By Carol Swanson Wright, Historian
for the Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted and WCGT PRESIDENT 1990
Ruth Robinson and I have been trying to organize the many strands of historical records from the gifted movement in Wisconsin over the past 50 years. In the process of helping Ruth, I have experienced a serendipitous “brush with history,” and I would like to share that story with you now.
Most educators will recognize the following events as watershed moments on the journey to where we are today:
October 4, 1957: The Soviet Union launched its first satellite, Sputnik I, starting a "space race" with the United States. This achievement sent shockwaves through the American citizenry, which had felt technologically superior amid a post-war economic boom under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Money flooded into the schools for science education and mathematics. I was in eighth grade at the time. The Class of 1962 was so fortunate to be going through high school just as this initiative took effect since it made our outstanding education even better. Even though I had not yet heard the term “gifted and talented,” my classmates and I benefited greatly from excellent teachers and a world-class curriculum in our “honors classes.”
January 25, 1965: President Lyndon B. Johnson called for congressional efforts to improve the opportunities in education for America’s children. Wary of fears regarding federal involvement in local schools, the administration advocated for grants at the state level that would give local districts great leeway in the use of the new funds. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was the first general aid to education bill that Congress had ever enacted, and it has been one of the most far-reaching pieces of federal legislation affecting education that Congress has ever passed. This law was a cornerstone of the “War on Poverty” and represented a landmark commitment of equal access to quality education by emphasizing high standards and accountability.
October 6, 1971: Sidney Percy Marland, Jr., Commissioner of Education (1970-1972) under Richard M. Nixon, submitted the Marland Report to Congress. The official name of the report is Education of the Gifted and Talented - Volume 1: Report to the Congress of the United States by the U. S. Commissioner of Education. This report concluded that the federal government had provided virtually no services to meet the needs of gifted and talented students. During the next twenty years Congress and the White House sought solutions to overcome this deficiency, but legislative and executive interests usually conflicted with each other. Consequently, Marland's observations about gifted and talented education were much the same after 1971 as they had been before.
Although the Marland report is one of the most important documents in the annals of gifted education, Sidney Marland, Jr. has not received the credit he deserves. James Gallagher surmised that this lack of recognition is due to the fact that the Marland Report was Marland’s “only significant written contribution…[but] a seminal one” to gifted education. (See Profiles of Influence in Gifted Education, edited by F. A. Karnes and S. A. Nugent, 20004, page 101.) Starting out as an educator at the local level, Sidney Marland, Jr., rose through the ranks to become an administrator at the state level, and an executive at the national level, ultimately serving the public in all three roles.
In my recent research on Sidney P. Marland, Jr., I came across some interesting and serendipitous information. Most of the details in this résumé come from Marland’s own testimony before Congress in 1970. Marland grew up in a small textile town only 15 miles from the University of Connecticut. He worked his way through college, as many students did during the depression years of the 1930s, graduated in 1936, and spent a year of military service as a lieutenant in the infantry. After this brief stint in the Reserve Corps, he started his career in education as a teacher at my alma mater. Lo and behold, Sidney Marland, Jr., taught English and drama at William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut, from 1938-1941.
The Board of Education named Sidney Marland “Outstanding Classroom Teacher” in 1939 when he was earning $1,200 a year. He transferred from the Reserve Corps to the National Guard during this time for these two reasons: (1) partially to augment his teaching salary; and (2) partially to anticipate probable service in World War II. When the war broke out, Sidney left for the South Pacific and Southwest Pacific Theatres. The 43rd Infantry Division of the U. S. Army engaged in five major campaigns, and Marland moved up from first lieutenant to colonel. He was an operations and training officer for most of the combat period until the occupation of Japan. When the war was over in 1945, Marland returned to the United States and served a year at the Pentagon.
Sidney Marland returned to Connecticut and served as Chief of Staff for the 43rd Infantry Division. During this year of reorganization as a peace-time force, he was able to pursue graduate studies in Educational Administration. Marland served as Superintendent of Schools from 1948-1956 in Darien, Connecticut. He remarked that this was “where I gained substantial experience in the educational affairs of a swiftly growing suburb. School building construction, rapid staff increase, high academic expectations, curricular reform, and intensive budget activity characterize the 8 years in Darien.” Darien is very close to Greenwich, Connecticut, which also has high academic expectations. When I was in high school, my English teachers always held up Greenwich High School as a standard of excellence.
