School & District Management


December 15, 1999 7 min read
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Mary S. Calderone | Willis W. and Ethel M. Clark | James S. Coleman | James P. Comer | James B. Conant | Joan Ganz Cooney | Lawrence A. Cremin | Marian Wright Edelman | Jane Elliott | Rudolf F. Flesch | Milton Friedman | Mel and Norma Gabler | John Holt | Lyndon B. Johnson | Jonathan Kozol | Marvin L. Pickering | Edward and Sidney Schempp | Albert Shanker | B.F. Skinner | John F. and Mary Beth Tinker

A Letter to Johnny’s Mom:
Rudolf F. Flesch

Nearly 45 years after Rudolf Flesch created a fictional 12-year-old boy and held him up as an indictment of elementary education in the United States, Why Johnny Can’t Read is still used as ammunition in the battle over how children should be taught to read.

In the book, Flesch, a writer and consultant who had emigrated from Austria in 1938, advocated the phonics method of instructing children in the alphabet and basic sounds. He likened learning to read to learning to drive. In both, he argued, students must first learn the basics-the mechanics of a car or the mechanics of the language-before taking the driver’s seat.

The problem with the reading instruction most U.S. students received at the time, Flesch believed, was that few of them were learning those initial skills.

“The teaching of reading-all over the United States, in all the schools, in all the textbooks-is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense,” he wrote in the 1955 volume.

“Johnny’s only problem was that he was unfortunately exposed to an ordinary American school.”

The book begins with a letter to Johnny’s mother, and includes lessons and step-by-step instructions for parents.

A commercial success in its time, the book has become a manifesto for parents seeking a return to “the basics” in reading instruction.

But it has angered many educators, who say it endorses the kind of drilling in letters and sounds that they contend impedes real learning and takes the fun out of reading.

Flesch repeated his arguments in his 1981 sequel, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, in which he included what he said were alarming new statistics on illiteracy.

The original “Johnny” book has been reprinted several times, most recently in 1994. Other books by Flesch, who died in 1986 at age 75, also focused on the use of language and literacy. In all his volumes, he promoted his own no- nonsense style, as evident in the titles: The Art of Plain Talk, How to Make Sense, The Art of Clear Thinking, and Say What You Mean.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Albert Shanker
The tumultuous New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 catapulted the leader of the United Federation of Teachers to national prominence. As the president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 until his death in 1997, Shanker became an outspoken elder statesman of education and an advocate for high standards, tough tests, and school discipline.

B.F. Skinner
Leading exponent of behaviorism, which views learning as a process of responding to stimuli. Behaviorists believed that process could be studied through laboratory observations. Such theories guided many psychologists and education researchers from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Marian Wright Edelman
Once described by The Washington Post as “the most influential children’s advocate in the country,” Edelman was a prominent Mississippi civil rights lawyer in the 1960s. After moving to Washington in 1968, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973. Through the nonprofit organization, she has fought for better maternal care and child health care, improved nutrition, expanded early-childhood education, and better schools.

James S. Coleman
His 1966 report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, is considered the most important education study of the 20th century. Coleman, a sociologist, found that the best predictors of a student’s achievement were family background and his school’s socioeconomic makeup. The report was widely, if wrongly, interpreted to mean that schools have little effect on a child’s educational success or failure.

Willis W. and Ethel M. Clark
He had the testing expertise; she had the business smarts. Their California Test Bureau, a mom-and-pop start-up in 1926, grew over nearly four decades to become a leader in its field. The company, sold in 1965, lives on as CTB/McGraw-Hill, one of the “big three” purveyors of tests to the vast K-12 market.

James B. Conant
A diplomat, scholar, and former Harvard University president, he wrote an influential series of reports during the late 1950s and early ‘60s that served as a blueprint for the large, comprehensive high schools that remain a standard feature of American education.

Lawrence A. Cremin
The pre-eminent historian of American education, whose expansive view-linking education to broader intellectual, social, and cultural currents and institutions-greatly influenced scholarship in the field. His three-volume history on the subject is widely admired, and The Transformation of the School (1961) was a landmark chronicle of the rise and fall of progressive education.

John Holt
A prolific author, educator, and social critic, Holt first began slashing away at lockstep education in the 1960s, with books such as 1964’s How Children Fail. His 1976 book, Instead of Education: Ways To Help People Do Things Better, proposed “a new underground railroad to help children escape from school.” A year later, he launched a home education magazine, Growing Without Schooling.

Lyndon B. Johnson
At the height of his power following his landslide 1964 election as president, this onetime schoolteacher- arguing that education was the best weapon in the “War on Poverty"- won an unprecedented expansion of federal aid for K-12 schools with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The law’s Title I remains the biggest federal contribution to the education of needy children.

Joan Ganz Cooney
As the founder of “Sesame Street” and the chairwoman of the Children’s Television Workshop, she has arguably done more for educational programming on television than any other individual. “Sesame Street” was an instant success, widely praised as the best children’s TV show ever. Since its premiere on Nov. 10, 1969, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and other characters have taught millions of preschoolers everything from the alphabet to ecology.

Mel and Norma Gabler
In 1961, a Texas boy showed his parents the history book he had brought home from his high school. To the couple’s dismay, they found the power of the federal government emphasized over states’ rights, and an international-rather than pro- U.S.-perspective on world history. Since then, the Gablers have been vocal participants in the process of textbook adoption in their state, which in turn shapes texts used throughout the country.

James P. Comer
Drawing on the theory that children learn better when they form strong relationships with the adults in their lives, the Yale University child psychiatrist founded the School Development Program in 1968 in two New Haven, Conn., schools. The program, which seeks to create schools that nurture emotional, social, and academic development, now operates in more than 700 schools.

Mary S. Calderone
Proponent of sex education in the schools. In 1964, the physician founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, whose goal was to foster “responsible use of the sexual facility.” Critics said such teaching would lead to promiscuity; Calderone countered that students armed with information were more likely to avoid pregnancy and disease.

Jane Elliott

Amid the shock of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April 1968, a 3rd grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa, came up with a two-day lesson on discrimination. Elliott divided her all-white class into two groups, based on the color of their eyes. On day one, the “brown eyes” would be “superior” and would get all the privileges and receive favored treatment from the teacher. On the second day, the “blue eyes” reigned. The startling results became the subject of two acclaimed television documentaries and a best-selling 1971 book.

John F. and Mary Beth Tinker
The Iowa teenagers whose black-armband protest against the Vietnam War at a Des Moines high school resulted in a 1969 Supreme Court ruling that protected students’ free-speech rights at school.

Marvin L. Pickering
Illinois high school teacher who was fired for denouncing his district’s leadership in a 1964 letter to a newspaper. His lawsuit made it to the Supreme Court, which in 1968 established the right of such free speech for public school educators.

Milton Friedman
Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist who in 1955 first suggested the idea of giving parents vouchers worth roughly the cost of a public education that they could use to send their children to private schools.

Jonathan Kozol
His 1967 book, Death at an Early Age, delivered a still- powerful emotional punch with its account of Kozol’s year as a young teacher in a Boston elementary school that gave its poor black students little education, and even less hope.

Edward and Sidney Schempp
The furor over its 1962 decision scrapping a state-written school prayer had not yet died down when the Supreme Court made clear the next year-in cases brought by this Unitarian couple and atheist Madalyn Murray and her son-that devotional Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer failed the legal test as well.

A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 1999 edition of Education Week as 1960s


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