The Teacher Wars: How the Idealism of LBJ and RFK Set the Stage for Today's Education Strife


The Teacher Wars: LBJ's Favorite Education Reform

The National Teacher Corps of the 1960s and 1970s paved the way for Teach For America

November 11, 2014

From the Book:
Copyright © 2014 by Dana Goldstein.
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC

Even as President Lyndon Johnson declined to take regulatory steps to protect veteran black teachers who were losing their jobs as a result of Brown v. Board, he aggressively pursued a strategy personally familiar to him from his own year of teaching in Cotulla, Texas, and one that has been resurrected today by the growing organization Teach for America: recruiting elite young college students to teach for a short time in poor children’s classrooms. One of Johnson’s favorite Great Society programs, for which he mustered considerable political energy to pass through Congress and then reauthorize, was the National Teacher Corps, established in 1965 as part of the Higher Education Act. It was based in part on a program founded two years earlier by a Washington, D.C., schoolteacher named Joan Wofford.  

In 1962 Wofford, a graduate of Bryn Mawr and Yale, was teaching at Newton High School in the Boston suburbs, one of the nation’s most affluent and progressive public schools. Inspired by President Kennedy’s call to public service, she became determined to find work in an inner-city neighborhood. When her husband won a judicial clerkship, the young couple moved to Washington, D.C., and Wofford was hired as the second-ever white teacher at Cardozo High School, in the working-class black neighborhood of Columbia Heights. The school’s principal, Bennetta Washington, was married to the city’s future mayor, Walter Washington, and was a politically connected reformer willing to take a chance on a young white woman.  


Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C., where, in partnership with Howard University, the project that would yield the National Teacher Corps program was born. Then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy personally gave educator Joan Wofford a from the President’s Committee on  Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, and the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching launched in the fall of 1963.

At Cardozo, Wofford taught honors English, and she adored her students. But she was horrified by the pedagogical and disciplinary practices she witnessed at the school. An assistant principal spent most of his day running through the hallways, prodding boys to take off their hats. When Wofford sat down with a math teacher to select photos of classroom scenes for the yearbook, the math teacher refused to consider one in which students had exploded with great energy, every hand up in the air. “There was this idea of ‘keep the lid on, be well behaved,’ ” Wofford told me. “That was not my thing. I wanted enthusiasm, excitement! I wanted people turned on, not sitting with their hands folded.”  

Wofford admits that at the time she was arrogant, even “blind.” When she studied organizational development later in her career, she realized that if you want to change an institutional culture, you can’t ignore the managers and employees who are enforcing the rules— you have to cooperate with them and get their feedback. If she had done so at Cardozo, she might have heard that for generations, strict discipline had been considered a hallmark of high-quality teaching in the black community, in order to prepare children for a prejudiced world in which they would rarely enjoy the benefit of the doubt. Yet Wofford’s brashness effectively shifted the national debate about public school teaching.  

National surveys showed that half of all teachers working in low-income schools hoped to transfer to middle-class settings. What if, Wofford wondered, inner-city teaching could become a coveted, glamorous job, even for the most privileged young adults? This idea had come to Wofford as she read a letter from her brother-in-law, Harris Wofford, a Kennedy adviser who was then working for the Peace Corps in Africa. Many Peace Corps members were assigned to teach in African schools and had developed a passion for the work, Harris wrote. Yet they wouldn’t be able to continue teaching when they returned to the States, because they had not studied at education schools or earned teacher certifications, as state laws required.  

Wofford rushed to write back to her brother-in-law. On lightweight blue airmail paper she sketched a plan for how much good Peace Corps veterans could do at schools like Cardozo. She never mailed the letter, which became, instead, a program proposal. She envisioned a special group of young teachers recruited from the Peace Corps or competitive colleges. They would be mentored by “master teachers”—people like Wofford, who also came from elite backgrounds but had already demonstrated success in the classroom. In their first year at Cardozo, the “intern” teachers would lead only two lessons per day. They would spend the rest of their time observing the master teacher, observing one another, and sharing feedback with colleagues within the program. After school, interns would take a class in urban sociology to learn about the challenges poor children faced, and they would work to develop new, culturally relevant curriculum materials that would renew children’s excitement about learning. Through a partnership with Howard University, the recruits would earn a master’s degree in teaching, thus circumventing the traditional role of education schools and their “Mickey Mouse courses,” in Wofford’s words. This vision echoed that of former Harvard president James Bryant Conant, who published the widely discussed The Education of American Teachers that same year, 1963. Conant warned that the nation’s growing ranks of high school dropouts would become “social dynamite,” unemployed and prone to crime. He saw higher-quality teaching as the best way to keep low-income kids in school, and he called for deemphasizing undergraduate education courses for future teachers in favor of classes in the liberal arts coupled with “practice teaching” in real classrooms.  