From personal experience I can attest that Jennifer L. Jolly’s biography of Sidney Marland (2013) is right on the money (pun intended): “At 34 years old, Marland became superintendent of a school district that competed with private schools for a student body whose fathers were executives in New York City. Marland saw this private school population as a challenge and felt that the public schools in Darien could provide an educational experience that matched that of the private schools.” Connecticut has over three dozen private high schools that compete with the public schools for the best students. A cousin went to one of these outstanding schools, (now called) Kingswood Oxford in West Hartford, and a boyfriend went to another, (now called) Loomis Chaffee in Windsor.
Marland earned his Ph.D. from New York University in 1955 and as of 1956 moved up the career ladder to be Superintendent of Schools in Winnetka, Illinois, which he described in his 1970 confirmation hearings to become Commissioner of Education as “a most economically favorable suburb of Chicago [where] my work lay largely in curricular reform, educational experimentation, and community and faculty leadership. Under conditions of high public expectations and correspondingly high tax support, it was a lively 7-year experience.” Winnetka is the home of New Trier High School, which my English teachers also held up as a standard of excellence. Marland carried this trajectory of excellence from West Hartford to Darien to Winnetka.
The Chicago Tribune reported in Sidney Marland’s obituary that, after having been Superintendent of Schools in Winnetka from 1956 to 1963, he “was considered as a top candidate for a similar position with the Chicago Board of Education in 1966, but refused to apply.” Instead, he became Superintendent of Schools in Pittsburgh for the five years from 1963-1968. Marland then joined the Institute for Educational Development in New York City as president for a year. According to his own testimony, “I had become committed to the grave and urgent needs of big city education, and believed that if disengaged from the direct responsibilities of the ‘establishment’ of education, I could do more independent work to serve urban education.”
President Richard M. Nixon nominated Sidney Marland to be the Commissioner of Education in 1970 with confirmation hearings on November 19, November 20, and December 1. In October of 1971, Sidney P. Marland,, Jr., submitted Education of the Gifted and Talented: Report to Congress. In his monograph on Sidney Marland (1914-1992), James Gallagher summarizes Marland’s contributions to the field of education as follows: “Marland had many interests in the field of education. One of those was the status of gifted students. He sponsored a conference on gifted students as the U.S. Commissioner of Education and signed off on the revised definition that came from that conference in his Report to Congress.”
“Gifted and talented children are those identified by professionally qualified people who by virtue of outstanding abilities are capable of high performance. These are children who require differentiated educational programs and/or services beyond those normally provided by the regular school program in order to realize their contribution to self and society.
“Children capable of high performance include those with demonstrated achievement and/or potential ability in any of the following areas, singly, or in combination:
With regard to Sidney P. Marland’s influence, Gallagher says the following: “This definition was embedded in legislation and became the standard definition for many states over the next two decades. It broadened the definition beyond cognitive performance on IQ tests, stressed the need for differentiated programming, and used the phrase ‘capable of,” which means the student needn’t show great achievement at the moment as long as he or she possesses potential.” Gallagher notes that “The basic concepts in the definition will remain central to the field of gifted education at this time.” In conclusion, Marland’s report to Congress was the “only significant written contribution that Marland made. It remains a seminal one, however.”
I have discovered one more anecdote with regard to Sidney Marland that ties together the three historical events I cited at the beginning of this tribute to Mr. Marland. The launch of Sputnik ushered in an era of unprecedented spending to improve the quality of American schools. Although President Nixon was a strong critic of the ESEA, he signed the 1969 amendments to the education bill that Congress had enacted in 1965 under President Johnson. The original bill had included Titles I-VI. These amendments added Titles VII and Title VIII. Section 27 of Title VIII, “General Provisions,” provided a definition of gifted and talented. By carrying that definition forward into the future, the Marland Report still resonates even today.
Finally, Sidney Marland himself draws the connection between the Sputnik era and the 1970s in the May 31, 1973 speech he gave before the Nationwide Invitational Conference on the Education of the Gifted. “I met with a group of Russian educators who were visiting this country to get a first-hand look at the new things we’re doing in the classroom. As we parted, I felt called upon to thank those men and women, not simply to carry out the formalities of my ex officio role of host, but to express the genuine debt that I as an educator feel to Soviet Russia for orbiting the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957….With this in mind, I thanked my Russian visitors and, as they departed, I added, ‘Please…send up more Sputniks.’”