The 1970s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1970s Education: Topics in the News



At the beginning of the 1970s, busing students to public schools was common, with about 43 percent of the nation's schoolchildren riding buses each day. Busing children from school to school in order to provide school districts with racial balance, however, was new. Busing for large-scale desegregation (the elimination of separation of the races) began in 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that many school districts had not complied with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. In that court case, the justices had ruled that segregation in public schools was "inherently unequal." In a decision the following year, the Court had ordered desegregation "with all deliberate speed."

After the decision, however, most students stayed where they were, and thus most school districts remained segregated. Eventually, in 1971, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Court decided that "all deliberate speed" had not been speedy enough, ordering the Charlotte, North Carolina, school district to bus its students across district lines to achieve desegregation. The justices reasoned that busing was warranted because the district had deliberately and knowingly taken steps to prevent integration of their public schools.

During the 1970s, court orders supporting busing were handed down all over the United States. When those decisions were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court often upheld the argument to use busing to eliminate segregation. In 1974, however, in the Milliken v. Bradley decision, the Supreme Court struck down a district-court ruling that required busing between Detroit's black schools and suburban white schools. The majority of the justices reasoned that the suburban districts were not engaging in segregation according to the law, and thus no busing remedy was necessary. Yet, a year later, the same Supreme Court ruled just the opposite in Delaware, ordering busing to mix white suburban schools of New Castle County with those of Wilmington, which were 85 percent black.

Throughout the decade, American courts ordered mandatory busing in several cities, despite the likelihood that those school districts' segregation might have been an unintentional result of housing patterns. In some urban areas, policies of the Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans' Administration had produced segregated neighborhoods. Examples included Louisville, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis, where black students from the cities were bused to white suburban schools.

These policies were soon followed by objections from parents to programs that attempted to go beyond forbidding discrimination. Supporters of busing argued that these measures were necessary to compensate African Americans and other minorities for generations of segregation. Debates were long and loud. In 1974 in Boston, the court-ordered busing was disrupted by violence and a boycott by white students. South Boston High School was eventually put under federal management because of neighborhood resistance to busing.

While the success of court-ordered busing was not clear, the cost of the plans was. Two years of forced busing cost Boston more than $56 million. In five months, Detroit spent eleven million dollars on busing, excluding police costs. Even more startling was public opposition to busing, which was overwhelming. In 1972, a Harris survey found that 73 percent of the public was opposed to busing; only 20 percent favored it. Blacks and whites equally disliked it. In 1975, a federal government study found that busing to achieve desegregation had little impact on academic achievement: In school districts where busing took place, the scores of white students did not drop, while the scores of African American students rose only slightly.


During the 1970s, twenty states enacted local bilingual-education acts, signaling a major shift in educational policy. Prior to 1968, many states had approved legislation requiring that all teaching in public schools be conducted in English. In seven of those states, teachers had formerly faced criminal penalties for leading bilingual classes. That all changed in 1968 when the U.S. Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act as Title VII of the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

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To meet the growing demand for bilingual education, it was estimated that twenty-four thousand bilingual teachers would be needed by the end of the 1970s. Since only nineteen hundred bilingual teachers were entering the field each year, however, many school districts continued to struggle to provide bilingual instruction. Because of this, many lawsuits on behalf of Chinese and Hispanic students were filed, and courts ruled in their favor. In 1974, the U.S. Congress revised the ESEA, providing further funding for the training of bilingual teachers.

Equal Access for the Disabled

The Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 triggered a major transformation of federal policy in public education. It stated that "No handicapped individual shall be excluded from any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." At this time, it was estimated that 62 percent of the intellectually and emotionally disabled students in the United States were not receiving public education. Since every school district in the country was receiving some federal funding, the implications were enormous for the public schools. In 1975, in order to clarify the schools' responsibilities, the U.S. Congress passed what became known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. It guaranteed all disabled students a right to a free public education. The act applied to all children ages three through twenty-one who were physically handicapped, deaf, blind, learning disabled, or emotionally disturbed. The act suggested that, when possible, these students should be educated alongside mainstream students.

