Carnegie and Eliot’s system caught on fast. Colleges and universities were grateful for a better-trained group of applicants; parents, students, and educators welcomed a fairer and more organized process for college admissions. Decades later, the inequities of standardizing education for nonstandardized kids would receive more attention, but at the turn of the 20th century, the Carnegie Unit put students on more equal footing, if still not an equitable one. Meanwhile, Carnegie created the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to help elevate what he deemed “one of the poorest paid but highest professions in our nation.” The foundation accelerated the nationwide implementation of time-based learning by rewarding the colleges and universities that used it with a teachers’ pension fund.
In just a couple of years, Eliot and Carnegie had spearheaded the transformation of an archaic hodgepodge of secondary schools into a methodical, forward-looking, universal high-school system. It was a stunning and noble achievement, a “new education” that perfectly suited its time.
We are making our way again through uncharted territory. Like Eliot before them, today’s high-school students know that America’s secondary schools are not preparing them to meet the economic and ethical challenges ahead.
There is a tragic irony to the persistence of Eliot’s influence. “The New Education” is, in the main, an ode to ongoing educational innovation. It begs us to expect schools to make significant changes to keep up with a significantly changed society. And yet, a century later, American schools still rely on Eliot’s design.
Many of the jobs our 21st-century high-school graduates will do “did not exist in all the world fifty years ago.” To thrive in a complex, quicksilver world, high-school graduates need to be more adaptable than they were 50 years ago. Yet American public high schools are not teaching our teenagers what they need to learn. More than half a million students drop out every year, and $1.3 billion is spent annually on college remedial courses by high-school graduates and their families. Educators systematically underestimate even the most highly capable low-income students and students of color, and fail to challenge them. And across the United States in the past year, there have been seven teachers’ strikes, largely cheered by the general public, with more planned.
These are clear signals that our current system is faltering. At the same time, families and educators increasingly recognize that America’s public schools need to change. Will we be ambitious enough to rethink and reinvigorate the very way we teach? Local communities and state governments have started collaborating to bring 21st-century learning to high schools. The federal government could, and should, help move things along. Congress can legislate for a forward-looking public-school system, where teachers have cutting-edge training and resources, and students learn to thrive in the world they live in, not the one their great-grandparents inhabited.
The prospects of our nation’s youth, and therefore our nation, remain tethered to their education. In Eliot’s time, public high schools were the single best way to both unify a disparate populace and prepare young people to succeed. Many things have changed since then, but the promise of public high schools, for individuals and society, has not.
* This story has been updated to clarify the nature of Emerson's influence on Eliot.