Celebrate JFK's Accomplishments in Education During His Centennial

JFK Education Accomplishments in Grad Rates, Science, and Teacher Training

President John F. Kennedy Signing Blockade Order
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

While the last photographs of John F. Kennedy preserve him eternally in America's collective memory as 46 years old, he would be 100 years old on May 29, 2017. To commemorate his centennial, the JFK Presidential Library  has organized a year-long celebration of "events and initiatives aimed at inspiring new generations to find meaning and inspiration in the enduring values that formed the heart of the Kennedy presidency."

Education was one of the signature issues of President Kennedy, and there are a number of legislative efforts and messages to Congress that he initiated to improve education in several areas: graduation rates, science, and teacher training.

On Raising Graduation Rates 

In a Special Message to the Congress on Education, delivered on February 6, 1962, Kennedy laid out his argument that education in this country is the right—the necessity—and the responsibility—of all. 

In this message, he noted the high number of high school dropouts:

 "Too many--an estimated one million a year--leave school before completing high school--the bare minimum for a fair start in modern-day life."

Kennedy referenced this high percentage as the number of students who dropped out in 1960, two years earlier. A data table showing the "Percentage of high school dropouts among persons 16 to 24 years old (status dropout rate), by sex and race/ethnicity: 1960 through 2014" prepared by the Institute of Educational Studies (IES) at the National Center for Educational Statistics, showed the high school dropout rate in 1960 was at a high 27.2%.

In his message, Kennedy also spoke about the 40% of students at that time who had started but never completed their college education. 

His message to Congress also laid out a plan for increasing the number of classrooms as well as increased training for teachers in their content areas. Kennedy's message to promote education had a powerful effect.

By 1967, four years after his assassination, the total number of high school dropouts had been reduced by 10% to 17%. The dropout rate has been falling incrementally ever since.

On Science 

The successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, by the Soviet space program on October 4, 1957, alarmed American scientists and politicians alike. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed the first presidential science adviser, and a Science Advisory Committee asking part-time scientists to serve as advisers as initial steps.

On April 12, 1961, only four short months into Kennedy's presidency, the Soviets had another stunning success. Their Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin completed a successful mission to and from space. Despite the fact that the United States space program was still in its infancy, Kennedy responded to the Soviets with his own challenge, known as "the moon shot", in which Americans would be the first to land on the Moon. 

In a speech on May 25, 1961, before a joint session of Congress, Kennedy proposed space exploration to put astronauts on the moon, as well as other projects including nuclear rockets and weather satellites. He was quoted as saying:

 "But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead."

Again, at Rice University on September 12, 1962, Kennedy proclaimed that America would have a goal to land a man on the moon and bring him back by the end of the decade, a goal that would be directed to educational institutions:

"The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school."

As the American space program known as Gemini was pulling ahead of the Soviets, Kennedy gave one of his last speeches on October 22, 1963, before the National Academy of Sciences, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary. He expressed his overall support for the space program and emphasized the overall importance of science to the country:

“ The question in all our minds today is how science can best continue its service to the Nation, to the people, to the world, in the years to come…”

Six years later, on July 20, 1969, Kennedy's efforts came to fruition when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong took a "giant step for mankind" and stepped onto the Moon's surface.

On Teacher Training

In the 1962 Special Message to the Congress on Education, Kennedy also outlined his plans to improve teacher training by collaborating with the National Science Foundation and the Office of Education. 

In this message, he proposed a system where, "Many elementary and secondary school teachers would profit from a full year of full-time study in their subject-matter fields," and he advocated that these opportunities be created.

Initiatives like teacher training were part of Kennedy's "New Frontier" programs. Under the policies of the New Frontier, legislation was passed to expand scholarships and student loans with increases in funds for libraries and school lunches. There were also funds directed to teach the deaf, children with disabilities, and children who were gifted. In addition, literacy training was authorized under Manpower Development as well as an allocation of Presidental funds to stop dropouts and a Vocational Education Act (1963).

Conclusion

Kennedy saw education as critical to the maintaining the economic strength of the nation  According to Ted Sorenson, Kennedy's speechwriter, no other domestic issue occupied Kennedy as much as education.

Sorenson quotes Kennedy as saying:

"Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource."

Perhaps one indicator of Kennedy's legacy is the documented reduction in the high school dropout rate. The table prepared by  Institute of Educational Studies (IES) at the National Center for Educational Statistics reveals that by 2014, only 6.5% of students drop out of high school. This is an increase of 25% in graduation rates from when Kennedy first promoted this cause.

The JFK Centennial is being celebrated throughout the country and events are promoted on JFKcentennial.org.