The states were forced to provide this free education, and the federal government provided only a modest amount of the necessary funding. States also had to find, train, and hire special education teachers. Often, traditionally trained teachers with no background in special education found themselves dealing with children with special needs. Local agencies struggled to provide extra funding to help in the education of the many children who previously had not attended public schools. Despite such efforts, by the end of the decade, many school administrators frequently found themselves in court dealing with parents who challenged school decisions regarding their disabled children.

Yet, by mid-decade, questions began to arise about the worth of some bilingual education programs, especially those for Hispanic students. The U.S. Office of Education (USOE) reported in 1976 that serious shortcomings existed in thirty-eight programs investigated by project directors. Students were staying in all-day bilingual programs long after they were able to participate in English-speaking classes. These findings caused the USOE to tighten regulations for bilingual programs so that only students who were significantly limited in English were admitted.

That same year, a study by the American Institute for Research found that Hispanics in regular classes did about as well in general subjects as those in bilingual programs; students in bilingual programs did slightly better in math, but slightly worse in English classes. By 1979, when the annual cost of the federal bilingual program had risen to $150 million (a twenty-fold increase over a decade before), attacks began to mount. Some education critics claimed that, in addition to keeping students beyond the basic preparation for English-language classes, extended dual-language programs threatened the "melting pot" function of American public schools.


The debate over the literacy and basic academic skills of American students began in the early 1970s and heated to the boiling point by the middle of the decade. At the end of 1975, Newsweek magazine ran an alarming cover story on the perceived decline in American education, alerting the country to the possibility that American schools were graduating students who could not even write a comprehensible sentence in English.

That year, the SAT scores of U.S. students had declined to their lowest point in twelve years. (The SAT is a standardized test administered to high school students by the College Board and required for admission by many U.S. colleges. The test is designed to estimate how students are likely to succeed in college.) Concern about falling test scores also had been mounting inside the nation's capital. The National Institute of Education held a special conference on the decline, but the researchers who met in Washington, D.C., in June 1975 could not reach a consensus on what the lower scores meant. Their report, which claimed that the test scores did not represent a general collapse in literacy, cast doubt about what the SAT measured and whether it accurately reflected student skills.

Because of the importance of the SAT to many of the nation's best universities, public attention was focused on the question of whether the test takers or the test makers were to blame for the problem. There was also great confusion on the part of the public as to what the SAT actually measured. Its creators defined the SAT as an aptitude test designed to measure natural abilities. Cramming for the exam would therefore do no good. Many educators who believed in a traditional classroom approach declared the SAT an achievement test: Declining scores on it, they said, was obvious evidence that students were not achieving and could not write, even though test takers did not have to write an essay during the exam.

U.S. High School Dropout Percentage: 1975

Total, all races13.9
Total, white11.4
Total, black22.9
Total, Hispanic29.2
Male, all races13.3
Male, white11.0
Male, black23.0
Male, Hispanic26.7
Female, all races14.5
Female, white11.8
Female, black22.9
Female, Hispanic31.6

Nearly everyone from parents to researchers suggested causes for the decline in test scores and for the possible corresponding decline in literacy. Many conservatives who promoted a traditional approach to education—studying reading, writing, and arithmetic—were convinced that schooling innovations during the 1960s and early 1970s had been at fault. They argued that liberal education—too little reading and writing, too many "soft" electives, and too few required academic courses—was the culprit. Even though the vast majority of public schools were still traditional in nature in the 1970s, some liberals agreed that the activism of the 1960s that had filtered down to high schools had an anti-intellectual bias. Others blamed the decline in test scores on too much television and an unstable family life. Most testing experts suspected another explanation: that more people from nontraditional, nonacademic backgrounds were applying to college in greater numbers. The SAT was therefore no longer testing an elite scholarly group.

Regardless of the causes of the SAT decline, the phenomenon set off a wave of new standardized testing procedures around 1977. During that year, twenty-nine states moved toward competency-based skill programs, with minimum achievement goals tested from grade to grade. Eventually, two-thirds of the states adopted such plans. To fix the literacy crisis, politicians and parents demanded that more and harder skills be tested in the nation's schools.


