Museum of Education
College of Education

Introduction to the
Secondary School Study
by Craig Kridel, Curator


I hope . . . that black secondary schools in America will make careful and serious study of the progressive movement in education and, further, that the Commission on Secondary Schools will have the means and the wisdom not only to stimulate the interest in individual schools but to secure by some means an association of black schools in serious experimental groups for the careful and thoughtful formulation of an educational philosophy and for experimentation with and evaluation of progressive school practices.

W. A. Robinson, “Progressive Education and the Negro,” 1937 (1)


The Secondary School Study, sponsored by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes (ACSSN) and funded by the General Education Board (GEB), was established in 1940 to assist high school teachers to experiment with their administrative, curricular and instructional practices. While the ACSSN sought to achieve accreditation for its member schools and to make strides for equitable support—separate AND equal—for black education, some educators believed the teachers were not involved in progressive education’s “stream of educational ideas” and, thus, were placing too much emphasis on existing, traditional practices. With assistance from members of the Progressive Education Association, the participants in the Secondary School Study ultimately came to reconsider the basic purposes of secondary education and sought ways to discover the needs of black secondary school students in relation to their social setting in America and to explore the implications of establishing educational communities based upon democratic living.

Seventeen sites ultimately participated in the Secondary School Study and were selected according to the distinctiveness and quality of their programs and the willingness of school staffs to engage in program experimentation. The “laboratory sites” included a representative cross-section of rural & urban and large & small settings from the eleven states that represented the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (the regional accreditation agency).

Pearl High School


The Secondary School Study (also known as the Black High School Study) was directly linked to the experimental efforts of other 1930-1940s GEB-funded projects: the Progressive Education Association’s (PEA) Eight Year Study, the American Council on Education’s Cooperative Study, and the Southern Association’s Southern Study. As a complement to these other projects, the black high school teachers and staff were encouraged to explore ways to develop democratic school policy and practices and to strengthen school-community relations. The Secondary School Study represented an example of “implementative research” where educational experimentation occurred within the context of classroom settings and without the need to establish controlled test sites. The Black High School Study also embraced the then-popular conception of a “cooperative study”—a distinguishable research method where “a considerable number of persons representing different sections of the country and bringing varying viewpoints cooperate in [selecting the research problem, determining the method of investigation].” (2) Project consultants—a network of resource staff and workshop instructors—brought together participants to discuss common problems and innovative practices in what proved to be a distinguishing factor (and mandatory practice) in this type of project, as teachers came together to “work” in meaningful ways toward school reform and renewal. Unlike many research projects of today, the efforts of the Secondary School Study were directed towards the perceived needs of the school rather than the larger goals of the external educational researchers.

“Cooperation” became emblematic for the entire effort as faculty within the member schools were placed together in settings where they could begin to formulate purposes and plans for educational change. Furthering the Progressive Education Association’s belief in “democracy as a way of life,” cooperative-planning became a tangible practice that served to build community and foster democracy. Secondary School Study participants believed “that better education meant broader opportunities for intelligent participation in and responsibility for democratic living.” (3) As John Dewey had asserted, “Democracy must be reborn with each generation, and education is its midwife.” (4) For the participating schools of the project, cooperation became the method of delivery.

Dudley High School

Teachers at the Secondary School Study member sites began the project by reexamining the purposes of education and “promoting the development of schools experience that will serve better the critical needs of Negro youth.” W. A. Robinson, the project director, did not see the conventional practices of white high schools as providing a solution to the inadequacies of the black secondary school curriculum. Traditional forms of education for both black and white students were

"largely of a non-functional academic type offering meager training in health, vocation, leisure, worthy home membership or citizenship, but apparently aimed at, if anything, the acquisition of a cheap type of superficial erudition, such as may be obtained from the limited verbal mastery of poorly understood husks of learning, robbed of all richness and crammed within the covers of cheap text books." (4)

In contrast, progressive education, as it was being conceived at the high school level through the efforts of the Progressive Education Association’s (PEA) Commission on the Relation of School and College, displayed promise for a new configuration of secondary education; however, Robinson and his colleagues recognized that content must be adapted to the needs of black youth. While turning their attention to developing appropriate curriculum texts similar to the resource materials composed by other PEA commissions, W. H. Brown of the project staff noted the importance of developing more suitable instructional materials:

"Issues surrounding labor, taxation, wartime economics, social policies of government, civil rights, effective participation in the war effort, the meaning of patriotism, etc., have not been developed from the point of view of minority groups and there is danger of the development of racism as a result of this lack of instructional materials. The Study has made some inadequate efforts in this direction, but there has been considerable demand from schools for the slender materials which we have accumulated. Even the few materials available are not easily discovered and are generally on a level unsuitable for use in secondary schools." (6)

Secondary School Study consultants visited member schools and worked with teachers on site in curriculum development and teacher-pupil planning. Their methods embraced the tenets of “cooperative study” where they posed questions to elicit a reexamination of basic purposes and the identification of classroom problems. Teachers and staff attended national and regional workshops, including Eight Year Study workshops and, later, their own project workshops and developed resource units for use in the participating schools. Beginning in 1944, the Secondary School Study staff broadened their experimental work in curriculum and staff development by offering assistance to approximately 100 other “contact” black secondary schools in the South.

D. Webster Davis High School

The Secondary School Study officially ended in 1948, lingering for a few years but then falling into obscurity as would later occur with the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes (and its accrediting component, the Highsmith Committee), the General Education Board, and the “progressive education” movement. ACSSN later dissolved in 1964, GEB in 1965, and the PEA in 1955. Yet, while the General Education Board terminated its funding for all “general education”-curriculum/implementative research projects, the Black High School project must not be viewed as unsuccessful. Melaine Carter, a leading scholar of the history of the ACSSN, maintains that the impact of the study was profound with the teachers “exposed to a new level of professional development support from which they and their students benefited greatly.” (7)

Staley High School

The Museum of Education is pleased to stage this series of school exhibits as a way to begin to better understand the concept of “cooperative study,” as conceived in the 1940s and 1950s, and to document examples of progressive education experimentation in African-American school settings. With funding provided by the Spencer Foundation, each school site has been (or will be) visited, and teachers and students have graciously participated in the Museum’s Secondary School Study Oral History Project. Coupled with these narrative accounts, General Education Board archives and other museum/archival repositories have been visited, providing a wide assortment of items from which these school vignettes have been constructed. While the Museum’s school vignettes suggest a research methodology of portraiture as popularized by Sara Lightfoot in The Good High School and The Art and Science of Portraiture and practiced by Vanessa Siddle Walker in Their Highest Potential, this project is conceived less as a complete school narrative and more as a collage of various school materials and comments from the teachers and students themselves. (8)

For that reason the initial perspective of the exhibits and to-be-published catalog is less interpretive and more suggestive, supporting the research findings of Walker’s Their Highest Potential where she argues that even with the unequal funding, inadequate facilities, and explicit racism, black schools were able to build supportive environments that encouraged and demanded excellence from its students. Other “research findings” and claims from this research project will be modest; our exhibits will not “prove” the strengths of black secondary education, the glories of progressive education, or even the influence of the Secondary School Study nor are they intended to do so. Our effort is to inform and suggest and, we hope, to encourage others to research further. Each exhibition calls—cries out—for articles, dissertations, and books about the participating schools and their educational leaders. We hope many will answer our call. In contrast to preparing the definitive statement on diversity in progressive education, the Museum of Education’s research and exhibitions serve more as an act of “archival agency” as we continue to urge each school site to establish a place of honor—museum or library/media center cabinet—that serves to acquire and preserve precious documents and photographs of academic life.

We hope that through “biographical collage” and “suggestive presentations,” the exhibitions will cause patrons to reconsider the important yet forgotten heritage of African American secondary school education prior to Briggs v Elliot, to acknowledge the true injustices of a “separate and allegedly equal” educational system, to recognize the names of distinguished black high schools from the 1930s and 1940s, to appreciate the importance of preserving as well as presenting the material culture of these courageous schools that forged strong educational programs within segregated communities, and to learn further of a spirit of progressive education that embraced “democracy as a way of life” in a struggle for civil rights and social justice.

1) W. A. Robinson, “Progressive Education and the Negro,” Proceedings of the ACSSN, 1937, p. 65.
2) John K. Norton, “Cooperative and Individual Research,” Journal of Educational Research 17:3 (March 1928), p. 216-218.
3) W. H. Brown, “Report of Two Years of Activity of the Secondary School Study,” Journal of Negro Education 12:1 (Winter 1943), p. 121.
4) John Dewey, Democracy and Education, New York: Macmillan, 1916, p. 22.
5) Harl R. Douglass, “The Education of Negro Youth for Modern America: A Critical Summary,” The Journal of Negro Education 9: 3 (July 1940), p. 543.
6) W. H. Brown, “Report of Two Years of Activity of the Secondary School Study,” p. 129
7) Melanie Carter, “From Jim Crow to Inclusion,” Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1996, p. 140.
8) Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, The Good High School, New York: Da Capo, 1985. Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot& Jessica Hoffmann Davis, The Art and Science of Portraiture, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997. Vanessa Siddle Walker, Their Highest Potential, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

  This project is dedicated to the groundbreaking research of Dr. Cynthia Gibson Hardy, a doctoral student friend and colleague, who completed her Ph.D. dissertation, “A Historical Review of The Secondary School Study of the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools for Negroes, 1940-1946,” at Ohio State University in 1977.        
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