In the United States, education is the responsibility of local not federal authority since before the constitution was ratified. National conversations about education were left to non-government organizations. In 1857 the National Teachers Association (NTA) was formed which then, in 1870, became the National Education Association (NEA) when it merged with the American Normal School Association, the Central College Association, and the National Association of School Superintendents. During this time, learning to read and write was a luxury, and for children of color, it was a crime.
The New York Public School Society was formed in 1805 to provide education to the poor. Their schools were run on the Lancasterian system, with a “master” instructing hundreds of students in a single room, with wrote lessons delivered to the older students who would pass it down to the younger students. Society was moving from an agrarian model to an industrial one, where workers needed to be literate and numerate. Lancastrian schools emphasized discipline and obedience: qualities that factory owners needed in their workers.
In 1892 The Committee of Ten was a group of educators formed by the NEA to recommend that the curriculum for American High Schools be standardized. During this time, there were many competing academic philosophies throughout the country that the Committee of Ten were hoping to resolve. The philosophies differed in that some favored critical thinking while others supported rote memorization. Some thought practical studies were the best while others stressed the importance of classic Latin and Greek studies. Some believed high schools should be split into college bound and working trades bound students or separated by race or ethnic background. To settle the debate, the committee called for curriculum that included Latin, Greek, English, the sciences and mathematics. They recommended students attend school for 12 years, with eight years for elementary education and four years of high school, and stressed the importance of all subjects being taught the same way at every school to all children.
Their decision created the high school system as we know it today. While public secondary schools existed before the decision, they were limited to wealthier areas. During the 1890s, there was considerable expansion. Then, there was the high school movement between 1910 and 1940 that put public high schools in nearly every town and community. This significantly increased enrollment and graduation rates. Between 1890 and 1930, enrollment in high schools went from 6 percent of the 14-17 age group, which was 359,949 students, to 51 percent of children in that age group, a total of 4,804,255 students. By 1950, enrollment rates were around 80 percent for all secondary schools in the country. Increased enrollment rates led to an increase in graduation rates. In the 1975-1976 school year, 3,142,000 students graduated from high school, which accounted for 74.9 percent of students. By the 2012-2013 school year, that number is estimated to be 3,478,000, or 81.9 percent of the student body.
In the 1950s and ’60s, American educators engaged in protracted discussions about instructional objectives. Many pushed for quantifiable goals. The result was outcome-based education (OBE), with the likes of Ralph W. Tyler and Benjamin S. Bloom leading the charge. “Bloom’s taxonomy” popularized the notion of “higher-order thinking” and is used in schools today, with the updated version by Norman Webb called “Depth of Knowledge” sometimes preferred.
Outcome-based education is a philosophical umbrella covering many expressions, from standardized testing to the newest high school standards called Common Core and new computer-based learning systems. Instead of measuring what is taught this movement focused on trying to measure what students learn. By 2006, two-thirds of students were living in states that required passing specific tests before graduation to prove that they achieved standards. This is a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required public schools that get public funding to administer a yearly standardized test to students.
In 2009, state leaders launched the state-led effort to develop the Common Core State Standards. The state leaders included state commissioners of education and governors from 48 states, two territories and Washington, D.C. who were involved through their membership in the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center). State school chiefs and governors launched this effort to ensure all students nationwide are measured with a similar set of standards.
One of OBE’s first offspring was competency-based education (CBE), which was originally called “mastery learning.” CBE was put into practice by a few colleges in the early 1970s. It kept track of demonstrated student learning rather than mere clock or credit hours. And it was structured around identified learning goals (“competencies”) rather than courses. Educational big business like Pearson and nearly every grading system are investing heavily in mastery learning, and the U.S. Department of Education is paying close attention.
Despite the various changes to pedagogy from measuring seat time and credit hours to testing students to measure what they learned and even evaluating their learning with competencies, the basic content covered in our schools is essentially what those ten white men back in 1892 prescribed as a college preparatory path. The digital network age has been gaining ground for the past thirty years with ubiquitous screens replacing paper and thus redefining literacy. The time is quickly approaching that education will be forced to update to new forms of literacy like video and audio production, not to mention software engineering and other a new range of learning required for citizens and workers in the 21st century who work on screens. My upcoming book “The BIG Deal: The End of Jobs, the e-Birth of Work, and a Radical Role for Education” outlines how by merely introducing a digital native high school credit system, individual communities can incentivize learning for their high schools that are aligned with digital native standards.