The Seventies in America
Education in the United States
The 1970's were a time of rapidly changing educational trends, and American communities experienced major struggles over racial issues related to busing and school segregation.
The decade of the 1970's was an eventful one for American education. It saw support for conservative educational policies under the administration of President Richard M. Nixon at the beginning of the decade, the rise of teacher activism, and the establishment of the Department of Education by President Jimmy Carter. Moreover, it was an intense period of school desegregation efforts, with the accompanying controversies and conflicts over desegregation strategies such as school busing. Beyond desegregation, a broadening of the idea of civil rights in education led to efforts to equalize school spending and to legislation aimed at improving the educational opportunities of women and handicapped students. The open education movement reached its peak in the early part of the decade and then declined as concern over educational standards increased.
The administration of President Nixon is generally considered a period of conservative reaction both to student radicalism and to liberal efforts to equalize education during the 1960's. Career-oriented education became one of the characteristics of educational policy during the Nixon era. President Nixon and his close associates favored limited federal involvement in education, and they opposed the massive programs of school desegregation that were mandated by federal judges during the 1960's.
However, at this time teachers were becoming much more active as a group in education, and they exerted pressure for greater support and direction for schools from the government in Washington, D.C. In 1976, the National Education Association (NEA), one of the two main teacher unions in the United States, announced its support for the presidential candidacy of Jimmy Carter. President Carter's establishment of the Department of Education in 1979 was partly a result of NEA support for him, as well as a consequence of public concern over reports of dropping test scores. The department, along with new civil rights legislation regarding education, greatly increased the level of federal involvement in public schools.
School Desegregation and Affirmative Action
During the mid-1950's, the United States Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. A decade later, segregation by law, or de jure segregation, had ended throughout the nation. However, many schools continued to be all (or almost all) white or black--a state described as de facto segregation, or segregation in fact. The 1970's were a time of intense struggle to ensure that black and white students did not have merely the legal right to go to the same schools but would actually go to the same schools.
In the landmark 1971 case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court considered a case in which North Carolina students of different races attended different schools because they lived in different neighborhoods. The court ruled that students could be required legally to ride buses to schools outside their own neighborhoods in order to achieve a truly desegregated school system. Soon after the Court established busing as a tool for creating racial balances in schools, it also broadened the geographic scope of desegregation. Throughout the 1960's, the fight against segregated schools occurred mainly in the South, although there were also cases in other parts of the country. At the beginning of 1970, a Superior Court judge ruled that Los Angeles had been operating a segregated school system, and the city was ordered to begin efforts to redistribute white and black students. In the 1973 decision Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, the Supreme Court found Denver had been maintaining a segregated school system, and the Court ordered the city to begin taking action to correct the situation. For the rest of the decade, court-ordered desegregation spread to hundreds of school districts throughout the nation.
Opposition to the busing of students sparked protests in many cities, but the controversy over busing in Boston became particularly notorious. Federal judge Arthur Garrity ordered thousands of black students bused from the northern part of the city to the southern part while thousands of white students were bused in the opposite direction. Some white residents of South Boston rioted and burned school buses, and many gradually left the Boston public school system.
The movement of white students out of desegregating public school systems became known as "white flight." During the 1970's, white families settled increasingly in the suburbs, while black families became concentrated in central urban areas. This situation raised new problems for desegregation, and some advocates argued in favor of busing across school district lines to bring black and white students together. The 1974 Supreme Court decision Miliken v. Bradley made this scenario impossible in most cases, however, since the Court ruled that desegregation could apply only to the district that had created segregated schools. The Court did allow cross-district busing in a few cases, such as in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1975, where it was found that urban and suburban districts had worked together to produce segregated schools. The decision resulted in rioting in Louisville.
For a time during the 1970's, busing and other desegregation strategies did seem to produce somewhat less racially concentrated schools, in spite of white flight. Busing was extremely unpopular, though, and there were numerous attempts to end it. Voters in the state of Washington approved an antibusing initiative in 1978 forbidding school districts from busing students away from neighborhood schools unless ordered to do so by a court. California voters approved Proposition 1 in 1979, amending the state constitution to prohibit any more busing or school transfers than required under the U.S. Constitution. In the 1980's, the Supreme Court ruled the Washington initiative unconstitutional but upheld the amendment in California.
While elementary and high school students were involved in desegregation efforts, affirmative action became an issue in higher education. During the 1970's, colleges and universities attempted to increase their numbers of minority students by loosening admissions requirements, setting aside places for underrepresented groups. Such strategies as this approach sparked controversy, and a major challenge to affirmative action in higher education came in the 1978 Supreme Court case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In this case, a white man, Alan Bakke, claimed that he had suffered discrimination because he had not been admitted to medical school while minority applicants with test scores lower than his had been admitted. The Court ordered the university to admit Bakke, but it also ruled that race could be considered as a factor in university admissions.
