The Making of an American High School

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The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939

David F. Labaree

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How have the educational goals of American public high schools changed over time?  What can the experiences of one secondary school tell us about the problems they all face today?  This book provides an analytical history of the origins and development of Central High School, the first high school in Philadelphia and a model for many subsequent institutions.  Using Central as a case study, David F. Labaree argues that the American public high school can be viewed as the product of both democratic politics and capitalist markets: although it was originally intended to produce informed citizens for the new republic, the high school, with its meritocratic emphasis, instead became a vehicle for conferring status on the select group that was educated there.  The struggle between these two goals—one leading to political equality and the other reinforcing economic inequality—has characterized its history ever since, says Labaree.


According to Labaree, Central was founded as a selective middle-class school with broad moral and political aims.  However, the school’s success in providing advantages for its graduates led, during the 1880s, to growing public demand for secondary education.  The resulting rapid expansion of Centrals’ enrollment and the establishment of other public high schools eventually undermined the selectivity that had made its credentials so valuable and enabled it to flourish.  This in turn spurred the school to protect its credentials by introducing tracking, with a new dual curriculum for college-bound and non college-bound students. 


Labaree contends that this compromise between access and exclusivity does not work: it fails to serve the public interest because of the attenuation of the school’s democratic goals, and it fails to serve private interests because of the declining value of the credentials it bestows.  In order to achieve its original democratic goals, he argues, the public high school must abandon its longstanding links to the market. 

"One of the most valuable studies to come out of the current campaign to uncover and reassess the roots of our peculiar American public school system."—Fred Somkin

"Labaree’s case study provides important insights into how a public high school of the past functioned effectively. This is certainly information worth having as we struggle to make the public high school an effective institution for our educational present and future."—V.P. Franklin, Journal of American History

"Labaree makes a persuasive case for an economic approach to understanding the growth and specialization of secondary schooling in the United States."—William W. Cutler, III, History of Education Quarterly

"David Labaree’s study of the pre-eminent high school of Philadelphia is a major contribution to our understanding of the tensions between democratic opportunity and meritocratic credentialing in education. . . . The Making of an American High School is an immensely valuable study—a major achievement for a first book."—Marvin Lazerson, Historical Studies in Education (Journal of the Canadian History of Education Association)

"A good choice [of subject]. . . . Labaree has made imaginative use of the sources, including the principals’ annual reports, minutes of faculty meetings, individual student records, and three earlier published histories. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods of analysis he develops a theoretical framework for understanding not merely education but American society in general. . . . The Making of an American High School is a well-researched book with a definitive thesis worth arguing about."—Noel Ignatiev, Journal of Social History

"[A] fine study. . . . This book should find a useful niche in advanced courses in the sociology of education and organizations, as well as courses in the history of education. It is an excellent model of what well-conceived and well-executed historical case studies can achieve."—David H. Kamens, Contemporary Sociology

"This study is cogently argued and adequately documented. Labaree has used quantification to good advantage, underscoring various points, for example, the class backgrounds of school graduates from 1850 to 1920, with elaborate charts and tables. . . . His interweaving of neo-Marxist theory and hard data offers much to consider in understanding formal education and the development of modern society."—Ronald D. Cohen, American Historical Review

"Labaree has provided readers interested in social and educational history with a fascinating view into the development of the modern American high school."—Victor D. Brooks, Pennsylvania History

Co-winner of the 1998 American Educational Studies Association Critics’ Choice Award for outstanding contributions to an area related to Educational Studies

Co-winner of the American Educational Research Association’s 1989 Outstanding Book Award

Winner of the 1989 Outstanding Book Award given by the History of Education Society

Co-winner of the 1989 Outstanding Book Award given by the American Educational Research Association

ISBN: 9780300054699
Publication Date: January 29, 1992
222 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning

The Credentials Race in American Education

David F. Labaree

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