Public Schools: Providing A Bridge To Opportunity
Public schools provide the foundation for our democracy. In 1900, only 10 percent of the nation’s fourteen to seventeen year old population attended high school – twenty years later, 31 percent were enrolled (Snyder, 1993). Public schools provide a free, public education to students regardless of their family income level, state, or zip code. “The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1948.
At the turn of the 20th century, the American high school was designed for college-bound students (Marsh & Codding, 1999). In 1905, a report created by the National Association of Manufacturers reported, “Eighty percent of our public school pupils drop out before attaining to the high school, and 97% of all our public school pupils, from the primary grades to the highschools, drop out before graduation from high school” (Report, 1905, p. 142).
According to Tyack (1974), “In 1960, over 46,000,000 students were in school, constituting about 99.5% of youth aged seven to thirteen, 90.3% of those aged fourteen to seventeen, and 38.4% of those aged eighteen to nineteen” (p. 269). As student enrollment surged, some educators continued to question the importance of all students attending secondary school beyond the eighth grade.
High school graduation rates rose each decade between 1900 – 1980: in 1900 only 8% of the students graduated from the American high school; “1920, 7%; 1940, 51%; 1960, 69%; and 1980, 71%” (as cited in Tyack & Cuban, 1995, p. 48). As more Americans entered public schools, educators continued to wrestle with the purpose of high schools. Could a single school educate its best and brightest students for colleges and universities, while preparing the rest of the students for careers and life as good citizens?
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it became increasingly clear that the American high school was designed for all students. However, the sorting and selecting of students for college or careers was evident across the United States. Marsh and Codding (1999) wrote, “The fundamental premise of the comprehensive high school, that only a few need to graduate with solid academic accomplishments to their credit, no longer holds” (p. xiii).
The SREB Fact Book on Higher Education (2011) reported, the fastest-growing job segments from 2008 to 2018 will be those requiring a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree or postsecondary technical certificate. The public schools are a cornerstone in the democracy. Employers depend on a skilled workforce. Public schools provide students with options for certifications, concurrent credit, workforce readiness, and the opportunity to continue learning beyond high school. Public schools were created to meet the needs of the economy and to serve as a great equalizer.
While critics of public schools may point to areas for improvement, educators are seeing more high school students graduate than ever before. Graduating from high school has become increasingly important and is viewed as a minimum requirement for success in terms of employment, salary, and future career choices (Gwynne, Lesnick, Hart, & Allensworth, 2009). Public schools provide students and families with hope and a future.