Opinion
Federal Opinion

A Commitment to Equity

By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann — April 12, 2005 7 min read
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This milestone invites reflection on what has changed and what has remained the same 40 years after passage of this landmark legislation.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law in a one-room Texas schoolhouse on April 11, 1965. No less than the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education last year, this milestone invites reflection on what has changed and what has remained the same 40 years after passage of this landmark legislation.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act broke a logjam. To be sure, the federal government had played an important role in shaping education policy, at least since passage of the Morrill Act at the time of the Civil War. Through land grants, that act had created the state university system that helped make higher education in the United States the marvel of the world.

Beyond that, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 had been “an important harbinger” of the ESEA, because it overcame some of the thorny issues that had previously blocked “directive and categorical” federal aid to K-12 education.

Still, the ESEA went further. Through Title I, it provided aid directly to school districts with “educationally deprived children of low-income families.” This meant that 94 percent of all school districts would receive aid. Importantly, too, through other titles, the ESEA provided states with funds to purchase educational materials to be distributed to both public and private schools; established special supplementary education centers and services; made money available for research and innovation; and directed assistance to state departments of education in order to make them more effective. Broad in scope and directed toward some of the nation’s most difficult educational challenges, the ESEA set a framework that has shaped federal education policy ever since.

The person most responsible for the act’s passage was Francis Keppel, the longtime dean of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, who had become the U.S. commissioner of education in 1962. Keppel was a charming, graceful man and a determined politician, whose skillful lobbying in behalf of the ESEA finally overcame what one observer called “the three R’s of Race, Religion, and Reds (federal control).”

In securing passage of the ESEA, Keppel had had to win over Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York. Kennedy was concerned that schools did not do a good job of educating African-American students. To assuage Kennedy’s criticisms, Keppel had promised that the ESEA, and especially Title I, would be carefully evaluated, using objective measures that could identify what poor children, who were then known as “educationally deprived,” had learned. The problem was that such measures did not exist, which created a major problem for Keppel’s successor, Harold Howe II, when he was subsequently asked to report to Congress about the effectiveness of the bill. Presenting the best evidence he had at hand, Howe was greeted by a skeptical Sen. Kennedy. “Do you mean that you spent billions of dollars and you don’t know whether [the children] can read or not?” Kennedy asked. Howe’s answer was that more time was needed to see if the program could make a difference. Still unconvinced, Kennedy became more and more dubious of the competence of professional educators.

Let me stop there. Reciting history is fun—especially for those of us who can remember the extraordinary people and idealism that surrounded passage of the ESEA. But the important matter at hand has to do with what has changed since 1965, and what has remained the same.

For all the distance that remains to be traveled, since 1965 women have made great strides in assuming leadership positions in education. It is sadly true that when I first wrote about the ESEA in a history of the Carnegie Corporation of New York in The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press,1989), the chapter was called “Leadership and Education: The New Men.” That was because all the people involved in setting education policy for President Johnson were men: John W. Gardner, Keppel, and Howe, central among them. Today, by contrast, we have a female U.S. secretary of education; and the presidents of Princeton, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania are all female. The recent flap about women and science notwithstanding, there has been progress since 1965 in gender equity.

Our capacity to guarantee equal educational outcomes to white and African-American youngsters has not increased nearly enough.

Don’t misunderstand: Women are still not treated equally in this country, but there has been progress. When I talk with students about what life was like “in the olden days” when I was in school, it sounds like ancient Greece to them. When I graduated from Smith in 1967, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were still only open to men. At Smith, we could not engage in intercollegiate athletics. This was deemed not good for our health—a long hangover from 19th-century beliefs that strenuous activity might harm a woman’s capacity to reproduce. A friend of mine who made the mistake of telling one of our male science professors that she wanted to be a doctor was told not to be silly. She should be a nurse. And when I graduated, it was recommended to those of us “unlucky enough not yet engaged to be married,” that we enroll at a special secretarial school at Radcliffe to learn to type in case we faced the misfortune of having to support ourselves. Our education was not intended to prepare us to participate in the workforce. It was intended to enable us to educate our children. Yes, indeed, things are better for women today, and we should not forget that.

If greater gender equity marks one beneficial change that has occurred since passage of the ESEA, alas, racial equity stands at the other end of the spectrum. To be sure, our expectations concerning the outcomes of education have changed in important ways. Until roughly 1965, it was assumed that our goal was to provide equal and universal opportunities for education. If students had access to classrooms, that was deemed to be a sufficient fulfillment of public responsibility. If they failed to thrive in school or dropped out, that was deemed to be their fault, and not our failure.

Then, in 1965, partly to gauge the effectiveness of the ESEA, the federal government commissioned a massive study of the opportunities actually provided to the nation’s children. And that study, which was led by the famed sociologist James S. Coleman, helped raise the bar in terms of our aspirations for education. After 1965, providing equal educational opportunities was no longer sufficient. Now the goal was to provide equity—equal or near-equal outcomes for all students regardless of race, class, religion, ethnicity, or sex.

Most important of all, we remain committed to education on a rhetorical basis, while revealing our “real” indifference through a lack of adequate and equal funding.

This very significant and totally appropriate shift in objectives has slowly worked its way into the everyday expectations most Americans now hold for the public schools. Today we assume that access to education is not sufficient. Rather, public schools have a responsibility to educate all children and to do it well. Indeed, under the mandates of the current federal No Child Left Behind legislation, the latest reauthorization of the ESEA, schools that do not educate all children to high levels are likely to be closed and “reconstituted.” This is an appropriate goal for education in this, one of the wealthiest societies in the history of the world. In fact, aspiring to achieve equity for all people in and through education was too long in coming to this society, which, however wealthy, has a long history of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender discrimination. My point, however, is that we have made progress.

I must temper my optimism. Even though our goals have moved in the right direction, our capacity to guarantee equal educational outcomes to white and African-American youngsters has not increased nearly enough. This is not the place to recite all we know about the racial achievement gap. Suffice it to say, differences in measurable educational outcomes remain intolerably large among male and female, rich and poor students. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor held in the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action at the University of Michigan, this is a national disgrace that must be overcome in the next several decades. To allow the racial achievement gap to persist is to make a mockery of all our rhetoric about equal education. That achievement gap is the most important educational challenge facing the United States, followed closely by finding ways to participate in promoting the education of girls worldwide.

There are many other ways in which the educational situation today both resembles and differs from where we were in 1965: Evaluation research has improved in education, but it is still not practiced enough and remains in need of further development; state departments of education have shifted roles since 1965, but remain challenged to fulfill their responsibilities effectively and efficiently; and most important of all, we remain committed to education on a rhetorical basis, while revealing our “real” indifference through a lack of adequate and equal funding.

History can provide powerful prompts to reflection. I hope that this anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will stir conversation and action on our unfinished agenda.

The ESEA was about equity of all kinds. Especially in this day of accountability standards, that must remain our central goal in and through education.

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