• John Shrawder

What Should be the Objectives of High Schools?

Updated: Feb 22

How should society view people age 14 to 18? This is the subject of this blog.

Currently most people this age are in high school. This raises the following questions

  • Why are American high schools organized the way they are?

  • How good are high schools?

  • How can they be made better?

  • Are there alternatives to putting people this age in high school?

Public opinion polls show that the American Public is dissatisfied with its schools. I share that view. As a person in business, government, consulting and as an Adjunct Professor at three colleges. I have felt that most recent graduates are badly prepared for adult responsibilities

My emphasis is not on all education but simply on the materials presented to persons age 13 to 25. The opinions expressed here are not just based on my life experience but also my readings of social science, education, and neuroscience materials for the past ten years.

Our current high schools are based on assumptions developed over 75 years ago. It is time to rethink these assumptions. I do not believe that schools need to be torn apart but just re-imagined from a new point of view. This entry will examine the history and purpose of high school.

Much of this blog entry is based on “The Failed Promise of the American High School 1890-1995” written by David L Angus and Jeffrey E Mirel.


History. Primary schools began in the United States before the American founding. They became compulsory starting in Massachusetts in 1852. By 1918, all American states had compulsory elementary education. As late as 1918, many persons were considered independent adults at age 13 and could make almost all decisions for themselves.

In 1874, local communities created the first tax funded high schools for 14 to 18 year olds. In 1890, fewer than 5% of 14 to 18 year olds attended high schools and 95% of people this age worked for their families or lived independently.

Today. High school is a major part of the life of persons age 14 to 18. About 93% of persons this age attend high school and live in a home or facility overseen by adults while only 7% are not in school. The cost of education has increased from 1% of the economy in 1900 to 5% today.

In this entries we will use a 2017 poll of 1,588 adults conducted by the Phi Delta Kappa education group to represent the opinions parents and local communities have regarding high schools today. In this survey, the general public gives their local public schools good grades 49% of the time with parents giving good grades the their children’s schools 71% of the time. However, the public disapproves of public schools nationally giving them a much lower grade of 24%.


Preparation for college. Before 1892, well-to-do families could pay to attend private prep schools that were operated by colleges. In 1892, Committee of 10 of the National Education Association issued formal recommendations that prep schools should be replaced by High School to be funded with taxes paid by everyone. The committee was made up primarily of College Presidents from research universities.

The Federal Government continued the objective of encouraging college admission. In 1965 the US Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act greatly expanding federal funding of schools and colleges and increasing opportunities to go to college.

Today over 90% of high school students wish to attend college and 70% will attempt college. High schools are often rated on the percentage of students who were admitted to college. The curriculum established in 1892 still forms the basis of much of the coursework in American High Schools.

Many high schools are not good at preparing students for college. College instructors believed that only 27% of high school graduates met all four criteria for college readiness. Furthermore, according to the Education Trust, about 60% of new college students must take remedial classes because of deficiencies in their high school preparation. Only 58% of students who being college will graduate within 6 years.

Job Training. In 1918, the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education issued The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. The Commission felt that college preparation should not be the sole goal of high school. They justified high school not around a curriculum but based on a series of objective. The 1918 Cardinal Principles defined seven objectives for high school education. They felt that job-related skills could be learned better in high school with trained educators than they could be learned in work settings.

The college prep curriculum continued as it was proposed in 1892. Vocation, Health and Arts education grew out of this proposal as lessor parts of the curriculum often offered to a second group on non-college bound students. Despite high approval in surveys, vocational training has fallen in and out of favor. High schools do not typically evaluate themselves based on the outcome of their vocational students.

Supervising young people to minimize behavioral problems. In the 1930s, Unemployment increased dramatically. By 1937 over 4 million younger people were unemployed and seeking jobs. Many families sent their children to high school for the first time. Youth were increasingly abandoned by their families. In 1932 between 200,000 and 300,000 youth traveled across the country searching for employment. Many of these youth were abused many became drawn to gangs, violence, and radical political groups and causing undesirable social outcomes.

