Just over one century ago, inspired by such educational philosophers as John Dewey, a select group of educators worked out a sound plan for public schools in the United States. Industrialism, the imminent end of the First World War, and the expanding influence of our country had made the need clear for public education to keep pace with a rapidly changing society and anticipate developments to come. With this in mind, the Commission for the Reorganization of Secondary Education published a report entitled The Seven Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. Largely as a result of this, a 13-year plan emerged, starting with kindergarten and culminating in many places in three or four years at a comprehensive high school. Students received instruction in academic content, vocational skills, and home economics.
In essence, the Cardinal Principles report represented a proactive and visionary body of concepts that by the middle of the 20th century made public education in this country an example for the rest of the world to follow. While segregation–both as official policy and later in de facto form–restricted access for racial minorities, most of America agreed upon the importance of public schools and that they were a priority worth paying for.
Then began a trend of reactivity and fear. Teachers today learn in their preparatory training of the concern that arose from the Soviets’ launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and of the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk, two of several critical events that brought public pressure to bear on schools to ensure that America remained the greatest nation on Earth, however vague and undefined the concept of greatness may have been.
And now, 36 years after A Nation at Risk prompted educational leaders to emphasize math and science instruction–often at the expense of critical comprehensive content such as the arts and civics–the crisis in American K-12 public education has deepened. Individual schools–and sometimes entire school districts–demonstrate advances in the promotion of learning and growth in their students, but public education as an American institution finds itself mired in a cycle of faddish methods phasing in and out of fashion. Fragmentary philosophies fall far short of a unified understanding of the true needs of our children and our society. The most recent attempt at a cohesive plan on a national scale resulted in the Common Core, which was simply unable to unify parents, teachers, and educational leaders in a common vision.
Yet, despite this, the original seven principles published 1918 reveal much about what our society and our educational system has failed to address in preparing children for their own futures and for their participation in shaping our democracy. Over 100 years after the Cardinal Principles report, we would do well to consider the timelessness of these priorities and their persistent importance. They appear below for the consideration of all who truly care.
From The Seven Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education:
(Brief annotations appear in parentheses.)
- Command of fundamental processes (Reading, writing, and mathematics)
- Worthy home membership (Being a responsible member of a family and household)
- Vocation (Career readiness)
- Citizenship (Awareness and participation in a constructive democratic process)
- Worthy use of leisure (Meaningful use of spare time)
- Ethical character