These larger blocks allow teachers to use a variety of teaching strategies and provide time for differentiating instruction to meet specific student needs. In addition to academic gains, evidence shows a decrease in behavior problems when block scheduling is used.

Crime and violence in secondary schools garner extensive media attention. Many schools are attempting to circumvent alienated youth through social and emotional intelligence programs, organizational structures, and increased surveillance.

Where schooling takes place is also changing. In some areas, state-supported academies for gifted students have been established. Charter schools attempt to meet the needs of a diverse group of students by forming a specific vision and plan outside of the ordinary. Technology may also play a role in the place and mode of secondary instruction as distance learning becomes more popular. Secondary schools continue to experiment with a variety of ways to meet the social, intellectual, personal, and vocational needs of students.

See also: Curriculum, School; International Baccalaureate Diploma; Middle Schools; School Facilities; Summer School; Year-Round Education.


Anderson, James D. 1988. The Education of Blacks in the South, 18601935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Angus, David L., and Mirel, Jeffrey E. 1988. The Failed Promise of the American High School, 18901995. New York: Teachers College Press.

Fenske, Neil R. 1997. A History of American Public High Schools, 18901990: Through the Eyes of Principals. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

George, Paul S.; Mcewin, C. Kenneth; and Jenkins, John M. 2000. The Exemplary High School. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt College.

Kallen, Denis. 1997. Secondary Education in Europe: Problems and Prospects. Strasbourg, Germany: Council of Europe Publishing.

Marsh, David D., and Codding, Judy B. 1999. The New American High School. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Ravitch, Diane. 2000. Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Urban, Wayne J., and Wagoner, Jennings L. 2000. American Education: A History, 2nd edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Watkins, William H.; Lewis, James H.; and Chou, Victoria. 2001. Race and Education: The Roles of History and Society in Educating African-American Students. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

internet resources

National Center for Education Statistics. 2001. "Digest of Educational Statistics." <>.

Reyhner, Jon. 1989. "Changes in American Indian Education: A Historical Retrospective for Educators in the United States." ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. <>.

Susan L. Mintz


The term secondary school refers to the levels of schooling that follow elementary school and conclude with high school graduation. Typically, these include middle schools or junior high schools, the most common configuration of which is grades six through eight, and high schools, the most common configuration of which is grades nine through twelve. The 1983 release of the National Commission on Excellence in Education document A Nation at Risk focused national attention on the need for school reform. This reform movement took clearer shape in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the introduction, by the first Bush administration, of America 2000, a list of goals for U.S. education to be achieved by 2000. America 2000 was later refined and renamed Goals 2000 by the Clinton administration. So began the standards movement, which evolved throughout the 1990s and was ultimately codified by President George W. Bush and the 107th Congress in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This act sharpened the teeth of the standards movement with accountability measures in the form of "high-stakes" standardized tests that all students must take at various points in their education. It is against this backdrop of the standards, assessment, and accountability movements that secondary schools craft their reform efforts.


By the late 1990s nearly every state had developed standards for student achievement in most content areas. Greatest attention has been focused on "core" subjects, typically English/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, but "elective" coursesforeign languages, music, and visual arts, for instancehave standards as well that drive the curriculum and instruction in those subject areas. The quantity and quality of content standards vary widely from state to state, though many content-area professional organizations have developed their own national standards to provide a benchmark for rigor and appropriateness of content-area standards. Many see the standards movement as the great contemporary revolution in U.S. education: No longer is middle level or high school credit granted solely on the basis of attendance. In theory, students would not be promoted or graduated until the standards were achieved.


To assess standards achievement, most states had begun to develop standardized tests by the start of the twenty-first century. These efforts were spurred by the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test every student periodically in certain secondary content areas. Like the standards themselves, the quality of assessments varies widely from state to state, and the implementation of mandatory standardized assessments has introduced several dilemmas and controversies:

  • How do schools accommodate students with special needs and English language learners in the administration and reporting of test scores? These students are not exempt from tests, and principals and teachers struggle to find the most equitable way to honor their needs while not violating the integrity of the testing process and the value of the final results.
  • Do standardized tests truly address the content standards? Many standards speak to higher-order thinking skills, and educators disagree on the capacity of paper-and-pencil multiple-choice testswhere one answer and only one answer is correctto adequately gauge problem solving and critical thinking.
  • How will test scores be used? Ideally, tests will provide a wealth of data that informs the instructional program of individual students and schools. Questions remain about the capacity of the assessment instruments to provide these data and about the professional capacity of school personnel to interpret the data for instructional decision-making.