Marjory Collins/Library of Congress

A teacher schools students in first aid at Banneker Junior High School in Washington, D.C. When the National Teacher Corps's white student teachers arrived at urban schools, their access to greater resources than those available to veteran teachers engendered resentment.

Harris Wofford helped his sister-in-law arrange a meeting with Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy cousin and founder of the Peace Corps. Shriver signed on as a behind-the-scenes supporter of the idea. Within a few months, Bobby Kennedy invited Wofford to his office. He handed over a check from the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, and the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching launched in the fall of 1963, with ten intern teachers. The media loved the idea. The Washington Post women’s section profiled “Michigan farm-bred” Judith Crindler, a Peace Corps veteran teaching ninth-grade English at Cardozo. She had assigned her students Antigone and Thoreau as part of a unit on civil disobedience. A reporter from The New Yorker shadowed Wofford and her team for two weeks. “As a youngster, I was sort of the toast of the town,” Wofford remembered with a self-effacing laugh. “We got so much good publicity, I even had white parents saying, ‘Can we send our kids to Cardozo?’”  

But right away, resentments bubbled up between interns and veteran teachers, who had few opportunities for formal interaction. The Cardozo Project received federal funding, which meant the interns had their own mimeograph machine and other school supplies veterans often lacked. Interns were young, inexperienced, and mostly white, while Cardozo’s veterans were generally middle-aged and black. Some of the biggest clashes were over the curriculum. In the Peace Corps, Roberta Kaplan had taught African American literature at a private school in Sierra Leone. But when she tried to bring some of the same material to Cardozo, including Black Boy, Invisible Man, and the poems of Langston Hughes, she heard pushback from long-standing members of the English department, who saw a young white teacher assigning black students a second-rate reading list—these works were not yet highly regarded. “They wanted to make sure the kids were exposed to the same classic literature white kids were,” Kaplan told me, works like My Antonia, Willa Cather’s novel about white pioneers in Nebraska. “Even To Kill a Mockingbird was not considered a classic then!”

Wofford left the program after two years, frustrated that the school district banned her from teaching while she was pregnant—a common practice across the country, soon after abolished. But her work had taken root: In 1965, Senate Democrats Ted Kennedy and Gaylord Nelson began drafting legislation based on replicating the Cardozo Project and another similar effort, the Milwaukee Intern Program, nationally. They envisioned a National Teacher Corps that would give elite young people an opportunity to enter and then transform the teaching profession, without having to proceed through teachers colleges or education degrees, which were seen in the media and on Capitol Hill as intellectually stagnant. As the historian Bethany Rogers has noted, this vision of recruiting “better people” into teaching explicitly denigrated the wisdom of those teachers already working in high-poverty schools. The assumption was that the existing teachers, many of whom were older black women, could offer little insight into how to educate poor children.  

(World History Project)

In November 1965, Senator Edward Kennedy won passage of the Higher Education Act, which created the National Teacher Corps as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty.

In later years the Cardozo Project, then led by teacher and theorist Larry Cuban, made better use of the collective experience of Cardozo’s veteran teachers, hiring some of them as mentors to new interns. Jane David, a twenty-two-year-old white Oklahoman, began teaching at Cardozo in 1966. In those days, newspapers had separate sections for men’s and women’s job listings, and as an ambitious Antioch graduate, David had been frustrated by the menial “gal Friday” ads she saw. She figured she would try teaching, and though initially ambivalent about the job, David quickly fell in love with it. From her mentor, a veteran black teacher named Bess Howard, she learned to use “manipulatives” in her math lessons— physical objects, like blocks, that could help students grasp mathematical concepts. Equally powerful for David was earning Howard’s trust. The older woman told the younger one she was a natural in the classroom, which David attributed to having grown up with a college professor and professional dancer as parents. “Teaching is one part performance,” she told me, “and I had some performance genes in my blood. Unlike some newbies, I didn’t have any trouble with classroom control.”  

