Education Commentary

If Schools Had Heeded Their 1960’s Critics...

By Leonard B. Stevens — June 01, 1983 8 min read

Now comes a new offensive to reform the schools. In quick succession, the National Commission on Excellence in Education has captured the nation’s attention with its warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity"; a task force from the Twentieth Century Fund has declared that “the nation’s public schools are in trouble"; and another task force, this one from the Education Commission of the States, has looked at the schools and decided they are in need of “deep and lasting change.” Not in years have the schools received so much unvarnished criticism, and not in generations has education been so high on the list of political leaders’ talking points.

What is new about the current calls for reform is not so much the message but the way it is being received; the reform calls reflect both the positions of the reformers and the status of the economy. These reform advocates-university presidents and senior academicians, corporate executives, governors, and educational administrators-are of the Establishment, not outside it. For this reason, it would be unthinkable to characterize their criticism, however caustic, as negative, or their suggestions, however sweeping, as radical.

Meanwhile, the economy is pressing the schools into contorted shapes, squeezing both programs and staff members out of budgets and leaving little or no room for those who run the schools and work in them to react to criticism with either defensiveness or denials of the schools’ problems. Thus does this new school-reform offensive, led by the well-placed and launched in an economic context that makes change in the schools appear necessary and wise, find a receptivity that is truly remarkable.

Not so long ago, though, the school-reform message-not fundamentally different in intent from that of the present day commissions-received generally hostile treatment from the schools. The messengers then were the critics of the 1960’s-John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, Nat Hentoff, Peter Schrag, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, George Dennison, Mario Fantini, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Charles Silberman, James Herndon, Paul Goodman, and others. Although the authors of books, most of them were not professional writers. Many, in fact, were teachers in schools or universities. They became well known, but not as agents of the Establishment: These were “radical” critics from outside the schools calling for “romantic” changes.

These reformers traveled the circuit of popular authors, lectured, and taught, but not in a period of economic bad times; their time, from the late 50’s through the 60’s, was a period of school expansion and economic growth. As a result of both factors-their status and their time-their message that the schools were failing, that the young were not learning, that there was, indeed, a full-blown “crisis in the classroom,” struck sparks, igniting more controversy than educational planning. And yet it is difficult, even impossible, not to see the ideological connections between the school critics of the 60’s and the current proponents of school reform. Differences in their respective rhetoric, emphasis, and suggestions aside, there are too many common themes in their underlying messages, although separated in time by about a generation, to warrant the conclusion that these two batches of school-reform advocates are intellectually unrelated. Albert Shanker, the pre-eminent teachers’-union leader, has widely perceived the connection: few, if any, others have. But his quick dismissal of the critics of the 60’s in a recent advertisement in The New York Times as a “cast of characters” whose reform message was fundamentally different from that of the current commissions is more politically facile than factually precise.

Consider the two groups’ treatment of these basic issues:

• The Schools. The current commissions portray the problem as unproductive schools and the solution as increased school effectiveness brought about by reforms in what the schools teach, how they deliver instruction, and what is expected of students. The critics of the 60’s were similarly oriented—they did not like what they saw in the schools and they advocated dramatic change. But that is the point: except for Ivan Illich, who would have “de-schooled” education—that is, disestablished schools and school systems as we know them—the critics of the 60’s advocated reforms in schooling, not its abandonment. These were no revolutionaries. In fact, they were no less hopeful for change and evolutionary school improvements than are the new commissions.

• Students. The reports of the current commissions, both in and between the lines, represent the opinion of reform advocates who recognize that inside the schools are children, not merely programs, budgets, and test scores. These, in other words, are no educational technicians bent simply on efficiency and cost containment. They sense the human frustration and social cost that is spawned by educational failure, and they also perceive the schools in their social context and national role. The school critics of the 60’s focused in the same way on the human consequences of bad educational practice. However harsh the critics of the 60’s were on schools, they were invariably interested in children, perhaps to an extreme. Their critiques of the schools manifested their sense of outrage over educational mindlessness, precisely because of its harmful consequences for the children.

• Teachers. The critics of the 60’s, some would wrongly claim, were anti-teacher-blaming teachers for too much, crediting them with too little, harming the image of all teachers by focusing attention on the negative performance of a few. But on close reading, these “radical” critics (some of whom were teachers themselves) wished only to expose the underside of teaching and instruction- the worst methodology, the most thoughtless behavior. They rarely if ever attacked the profession as a whole, and never suggested that teachers were unnecessary or inherently unable to perform well. Indeed, most of the critics said considerably less about organized teachers-although they had the opportunity to comment--than did the new task force from the Twentieth Century Fund, which directly criticizes teachers’ unions for “protecting their weakest members rather than winning rewards for their strongest"; for opposing merit pay for teachers and “thereby limiting the financial incentives available for rewarding superior professional work”; and for forcing the better teachers “to leave teaching for more financially rewarding work,” thereby diminishing the quality of teaching available in the schools.

Where the new reformers of the 80’s will differ from the critics of the 60’s—if the nation is fortunate—is in impact. Had the school-reform message in the 60’s been heeded instead of resisted, had the legitimate critique at that time triggered a coherent, cohesive, planned reformation in the schools, the commissions of the 80’s might have been unnecessary. It follows that if the message is not heard—and acted on—this time, there will be more such commissions a generation hence producing more recommendations that resemble the ones just produced. The positive reception that has greeted these current reports is therefore encouraging.

But the extent of the impact this time will depend not only on the willingness of schools to accept criticism, but also on the competence of education officials at all levels of government to translate ideas into results. Take, for example, some of the recommendations from the celebrated report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. One could begin to get hopeful about the Commission’s capacity to prompt real reform in the schools if the following were to take place soon:

• A move by the U. S. Education Department to define “the national interest” in education. A purposeful pursuit of broad reforms demands an articulated common vision of desired results. The schools need the constant guidance that would come from a thoughtfully defined portrayal of what the nation expects of them.

• A convocation by the Secretary of Education of the chief school officers of the states and the representatives of local school boards to divide the political labor necessary for enacting reform. Because institutional change is an unnatural activity, it demands both leaders and strategies.

• An affirmative and aggressive response by the U. S. Department of Justice to protect “constitutional and civil rights for students and school personnel.” The Commission explicitly identified the federal responsibility in this area.

• A joint effort by the Administration and the Congress to build into the federal budget the amount of federal dollars needed for “key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language-minority students, and the handicapped.” The special needs of such children, as the Commission suggested, are more than a local responsibility.

• An effort by the National Institute of Education, working at the request of the Education Department, to translate the large goals and problem statements in which commissions necessarily speak into attainable objectives and action plans that include preliminary estimates of costs, benefits, intended results, timetables, and monitoring systems. The planning of reform is more than half the job.

None of this has happened yet. And it may not. Every call for school reform meets a particular resistance, and the chief obstacle confronting the current movement ironically takes the form of an Administration that parented the National Commission but whose ideology may not allow it to understand or concur with the message it received.

When given the report of the Commission, which urges virtually a remaking of the schools, the Commission’s primary student misapprehended its message and instantly recommitted his Administration to such educational-reform irrelevancies as voluntary school prayer, tuition tax credits, and abolition of the Education Department. The Commission must have felt like a teacher who had failed, all its intentions and efforts notwithstanding. Few, perhaps, better understood the contradiction and the implication than the critics of the 60’s, wherever they now may be.

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1983 edition of Education Week


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