With standards and tests in place, most states have begun to implement or develop plans to implement accountability measures for performance on standardized tests. In most cases, students who do not achieve a required score on certain testsusually in the core subjects of English/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, though some states include foreign language and other elective courseswill not be promoted to the next grade. The accountability issue casts a brighter light on the above questions and introduces other issues:

  • Retention versus promotion. Educators do not agree on the placement of a student who does not achieve a required score on standardized tests. Advocates of both student retention and student "social" promotion speak with the backing of practice and research, and the argument remains unsettled in education circles.
  • Teaching to the test. With principals' and teachers' jobs on the line, many educators perceive a temptation to focus on test-taking skills and test preparation rather than to teach the curriculum the mastery of which the test is intended to assess. This controversy speaks to the perception of the quality of the assessment instruments many states use. If the tests were genuinely aligned with the standards, many educators believe, teaching to the test would not be an issue.

Many states also report each school's aggregate scores and encourage low-performing schools to develop improvement plans. School accountability was codified in the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for schools to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress," as determined by disaggregated test scores in mathematics, reading, and science. Schools that fail to show adequate yearly progress must take required steps to improve, or they will eventually be subject to corrective procedures.

National, state, and local education reforms have produced many positive changes, but in middle level and high schools, reform is still lagging. Although secondary student achievement has increased in some subjects for some groups, progress has been spottier and success more elusive than at the elementary level. The nation still has a way to go to ensure that all students are graduated from high school with the knowledge and skills to compete in a global economya challenge that will become even greater as enrollments swell.

Powerful recommendations for transforming secondary schools have come from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in their 1996 groundbreaking report on the twenty-first-century U.S. high school, titled Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution ; the Carnegie Foundation in their 1989 and 2000 Turning Points reports on middle-level reform; and other groups. But the renaissance has not yet happened. The majority of high schools "seem to be caught in a time warp," noted U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley in his 1999 back-to-school address, which he devoted entirely to high school reform.

The problem is not a lack of understanding about what needs to be done. Across the country, secondary schools are demonstrating what a difference it makes when effective strategies are combined with strong commitment and adequate resources. But, regrettably, secondary school improvement has not been a high priority of the U.S. Congress or the states. Secondary schools are far less likely than elementary schools to receive funds under the Title I program, the largest source of federal K12 aid. Seventy-seven percent of Title I funds go to the elementary level. When secondary schools are funded, they receive smaller Title I allocations per low-income pupil than elementary schools. Several members of Congress have introduced or endorsed legislation to meet the urgent educational and infrastructure needs of secondary schools.

States have raised student performance standards and are revising secondary curriculum and instruction. The public also supports school improvement: 71 percent of respondents to the 1999 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll felt that reforming the existing public school system, rather than finding an alternative system, should be the priority for education. Yet, the legislation dedicates disproportionate attention to elementary education at the expense of secondary education. Policymakers often choose to target resources on the early years to promote child development and address learning problems before they become too severe. But early intervention does not necessarily "inoculate" children from later difficulties, and many students need continuing services to cope with the more demanding middle and high school curricula and to avoid falling further behind.

Trends That Inform a Reform Initiative for Secondary Schools

Trends in achievement, demographics, leadership, and funding are among the major reasons secondary schools require additional attention and support.

Graduation rates. To succeed in the workplace, further education, and adult life, all students should obtain at least a high school diploma and have a solid base of knowledge and skills. The percentage of young people completing high school rose during the 1970s and early 1980s and has hovered around 86 percent since then. But too many studentsmore than 380,000 students in grades ten through twelvecontinue to drop out each year. As states raise their requirements for graduation, the challenge of keeping students in school and educating them to high levels will become more daunting.

