Jim Porter in Isis Journal

In the September issue of Isis, Jim Porter published an article entitled ‘A “Precious Minority”: Constructing the “Gifted” and “Academically Talented” Student in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education and the National Defense Education Act.’

Douwe Schipper, student in the master programme ‘History and Philosophy of Science’ at Utrecht University, presented Jim with a couple of questions about this paper. Jim was kind enough to provide the following answers:

DS: In your paper you establish a connection between an increasing interest in the education for the “academically talented” or “gifted”, and the desegregation of public schools in the 1950s. Can you briefly summarize how you demonstrate that connection?

JP: Well, the chronology here is revealing. It is commonly held that interest in education for the “gifted” and “academically talented” in this period stemmed exclusively from the Sputnik crisis of 1957, and the fear that the US would fall behind in the space race because of poor science and math education. But in fact the political movement on behalf of selective education for the “academically talented” started well before the surprise of the Sputniks (fall 1957). The National Defense Education Act (NDEA), for example, was a major federally funded education initiative that contained numerous provisions for testing, sorting and curricular stratification by measured “ability.” And though the NDEA was passed in 1958, soon after the Sputniks, planning for this important legislation actually began in 1955. Likewise, scientist and educator James Bryant Conant conducted a highly influential study of public education which recommended more intelligence testing and ability grouping in US schools. And while this study was published in 1959 (in an effort to condition public reception to the NDEA), planning of Conant’s project began, like the NDEA, in 1955. There are lots of other examples like this. The Advanced Placement (AP) program for “gifted” students launched nationwide in 1954, along with a slew of other state and district level ability-grouping programs over the next couple of years. Of course, and I think central to all this, Brown v. Board, the Supreme Court decision which mandated the end of de jure racial segregation in US schools, was decided in 1954. So when you step back and look at the chronology of all these developments, the role of Sputnik diminishes and ‘Brown’suddenly seems much more important than it had before. This connection is also revealed in discursive symmetries that track across Brown v. Board and the NDEA. When you tune into those particular discourses, these two momentous institutional shifts in public education suddenly read like a tug-of-war over the structure of educational opportunity. Brown v. Board was about broadening access to education by “race.” On the other hand, the NDEA was about stratifying and limiting, but by “ability.”

DS: You argue that your explanation of the renewed interest in “giftedness” can coexist with the more obvious, traditionally cited context, the Sputnik crisis. Following this line of thought, do you see a direct connection between domestic and foreign agendas and anxieties?

JP: Drawing on my last point, ‘Brown’ and NDEA often sit comfortably in separate historiographies (‘Brown’ in a domestic/Civil Rights context, the NDEA as a response to an international/Cold War context). But, of course, both interacted with each other. Both motives or anxieties (desegregation and the space race) were in play, but one was effectively concealed behind the other. The Sputniks were not only an intensifier, but they worked (and could be used) to conceal the domestic anxiety that much more effectively, I think.

DS: In your abstract, you note that your essay “makes contributions to the historiographies of the Cold War, civil rights, psychometrics, and education in the 1950s,” research topics that seem profoundly different from each other. Do you have a background in any of these historiographies in particular? If so, how did you experience entering unfamiliar territory during your research?

JP: I started with histories of psychology and biology and moved from there through the history of education, but I was always working back and forth with broader US cultural and political history. I was guided all along the way through these literatures by my research questions (which became increasingly specific) and by my primary sources: what sorts of questions they made answerable, what surprises they held.

Beyond the challenge of how to read across historiographies, there’s also the question of what we gain by drawing otherwise compartmentalized literatures together in specific ways. I think in this case we can come to see how “race” and “intelligence” were co-evolving ideologies that converged and diverged over time in response to domestic and international pressures. Both ideologies then potentially start to lose their power over us when we see more clearly the game they play with each other over time.

DS: In your conclusion, you suggest that the National Defense Education Act indirectly shaped the U.S. high
school system of today. Can you elaborate on that thought?

JP: When I began reading the Conant sources in particular—where he laid out his NDEA-related plan for US public high schools—it struck me again and again: ‘ah, thís was the high school I went to in the late 1980s.’ The Conant/NDEA vision had taken hold. My school was heavily tracked, and this tracking was test-based. And these cleavages in opportunity were blurred and euphemized by any number of administrative strategies. This was a largely white suburban high school and there were efforts here at desegregation, but they were token at best, I think. So you had these two systems—de facto residential segregation and intramural differentiation by “ability” —working together to create an almost exclusively white middle/upper-middle class college-prep track.

But my particular school environment was certainly not unique, just one granular instance in a longer trajectory extending back through ‘Brown’ and the NDEA and forward into the 21st century. ‘Brown,’ through no fault of its own, has yet to be truly fulfilled. The NDEA on the other hand opened up schools as a market for standardized testing and testing culture in an unprecedented way. The Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) profits skyrocketed in the years following the NDEA. And though the NDEA only lasted four years it was assimilated into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Different incarnations of the ESEA then have all been ratified by successive administrations. So there’s a direct line between the NDEA and No Child Left Behind, which has again augmented the role standardized testing plays in shaping the landscape of public education.

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