Has anyone ever tried to find out systematically whether what students do in high school really matters when they go on to college? The answer is yes. In an eight-year study launched in 1934 and brought to a halt by America’s entry into World War II, the Progressive Education Association followed the progress of 1,500 students from thirty progressive high schools through college, comparing their achievement to students from conventional high schools. Their five-volume report, informally known as the Eight-Year Study, has since lapsed into obscurity; but it had widespread effects on how the American secondary school curriculum developed in the decades to follow–and it can provide a useful background to current efforts to assess Essential School progress.
To start, the PEA’s Commission on the Relation of School and College got twenty-five leading colleges to agree to admit students from participating schools, even though their high school preparation might not match the conventional distribution of credits. Then it recruited thirty schools and school systems–public and private, senior highs and combined junior highs, large and small, varying widely in student make-up–that were eager to take on the business of examining their own goals and restructuring their curricula accordingly. By removing one key constricting factor–the fear that their students would not get into good colleges–the commission freed schools to try out bold new ways of teaching.
At first teachers did not trust the colleges’ promise enough to make real changes in pedagogy and curriculum. But a growing sense of confidence in themselves resulted eventually in thousands of teachers seriously reevaluating what school was for and how students learn. “They found what they sought in the democratic ideal, in the American way of life,” wrote Wilford M. Aikin, who chaired the commission. “‘The high school in the United States,’ they said, ‘should be a demonstration, in all phases of its activity, of the kind of life in which we as a people believe.'”
The test was how well students did in college–by the standards of the college, of the students’ contemporaries, and of the individual students themselves. The answer was encouraging: students from the experimental schools did a somewhat better job than their counterparts by all three measures–and the more radically the school had restructured its curriculum, the better they did. On conventional tests the experimental group did as well as their peers from traditional schools; but they out-performed their counterparts on tests that measured problem-solving skills, creativity, and the like. And they were more likely to be leaders on their campuses.
“The ways in which these schools were taking risks are very comparable to Essential School ideas,” says Theodore Sizer, who chairs the Coalition of Essential Schools. “They believed that classrooms should be student-centered, that every student can learn, that thought should be linked with action.” As Essential Schools work toward change, they might recall the words of the study’s second volume, Exploring the Curriculum:
“Constant fear of failure, fear of fellow-workers, fear of the administration, fear of the community, fear of not imitating the successful example of someone else who is promoted, fear of change, fear of loss of work, fear of failing to follow the edicts of state departments or colleges of education–such daily fears are almost purely negative in effect. They result in thinking about how to be safe rather than how to be effective. In place of fear, self-confidence will come to the teacher whose fellow-workers and administrative superiors understand and cooperate to work out clearer concepts and new means of achieving them. With every advance will come a corresponding increase in the sense of freedom and release–freedom to think and do; release of all one’s energies and capacities.”
The findings of the Commission on the Relation of School and College were published by Harper & Row in five volumes in 1942-1943 under the overall title Adventures in American Education . The individual titles are as follows: Wilford M. Aikin, The Story of the Eight-Year Study (1942)
H. H. Giles, S. P. McCutchen, and A. N. Zechiel, Exploring the Curriculum (1942)
Eugene R. Smith and Ralph Tyler, Appraising and Recording Student Progress (1942)
Dean Chamberlin, E. S. Chamberlin, N. E. Drought,and W. E. Scott, Did They Succeed in College? (1942)
Thirty Schools Tell Their Story (1943)
A good discussion of the Eight-Year Study also appears in Bruce R. Thomas, “The School as a Moral Learning Community,” in John I. Goodlad et al., The Moral Dimensions of Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990), Chapter 9.