Achievement. The average scores of secondary school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)the only national measure of trends in student achievementincreased in science and mathematics during the 1990s but showed mixed results or declines in reading and writing. To assess how much academic growth students made between elementary school and the end of middle school, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) analyzed average gains in students' NAEP scores between the fourth and eighth grades. By this measure, ETS concluded, academic growth from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s was flat in science, reading, and writing and went down in mathematics. Regardless of whether one views the NAEP data with optimism or concern, it seems clear that further improvements in student achievement are necessary.

International comparisons. In the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which compared achievement in more than twenty nations, U.S. secondary students performed at lower levels for their grades than U.S. elementary students and were outperformed by students from a number of other countries. In science, U.S. fourth graders scored in the very top tier of nations and U.S. eighth graders achieved above the international average, but U.S. twelfth graders performed below the international average. In mathematics, U.S. fourth graders achieved above the international average, whereas U.S. eighth graders performed below average and U.S. twelfth graders scored among the lowest tier of nations.

The baby boom echo. Between 1999 and 2009, U.S. secondary school enrollments were expected to grow by 9 percent, or about 1.3 million students. Minority students and children from different language backgrounds will constitute a greater share of enrollments. The nation will need many more well-trained teachers to educate this diverse and growing population.

Inadequate facilities. A 1999 report by the Campaign to Rebuild America's Schools revealed that about 14 million children attend severely dilapidated public schools with leaky roofs, inferior heating, broken plumbing, and other threats to health and safety. Schools in many communities are over-crowded, a problem that will worsen with rising enrollments. The nation will need a projected 6,000 new schools to keep pace with a decade of enrollment growth; this will require substantial resources, as well as creative approaches for using existing facilities.

Teacher needs. Federal and state actions during the 1990s to strengthen teacher supply and quality are promising. But it will take more concerted and continuing efforts to fill the demand for well-prepared teachers in secondary schools, where shortages of teachers for particular disciplines are serious and where teachers must be prepared to teach advanced courses, integrate technology, and inspire young people to do their best. More than the supply of new teachers, research shows that teacher retention remains a critical issue in schools, as many teachers leave within their first five years on the job. The problem is exacerbated in secondary schools by the problem of out-of-field teachingwhich is most pronounced in urban and rural areas. Again, with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for a "highly qualified teacher" in every classroom, there is a renewed focus on providing all teachers, new and veteran, the support and professional development they need to do their jobs well, as well as salaries commensurate with the value of their work.

Leadership shortages. Urban, suburban, and rural districts in every region of the country are experiencing shortages of qualified candidates for principals' jobs, yet this issue has met with near silence. While the responsibilities of the principalship have escalated considerably, there has been no comparable increase in incentives (not the least of which is a commensurate salary) to attract highly qualified candidates. Few school districts have structured recruitment or training programs to find the best candidates or groom their own, or to encourage minorities and women to enter leadership positions. Promising candidates are dissuaded from applying for principals' positions by such factors as mounting job stresses, inadequate school funding, and reluctance to give up their tenure as teachers.

Secondary school programs. Federal programs of special importance to secondary schools are significantly underfunded. These include: the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, which prepares students for the workforce by integrating academic and technical education; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, which requires school districts to provide a free and appropriate education to children with disabilities up through age twenty-one, but which covers only a small portion of the costs; and the GEAR UP program (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), which encourages disadvantaged middle school students to prepare for college.

Elements of Secondary School Reform

Secondary schools throughout the country are achieving positive results through a combination of research-based strategies, committed teachers and leaders, and sufficient resources. National support and momentum could expand these successful efforts into many more schools. Research and practice have shown the following elements to be especially important: academic rigor, individualized attention, and leadership development.

Academic rigor. All secondary school students, whether headed for the workforce or postsecondary education, should be held to high expectations and take a challenging academic course of study. The rigor of the academic course work that a student takes in high school is a better predictor than test scores, grade point average, or class rank of whether that student will be graduated from college. This correlation is even stronger for African-American and Latino students and is very significant for low-income students. Taking courses such as algebra and geometry in middle school is an essential step, because it prepares students for the higher-level mathematics courses that correlate highly with college success. Unfortunately, some high schools do not offer advanced courses in mathematics, science, and foreign languages.

