The 1970s Education: Overview
The 1970s Education: Overview
The 1970s was a decade of transformation in education. Efforts were made to increase opportunities and improve performance of previously disadvantaged minorities: African Americans, immigrants, the disabled, and, to a certain degree, women. Many of these efforts met with success. For example, more minority students attended formerly all-white schools and later gained greater entrance to higher education; more nonnative speakers of English received bilingual instruction; the disabled were granted new access to a free public education; and women broke down employment barriers at all levels of academia.
However, achievement by public-school students as a whole suffered. Every age group except primary-school students performed worse on standardized tests than in the previous decade. The most significant test-score declines were found among high-school students. This led many people to believe the nation was in the midst of an educational crisis.
A growing debate then arose between traditionalists and progressives on how best to educate American children. Traditionalists (sometimes called back-to-basics proponents) argued that students learn best when given lots of structure, specific standards of performance, and a heavy dose of memorization of key facts and concepts. On the other hand, progressives believed just as strongly that students need freedom and time to pursue questions that interest them, and that sometimes structure hinders student learning. In the early 1970s, more and more schools began to pursue a progressive approach to learning. By mid-decade, however, in response to parents' concerns about low test scores, many schools moved back toward a more traditional approach.
American schools in the 1970s reflected the economic, racial, and social problems in the country as a whole. The major political issue regarding education in the decade was the attempt to eliminate segregation (the practice of keeping ethnic or racial groups separate). During the late 1960s and early 1970s, great strides had been made in the South, where federal rulings banning segregation forced schools to accommodate minority students. The combined power of the courts and the threatened loss of essential federal funds brought the battles over segregation in the South to a halt. In 1974, a U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare report showed that by a wide margin, schools in the South were the most integrated in the nation. However, that same report showed that schools in the Northeast were more segregated than they had been in 1970.
In the Northeast, the Midwest and the West, many children still attended schools that were highly segregated due to the location of school district lines. Especially in large cities, where public housing was clustered in downtown areas, minority students tended to populate inner-city schools, whereas white students attended more affluent suburban schools. Usually, these schools were administered by separate school districts. To eliminate this inherent segregation, the courts issued orders to bus students across district lines, black students to white schools and white students to black schools. Many parents and politicians complained loudly about the policy of busing as a means to end segregation. In Boston, serious resistance resulted in rioting and the Massachusetts National Guard had to restore order. By decade's end, many busing programs had been abandoned.