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Revisiting James Bryant Conant

By William A. Proefriedt — May 17, 2005 10 min read
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Conant believed that the democratic purposes of education were best served in a school attended by all of the students in the community.

In 1959, my second year of teaching in a poorly funded district on eastern Long Island in New York, my five classes of 7th grade English students were tracked, 7-1, 7-2, and so forth. I thought there were large differences, indeed, between the students in the 7-1 class and the 7-5 class in skills like reading comprehension and writing. The 7-2, 7-3, and 7-4 students, predicted by their placements to be closer to average in performance, might have moved easily one class up or down. I talked about these tracking arrangements with colleagues. We questioned what factors resulted in such different abilities in students; we wondered how large the possibilities were for improvement; and we inquired about the extent to which students exhibited similar ability across subject areas, or showed high ability only in certain subjects. I found it hard to reconcile my belief in the infinite possibilities of each individual with the assessments I made in class of students’ learning activities. I have never reconciled the two.

In 1957, James Bryant Conant, scientist, diplomat, and former president of Harvard, had been invited by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to study American secondary education. His book The American High School Today, one product of that study, was published in 1959. It was the first book on educational policy I had ever read, and it addressed, from a quite different perspective, the very problems that concerned me. The book, and other publications of Conant’s that grew out of the Carnegie study, became best sellers and were highly influential among those who made education policy in the states.

Considered the height of educational common sense at the beginning of my teaching career, Conant’s book on high schools leaves me today with a sense of the massive ground shifts that have taken place in how we talk about educational policy. We rarely speak in public nowadays of a fundamental assumption of Conant’s inquiries and policy suggestions: that students were quite different in ability, and that the high school had to find ways to be responsive to these differences.

Conant came to his study with a set of concerns formulated in his years as the president of Harvard University, from 1933 to 1953. He had decided to transform that institution from a training ground for the sons of the Eastern establishment to a place that would attract the academically most able students from all parts of the country and from diverse economic backgrounds. He worried about whether public high schools were doing as well as they might in identifying and fostering such an academically talented group of students.

Conant’s interest in the American high school, however, expanded beyond this concern. Two succeeding deans of Harvard’s graduate school of education, Francis Spaulding and Francis Keppel, tutored him in the variety of purposes served by the American high school since the beginning of the 20th century. Spaulding recruited Conant to serve on the Educational Policies Commission, a creature of the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators. There, Conant learned more about the points of view of teachers, school administrators, and teacher-educators. He came to see the importance of the high schools’ role not only in working with the academically talented, but also in providing a general education for all, in preparing some for work immediately after high school, and in contributing to the creation of a democratic society by fostering understanding among young people who, after high school, would follow quite different career paths.

Conant, rightly, placed these specifically educational concerns within a larger American cultural context. He celebrated what he read as our historical commitment to equality of opportunity, as opposed to the more rigid class structures of European countries, and he embraced “status equality,” the culture’s commitment to the belief that there were many ways to success and fulfillment in our society, that anyone engaged in honest work was equal to another, and that there ought to be no hierarchy of occupations and professions. Indeed, he predicted that salaries for different types of work would become more equal in the future.

Conant believed that the democratic purposes of education were best served in a school attended by all of the students in the community. For that reason, he was less than enthusiastic about specialized schools, academic or vocational, that catered to only one sector of the student population. He deliberately looked only at schools, mostly in small cities, that sent fewer than 50 percent of their students on to college and had student populations with an average IQ of between 100 and 105. He and his team of researchers looked for schools engaged in practices that fulfilled the three goals they had set up. They could then recommend these practices to all. His question was: Could the comprehensive high schools provide a good general education for all, prepare the academically talented as well as those who were headed for immediate employment, and create the sort of understanding among citizens he saw as important to the functioning of a democratic society?

He began with the premise that student abilities were quite different and easily identifiable by aptitude tests and teacher evaluations, and that only about 15 percent to 20 percent of secondary students were “academically talented.” He did not, in his 1959 book, see the high school as a place in which the differences presented by students could be altered in any significant way.

Conant searched for comprehensive schools offering programs that challenged academically talented students. He recommended that schools offer at least three years of math, science, and a foreign language, and see that the academically talented took these courses and performed adequately in them. He urged the schools to offer adequate specialized vocational programs to those planning to enter the workforce upon graduation. He sought strong guidance services and testing programs to identify appropriate coursework for students. He expected that all students would be exposed to a general education program for about half their time in school, with students assigned to different ability levels. There would be no formal tracks; placements would be made on an individualized basis. The absence of tracks in the schools was part of Conant’s belief that a democratic society should diminish the visibility of group differences.

We rarely speak in public nowadays of a fundamental assumption of Conant’s inquiries and policy suggestions: that students were quite different in ability, and that the high school had to find ways to be responsive to these differences.