Individualized attention. To achieve in academic courses, many students will need varied instructional strategies, a different pace, extra help with reading, or intensive interventions, such as tutoring or after-school or summer programs. Students also do better when teachers and other adults take a close, personal interest in their academic progress, but these kinds of connections can be hard to forge in large secondary schools. Educators in some districts are developing individual plans for students, organizing big schools into smaller academic houses, or using other strategies to create more personalized learning environments.

Leadership development. Effective schools research has long recognized that well-trained, capable leaders are the individuals best situated to spur school-wide reform. Although the role of the teacher is essential, an excellent leader can bring about improvements on a wider scale and in a shorter time than is possible with teacher-by-teacher implementation. Yet the needs of principals have been somewhat neglected. Secondary school reform must include support for administrators' professional development as an ongoing, integral part of their responsibilities. In addition, current postsecondary education and training programs should be audited to determine how effectively they are training future principals.

Making an Investment: A Secondary Schools Achievement Act

The United States must step up its investment in middle and high schools to ensure that all such schools are high achieving, housed in adequate facilities, and staffed and led by well-qualified educators. Toward this end, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) has proposed federal legislation with the following two critical components.

First, the NASSP has advocated a "Secondary Schools Achievement Act" to help secondary schools implement or expand promising reforms. This act would provide federal support:

  • To ensure that all middle schools offer algebra and some geometry instruction
  • To increase attention to reading instruction from the early grades through high school
  • To make Advanced Placement, international baccalaureate, foreign language, and other advanced courses available in all high schools and expand opportunities for students to take them
  • For technology integration and training
  • To create an individualized development plan for all students who are having difficulty in core subject areas
  • For intensive and sustained professional development for each principal and teacher
  • To improve and modernize facilities and infrastructure
  • To improve evaluation systems so that states can measure the results of these new initiatives

All elements of this plan should be funded to ensure that all secondary school students truly meet high standards.

Second, the NASSP has contended that federal legislation to improve secondary schools must include a major national effort to train a sufficient cadre of qualified school principals for the next century. As a nation, the need for leadership development programs for business leaders has been recognized, and the nation has long supported a network of service academies to train outstanding young men and women for military leadership. Preparing the leaders who will guide the educational development of the nation's children should be just as high a priority. The United States needs to do all it can to develop strong, effective leaders who will give vision, focus, and direction to the nation's schools. Qualified leaders will set the course for meeting the challenges of the new century, and their needs must not be overlooked.


Secondary school reform remains an unfulfilled promise with an incomplete agenda. If all schools are going to improve and if all children are going to reach high standards, the "missing link" must be filled in: National and state leaders must focus attention and support on the secondary level. It is time to stop neglecting the institutions that have played such a formative role in U.S. history and individual citizens' lives.

See also: Assessment, subentry on National Assessment of Educational Progress; Curriculum, School; Educational Leadership; Middle Schools; National Association of Secondary School Principals; Standards Movement in American Education; School Reform; Secondary Education, subentry on History of.


Adelman, Clifford. 1999. Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment. Washington, DC:U.S. Department of Education.

Educational Testing Service. 1998. Growth in School: Achievement Gains from the Fourth to the Eighth Grade. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service Policy Information Center.

Jackson, Anthony, and Davis, Gayle. 2000. Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kaufman, Phillip; Klein, Steve; and Frase, Mary. 1999. "Dropout Rates in the United States, 1997." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. 1998. NAEP 1996 Trends in Academic Progress. Washington, DC: National Assessment of Educational Progress.

National Association of Secondary School Principals. 1996. Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

National Association of Secondary School Principals and National Association of Elementary School Principals. 1998. "Is There a Shortage of Qualified Candidates for Openings in the Principalship? An Exploratory Study." Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals; Alexandria, VA: National Association of Elementary School Principals.

National Center for Education Statistics. 1998. Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Center for Education Statistics.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Education Association. 1999. Modern Schools, Better Learning: The Campaign to Rebuild America's Schools. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Rose, Lowell C., and Gallup, Alec M. 1999. "The 31st Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes toward the Public Schools." Phi Delta Kappan 81:4156.

