Skip to main content

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act: 40 Years Later

Lyndon Johnson
Signing ceremony for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the Former Junction Elementary School, Johnson City, Texas. Lyndon B. Johnson with his childhood schoolteacher, Kate Deadrich Loney.
Photo: LBJ Library & Museum

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the federal government's first general foray into public K–12 education. Since then, the government's involvement in education policy has come to seem a given, part of a recognizable landscape marked by familiar signposts such as Head Start, Title I, and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. Tracing ESEA from its earliest days through its various reauthorizations over the years (of which NCLB is the most recent) reveals a rich history of debate around education issues that continues to capture headlines. And it would be impossible to tell the story of ESEA without citing the involvement of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, beginning with the act's architect, U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis ("Frank") Keppel.

A Time cover story from October 1965 describes Keppel as a "dark, slight, intense bolt of activity. In three short years in Washington, [he] has changed the Office of Education from custodian of highly forgettable statistics to the nation's most energetic nerve center of academic ferment." Before serving in Washington, however, Keppel was appointed dean of the Ed School in 1948 at the unheard-of age of 32. He lacked a graduate degree, or any coursework in education, but that mattered little to James Conant, Harvard University's president. In Keppel, Conant saw an innovative thinker who would bring a new direction to the School."Education is too important to be left solely to educators," Keppel once said, and his tenure at the Ed School was marked by a number of faculty appointments from disciplines outside of the field. Keppel remained dean of the Ed School until he was called to Washington in 1962.

"Frank put the School on the map," says Ted Sizer, a former HGSE dean himself who is currently a visiting professor from Brown. "With Conant's help he raised money and attracted good people by being unconventional. Frank recruited people who were not predictable, who were interested in education and had a kind of chutzpah."

That same creative approach would mark Keppel's work on crafting ESEA, as well as the political maneuvering required to make it a reality. Appointed Commissioner of Education by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, Keppel entered an office that, in his words, "was regarded as a scut job with low standing and low reputation.The Office of Education was seen as a place to collect statistics and crank out a few formulas." He made the move to Washington nonetheless, where a political environment suspicious of any federal involvement in education confronted him.

"The most significant condition that existed when Frank went into this was a state of gridlock," says Gordon Ambach, M.A.T.'57, C.A.S.'65, whose five-decade career in education policy includes posts in the state and federal government from the Eisenhower Administration onward. "There were very strong conflicts among the different advocacy groups about what should be done in the Kennedy years," he adds. Some feared that federal funds would be directed to parochial schools, a concern heightened by the fact that Kennedy was Catholic.The second battle, Ambach notes,was over the use of federal aid in districts with segregated schools.

"This was after Brown v.the Board of Education but before the Civil Rights Act of 1964," says Ambach. "One of the key Congressional leaders on this matter was Adam Clayton Powell, who was chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Education. He added a ‘Powell amendment' to any piece of legislation that specified that federal money could not be used to fund segregated districts.The Senate would not accept any legislation with that provision. So it was a stalemate."

Aside from being an "intense bolt of activity," Keppel by all accounts was gifted at building coalitions and putting people at ease. "He was a marvelous raconteur, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and he could charm the socks off you," recalls Patricia Albjerg Graham, a historian of American education and dean of the Ed School from 1982 to 1991. "Yet all of that charm covered a steely commitment to improve the circumstances of children who were not born as fortunately as he."

After Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson made education and civil rights the foundation of his War on Poverty. Johnson promised Powell that the Civil Rights Act would be enacted in the spring of 1964; with that commitment in hand, Congress swiftly passed the Vocational Education Act and the Higher Education Facilities Act in December 1963.The legislative logjam was broken, clearing the way for further policy innovations. Mandating desegregation neutralized some of the controversy around federal aid to segregated schools--if the law was upheld, it was just a matter of time until schools were somehow integrated. The other sticking point--funding for sectarian, non-public schools--was circumvented through the creation of Title I, "Education of Children of Low Income Families."

In a complex yet constitutional process, Title I funds provided services to students in parochial schools through funds granted to the public school districts.The public districts--in addition to taking care of their own students--also purchased books and hired teachers for the parochial school students. Due to the fact that publicly elected officials controlled the federal monies at all times, the separation of church and state was maintained. "Title I was clearly one of the most significant provisions of ESEA," says Gordon Ambach. "That legislation was designed so that children in need at both public and nonpublic schools were served.That central concept is on the books today, 40 years later."

In addition to Title I, four sections of ESEA directed funds to school libraries, supplemental services, research, and state departments of education. "ESEA was a political masterpiece, outside of its effect on education," remarks Sizer. "Everybody had a finger in the pie." The Senate approved ESEA on April 11, 1965, without proposing a single additional amendment. In the two years following the passage of ESEA, the U.S. Office of Education's annual budget for some 27,000 school districts jumped from $1.5 billion to $4 billion, marking the federal government's definitive entry into public education.