Broadening of Civil Rights in Education
In addition to a massive campaign for the racial desegregation of schools, the decade saw attempts to extend the concept of civil rights in education to areas such as school funding, opportunities for women, and the teaching of disabled students. Since their creation in the nineteenth century, American public schools have been locally controlled institutions, with the funding for schools largely provided by individual school districts. This situation has led to highly unequal funding, since some districts are located in wealthy surroundings and others in poorer surroundings.
During the 1970's, advocates of equalizing spending across school districts attempted to achieve their goals primarily through the use of the court system. Plaintiffs in the 1973 case San Antonio v. Rodriguez attempted to have the Texas school financing system declared unconstitutional. Attorneys arguing against the Texas system of financing claimed that different levels of funding for different school districts violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law. However, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the lower court's decision that the Texas system was unconstitutional because the U.S. Constitution offers no guarantees of education.
At the state level, attempts to equalize spending were somewhat more successful, and several state courts limited inequality in spending among their districts. Among the most notable was the Serrano v. Priest decision in California in 1971. In this case, the California Supreme Court ruled that spending among California school districts could not differ by more than one hundred dollars. Critics of court-ordered equalization have argued that such decisions led to a lowering of support for public schools, particularly among wealthier families who removed their children from public school systems.
Increased attention to the rights of women led to new efforts to guarantee opportunities in schools for female students. In 1972, the U.S. Congress passed the Higher Education Act as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act. The best-known and most influential provision of this act was Title IX, which forbade discrimination on the basis of sex in any schools receiving federal funds. The 1974 Women's Educational Equity Act bolstered the Higher Education Act.
During the 1970's, the education of disabled children received a great deal of attention. In 1971, a court in Pennsylvania ruled that all mentally or physically disabled children had the right to appropriate free public education, provided by the state. A federal court in Washington, D.C., made a similar decision for District of Columbia schools the following year. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was one of the first major pieces of national legislation on this subject. Section 504 of the act mandated that the federal government withhold funds from any schools that discriminated against disabled students. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 set out detailed requirements for individualized educational programs for each handicapped child.
The Rise and Decline of Open Education
During the early 1970's, informal schooling, also known the open classroom or open education approach, reached its apex. The movement had grown throughout the previous decade, but it was further popularized by the book Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education (1970), by Charles E. Silverman. The concept of the open classroom had many variations, but generally it involved learning that was initiated and directed by the students themselves, rather than by teachers; active student involvement in learning; and the use of a wide variety of media. Often this approach involved dividing classrooms into interest areas for students. At the high school level, open education frequently involved lessening required courses and increasing numbers of electives. In his influential book, Deschooling Society (1971), social critic Ivan Illich took the idea of openness in education further, arguing that formal schooling was essentially a prison system for young people. Illich argued for abolishing public schools in favor of government vouchers directly to families, who could make their own decisions about how young people should be educated.
By the middle of the 1970's, the open school movement had peaked and was beginning to decline. Former principal Roland S. Barth offered a criticism of open schools and open classrooms in his 1972 book Open Education and the American School. In it, Barth described his own frustrations with this approach. However, much of the rejection of the approach was due to evidence of declining school achievement, as reflected on standardized test scores. In 1975, reports showed that scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), used as a college entrance examination, had dropped dramatically since the previous decade. A 1977 report by the College Entrance Examination Board explained part of the drop as a result of an increase in numbers of test-takers, particularly among low-income and minority students. Still, many argued that a portion of the decrease was attributed to the loosening of standards associated with open classrooms.
During this decade, the nation saw intense conflict over issues such as busing and affirmative action. It also saw the adoption of significant pieces of civil rights legislation covering women and people with disabilities in educational institutions. Concern over apparently dropping test scores and over the quality of American education began to grow.
Bankston, Carl L., III, and Stephen J. Caldas. A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Chapter 2 offers a summary of the history of school desegregation in the United States, with special attention to the issue of "white flight" in the 1970's.
Franciosi, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of American Public Schools: The Political Economy of Public Education in the Twentieth Century. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. A readable examination of public school policies that is critical of the lessening of local control of education from the late 1960's onward.
Ravitch, Diane. Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform. New York: Touchstone, 2000. A critical history of school reform movements in the twentieth century. Chapter 10 deals with events of the 1960's and 1970's, with special attention to the open education movement.
Spring, Joel H. The Sorting Machine Revisited: National Educational Policy Since 1945. New York: Longman, 1989. A history of the late twentieth century educational policies of the United States government.
Carl L. Bankston IIISee Also
Affirmative action; Busing; Carter, Jimmy; Disability rights movement; Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975; Education in Canada; Missions of the College Curriculum; Nixon, Richard M.; Racial discrimination; Regents of the University of California v. Bakke; Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education; Title IX to the Education Amendments of 1972.
SALEM PRESS, a division of EBSCO Publishing. · 131 North El Molino Avenue · Pasadena · CA 91101
© Salem Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.