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Mass education in a distinctly American way

Through its Current Population Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected data and reported on educational attainment since 1940. Its dry statistical tables help tell the dramatic story of the American aspiration and drive for mass education.

In 1940, only one out of four American adults (defined as 25 years and older) had completed high school. By 1967, adults with a high school diploma had risen to five out of 10, then went up to three out of four in 1986, rising to nearly nine out of 10 today.

The 2016 data show that 89.1 percent of U.S. adults had completed high school or more. North Carolina falls somewhat below the national level with 85.8 percent.

In 1940, a mere 4.6 percent of adults had a bachelor’s or a higher degree. Now, the Census reports, 33.4 percent of adult Americans have a bachelor’s degree or above. In North Carolina, 28.4 percent of adults have attained a bachelor’s or above.

“Before the early 20th century,” writes Paul Beston in City Journal, “few Americans had been educated beyond the eighth grade; the same was true in other countries.” Beston is editor of City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a 40-year-old free-market think tank.

“The ambitious attempt to deliver mass secondary education has become known as the American high school movement, and ‘American’ it surely was — from its democratic underpinnings and grass-roots organization to its inspiring, yet sobering, legacy. The movement helped propel the United States into world leadership, but the institution of the high school would reflect conflicts that have defined American education ever since.”

Of course, the beginnings of public education pre-date the creation of the comprehensive high school. The nation’s founders advocated the education of citizens as a necessary ingredient in sustaining a democratic system. As leader of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, Horace Mann launched the common school movement that propelled public schools across the nation.

While secondary schools—some public, some private—were established during the 19th Century common school era, Beston reports, the economic transformations, requiring a better educated workforce, set in motion the high school movement, which he defines as stretching from roughly 1900 to 1940. “As with the common school movement,” he writes, “the leaders at the outset were found in New England; the laggards were in the South” — the region that enforced racial segregation.

Drawing on academic research and journalism, Beston offers a provocative analysis of the hard-fought struggles between those who wanted high schools to provide classic education in literature, history, and math and those who felt that high schools should “fit children from working-class and immigrant homes’’ for practical work. Even as high school completion has dramatically increased since 1940, the debates over curriculum and standards — and the very purpose of schooling — persist today.

“Taken all in all,’’ says Beston, “the high school movement was an unprecedented effort by a huge nation with a diverse population to meet the challenges of a new economy. Its flaws were of a distinctively American character. The American commitment to democracy and opportunity powered the movement but made it easier for progressives to claim the mantle of equality in attacking ‘elitist’ support for strong standards and rich curricula.”

Today, the United States confronts yet another economic transformation — as well as evident challenges to the norms of its democracy. Across the globe, allies, trading partners and adversaries have upgraded schools so that America no longer far outpaces all other nations in mass education. And, as Beston suggests, the high school movement has been replaced by a mass higher education movement.

It is in both societal and individual interests for high schools to prepare students, with academically rigorous standards, for education beyond the 12th grade — whether in an apprenticeship or training program, community college, or four-year university. Another set of census data points to the earnings payoff of education beyond high school.

For men and women with a bachelor’s degree, their average earnings far exceed those with no more than a high school diploma. In 2016, according to the Census, the average earnings for adult men with a high school diploma as their highest attainment was $41,942; for adult women $26,832. For men with a bachelor’s, average earnings in 2016 amounted to $79,927; for women $50,856. Clearly a gender pay gap persists even as women now outnumber men in college enrollment — 11.7 women to 8.8 million men in 2016.

At issue now is whether Americans will summon the will, the high aspirations, and a compelling drive to sustain quality mass education that can contribute to closing gaps in gender, race, and class and strengthen the civic life and economic wherewithal of the nation.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.