While Keppel designed and built ESEA, the commissioner who succeeded him in late 1965, Harold ("Doc") Howe II, oversaw the complexities of its administration. Howe, later a senior lecturer at the Ed School from 1982 to 1994, and his colleague, David Sealey, faced the daunting task of verifying that schools receiving federal aid were indeed abiding by desegregation laws.

Howe's strong stance on enforcing desegregation earned the ire of more than a few politicians who didn't care for what they saw as outright government interference in local matters. In a speech on the House floor, Representative L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina said Howe "talks like a Communist. That's why some of us who know him call him the Commissar of Education. The President should fire him." Other derisive terms used by Howe's detractors include: "unwarranted," "illegal," "highhanded," and "tyrannical."

By all accounts, however, he weathered the storm with admirable resolve. In a 1966 address before the Alabama State Advisory Committee's Civil Rights Commission, Howe said: "We are not bent on withholding or deferring funds. Any district that is not in compliance seems to us to represent a defeat. Our failure arises from our inability to have helped achieve voluntary compliance under the law of this land. The failure of the schools arises from their determination to cling to a position--a position clearly prohibited under the Constitution of the United States--that threatens the opportunities of children to receive the best possible education."

Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at HGSE, worked closely with Howe on the desegregation of the San Francisco school district. Orfield, who is codirector of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, recalls Howe as "a person with deep ideals and a passionate commitment to civility and thoughtfulness. He listened and tried to bring people together, but there was a strong resolve underneath all of that."

"Keppel and Howe were absolutely central to the desegregation of the South...The South had the stick of the Civil Rights Act but they also had the carrot of ESEA, which was a huge boon to poor southern school districts."–Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy

"Keppel and Howe were absolutely central to the desegregation of the South," continues Orfield, whose book The Reconstruction of Southern Education: The Schools and the 1964 Civil Rights Act chronicles that period. "The South had the stick of the Civil Rights Act but they also had the carrot of ESEA, which was a huge boon to poor southern school districts."

Today, Orfield's work with the Harvard Civil Rights Project seeks to keep civil rights issues front and center at a timewhen many desegregation orders are being slowly phased out. "My concern is that we've gone from a period from the 1960s to the 1980s when issues of poverty, race, and educational opportunity were tied together effectively and we were seeing a decline in the achievement gap between white and minority students to a time when we're creating policy as if race doesn't exist. We're putting more demands on the schools as they're becoming more segregated."

Not long after ESEA was enacted, Congress commissioned the Coleman Report, in which Johns Hopkins professor James Coleman studied 600,000 children at 4,000 schools in order to understand the extent of education inequality in the United States. Coleman's 1966 report concluded that a child's early years at home had a significant impact on later performance in school and that an achievement gap existed between blacks and whites despite similarities in their teachers' training, salaries, and curriculum.

Coleman's findings created immediate reverberations in the world of education policy.At the Ed School, a University-wide faculty seminar launched by Professor of Education and Urban Politics Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Harvard social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew sought to analyze the report with an eye to how the information could be used to shape future policy.

"It was an extraordinary body of data we were looking at," says Marshall ("Mike") Smith, Ed.M.'63, Ed.D.'70, a former Ed School faculty member who now serves as program director for education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. "People were fascinated. At that point Title I was seen as the real savior of ESEA, although the report raised some questions as to its effectiveness. We were hopeful that its importance would bear out." In 1968, building on the foundation of the Coleman seminar, Smith, Christopher Jencks, and David Cohen became the core faculty for the Center for Educational Policy Research, one of the School's first formal initiatives in the field.

While Title I remains a central tenet of ESEA, various reauthorizations over the years have modified the legislation or incorporated entirely new objectives.Tracing a few of the policy developments in ESEA reveals the living, breathing quality of education policy--as slowly as it may seem to take shape for those laboring over the minute details of its construction.As the primary policy contact for the education commissioner, then as undersecretary of education, Smith worked on the 1978 and 1994 ESEA reauthorizations under the Carter and Clinton administrations.

Smith recalls that the 1972 reauthorization over-legislated against a misuse of funds that occurred after passage of the original ESEA, which resulted in the evolution of Title I into a pullout program. "Kids who were identified as in need of help were being pulled out of classes to get special instruction by an aide, who was often less well trained than the teacher," he says. "The teacher wouldn't know how the student was doing, and the program was having negative effects." As part of the 1978 reauthorization, Smith and others rewrote the legislation so that a significant portion of Title I funds were dedicated to a whole school program that would improve the overall quality of instruction. "That was an important movement," notes Smith. "It presaged the work on effective schools that started in the late 1970s and 1980s and is still taking place in many cases."
Johnson, Gardner, Keppel, and Howe

Smith and other Democrats successfully fought attempts to transform ESEA into a block grant program in the 1983 and 1989 reauthorizations under the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. The Clinton era saw the early development of standards-based reform through bills like Goals 2000. "At that point most states did not have anything in place that we now think of as standards," Smith says. "The fundamental idea was that in order to have an efficient system, it was necessary to align resources around some goals, and that the standards would set the goals so that some measurement of progress could take place. This is not rocket science. The extraordinary thing is that now all states have standards and it's completely accepted."

