Comprehensive High Schools Essay

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The comprehensive high school is a unique product of efforts intended to serve the educational needs of a modern democratic society. Comprehensive high schools are designed to educate students and prepare them to adequately navigate employment, the duties of citizenship, and other facets of adult life. In comprehensive high schools, students have access to a vast array of course offerings (e.g., foreign language, home economics) and extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, clubs) resulting in a diploma. The diploma serves as a standard, signifying minimal competence to enter postsecondary education or to obtain competitive employment. This entry discusses the development of comprehensive high schools and their current configuration.

Historical Background

For a number of years, secondary education was confined to particular geographic areas (i.e., urban centers). The creation of secondary education, particularly high schools, was a reflection of progress in American society. Limited options for children meant little to no education after four or five years of instruction in the most basic of skills. Many children were not exposed to any formal schooling, leaving many illiterate. In response to this great need for formal education especially in large urban areas, comprehensive high schools were designed with the intent of teaching children not only basic skills for labor, but just as importantly, skills in citizenship.

The modern, large comprehensive high school can be dated to the ideas espoused by James Conant. Conant was primarily interested in the structure of high schools (e.g., four grades) and their organization (e.g., adequate course offerings to prepare children for employment). After assessing the landscape of high schools, Conant came to the conclusion that high schools had to be bigger to better serve students. This notion had its basis in several ideas about how secondary schools should operate, one of which included the lack of efficiency of smaller schools, which could not offer students a wide assortment of courses.

The notion that high schools had to be bigger has been confused and resulted in schools well beyond the notions of the earliest educators responsible for developing secondary education. In the early to mid-part of the twentieth century, high schools enrolled small numbers of students (e.g., 100 to 250). As high schools grew and enrolled more than 400 students, many perceived these schools as too big and perhaps insensitive to the needs of students. In spite of the surrounding controversy, comprehensive high schools did grow much larger than 400 students and some have grown to enroll more than 5,000 students.

The combination of Conant’s work and a burning desire to improve the educational lot of the greater society served as the backdrop for the development of modern secondary education. This movement began shortly after the turn of the last century with a report from a committee appointed by the National Education Association. In 1918, the Cardinal Principles report delineated seven guiding principles for secondary education. These principles included: (1) health, (2) command of fundamental processes, (3) worthy home-membership, (4) vocation, (5) citizenship, (6) worthy use of leisure, and (7) ethical charter. The principles were intended to be broad, to ensure that a substantial differentiated curriculum could be developed and implemented as a way to include the large numbers of students who were entering secondary school after World War I.

It is no mistake that almost any course of study could be included under any one of the seven principles. Conversations about the prevalence of varying intelligence among individuals (as described by psychologists like G. Stanley Hall) and the declining influence of parents (as described by philosophers like John Dewey) were among several factors that influenced educators to create large high schools that could accommodate the variability of the population. A comprehensive system of secondary education was necessary to prepare citizens to make meaningful contributions to society (e.g., uphold democratic ideals) and prepare students to fill the many positions in the growing factory-based industries (e.g., automobile manufacturing).

Today’s High School

High schools have long been conceived of as the pinnacle of American education, serving as an “equalizer” for society’s children. The question surrounding the legitimacy of this task as well as the realistic prospect of ever providing adequate preparation for the majority of American children has been a point of contention dating back to the first days of large comprehensive high schools. The right to compulsory education is a well-established part of American history, and the delivery of that education has evolved from the limited focus on vocational tasks to include the wide array of curricular fields and other social services.

The American high school as we know it today, tuition-free, based in a larger school district, with four grades, and dividing time and space into major and minor courses, has existed for the last 150 years. Comprehensive high schools have a distinctive “presence” in most communities. Many members of the community are proud of the “look and feel” of the high school and express this civic pride with clothing and slogans; at times, they provide financial resources to support the sport teams or clubs. Large comprehensive high schools can serve thousands of students (e.g., 1,500 or more depending on the school district and geographic location) and hold fast to strict curricular divisions, intended to provide academic and vocational education.

A diverse mix of students, educational professionals, and other community members come together to provide educational experiences highlighted by a focus on preparation for participation in the local community as well as the greater society. Many of the most highly revered ideals have been incorporated into the secondary curriculum to ensure that children are exposed to some of the most sacred ideas about the American way of life. These ideals have been passed on within the classrooms, hallways, and auditoriums of large comprehensive high schools.

The increased size of high schools has coincided with a growing number of children “who fall through the cracks.” It is possible that the students described in this way could have benefited from a number of different services available in schools (e.g., remedial instruction or family support services). In order to serve a large number of students with varying degrees of need, it is necessary to create schools with an unwieldy infrastructure, leading to an ironic turn of events—students left without any services.


  1. Kliebard, H. M. (2004). The struggle for the American curriculum, 1893–1958 (3rd ed.). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
  2. McDonald, J. P. (2004). High school in the twenty-first century: Managing the core dilemma. In F. M. Hammack (Ed.), The comprehensive high school today (pp. 26–44). New York: Teacher College Press.
  3. Schubert, W. H. (1986). Curriculum: Perspective, paradigm, and possibility. New York: Macmillian.
  4. Sizer, T. R. (1984). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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