Believing these youth were not being served by high schools, the federal government set up independent programs separate from educators to help youth. In 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corp was created to work for 3.5 million youth in national parks and forests and The National Youth Administration was created in 1935 and served over 1.7 million youth. Its participants attended work-study at educational institutions or jobs sponsored by governments or hospitals.

In 1938, the US Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act limiting the ability of people under age 18 to get jobs. This act may have been justified to keep teens from the hazards of dangerous employment or perhaps to keep them from competing against older people in an economy with high unemployment It led to a dramatic increase the number of people in high school—particularly people with low aptitudes for traditional school work.

As late as 1975, 20% of American children were still banned from schools because they were determined to have “special needs” The US Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act requiring schools to serve all children.

Because of these actions, the percentage of 14 to 18 year olds in high school increased from 51% in 1930 to 93% in 1992. However, high schools now had a large number of students who were uninterested in attending college. The role of high school was to keep teens occupied so they did not create undesirable social outcomes. In 1998 David L Angus and Jeffrey E Mirel reported “The objective of high school was not longer to prepare students academically and vocationally but to reduce drop out rates and keep students happy. High schools would offer easier courses.”

Some high schools see graduation rates as a measure of their performance. This means that students remained supervised until age 18. Could 14 to 18 year olds be using their time better as some suggest?

Achieving High Test Scores. In 1980 the Federal Government created the Department of Education to administer its programs. In 1983 the DOE published “A Nation At Risk”. It stated that American students rated poorly when compared with other countries. There were high rates of functional illiteracy among 17 year olds and 26 year declines in standardized tests. Increasingly colleges, industries, and the military had to offer remedial courses to overcome the deficiencies of high schools. The report concluded that poor schools put the United States at a competitive advantage with other countries.

In 2010, the governors and school commissioners of each state funded the establishment of the Common Core State Standards in English and Math. They would outline minimum standards of what students should know at all 12 levels of school. The standards have not been adopted by all states. The effect of the Standards on academic performance is still being investigated.

High schools are often measured based on their test results. Schools have changed instruction to prepare for high stakes testing. What measures show that high test scores benefit students or society?


Overall Goal: Preparing Students for Life between Age 18 and 30. Current metrics like college admission rates, test scores, and the absence of behavioral problems measure a student’s accomplishments between age 14 and 18. But do these things measure their potential for overall happiness or their contributions to society as they get older?

While the current objectives are easy to measure for individual schools, the school system needs to be creative at finding metrics for people age 18 to 30 which are more difficult to measure.

Four goals that can help a student prepare for life after age 18. I believe the objectives approach used by the 1918, The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. However I feel those objectives were vague, overly complicated, and difficult to connect to curriculum and school practices.

In this blog, I will redefine high school as having four objectives or missions.

  1. Help students add to happiness and avoid misery

  2. Help students understand the issues people face across the human life cycle

  3. Help students acquire decision making and problem solving skills

  4. Help students understand how to learn independently in classroom and non-classroom settings

These goals should prepare a student to meet the overall objective of functioning well between age 14 and 30. All curriculum and school activities should be judged by these goals.


Currently high schools include eight subject areas: English Language Arts, Fine Arts, Foreign languages. Math, Natural Science, Vocational/Technical, Health/Physical Education, and Social Studies. Any new courses are typically considered “fads”. However, I would argue that these eight subjects should also be considered the “fads” that existed between 1892 and 1918. Many opposed these classes at the time. Like any proposed new courses the value of the eight subject areas have to be judged by the same standards.

Most of the eight subject areas must be continued because teachers are trained in these areas. However, each must be developed using the four objectives I have set up. Each must prepare a student to adjust to the life they will face after finishing school at age 18.

How do things like higher reading and math scores add to society and in what way do traditional courses like history, science, math, fine arts, and school sports help a student after age 18?

These questions will be the subjects of this blog.

My ideas will be developed in subsequent entries. They can be used in school curriculum decisions or they can be applied in other parts of the school experience. I encourage all to comment or participate including educators, curriculum developers, parents, or students.

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