Mel and Norma Gabler of Hawkins, Texas, began a crusade for textbook censorship in 1961 when their son brought home a history text the Gablers believed was filled with anti-American and anti-Christian views. The couple soon ignited a firestorm of national criticism of educational publishing companies. At its height in the mid-1970s, this protest affected the textbook selection process throughout the United States. Most of the serious debates, however, were concentrated in the twenty-two states (mostly in the South and Southwest) where textbooks had to be approved by state, rather than local, authorities.

Watching American History

Public television made an extraordinary appearance in America's classrooms in 1976. At more than three hundred colleges and universities, students took courses based on thirteen episodes of a television series called The Adams Family Chronicles. This Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) show analyzed the influential family who helped create the United States of America. Featured members of the Massachusetts family included John Adams, America's second president, his wife Abigail, and their son John Quincy Adams, the sixth president. Although for two decades television had been used sporadically in the classroom, this exemplary series became the centerpiece of many courses, not merely an aid to instruction. Many professors throughout the country hailed the series, believing it captured the attention of students as no lecture or book ever could.

To the Gablers and their supporters, modern textbooks questioned and undermined traditional religious values, and they easily swayed the minds of young Americans. In 1972, testifying before the Texas Textbook Committee, Norma Gabler objected to one chapter in Search for Freedom, a fifth-grade U.S. history text published by Macmillan. Gabler believed the book was irreligious, equating Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi with Jesus of Nazareth. She furthermore objected that the text devoted 6 1/2 pages to actress Marilyn Monroe while it barely discussed U.S. president George Washington.

Gabler's appearance and testimony gained instantaneous media attention and landed her on the front page of many U.S. newspapers. Thousands of new followers joined her and her husband's cause, forcing textbook publishers into costly revisions of their books. After these successes, the Gablers went on to challenge school curricula in reading, writing, math, biology, psychology, and sociology courses. They believed only traditional approaches to education should be followed. They also thought writing programs that emphasized self-expression and imagination over grammatical correctness eroded standards of language usage. They attacked new approaches in the teaching of mathematics, suggesting they destroyed a students' beliefs in anything absolute. Finally, the Gablers and their supporters examined biology, psychology, and sociology courses for what they considered to be objectionable discussions of homosexuality and sexually deviant behavior. They succeeded in restricting open discussion of these topics and eliminating whole sections of textbooks that addressed such issues.

The movement inspired by the Gablers peaked in 1974 in West Virginia when Alice Moore, a first-term member of the Kanawha County Board of Education, challenged texts she believed attacked basic social values. After extensive media coverage, supporters of Moore protested by keeping home more than ten thousand of their children on the first day of school. The next day, thirty-five hundred miners launched a strike in sympathy with the protest movement. Exchanges of gunfire occurred around schools. Cars, homes, and schools were firebombed. Eight thousand protesters marched in Charleston, the state capital. After investigating the controversy, however, National Education Association officials concluded that allowing the protesters to change textbook and curriculum guidelines would be allowing one group to impose its set of values upon the students in the entire area.

The conservative scrutiny of textbooks inspired liberals, especially within academia, to conduct their own review of textbooks. Contrary to the Gablers, many argued that textbooks were biased toward conservative interests, especially in their wholehearted approval of American business and industry. Although federal officials called on textbook publishers to consider different approaches, the debate over school texts and curricula continued throughout the 1970s.

The Death of New Math

At the beginning of the 1970s, big textbook companies began to publish math materials based almost exclusively on the curricular movement known as "new math." Creators of the new-math approach opposed the idea that the main object of mathematics instruction was arithmetic proficiency. New math put theory before practice. Students were exposed to sophisticated concepts such as set theory, number theory, and symbolic logic. The belief was that if theory came before practice, all math reasoning would fall into place, including computation. This purely intellectual approach was touted as being more fun than memorizing arithmetic rules. With the recent development of hand-held calculators, many mathematics professors argued that students would not need to know how to perform basic addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication calculations.