U.S. Department of Education. 1999. The Baby Boom Echo: No End in Sight. Washington, DC:U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Department of Education. 1999. Targeting Schools: Study of Title I Allocations within School Districts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Gerald N. Tirozzi


Secondary education has increasingly become a central policy concern of developing countries, particularly among those that have made rapid progress in universalizing primary education and among those in which the demographic trend has shifted in favor of adolescents. The majority of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, East Asia, and the Middle East, as well as some African countries, are grappling with the questions of how to provide skills and knowledge that enable adolescents to move to tertiary education and how to ensure a smooth transition to work for students whose education will end with secondary schooling.

Secondary education also addresses problems unique in human development. Without requisite education to guide their development, not only would young people be ill prepared for tertiary education or for the workplace, but they would also be susceptible to juvenile delinquency and teen pregnancy, thereby exacting a high social cost. Hence the challenge for secondary education is enormous. It represents an unfinished agenda that all countries will face as they develop.

Secondary Education in Europe and the United States

In Europe, higher education, including secondary education, began with training in religion and philosophy. Its purpose was to prepare leadersespecially religious leadersand its curriculum reflected this purpose. As time passed, general topics for more applied professions were added as part of secondary and higher education curricula, and the curriculum was broadened accordingly. As these general topics were gradually added to the curriculum, they remained philosophical or theoretical in orientation. They were not studied as systems of empirical data, and proofs and validation of knowledge were theoretical rather than experimental.

The earliest secondary schools were based on Renaissance models, with the role of Latin and Greek being paramount. In 1599 the Jesuits implemented the first clear and complete specification of subjects and content as part of the Counterreformation. This curriculum was called the Ration Studiorum (plan of studies), and it was initially implemented at the University of Salamanca in Spain. These early European secondary schools were almost exclusively for males, focusing on intellectual training in its narrow sense and preparation for leadership roles in all sectors of social and economic life.

The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought a new emphasis on scientific and technology studies and on empirical studies in general. Moreover, formal government involvement in secondary education grew, with concomitant involvement in curriculum. The first public high school in the United States was established in Boston in 1821.

From the nineteenth century to World War II, the curriculum at the secondary level began to encompass more subjects and became more specific, detailing the content to be covered and the time allotted for doing so. During this period, emphasis on philosophy, divinity, classical languages, and ancient history began to wane and was replaced with modern languages and literature, modern history, and scientific and technological subjects. At this time, most governments decided to educate a broader segment of their secondary-school-age population and included females for the first time. Secondary education became less elitist and more universal and its curriculum more inclusive, or diverse. Although the curriculum was dominated by the needs of the socially and economically privileged rather than by the needs of the masses, there began, nevertheless, an irreversible process of change that acknowledged a growing diversity of student backgrounds and postsecondary options.

A Broader and More Universal Curriculum

In the two decades before World War II, the influence of John Dewey and the Progressive movement, though targeted at the primary education level, had a major influence on secondary-level education. The progressives helped increase curricular emphasis on the practicality and social usefulness of schooling and on "learning by doing." Moreover, separate lower and junior secondary schools were established to cater to the growing number of students entering the secondary level.

The trend to broaden the curriculum began earliest and went farthest in the United States. In the twentieth century, it was responsible for introducing many new practical and vocational subjects. In the second half of the century, courses in driver education, family living, consumer economics, and mathematics for everyday life appeared for the first time. As students with a greater range of abilities, interests, and motivation entered the secondary level, "streaming" and "homogeneous grouping" became more prevalent. Academic secondary schools became more comprehensive and diversified. Courses and even course sequences in such vocational areas as graphic design, hair care and styling, automotive repair, carpentry and machine shop, and home economics began to appear. The launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 was a powerful impetus behind the increase in the amount of scientific topics taught in the Western secondary curriculum, the rigor with which they were taught, and the care taken in their organization and presentation.

In general, the trend in the postWorld War II period has been to divide students into streams, to make a single comprehensive secondary school serve a wider variety of interests and abilities, to provide access to a wide range of higher education through alternative curricula, and to broaden the secondary curriculum to include more subjects. Great Britain is a partial exception to this trend, as students tend to study only three subjects for their A-level examinations.

