Roosevelt House at Hunter College Holds Presidential Leadership Conference
At a symposium on presidential leadership at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House, Randall B. Woods, professor of history at the University of Arkansas, described LBJ as “the education president.” Wood explained, “Everyone claims the title,” but passage of The Education Act of 1965, makes LBJ the clear winner. Confirming this assessment, LBJ’s daughter, Lucy Baines Johnson, revealed that at the opening of the LBJ Presidential Library in 1971, the first document the ex-president examined was The Education Act despite expectations he would showcase the Civil Rights bill. Explaining his choice to her, he said, “If you don’t get the education you deserve you won’t fulfill your full potential” and that, she said, “was the core of all his dreams for The Great Society.”
Lyndon Baines Johnson, thirty-sixth president of the United States (1963-69), is identified with “The Great Society” and “The War on Poverty.” Groundbreaking legislation in his administration included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, School Breakfast and Lunch programs, Community Health Clinics, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Despite these political successes, at his core, LBJ was a teacher. Born in the rolling Hill Country of Texas, he attended Southwest Texas Teachers College and, while still studying there, got his first job, instructing poor Mexican-American children in a school in Cottula, Texas.
After graduating in 1930, he taught high school in Houston before being lured to Washington, D.C. as legislative assistant to a politician he admired. Deeply attached to Texas and the area of his birth, he never forgot the dirt-poor children he taught and the inequities they faced. At the signing of the most significant education legislation in US history, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which funds programs to assist low-income children and reduce achievement gaps, he said, “I never thought I would have a chance to help. Now I do. I have that chance and I’m going to use it.” He was determined that equality be a “fact,” not just “a right or a theory.”
Are LBJ’s goals being met? A distinguished panel from the field assessed the current state of education and found it wanting. Patricia Albjerg Graham, a professor of the History of American Education Emerita at Harvard, explained that the 1960s was a decade of high birth rates, overcrowded schools, shortages of teachers, and debates and fears over progressivism in a society that had operated under “race, religion, and rules.” LBJ understood the need for reforms and used his political skills and strategy of sending money directly to needy districts to get his bill passed. Teachers today are inadequate, said Graham. “Many don’t have a clear idea of what school is for.” They lack the needed passion for learning, and are often poorly educated themselves; “The weakest college graduates are hired as teachers. We need to change that.” Graham supports research and measurements to “inform reforms” and come up with ideas for improving education.
James P. Comer, M.D., professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, confessed that hearing Johnson give his Great Society speech changed his life. He went into child psychiatry to make a difference for poor children who, he believes, are “not ready, underdeveloped, and unprepared” for school and “teachers and administrators are unprepared to teach underdeveloped students.” The centrality of whole child development to education is not recognized, he asserts. “Today it is all about curriculum … and kids, parents, and the community are paying the price.” While acknowledging the many paths to good education, Comer emphasized the centrality of development and connections between teachers and students, a “known factor that is being ignored by reformers.”
David Steiner, dean of the School of Education at Hunter College and former NY State Commissioner of Education, reported the performance gap between wealthy and poor students has increased by 40 percent since 1960, fed by an “extraordinary difference in amount of resources” spent on education in rich and poor districts. He believes you “cannot hide from these truths” and, while controversial, accountability is a vital step to improvement. The challenge is separating “the diagnosis from the cure”; accountability must not be based on fear.
He suggests bringing teachers, administrators, researchers and other concerned people together to work on changes school by school. Teamwork is essential. Steiner asserts we do know something about improving schools. Most funding goes to underperforming schools and, while it has flaws such as taking money from critical pre-K programs, the Race to the Top (recipient of LBJ’s Education Act funds) is “helping to produce better schools.” Education historian Graham sees “a ray of hope.” If Johnson got his Education Bill through, than perhaps we, too, can come up with new ideas and necessary reforms. #