Pass or Fail: The Evolution of American Public Schools in the 20th Century

In this multi-part series, I provide a dissection of the phenomenon of retention and social promotion. Also, I describe the many different methods that would improve student instruction in classrooms and eliminate the need for retention and social promotion if combined effectively.

While reading this series, periodically ask yourself this question: Why are educators, parents and the American public complicit in a practice that does demonstrable harm to children and the competitive future of the country?

How did we go from one-room schoolhouses to hyper-segmented classrooms?

In the 19th century, one-room schools were the norm. Some evidence does support the view of one-room schools as effectively collaborative and cooperative, with children learning both moral and academic lessons. However, there were also immense issues. One of the biggest, of course, was that racially segregated schools existed in many states.

Horace Mann was an education pioneer who tested his methods in his home state of Massachusetts, where intermediate schools emerged as early as 1838. These intermediate schools offered segregated instruction and a differentiated curriculum to children who education authorities or teachers deemed unsuitable for the regular classroom. Student characteristics such as age, cultural or linguistic background, and socioeconomic status served to separate children from the common, or regular, learning environment. Intellectual and behavioral abnormality would later be used as a basis for segregation as well.

A serious dichotomy would also emerge in education in the 20th century in secondary schools with the sometimes-conflicting goals to instill classical academic skills as well as offer a broader range of practical life skills.

Pressing for a broad but rigorous curriculum, including comprehensive coverage of fundamental academic skills, but also the study of Latin, Greek, English, modern languages, mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, and social studies. In contrast to this, it was also proposed that there should be a dilution of academic learning to provide more of a focus on life-skills, such as how to achieve wholesome relations between men and women, as well as forms of vocational training. Both approaches to public education are still apparent in contemporary classrooms as the debate between intellectual and practical learning is ongoing.

The problem of the age-graded classroom was another challenge the American education system faced in the 20th century. Despite Mann’s enthusiasm for the heterogeneous one-room school, the potential to classify children by any number of characteristics made the shift to eight age-grade classrooms in elementary schools much more plausible and practical. Quincy School, the first school with graded classrooms, opened in Boston in 1848. Although the class size was still relatively large by today’s standards (classrooms could hold up to fifty-six students), students were classified by age and each group was headed by a separate teacher.

A uniform course of study followed, and just as children from rural one-room schools had to pass an exam to enter high school, children’s promotion to the next grade, at all levels of the elementary school, now depended on their examination performance.

Uniform course of study meant that children in each age-grade learned specific items in each subject area. It was part of a move to standardization: organizing what the children learned, when they learned, and how they learned. Written achievement tests served to determine whether the children had learned enough to be promoted to the next grade, and proved integral to this new vision for schools.

The eight-grade school structure emerged in urban settings and decentralized one-room school units were eventually consolidated. The graded classroom system contrasted with the ungraded in some key respects, however, and the transition was not always smooth. For example, children who missed days in the graded classrooms now experienced a distinct disadvantage regarding learning the required material. Absences were also judged to be disruptive to the learning of all children in the classroom, with teachers having to interrupt the pace of learning for the rest of the class to help a child catch up on learning material he or she had missed.

More often than not, teachers moved forward, while the truant child struggled to learn material for which he or she lacked the foundational knowledge. As most parents will appreciate, though, absences during the year are inevitable. Schools have always served as breeding grounds for illness, which can set a child back for several days at a time. Even a couple of days’ absence during the year can become problematic. And what about those students who are ahead of the game with their learning? With their advancements, they can be just as disruptive to the operations of such a standardized classroom.

Just as parents and teachers were grappling with disruptive absences, they were forced to face the challenges of testing as well. Teachers adhered closely to the textbook material, and that material would appear at the end of year promotion exams. Teachers also came to perceive student test performances as a reflection of their effectiveness. In some instances, teachers would attempt to isolate or remove children (by encouraging them to drop out or having them suspended) if they believed they would not do well on exams.

Suddenly, test results began to take center stage, above the importance of a child’s academic success. This is where the retention and social promotion discussion takes a dark turn for many students — one we’ll explore more in forthcoming posts from this series.

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