Secondary Education in Developing Countries

Colonial powers in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries educated only a very small portion of colonized peoples, and they educated this portion only at a basic level. In general, their interest was to produce complacent workers. Little education was necessary for this purpose; indeed, education could be seen as antithetical to it. Colonial policy for those few individuals educated beyond the primary school tended to emphasize the production of middle-level clerical and administrative personnel. Hence, the curriculum stressed correct language, arithmetic and accounting abilities, and an adequate fund of general knowledgeas distinct from scientific, aesthetic, or vocational subjects. Great importance was placed on the authority of the teacher and of the spoken and written word.

The independence of colonial countries in the two decades after World War II brought a near universal recognition of the importance of education at all levels for a greatly increased proportion of local populations. After independence, former colonial countries kept old colonial curriculums for a surprisingly long timeindeed, some have been maintained intact into the early twenty-first century.

Some Problems of Definition

The secondary subsector presents some problems of definition in the sense that it falls between primary and tertiary levels and there is no universal agreement as to where primary ends and tertiary begins. The duration of (or the number of grades covered in) secondary education varies from three years in El Salvador to eight years in such countries as Yugoslavia and Kuwait. Similarly, when secondary education begins is highly variable (ranging from grade five to grade nine). The usual duration, however, is grades seven to twelve.

Most countries (the Latin American and Caribbean region is an exception) divide the secondary level of education into a first or lower segment and a second or higher segment. These may be denoted by different names, with a particularly varied set of names for the lower segment: middle, intermediate, lower secondary, junior high, upper elementary, and so on. In different countries these labels may encompass different grades, student ages, curriculum, and objectives, and may be related to the educational levels above and below them in a variety of ways. The higher or upper secondary level is usually labeled simply in these terms or may be called senior high school in areas influenced by American nomenclature. It is also sometimes referred to as the preuniversity level.

There is a worldwide trend to establish the concept of basic education, which is understood to mean a minimum standard of schooling for everyone in a given society. This is frequently done by adding to the primary grades the first part of the secondary cycle (typically called the lower or junior secondary cycle). The combination of primary and lower secondary grades then becomes "basic education," which is usually administered separately from secondary education.

An additional complexity of the secondary subsector is the wide range of types of educational institutions falling under this heading. Attempts to define types by organization, curricular emphasis, or outcome objectives almost always reveal substantial overlap among categories. Exceptions to any classification, including this one, are plentiful. The most common classification includes three overlapping types: (1) general/academic schools, (2) vocational and technical schools, and (3) diversified or comprehensive schools, which are multipurpose institutions that try to combine under one roof the objectives of an academic course of study and one or more vocational fields.

It is clear that these three broad categories of secondary schools are arranged along a continuum of specialization in their dominant instructional objectives. At one end the schools are single-purpose institutions with an intensely academic curriculum. At the other end they are similarly specialized but with a vocational/technical curriculum. Secondary schools lying in the middle of the continuum are multipurpose institutions combining elements of both ends of the spectrum into their instructional program.

Stated outcomes and long-term social objectives of the different types of secondary schools often overlap. Almost all statements of the goals or objectives of all types of secondary education include items such as preparing students for the world of work and making students smoothly functioning members of society.

Differentiating National Curricula as a Response to Increased Coverage

While a traditional academic curriculum may be appropriate for upper level secondary education in a developing country with a relatively low upper secondary school enrollment ratio (for example, 20%), the path toward very much higher enrollment ratios (in excess of 50%) will require much greater curriculum diversity to meet the differing educational needs of different groups. It may well be that vocational education does not have a significant role here; but if not vocational schooling, then what other forms of secondary schooling (either existing or to be developed) would be appropriate? Indeed, for many lower secondary education completers, nonschooling programs, such as apprenticeship, may be more appropriate than continued secondary schooling at the upper level.

The key ideas in secondary education practice can be divided into three categories: organization and subject content, vocationalization, and control. These categories overlap and several ideas could be placed logically in more than one category. Developing countries and development agency projects have dealt with most of these ideas at one time or another.

