A century ago, America began a new era in education known as the High School Movement. It was not a mandate imposed from Washington, but a widespread series of local efforts. As industrialization reduced the need for farm labor, the nation began to move from an economy based on physical strength to one based on knowledge. Levels of education rose across the country.
High school was meant to be a place where students could prepare for a professional career. And it worked. But now, high school has become a meaningless credential as administrators and politicians have steadily reduced the standards for graduation. Efforts like those of Gov. Kate Brown in Oregon to further diminish those standards will be the final blow to the once-great movement for state-supported self-improvement.
A Drive For Equal Opportunity
While public schools had existed for decades at the turn of the last century, most students did not attend long into their teenage years, leaving instead to find work and begin their adult lives. As detailed in a 1999 article by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, “in 1910, just 9 percent of American youths earned a high school diploma, but by 1935, 40 percent did.” Expanding education that much was not cheap, but the country was growing more prosperous and — crucially — leading figures in communities across the nation wanted to see that prosperity spread out and multiplied.
The High School Movement was progressive in the literal sense of the word: it impelled real progress for American families, giving kids of every background a chance to better themselves through hard work in school then a better job and a more comfortable life than their parents had. But simple credentialing would not accomplish that: these new or expanded high schools had to teach people something useful, not just warehouse them for four years and print out a diploma.
As one might expect, the early effects were concentrated among white, middle-class students, but that gradually spread out. Once concentrated in big Northern cities, high schools spread south and west and into the countryside. After the Supreme Court ordered desegregation in the 1950s, that came to include black southerners, as well.
The expanded education system was designed to prepare millions of American kids for the working world, offering both academic and vocational education. It worked. Again, quoting Goldin and Katz: “Prior to 1900, secondary schools in much of America often trained youths to gain entry to particular colleges and universities in their vicinity. During the period of the high school movement, however, secondary education was transformed into training ‘for life,’ rather than ‘for college.’”
How Far We Have Fallen
Preparation for life meant holding young men and women to real standards. It’s hard to look at modern public schools and say that those standards remain intact. While progressivism once drove educators to offer more classes and demand more of students, the current version of that ideology is now demanding that educational achievement take a back seat to racial quotas and that standards be reduced or even eliminated.
Some of the biggest successes of the High School Movement came in New York City. The magnet schools there were a pathway to middle-class prosperity for New Yorkers of humble means, giving many without wealth or connections a chance to rise by their own merit. But since taking office in 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been working to “demagnetize” the magnet schools because he disapproved of their racial balance.
As reported in City Journal in 2019, de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group “recommends the elimination of ability and performance screening for pupils, and condemns ‘attendance & punctuality’ metrics as ‘exclusionary’ against ‘Black and Latinx [sic] applicants.’” Calling it “exclusionary” to require students to show up on time is part of the weird anti-racism of our time that invokes harmful stereotypes that used to be uttered only by racists. But more than that, the plans to remove standards will make it impossible for prospective employers and colleges to know that a graduate’s diploma means anything at all.
No Standards At All
In Oregon, Brown and Democrats in the state legislature have gone even farther in dumbing down high school. Blaming the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon Democrats effectively removed any standards for high school graduation. As The Oregonian noted in August 2021 when Brown signed the bill into law: “an Oregon high school diploma will be no guarantee that the student who earned it can read, write or do math at a high school level.”
Brown signed the bill in private, tacitly acknowledging the shame of the thing. When her staff did finally speak to reporters on the subject, they used the same bizarre racial justifications that de Blasio’s committee did. In an emailed statement to The Oregonian, Charles Boyle, Brown’s deputy communications director, said that suspending the reading, writing, and math proficiency requirements would benefit “Oregon’s Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.”
Public high schools began as a way for all American children to learn and improve their employment opportunities through their own hard work. No tuition, no pedigree, no connections, only hard work and intelligence were required.
If Americans were looking for equality of opportunity across race, religion, class, and neighborhood, this was it. Now, after pushing kids away from vocational education in past decades, public schools water down the academic qualifications so much as to make them meaningless.
In 2000, Gov. George W. Bush called this sort of condescending attitude “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” That bigotry has taken over the progressive movement. A few middle-class parents who can afford it will take their kids out of schools that teach little and grade less, but most of them (and all of the poor) have no such option.
They will be stuck in a system that expects nothing of kids and abolishes standards rather than helping kids live up to them. Meanwhile, a supposedly meritocratic elite locks in generational power by choosing private schools that help their children advance even further. So much for progress.