Story 01: An Optimistic Time

Story | Print | eMail | Related Media | Archives

Government Support

Written by George Hein

The enthusiasm for major social actions intended to dramatically improve society was backed up by actual political events. Civil rights legislation, Supreme Court decisions granting more personal liberty, social agendas to combat poverty, providing education and health services to young children (for example, the Head Start program, initiated in 1965) were the background that made our own work match a more general mood of the times and helped to convince us that our efforts would also bring about dramatic change.

The high point of this term for government action was achieved in 1965 and 1966, the period of the eighty-ninth Congress. (This session has been described as a "miracle" among other laudatory comments.) Much of the 1960s legislation that supported education, health and child welfare was enacted during these first two years of President Johnson's second term, when large Democratic majorities in both houses made possible the passage of landmark legislation in support of his Great Society agenda. Both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were legislated into existence in 1965; and state agencies, such as the Massachusetts Council for the Arts (now the Massachusetts Cultural Council) also came into existence then. The federal support for the arts was based on a model created by Nelson Rockefeller as governor of New York earlier in the 1960s.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), founded in 1950, originally stayed away from funding pre-college education, because they feared backlash if they interfered in public education, an acknowledged prerogative of state and local governments. Partly through the efforts of Zacharias and his colleagues, NSF began to tentatively fund secondary school science in the mid 1950s with big increases in funding after the Soviets' successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957. By the 1960s, NSF was supporting a number of elementary science curriculum projects (including ESS), teacher training and had expanded its agenda to include social sciences. By late in the decade, they had begun to fund informal science activities, including work in science centers and children's museums.

And these new agencies and new directions were not just symbolic government acts; they brought significant financial backing. In its first full year, FY 1967, NEA's budget (converted to 2007 dollars) was $49.7 million, but by the early 1970s, under Nixon, it grew to an astonishing $265.7 million in FY 1974. The National Science Foundation was also generous in support, first for formal education projects like ours at EDC—over its ten-year life span, ESS received close to $50 million (in 2007 dollars) for curriculum development, a princely sum compared to today's government awards for similar projects. As is often the case, private funding, large and small, followed the government lead in providing support for education and culture. The 1960s also saw an expansion of foundation funds for education and other social causes. The Ford Foundation was the most notable example: although founded in 1936, it greatly expanded activities in the '60s, and as the older generation of Ford family members died and left huge estates to the foundation, it become the largest philanthropy in the U.S. at that time. And, similar to the Gates Foundation today, education was one of its prime beneficiaries.

The enormous political impact of federal education legislation today—no one can deny that "No Child Left Behind," the political title of the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, casts a heavy shadow on all education—is a legacy of the same period. But the general attitude and interest in education then was dramatically different. NSF followed a policy of "let a 100 flowers bloom" and deliberately funded projects with different philosophical and pedagogic bases. The "open classroom" model, as well as major efforts to improve urban education were funded with few restrictions that "scientifically based" research needed to demonstrate that they were successful over short periods. When the federally funded Follow Through Program (to "follow through" on the demonstrated gains of children in Head Start by providing comprehensive services to children in the early years of public school) was initiated in the late 1960s, it was conceived as an experimental program that would test the efficacy of various educational approaches (ranging from strictly behaviorist ones to ones modeled directly on the British experience). After many years, the research on the various approaches concluded that the intra-program variance in student achievement was greater than the differences between competing approaches. Educational ideology proved to be less important than local conditions for implementing any educational improvements.

Next: Educational Theory