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September 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 1

Books of the Century

    James B. Conant's The American High School Today makes the Museum of Education's list.

      In the May 2000 Educational Leadership, I asked if anyone has exerted more influence on the field of education in the past 50 years than Ralph Tyler. Those ready to report their summer studies might respond: James Bryant Conant (1893–1978), research chemist, president of Harvard University, American ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, and education author and researcher for the Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation.
      Known as the Conant Report, The American High School Today (1959), with its 21 suggestions for improving high schools, became an immediate best-seller. The timing was perfect: The Russians had just launched Sputnik. With the United States keen to catch up to Russia in the Cold War technology race, Conant stated what the nation wished to hear: "no radical alteration in the basic pattern of American education is necessary in order to improve our public high schools" (p. 40). The general public largely overlooked Conant's caveat that no radical changes were necessary "if the citizens in many localities display sufficient interest in their schools and are willing to support them" (p. 96).
      The Conant Report stemmed from the work of researchers who visited 59 high schools in 18 states during the 1957-1958 academic year. Although originally focused on educating talented youth and emphasizing academic disciplines, The American High School Today ultimately highlighted the importance and uniqueness of the American comprehensive high school that strove to meet all students' educational needs.
      Conant worried, however, whether such schools could provide a good general education for all pupils while simultaneously developing students' occupational skills and maintaining special academic activities for gifted students. Advocating the practice of grouping students by their ability in specific subjects, Conant's endorsement of ability grouping induced its widespread use. Some would say that this recommendation changed secondary education forever.
      The Conant Report also recommended consolidation—eliminating small high schools with graduating classes of fewer than 100 students. Embraced by school administrators, the Report defined high school size for the latter 20th century. Some of our Books of the Century panelists suggested that the exhibition couple The American High School Today with R. G. Barker and P. V. Gump's Big School, Small School (1962), which gave convincing evidence of the value of small schools. The two works invite comparison. What would today's schools look like if Big School, Small School had become as popular as Conant's influential work? Whatever one's speculations, The American High School Today warrants a careful review.

      In Their Own Words

      If I have made myself clear, it will be evident that there is no such thing as a typical American high school. Furthermore, it is impossible to draw a blueprint of an ideal high school. A school that would be highly satisfactory in a small industrial city would be unsatisfactory in many suburban areas, and vice versa. Within a large city great diversity will be found from district to district; it would be most unwise to attempt to say what is correct curriculum or organization of all the high schools under the management of the city school board.

      —James Bryant Conant, The American High School Today


      Barker R.G. & Gump, P.V. (1962). Big school, small school. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

      Conant, J. (1959). The American high school today: A first report to interested citizens. New York: McGraw-Hill.

      Craig Kridel has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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