The Development of High School in the United States

Attending high school is an experience of virtually every teenager in the United States. However, this has not always been the case. The concept of high school evolved over most of the 19th century and was formalized much more extensively in the early 20th century.

The Beginning

High schools have their origins in what were academies. The concept of the academy was developed by Benjamin Franklin. These schools offered a more practical education in lieu of the Latin Grammar School. Academies also charged tuition as did Latin Grammar Schools.

Despite their emphasis on a practical education, academy curriculum was influenced heavily be college entrance requirements. Some of the more popular courses include Latin, Greek, grammar, geography, and arithmetic. The classical streak within academies was strong despite its emphasis on a practical education

Taxes and High School

High schools were slow to develop and they really did not begin to grow until 1874 with the Supreme Court Decision in the “Kalamazoo Case.” In this decision, the court ruled that tax dollars could be used to support high schools. Prior to this ruling, tax dollars were only used to support elementary education as part of the common school movement. With more and more students completing elementary school there was a greater need for high schools.

With the birth of high schools came the death of academies. Now, parents could send their kids to secondary school for free. Such a price is hard to argue with and made academies obsolete quickly. Today, few academies exist.

The Curriculum

With the results of the “Kalamazoo Case” enroll in high school exploded. With this came a need to determine what to teach the students. Initially, the curriculum was a classical, college preparatory model. This curriculum emphasized literature, languages, and mathematics.

As enrollment continued to increase the high school curriculum became more diverse and began offering such subjects as geography, chemistry, government, and even vocational training. This growth in diversity catered to the wide interest and career objectives of the students. With high schools becoming common it was more likely that not all the students who came were college bound. As such, a more varied curriculum experience was needed to support a more diverse student population.

It is important to note that high schools in the United States are comprehensive. This means that anyone and everyone can attend them regardless of race, class, or religion. This is in stark contrast to the European model with its influence on class distinction. This emphasis on being comprehensive partial explains the wide variety of courses offered in high school. Different students have different needs and high schools must address this.


Secondary education has come from something was for the elite to now being something that is essentially required by law. This slow transformation has a great deal to do with concepts of equality and even public funding. With the idea of equality and tax dollars, high schools have never flourished.

3 thoughts on “The Development of High School in the United States

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  2. Dan Byrnes

    This article is manifestly inadequate as it moves from Colonial (British) America, pre 1775, ignores the American Revolution and does not treat US developments (or questions of school funding from taxes) till 1874. This article is so bad, so childish, so inadequate, one might well ask, why is it on the Net?

    1. Dr. Darrin

      The article is a summary and is primarily focused on high school which was primarily a late 19th century phenomenon. You can only say so much in a simple manner for a general non expert audience in 500 words.


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