Howe Pioneered New Federal Role In U.S. Education

December 11, 2002 4 min read
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Harold Howe II, who oversaw the advent of an unprecedented federal role in precollegiate education, died Nov. 30 in Hanover, N.H. He was 84.

Mr. Howe served as the U.S. commissioner of education under President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1965 to 1968. In that post, he had the task of implementing the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law several months before he arrived in Washington.

As if that weren’t a big enough job, the recent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which required that school districts receiving federal funds demonstrate that they were not discriminating on the basis of race, provided an extra twist.

“In effect, we took the job of desegregating the Southern schools so that we could give them Title I money,” Mr. Howe recalled in 2000 at a luncheon held in his honor by former colleagues from Harvard University’s graduate school of education. (“Educators Honor ‘Doc’ Howe’s Contributions,” Jan. 12, 2000.)

“He stood up for doing what was right,” David S. Seeley, an education professor at the City University of New York who was an assistant commissioner under Mr. Howe, said last week. “We had a lot of pressure. A lot of people were very unhappy about us threatening to take away their money.”

A Lifetime in Education

“He was deeply concerned about equity, and had a lifelong commitment to the principles of equal educational opportunity and desegregation,” added Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and a former assistant secretary of education during the first Bush administration.

Mr. Howe—known as “Doc,”’ a nickname he picked up as a child, though he never earned a doctorate—spent his career involved with education. Before heading the U.S. Office of Education, the predecessor to today’s Cabinet-level department, he was a schoolteacher, principal, and superintendent. Later, he worked at the Ford Foundation, ultimately serving as a vice president focusing on educational philanthropy.

From 1982 to 1994, Mr. Howe was a senior lecturer at Harvard’s graduate school of education. While at the university, he led a commission that in 1988 produced a frequently cited report, “The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America’s Youth and Families.” The report emphasized the needs of students not headed to college, and helped launch the school-to-work movement.

In recent years, Mr. Howe wrote numerous commentaries and letters to the editor for Education Week and other publications. He was especially worried about the standards and testing movement.

“As the worship of accountability moves forward under its banner of standards and tests, students in ill-supported schools, often from ill-supported families and sometimes with ill-prepared teachers, suffer the privilege of organized failure in their schools,” he wrote in a February 2001 letter to Education Week. Without major changes in such areas, he said, the “race for high test scores will be self-defeating.”

In another letter, he offered some irreverent poetry to make a point about technology in schools.

“Your special report on technology blows the mind!” he wrote in October 1999. “Here is a bit of anonymous verse that should have been in it:

‘The word has come down from the dean
That by using a teaching machine,
Oedipus Rex could have learned about sex
Without ever disturbing the queen!’ ”

Mr. Howe was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1918. He married his wife, Priscilla, in 1940, the same year he graduated from Yale University. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he earned a master’s degree in history from Columbia University. He had three children.

Theodore R. Sizer, a longtime friend of Mr. Howe’s and now a visiting education professor at Harvard and Brandeis universities, said that while Mr. Howe’s public record is well-known, the former education commissioner’s “private record” was equally impressive.

“He was always generous with his time,” said Mr. Sizer, who founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of public and private schools. “He never was in my experience a person who would pay special attention to prominent people and very little to just the folks on the street.”

Mr. Howe was a powerful ally for those who have questioned standards-based reform, Mr. Sizer noted.

“His voice on that front will be sorely missed,” he said, “because of his enormous credibility in saying, ‘Look folks, it’s more complicated than that.’ ”

One of Mr. Howe’s major themes, articulated in his 1993 book Thinking About Our Kids: An Agenda for American Education, was that learning reaches far beyond the schoolhouse door.

“Those of us who are interested in improving education have a habit of paying too much attention to schools and not enough to children,” Mr. Howe wrote. “American education is standing in the need of prayer, but not entirely for the reasons typically proposed by the prophets of the so-called school reform movement. Much of that movement today is based on an erroneous assumption—that we can fix the schools so that the schools can fix the kids.

“This assumption ignores the large part of children’s lives that takes place outside of school,” he continued. “Education happens around the clock, in the family and the community as well as in school. ... Accordingly, I see the reform of education in our country as a much broader issue than the improvement of schooling.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as Howe Pioneered New Federal Role In U.S. Education


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