The 1994 reauthorization rewrote ESEA with the idea that every state would create a standards-based system applicable to all students, including those who qualified under Title I. "The new version made it explicit that Title I kids would be measured by the same standards as others," notes Smith. "If a teacher walks into a classroom with lower expectations for certain students, there's no chance."

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant, Ed.D.'68, worked on the 1994 reauthorization as Clinton's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. As a firsttimer in Washington, Payzant knew his arrival would be greeted with some skepticism; after getting into the nitty-gritty of policy work with various staffers and committees, however, his particular strengths became clear. "People appreciated having a practitioner take a leading role in the development of legislation. I used my experience to explain the impact particular legislation would have on schools and districts," says Payzant, who began his teaching career at Belmont (Mass.) High School and went on to serve as superintendent of four districts across the country.

Payzant recalls plenty of push-back on Goals 2000, despite the fact that it placed responsibility for setting standards with states, not the federal government. "It's ironic to think about that now, given the approach the current administration has taken with NCLB," he remarks. "The underlying policy direction of NCLB is consistent with the 1994 reauthorization, but there's a level of prescription with respect to implementation that we would have been soundly criticized for trying to accomplish, had we done so."

"Originally, ESEA said that states should pay attention to poor children and work with their parents, which was a big change, but it didn't say,‘Teach such-and-such and we're going to test you on such-and-such.' NCLB is a much more radical intervention," notes Gary Orfield. "ESEA and the Civil Rights Act forced a change in terms of who could get into which school--but they did not determine what a student would learn inside that school."

As the former executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, Douglas Wood, Ed.D.'00, spent a great deal of time fielding questions about NCLB from teachers, parents, and legislators. Aside from explaining the legislation to others, Wood and his colleagues were charged with bridging the gap between Tennessee's current standards-based testing requirements and those of the federal government. "It was a very complicated process, but it was a tremendous opportunity to get involved in complex policy issues," says Wood, who now serves as executive director of the National Academy for Excellent Teaching at Columbia's Teachers College.

"The ethos and rationale behind NCLB is a good thing, because it places a higher degree of focus on the issue of educational equity...But the way it's been implemented is a different story. The fact of the matter is, it's easier to base an entire accountability system on a test; but that's not necessarily the best policy."–Douglas Wood, Ed.D.'00

"The ethos and rationale behind NCLB is a good thing, because it places a higher degree of focus on the issue of educational equity," adds Wood. "But the way it's been implemented is a different story. The fact of the matter is, it's easier to base an entire accountability system on a test; but that's not necessarily the best policy. It's much more difficult to develop a comprehensive approach that really gets at what kids know and are able to achieve."

Wood, who began his career as a social studies and history teacher in South Carolina, says he didn't really understand the impact of policy on what he did in the classroom until U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley invited him to Washington in 1993 to write the guidelines and serve as chief reviewer for the department's new Technology Innovation Challenge Grants program. His interest piqued, he applied to the Ed School for further training. "What drew me to the Ed School was that it focuses on bridging practice, research, and policy," Wood says. "It was a three-pronged view that I didn't see in many other places, and when I got to Tennessee as a policymaker that preparation served me very, very well."

The question of whether NCLB will remain in its current format or undergo further revision is open for discussion. If ESEA's history is any indication, however, it would seem that some amount of tinkering with the act's regulations will take place in the future. Being part of that process is no doubt foremost in the mind of any Ed School graduate involved in education policy. Given the often frustratingly slow pace of policy work, however, what rewards can it offer over the more immediate, day-to-day feedback of the classroom?

"The common denominator I see in my students is that they're impatient--they realize that they can only affect one wave of kids at a time in the classroom," says HGSE lecturer on education Robert Schwartz, director of the Education Policy and Management Program. "They see the larger social inequalities in society and want to find a role with the leverage to affect more people. You give up the satisfaction of affecting lives in a direct and visible way in return for having an impact--even if it can be slow at times--on larger groups of people."

Schwartz, who has served in government as an advisor to Boston mayor Kevin White and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, has also worked as director of education grants at The Pew Charitable Trusts and as president of Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit organization created to help states improve their schools. One of the biggest changes in education policy since ESEA was enacted is that there are many more actors in the field, says Schwartz. "It's a more complicated system, with more points of leverage," he remarks. "You can work for a big-city mayor, a governor, a legislative committee, the Department of Education, or a whole array of local and nonprofit organizations. So it's a much richer field today. And there's still a lot to do."

About the Article

A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles