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Schooling America: Access

by Patricia Albjerg Graham

During the last century, what we Americans wanted and what we got from our schools shifted through four distinct periods, which I call Assimilation, Adjustment, Access and Achievement. In the first week of this series, we looked at the period of Assimilation covering the early years of the 20th century. Last week I wrote about the middle years of the twentieth century, including WWII and the post-war years, which I call the Adjustment era. Today, I will address the era of Access, the period after Brown v. Board of Education until 1983. And next week I’ll look at our current period since 1983 – the Achievement period. The following pictures help illustrate this tale of shifting assignments to America’s schools and their reluctance, sometimes wisely, to complete the new assignments as fully and promptly as the public and, later, policy-makers, wished.

Access: 1954-1983

When the US Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation by race in public schools violated the US Constitution, the response from segregated school systems was not immediate. Rather, overcrowding was the issue most on the minds of the parents of the baby boomers.

The solution to the challenges posed by the Brown decision was “Access.’’ If the mother who wanted special attention could not get that, then she wanted a special program, preferably one for her child who undoubtedly was “gifted and talented.” Such a child had likely been identified by high performance on the intelligence and achievement standardized tests that were sweeping schoolrooms. These were the children who were introduced to the “new math” and other such subjects now being designed for schoolchildren by some of America’s most notable scholars who encouraged children to use “manipulables” while learning mathematics.

Access for blacks, however, meant the right to enter schools previously closed to them. Frequently this meant facilities were much improved as well. This transition was not easy, either in the south or in the north. Entire school systems closed in the south, including Norfolk, Virginia, where I taught, in 1958, rather than admit any black students to white schools. Norfolk’s Maury High School did not offer a warm welcome to its first black student when it reopened in 1959. Likewise, in the north, desegregation caused violence and disruption, especially in my city of Boston, thus minimizing the academic work that could be accomplished under those circumstances.

Desegregation was now the law of the land, but it was not being adopted promptly or completely by the state and local districts that administered the schools. In response to this sluggishness, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson reluctantly decided to invigorate the sleepy US Office of Education with new commissioners.

Francis Keppel came fresh from Harvard in 1963 to the post of Commissioner of the US Office of Education, and he succeeded in gaining passage of the first significant federal aid to education, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The leading thrust of this legislation was funding for additional educational services. These funds were directed at schools serving students primarily from low-income families. Keppel left the Education Office in 1966 after a falling out with President Johnson over desegregation in Chicago. This photo shows Francis Keppel (right) talking with his mentor, and President of Harvard University, James B. Conant.

Keppel’s successor, Harold Howe II led the implementation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 as Commissioner of the Education Office, a post he would hold until 1969. Howe was also an experienced school man who had prepared at Yale and the Columbia History Department. The photo shows Howe with President Johnson during the debates over desegregation.

Keppel and Howe were an unlikely pair to lead the transformation of the federal government into an important force in public education and civil rights. Their changes included: requiring desegregation in school districts in order to receive federal funds, requiring bi-lingual programs for non-English speaking children, “mainstreaming” the disabled, and equalizing athletic opportunities for girls. Their reforms left an indelible mark on American education and Schooling in America has not been the same since.

Next week…Part IV: Achievement: From the Reagan Administration to “No Child Left Behind.”

Patricia Albjerg Graham is the author of Schooling America: How the Public Schools Meet the Nations’s Changing Needs and the Charles Warren Research Professor of the History of American Education at Harvard University.

Photo and image credits: 1) Courtesy of Norfolk Virginian Pilot
2) Harvard University Archives. Call #UAV 605.270.5 p
3) National Education Association, Joe DiDio. Courtesy of Special Collections, Monroe C. Gutman Library, Harvard Graduate School of Education

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