California schools had led the way in adopting the new-math programs. However, when students' scores dropped 20 percent on standardized math tests in the state in 1973, parents and many teachers began to complain about the new-math approach. All over the state the results were the same: Students who had good math skills when they entered the program did worse afterward. Not surprisingly, teachers all over the country reported frustrations. Many teachers were not only intellectually unprepared for the change but also resistant to the entire philosophy. The hurriedly compiled textbooks contributed to the problems. In 1973 McGraw-Hill, one of the nation's leading textbook publishers, discontinued its new-math texts. Soon all the other companies followed and, without prepared texts, the movement died rapidly.


In the 1970s, women in education were beginning to organize for change. They sought to establish female role models in leadership positions and gender equality at all levels of the education community. These efforts ranged from eliminating gender bias from elementary-school textbooks to increasing the numbers of women faculty members in higher education. More important, the movement hoped to emphasize the necessity for a woman to be educated so as to increase the options available to her in life.

Previously, women were all but absent from the curriculum of secondary schools and colleges. However, during the 1970s, this changed dramatically. By decade's end, hundreds of courses and programs in women's studies had been established in higher education. As early as 1974, 4,990 courses in women's studies were taught at 995 institutions of higher learning. By 1979, the number of programs on campuses had tripled, with some large programs offering from seventy-five to one hundred courses annually.

The curricula in most women's studies programs were based on teaching students, both men and women, to understand issues such as women in history, the history and function of the family, women in the workforce and the economy, laws affecting women, and the history of women in social movements. By the end of the decade, nearly every campus offered one or more courses in which women wrote the texts, taught the courses, and offered previously ignored perspectives on traditional subject matter.

Another milestone for women in education was Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972. Intended to guarantee young women

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equal access to any educational program funded by the federal government, it did far more. In a 1978 study by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare of ten major universities and their compliance with Title IX, it was reported that every university in the study had upgraded women's athletic programs. In addition, those colleges with the biggest, most successful programs for men made the greatest efforts in creating strong programs for women.

Major of the Decade

Reflecting American society, the mood on American campuses became more spiritual and introspective in the 1970s. As a result, courses in psychology became more popular. By mid-decade, nearly every psychology department in the nation was flooded with students pursuing the "in" major. Nationally, enrollment in psychology graduate studies was up 114 percent compared to five years earlier. Many advisers saw this trend as the expression of a new attitude among college students: After a decade of protesting social problems, students now became preoccupied with the individual and his or her inner problems. In addition, many students became involved with transcendental meditation, encounter groups, and other searches for self-understanding.

Students who finished psychology graduate programs were also researching different types of psychological questions from those of the 1960s. Experts in psychology tackled problems not in the lab but in the real world. They studied the effects on people of such problems as pollution, drugs, alcohol abuse, crime, and sexual dysfunction. The demand for psychology professors rose from twenty-five hundred in 1970 to seven thousand in 1973, and no real job glut appeared in this field until the end of the decade.

Two other statutes went beyond Title IX to improve educational opportunities for women: The Women's Equity Act of 1974 provided funds to universities to develop curricula and educational activities to improve programs in vocational and physical education for women. The Vocational Education Act of 1976 prohibited sexual discrimination and bias in any educational program, including vocational education. Due in part to the power of these acts and the organized women's movement, women made significant strides on all levels of education by the end of the 1970s.


To assure equal opportunities to students who were economically or educationally disadvantaged, many universities and schools of higher learning established special minority-admissions programs during the 1970s. Even in schools that did not openly promote these types of programs, many admissions officers reserved the right to select students who would help create a diverse student body. Near the end of the decade, the U.S. Supreme Court examined these policies in the famous Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision. Legal guidelines were then established that in many ways upheld special consideration for minority applicants.