Students from different academic levels would meet in expanded homeroom classes for the purpose of creating understanding among them and to elect individuals to student government. There would be a senior social studies class in which students of different academic abilities would discuss civic problems in American life. “Indeed, in one school … the superintendent stated that one of his principal aims was to develop an attitude between the future manager of a factory and the future labor leader which would result in mutual respect and understanding,” he wrote. Conant acknowledged vaguely that there were problems in some communities that the comprehensive high school couldn’t solve. Indeed. The school has proved a feeble instrument in overcoming conflicts rooted in the vast differences in income, housing, and access to services that define our society.

In 1961, Conant’s Slums and Suburbs looked at schools serving students at different ends of the economic spectrum. In it, he recognized that the problems of racism and urban poverty would not be solved with changes in education policy alone. He acknowledged workplace discrimination and asserted that it did no good to prepare students for nonexistent jobs. But Conant nevertheless turned to his task of making educational policy.

“Those who are deeply concerned with the education of the children in these slum areas are not waiting for others to change the social setting in which the schools operate,” he wrote. “They are tackling the problem of getting the boys and girls from the poorest families to learn to read and write and do arithmetic.” Speaking of an urban junior high school he said, “Foreign languages in grade 7 or algebra in grade 8 (recommendations in my junior high school report) have little place in a school in which half the pupils in that grade read at a 4th grade level or below.”

He recommended preparing students for immediate work, the creation of new jobs for African-American youths, and an end to workplace discrimination by unions and employers. He spoke also of identifying academically talented youths and providing them with appropriate programs. He seemed less certain in this book about the predictive powers of the standardized tests, and a bit more hopeful about the power of educational interventions. While he acknowledged the importance of economic inequalities in their effect on student learning, he too often slipped into an unsophisticated language about the role of the “streets” and of the “family” and the “neighborhood,” which smacked of the blaming-the-victim mentality adopted by some over the next few decades.

In 1967’s Shaping Educational Policy, also sponsored by Carnegie, Conant, writing of his wishful thinking in 1959 about the comprehensive high school bringing all manner of students together in homerooms and social studies classes for the purposes of mutual understanding and democratic unity, made a dramatic confession: “I visited schools in states where at the most there has been only token integration since the Supreme Court decision. And I said not a word to indicate that certain schools I visited were comprehensive only insofar as white youth were concerned.” Conant made it clear that the failure was not his alone, but a failure on the part of the whole American education establishment.

Appalled by the muddle of educational decisionmaking in the country, the former Harvard president, late in his life, initiated the Education Commission of the States, an organization controlled by the governors of the states that has had a powerful effect on educational policy in the last four decades, most especially in the creation of the standards and accountability movement. That movement, presently the only educational game in town and championed by both Republican and Democratic presidents and governors and liberal and conservative educational policymakers, exists in a language universe quite different from Conant’s. It simply does not acknowledge the problem central to James B. Conant’s thinking: differences in ability among students.

Liberal champions of standards and accountability plump for an academic curriculum for all, but leaven their doctrine with much concern about the ways in which neighborhood, family, and cultural expectations handicap inner-city students. They question the fairness of funding, of tests, and of promotion policies. They point to the inadequacy of resources.

Educational policymakers today are caught in the same bind in which Conant was caught in his day: They are trying to make the schools work within an economically unjust society.

Conservatives, realizing that the American democratic culture will no longer tolerate their old Tory commitment to no schooling or little schooling for the children of the poor, have joined the equality-of-educational-opportunity bandwagon. But they have brought with them a particularly punitive approach. All students, they say, should take the curriculum Conant had suggested for the academically talented; if they fail, they will neither be promoted nor will they graduate. Schools and students will be held accountable. There will be no blaming of social and economic conditions.

In truth, educational policymakers today, though they speak a language different from Conant’s, are caught in the same bind in which Conant was caught in his day: They are trying to make the schools work within an economically unjust society. Like Conant, we say that we cannot wait for others “to change the social setting within which the schools operate.” We must tackle the problem. Unlike Conant’s invisible tracking system, we have settled, this time out, on the equally bizarre notion that all students should take a college-preparatory curriculum.

Conant believed we were moving toward a society in which the income generated by those who were not college graduates would be close to that generated by graduates. He was, of course, badly wrong. I wonder what sort of curriculum we would recommend for our high schools if Conant’s prediction had become a reality, if instead of the growing differences in income between college graduates and others, there were something like a rough equality. But that is a highly speculative question, not the sort in which either Conant or the present leaders of the standards and accountability movement are much interested. They are realists.

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William A. Proefriedt is a professor emeritus in the school of education at Queens College, a part of the City University of New York, where he continues to teach courses on the history of American education as an adjunct professor.

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