Educators Honor ‘Doc’ Howe’s Contributions

By Erik W. Robelen — January 12, 2000 7 min read
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Just months after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, it fell on the shoulders of the newly appointed U.S. commissioner of education to implement the law that ushered in an unprecedented federal role in schools.

“I had the job of setting up a system for doing something nobody had ever done before,” Harold “Doc” Howe II recalled last week: sending federal money to the then nearly 27,000 U.S. school districts, “whose addresses we didn’t even know.” In contrast to the limited federal support previously available for precollegiate education, the ESEA would provide aid to virtually all districts. “ESEA is the foundation of a major move of the federal government into education,” Mr. Howe said.

The former federal official said his ESEA efforts were further complicated by the recent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required, among other provisions, that districts receiving federal funds demonstrate that they were not discriminating on the basis of race. “In effect, we took on the job of desegregating the Southern schools so that we could give them Title I money,” he said.

Mr. Howe, now 81, remembered that challenge and others during an afternoon gathering in his honor held here last week near his New Hampshire home.

About a dozen assembled guests, including former colleagues from Harvard University’s graduate school of education, where Mr. Howe was a senior lecturer from 1982 until his retirement in 1994, paid tribute to the longtime educator during the informal get-together Jan. 4. They came to share stories of his influence on them and to celebrate a new student fellowship and chair in his name at Harvard. That chair will bear Mr. Howe’s name until the current dean of the graduate school, Jerome T. Murphy, retires and it is renamed in his honor. Above all, however, they came to talk with Mr. Howe—and to listen.

Mr. Murphy, who was a lobbyist for the then- U.S. Office of Education during Mr. Howe’s tenure, recalled one of his earliest encounters with the commissioner.

From ‘Doc’ Howe
The following are among the comments former U.S. Commissioner of Education Harold “Doc” Howe II offered at an informal Jan. 4 gathering in his honor held by former colleagues and students near his New Hampshire home.
On the definition of education:
“Education comes not just from schooling, but from all kinds of things. ... The most overreaching and significant missing of the game by this country about schools ... has been this neglect of the broad definition of education.”
On the federal role in schools:
“We are clearly heading for the need for a larger and more focused and ... better-thought-about contribution from the federal government to public schools ... We’re ready for a rethinking of the federal role, but it ought to have an enlargement, and it also [should have] a hands-off element which is not now there, and is going to be hard to put there.”
On standards and assessment:
"[The standards movement] is a strategy which uses kids as burnable matter in the process of improving things. ... The whole spirit of the present standards-and-test game is the spirit of top down: ‘We know what to do, here it is, you guys do it, and we’ll give you a test.’ ... And it really hurts when the kids haven’t had a chance to learn what’s coming.”
On for-profit schools
“The very fact of having to make a profit creates a flow of money that’s not available to the schools, and that seems to me a very large argument for not doing it.”

The year was 1967, and Mr. Howe was expected the following day to deliver testimony on school desegregation to the House Rules Committee, whose powerful chairman and ranking member were both Southerners hostile to the federal government’s policy. Some 30 to 40 Johnson administration officials, including many leaders in civil rights policy, were meeting in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare conference room to prepare.

“They were worried to death about Doc’s testimony the next day ... because this was crucial to desegregation in the future,” Mr. Murphy said. “And I remember clear as a bell Doc Howe sitting off in the corner personally writing his own testimony while all these other big shots were fluttering around trying to figure out what Doc would say.”

The moment captured the qualities Mr. Murphy most admires about Mr. Howe: “I think of his tremendous conviction, his calm in the eye of the storm, his courage.”

Mr. Howe delivered the testimony, and though it may not have “wowed” his congressional skeptics, Mr. Murphy said, “he carried the day. And ever since, Doc has been one of my heroes.”

Defining Education Broadly

Others at the gathering here, held at the Hanover Inn overlooking the campus of Dartmouth College, also offered personal stories of how Mr. Howe affected their lives and provided inspiration and friendship.

Mr. Howe’s education experience has been wide-ranging and includes stints as a schoolteacher, principal, and superintendent. After leaving the Office of Education in 1968, he worked at the Ford Foundation until 1981, ultimately as a vice president focusing on educational philanthropy. In 1993, he published a book, Thinking About Our Kids:An Agenda for American Education.

While at Harvard, he headed a commission that in 1988 produced a frequently cited report, “The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America’s Youth and Families,” which sought to highlight the needs of students who were not college-bound and helped launch the school-to-work movement. Over the past decade, Mr. Howe has also contributed numerous commentaries and letters to Education Week and other publications, writing on subjects ranging from the standards movement to school uniforms.

Born in Hartford, Conn., Mr. Howe married his wife, Priscilla, in 1940, the same year he graduated from Yale University. Following service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he earned a master’s degree in history from Columbia University. Ironically, though nicknamed “Doc” as a boy, Mr. Howe never earned a doctoral degree. He has three children and five grandchildren.

During last week’s gathering, Mr. Howe shared his views on education, including his firm belief that the very concept of education is too often narrowly defined. (See box, this page.)

“Your education comes not just from schooling, but from all kinds of things,” he said. “The most overreaching and significant missing of the game by this country about schools... has been this neglect of the broad definition of education.”

He also reflected on the work he and others undertook in the 1960s to step up the federal role in education. It should come as little surprise that some of the grandest pronouncements that the ESEA would transform education fell short, he observed.

“Any new thing that gets through the Congress of the United States gets through there because people make promises that will never be met,” he said. “If you want to make changes in schools, you want to think about making changes in churches: It’s about the same speed.”

Still, he maintained that the ESEAwhich remains the major federal K-12 law and includes the $8 billion Title I program—has had an impact and has also clearly made the federal government a more important player in helping schools. “There’s not a person who’s going for the presidency now who isn’t talking about it,” he said. The law is up for reauthorization this year.

Mr. Howe argued that the federal government now needs to provide more support to schools, but without being intrusive.

“We’re ready for a rethinking of the federal role, but it ought to have an enlargement and it also [should have] a hands-off element, which is not now there, and is going to be very hard to put there,” he said.

And, although he is not necessarily opposed to block grants, Mr. Howe cautioned that the ESEA contains some important elements, such as a focus on disadvantaged students, “that would probably get bumped in the block grant game.”

The movement to impose tougher state academic standards has long been a source of concern to Mr. Howe, and his criticism was pointed last week.

“For the state to say, ‘Here’s all the little things that all the little kids have got to know, and here’s the test you give them, and then we’ll know whether they’re learning anything,’ that’s baloney, and that’s what we have right now,” he said.

Learning to ‘Stand Back’

His skepticism won a sympathetic ear from Theodore R. Sizer, a lecturer and former dean at Harvard and the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a school improvement network, who also attended the gathering. Afterward, Mr. Sizer cited the lessons he has learned from Mr. Howe, including that “you’ve got to stand back from these things, even though they’re hot,” he said, “to always start with the children.”

Mr. Howe, he added, “always did it with a smile and a laugh. ... And there wasn’t a bit of jargon in what Doc said.”

“So many people really have been deeply affected by his values,” Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard education professor, said of Mr. Howe later. She stressed that last week’s event was very different from a ceremonial tribute. “People were there for themselves, to be connected with Doc, to learn from Doc,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Educators Honor ‘Doc’ Howe’s Contributions

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