Organization and subject content. A single nationally set curriculum consistently delivered is a successful educational procedure at the primary level. Where flexibility and student choice are present there is widespread consensus that this should begin after primary school, although whether or not flexibility should begin in lower secondary, where it exists, is still debated. The decision as to whether a curriculum should prepare specialist or generalist knowledge and skills is often decided on the basis of whether a particular level is seen as preparatory or terminal. The trend appears to be one in which the mandated curriculum of the lower secondary grades, or their equivalent by whatever name, is a linear extrapolation of primary school.

Primary schools are almost always general-purpose institutions with considerable social and political consensus surrounding their mission, which is, simply put, to prepare all children for competent adulthood by giving them basic literacy and numeracy skills and, in many countries, an explicit set of moral values. The situation at the secondary level is vastly more complex. Nevertheless, a growing number of countries, often for political and economic reasons rather than pedagogical, put together in a single, all-purpose school, students from different backgrounds, with different needs, abilities, and interests. The question most often asked by policymakers is: Do the financial economies and the social integration hoped for by this "comprehensive" arrangement outweigh the problems created by attempting to handle such diversity in a single place?

In the majority of poor countries there appears to exist growing recognition that science education is an important element in the national primary and secondary curricula. This is due to both the now commonly recognized relationship between quality research and development in science and technology and stable economic growth, and also the need to begin to prepare students more effectively for future scientific and technological employment. Agriculture, health, nutrition, population control, environmental management, and industrial development are a few of the areas that benefit directly from a wider understanding of science and technology.

Science education is therefore in a position of privilege and peril. It is privileged because decision makers recognize the relationship between good science and economic development. In many developing countries this recognition has resulted in additional support for science education. Moreover, in the majority of poor countries there appears to exist growing recognition that science education is an important element in the national secondary curriculum. "Science for all" is a frequently voiced rallying cry. At the same time, science education is imperiled by: (1) unrealistic expectations for quick results, (2) improper and inadequate teacher training, (3) a lifeless, exam-driven curriculum, and (4) expensive and outdated reliance on traditional classroom methods and laboratory equipment.

Vocationalization of the secondary curriculum. The issue of education for all versus elite preparation is more than simply a question of coverage. Most countries have based their education curricula on the needs of their elites rather than on the needs of their masses. Yet as coverage expands, the questions of vocational relevance and quality invariably arise. This is so because the single-purpose elite preparation that characterized the curriculum when enrollments were small is not suitable for the needs of the diverse majority.

The debate over the desired degree of vocationalization of the school curriculum is shifting grounds as the nature of the market for schooled labor changes. This debate is worldwide and intense. At the heart of the new debate is a redefinition of the school courses that are vocationally relevant. Science, mathematics, and English, all traditionally viewed as academic in the sense of college preparatory, are increasingly demanded for their vocational relevance. The case for a "new vocational curriculum" can be stated in these terms. At the close of World War II, people in industrialized countries expected to have a single career throughout their productive lifetime. Moreover, skills useful at the start of their careers were expected to remain so throughout their job tenure with only minimal retraining and updating required. Under these conditions specific job-skills training was valued for its immediate and long-term relevance to occupational requirements. But the workplace changed. Jobs were lost from heavy industry and agriculture to service and high-technology sectors. Even the remaining agriculture, equipment repair, and manufacturing jobs began to require higher levels of communication (reading and writing) and mathematics abilities. Market changes have seen massive redeployment of workers across sectors. Lifetime job security in a single sector gave way to needs for a flexibly trained and rapidly redeployable labor force, and with these changes came a redefinition of certain fundamental education requirements. Suddenly the general curriculum was vocationally relevant for a much larger share of the school-age population, including those not college bound.

Control. Who should control the structure and content of curriculum? Politicians? University professors? Teachers? Parent associations? When teachers are in control, the curriculum tends to emphasize individual needs and classroom realities. Teacher control can imply highly trained teachers, a condition difficult to meet in developing countries. When university professors are in control, the latest knowledge may be included but it is often academicmeaning abstract and overloaded with contentwhich is usually too difficult for the students at the grade level indicated. When politicians are in control, the needs of nationalism and social and economic development may be served, but factors relevant to successful learning may be ignored.

See also: Curriculum, International; International Assessments; Vocational and Technical Education, subentry on International Context.