One unusual aspect of the Cardozo Project and the Teacher Corps was the expectation that interns live in the neighborhoods in which they worked. In 1970 Larry Cuban explained the rationale:  

[T]eachers [must] get out of their fortresses and into the neighborhoods. They must work with students in non-authoritarian settings. They must get to know people in the community. These things must be done, if for no other reason . . . than to improve the quality of instruction. Simply stated, effective teaching is intimately related to how well a teacher knows who his charges are and the nature of their surroundings. If he doesn’t, his perceptions will continue to be shaped by TV, newspaper, social science formulas, and fear— not by first-hand experience. And by experience I don’t mean bus tours through the slums, hurried walks up and down streets, or unannounced welfare-like visits. No instant urban sociology. I mean the tough business of getting to know people who live in the area. Let the community teach the teacher.  

For middle-class white recruits like David, who lived just a few blocks from Cardozo High, the experience offered a powerful education in American inequality. The high school was perched on a hill, which offered students a breathtaking view of the U.S. Capitol Building, three miles south. David was shocked to learn most neighborhood kids had never been there—just as Jacob Riis, sixty years earlier, had lamented the Lower East Side ragamuffins who never visited Central Park.  

(AP Photo)

Teacher Corps recruit Jane David was on the job at Cardozo High School on April 5, 1968—the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—when a voice rang out in the hallway: "Fourteenth Street is on fire!" This aerial photo shows fire-gutted buildings, some still smouldering, along a block on H Street between 12th and 13th Streets in the northeast section of Washington, D.C. on that day. Rioting broke out in reaction to King's murder in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4.

The community where David lived taught the teacher in Technicolor on Friday, April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination. As grieving students and teachers anxiously gathered in Cardozo’s hallways, a voice called out: “Fourteenth Street is on fire!” It was the beginning of riots that engulfed the city for four days. Cardozo’s basketball coach offered David a ride home in his car. As he inched through the clogged intersections, rioters rocked the vehicle back and forth. David crouched on the floor and hid her face. “The coach was scared,” she recalled. “He didn’t want to be caught with this white chick in the car. . . . We were both praying no one saw me.” When school reopened the following week, David led her students in a discussion of what had taken place. “There was a moral dilemma, to loot or not to loot? Half the kids justified it. One said, ‘You know, it was the first time in my life I had a suit for Easter.’ And the other would argue, ‘No, it’s stealing.’ . . . It was just fascinating listening to them argue among themselves about what was right and wrong. And I thought there were strong arguments on both sides.”  

Cardozo and Teacher Corps interns were also expected to participate in community service outside the classroom. Evaluations of Teacher Corps sites around the country showed that because teaching itself was so time-consuming, many interns ended up giving their community responsibilities short shrift. Some interns, however, took the community service element of the program quite seriously. Beverly Glenn, a black Cardozo Project recruit who had grown up middle-class in Baltimore, joined the Concerned Citizens of Central Cardozo, a group working to improve conditions inside housing projects. With a few other intern teachers, Glenn organized a summer program for preschool children living in one particularly blighted development, Clifton Terrace.  

(LBJ Presidential Library)

Candid photo of President Lyndon B Johnson after signing the bill that funded the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Glenn and her roommate, another intern teacher, even volunteered to take custody of a student who was being sexually abused by her stepfather. Glenn was just twenty-one years old at the time, four years older than her foster daughter. Those years at Cardozo were “emotionally exhausting and physically exhausting,” Glenn said. But despite her dramatic experiences outside school, what she valued most about the program was the pedagogical training she received. She would recall it often later in her career, as a teacher in Boston, a graduate student at Harvard, and then a nationally recognized education policy expert and dean of the School of Education at Howard University. “We had a lot of adventures in Teacher Corps, but mainly we learned how to teach,” Glenn said. “We learned a lot about child development and psychology, about curriculum development and what it means to write a lesson plan, about what it means to individualize for students and how you do evaluation to know what kids have learned.” Those practical matters were not always part of the curriculum at traditional teachers colleges, which tended to emphasize theory over practice, and—until recently—paid little attention to how to measure children’s learning outcomes.  