When a new medical school opened at the Davis campus of the University of California system in 1968, the minority population of that state was 23 percent. Yet no African American, Mexican American or Native American student was admitted into the entering class (three Asian students were admitted). After 1971, however, a special-admissions program at the university set aside sixteen seats for students who could be considered economically or educationally disadvantaged. A check-off box was included on the admissions form for such students to identify themselves. Although race was not a stated consideration of the program, no white student was ever admitted under the program.

The program began to change the make-up of the university's medical-school class: Between 1970 and 1974, of the 452 students admitted, 27 were African American and 39 were Mexican American. Without the special-admissions program, only one African American student and six Mexican American students would have been accepted. Each applicant was assigned a benchmark score: a composite of his or her interview, grade-point ratio from undergraduate school, grade-point ratio of science courses, Medical Comprehensive Achievement Test (MCAT) score, letters of recommendation, and personal background. Each of these criteria was rated on a scale.

Allen Bakke, a white Vietnam veteran, applied to the medical school at the university in 1973. Out of a possible 500 benchmark score, Bakke received 468. No general-admissions applicant with a score under 470 was accepted in 1973, however, so Bakke reapplied in 1974. This time, he received a score of 549 out of a possible 600. Again, he was not admitted, even though applicants with lower scores were accepted in both years under the special-admissions program. Bakke then sued the university. He claimed he had been denied admission on the basis of race, a practice that violated Article I of the California Constitution, the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bakke's case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 1978, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court ruled in favor of Bakke, striking down the university's admissions policy. The decision affected admissions policies nationwide. Even though the Court ordered the university to admit Bakke, it upheld the constitutionality of special minority admissions. In its decision, the Court maintained that only rigid quotas (the setting aside of a specific number of positions) for minority students were illegal, such as what the University of California, Davis, had done by setting aside sixteen places for minorities.

In the last two years of the decade, many graduate and professional schools changed their admissions policy to meet the Bakke guidelines. The rule for admissions was simple: no rigid quotas and no students barred from competing solely on the basis of race. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Bakke's case was not a legal command to dismantle affirmative-action programs (those programs intended to counter discrimination against minorities and women). Instead, it prompted universities to develop more carefully conceived plans to encourage diversity without denying a place for any qualified student.


Black activism on college campuses in the 1960s had been widespread. African American students demanded input into admissions policies and course offerings. Their tactics to achieve change were varied: Sometimes they worked through standard political channels, sometimes they protested peacefully, and sometimes they resorted to violent takeovers. These tactics worked. By the early 1970s, African American students and faculty had succeeded in achieving many reforms that had seemed out of reach just a decade earlier. Suddenly, universities were making long-term commitments to faculty recruited specifically to teach courses in black studies.

The essential aims of most black studies programs were similar: to help change the image of African Americans, to provide African Americans with a psychological identity, to foster racial understanding, and to present an organized study of black people and their accomplishments. Because so many universities were hiring professors to set up programs for black studies, there was a great demand for teacher training. Many campuses were somewhat alarmed at the speed with which programs were instituted. At Harvard, for example, a special faculty committee on African and African American studies labored to write a policy about the program while it was being developed. The committee hoped that the program would serve both black and white students, highlighting the history, literature, art, and music of African Americans while combating racism at the same time.

Once the new field began to be established, several black scholarly journals debuted. One of the first was the Black Scholar, which published its first issue in 1970. This journal provided a forum for black scholarship during the decade, regardless of the academic field of the writer. However, although it promised scholarship, its first issue featured articles by many nonscholars. Among them were black radical activists such as Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver, whose articles encouraged overthrowing the upper classes in America.

Many mainstream, predominantly white universities welcomed minority students. They built departments of black studies or at least offered courses such as black history or the sociology of minority groups. Recruitment was so successful that by 1976, two-thirds of the eight hundred thousand African American college students in the country were attending formerly white institutions. This shift in attendance trends left many of America's 120 historically black colleges and universities in jeopardy. Ironically, many black institutions found themselves pressured to admit white students in order to keep federal funding of certain grants intact. Some young African Americans, however, remained loyal to their historic schools, helping to keep the proud traditions of those schools alive.

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The 1970s Education: Topics in the News

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The 1970s Education: Topics in the News