Bray, Mark. 1985. "High School Selection in Less Developed Countries and the Quest for Equity: Conflicting Objectives and Opposing Pressures." Comparative Education Review 29:216231.

Caillods, FranÇoise; Gottelmann-Duret, Gariele; and Lewin, Keith. 1997. Science Education and Development: Planning and Policy Issues at Secondary Level. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Fuller, Bruce, and Holsinger, Donald B. 1993. "Secondary Education in Developing Countries: Issues Review." Washington, DC: World Bank, Education and Social Policy Department.

Holsinger, Donald B. 2000. Positioning Secondary-School Education in Developing Countries: Expansion and Curriculum. Paris: International Institute for Educational Planning.

Psacharopoulos, George, and Loxley, William. 1985. Diversified Secondary Education and Development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Donald B. Holsinger

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

views updated Jun 27 2018

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965

Tomiko Brown-Nagin

Congress enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) (P.L. 89-10), the most expansive federal education bill ever passed to date, on April 9, 1965, as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty." A former teacher who had witnessed poverty's impact on his students, Johnson believed that equal access to education was vital to a child's ability to lead a productive life.

Prior presidents' commitments to improving the educational system also inspired the law's passage. American leaders began discussing the need for a competitive technology industry during President Harry S. Truman's administration, at the beginning of the Cold War. As the Cold War progressed during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, improving the educational system came to be understood as an imperative. The Soviet Union's successful launching of the Sputnik spacecraft on October 4, 1957, raised concerns that the Soviet school system was superior to America's and could produce superior scientists.

President Kennedy developed a number of proposals to ensure that American students were competitive with those in other countries and that every American received a good education, regardless of religious, racial, or class background. After Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, President Johnson reviewed and revised Kennedy's proposed legislative agenda. Congress derived the bill that became the ESEA from Kennedy's proposals. President Johnson orchestrated the introduction of the ESEA bill in Congress and its rapid passage into law; the ESEA passed in only eighty-seven days, with little debate and no amendments. The law became the educational centerpiece of Johnson's legislative agenda, the "Great Society," and in particular, his "War on Poverty" programs. The ESEA was designed to address the problem of inequality in education that had been laid bare by civil rights activists who lobbied for passage of the landmark anti-discrimination statute, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Congress has reauthorized the ESEA several times since its initial passage, most recently in 2002. The law consists of five titles, pursuant to which the federal government provides funding to 90 percent of the nation's public and parochial schools. The first and most important is Title I, which provides funding and guidelines for educating "educationally disadvantaged" children. Congress budgeted more than 80 percent of the monies originally appropriated under the ESEA for Title I programs; in 2002, the federal government allocated over $8 billion to fund Title I programs. These programs are intended to meet the special educational needs of "educationally deprived" children and school districts with high concentrations of such students, who typically are from poor families. Title II provides money to purchase library materials and audio/visual equipment. Title II includes a provision stating that the government can have no say in what specific materials libraries purchase; Congress incorporated this provision into the original law in response to concerns that the federal government would regulate the content of materials purchased with Title II funds. Title III provides funding for programs designed to meet the educational needs of students "at risk" of school failure, including after-school, radio and television, counseling, and foreign language programs. Title IV provides funding for college and university research on education, and Title V provides funding to individual state departments of education. The ESEA's final title, Title VI, lays out the law's general provisions.

The enactment of the ESEA revolutionized the federal government's role in education. Prior to the law's passage, educational policy-making had been the near exclusive domain of state and local governments. However, part of the ESEA's legacy is a fierce debate over whether the federal government has become overly involved in regulating local school districts' affairs through programs like the ESEA. Moreover, some question whether Title I's costly programs actually raise student performance. Nevertheless, cash-strapped school districts continue to seek and accept ESEA funding.


Bailey, Stephen K., and Edith K. Mosher. ESEA: The Office of Education Administers a Law. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1968.

Jeffrey, Julie R. Education for the Children of the Poor: A Study of the Origins and Implementation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978.

Jennings, John F., ed. National Issues in Education: Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa International, 1995.

McLaughlin, Milbery W. Evaluation and Reform: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Title I. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1975.

Internet Resource

U.S. Department of Education. Index of Legislation Directory. <>.

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