In its first year, the National Teacher Corps office in Washington, D.C., selected all the recruits for Corps sites across the country. But in Congress, Representative Edith Green, a Democrat and former union teacher from Oregon, sought to subject the program to more local control. Like today’s critics of Teach for America, Green and the NEA believed shortcuts into the classroom were unfair to career teachers who had taken the time to earn education degrees, and that these kinds of programs would deprofessionalize teaching in the long term. She forged an alliance between labor-affiliated northerners and states’ rights southerners that resulted in legislation to revamp the program. By 1967 the National Teacher Corps was just the Teacher Corps, a tiny, decentralized program in which local sites had the power to hire interns and supervise their work. This change was remarkably successful in bringing more black, Hispanic, and Native American teachers into the classroom; during the Corps’ first three cycles, between 10 percent and 30 percent of interns came from minority groups, but in later years, more than half did. The requirements for community service and mentor-intern relationships remained, as did the partnerships between the Corps and local colleges, which provided recruits with afterschool academic courses. The New York Times editorial board nevertheless expressed disappointment that the federal government no longer fully controlled the program—particularly the quality and demographics of incoming interns, not to mention how they were trained. “Far from being a threat, the ‘outsider’ [teacher] tends to be a bearer of new ideas,” the Times board wrote. “There is nothing the urban and rural slum schools need more than escape from the inbred rigidity of local and state education systems.”  

It is difficult to judge the Teacher Corps’ success in today’s terms; during the 1960s and 1970s, standardized achievement tests were not in wide use as measures of student learning or teacher effectiveness. Sociologist Ronald Corwin published the definitive evaluation of the program in 1973. Teacher Corps sites had hired three thousand interns who worked in twenty-seven states and Puerto Rico, including in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles; in the rural Black Belt; and on Indian reservations. Fifty-five percent of recruits came from upper-middle-class homes, compared to only about a quarter of experienced teachers. Corwin found that recruits did bring the high expectations for students that reformers like Joan Wofford had hoped for. Corps interns were more likely than veteran teachers to believe poor students could graduate from high school, and less likely to indicate that “poor home backgrounds” prevented children from learning. Interns cited education as the most effective antipoverty tool, while veterans believed job training, a guaranteed income, and marketable skills were more valuable. The vast majority of Corps recruits did not become career teachers, but many did pursue jobs in educational administration or policy.  

(Viola W. Bernard Foundation)

Joan Wofford, founder of the Cardozo Project, today. 

Teacher Corps interns reported that they helped poor children complete college applications and launched parent-teacher associations where none before existed. In the rural South, interns sometimes were the only white people black children had ever gotten to know or trust. Some program sites, however, went bust. Many Corps members disdained their coursework at the cooperating universities, which were less elite than the undergraduate colleges they had attended. In the South, angry parents accused several interns of teaching about evolution or communism, and in a few cases, interracial relationships among interns aroused local gossip and hostility. Some principals resented the presence of Teacher Corps teams at their schools and attempted to isolate them from the regular faculty. Overall, Corwin concluded, the program had failed in its goal of pressuring the educational establishment to embrace new pedagogical ideas and make it easier for high-status young people to enter teaching without traditional certification. This relatively small federal intervention had aroused widespread “status threat” within college education departments and among K–12 administrators and veteran teachers, many of whom felt disrespected by “hippie” Teacher Corps members. According to the National Education Association, which had always been skeptical of the Corps, “the greater the difference between interns and teachers in social attitudes or in status, the less change took place.”  

Except for the hippie insinuation, much of the controversy regarding the Teacher Corps sounds a lot like the debate about today’s Teach for America, which was founded, like the Cardozo Project, by an idealist who sought to provide a shortcut into the profession. Teach for America’s mission is to help lead “an educational revolution” in America’s poor communities. President Johnson— who revered educators and understood their work perhaps better than any other president in the nation’s history—had much the same aim. His Great Society agenda, from the Teacher Corps to Title I to Head Start, did make a mark. Federal funds flowed like never before to high-poverty schools. Ambitious young people were encouraged to teach in low-income schools, via the missionary teacher model first promoted by Catharine Beecher.  

But true to Anna Julia Cooper’s and Zora Neale Hurston’s warnings, the Johnson administration’s aggressive push toward school integration in the South often came at the expense of veteran black teachers. And due to the complicity of the courts and Department of Justice, de facto segregated schooling endured in most northern cities. By 1968 the limits of the Great Society education agenda were clear. Parents and activists who were committed to educational equality for poor children were disappointed and sometimes angry. The world of urban public education would soon explode in racial animus, much of it targeted toward teachers and their unions.