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Francis Keppel (April 16, 1916– February 19, 1990) is often referred to as the “Pied Piper of American Education.” Throughout his illustrious career as dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the U.S. Commissioner of Education under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, Keppel’s contributions to the American educational landscape are impressive for a person with only one earned degree.

Keppel was born in New York City and grew up in an intellectual environment characterized by concern for educational reform. He attended the Groton School in Massachusetts and entered Harvard University in 1934 where he received a bachelor’s degree. While studying at Harvard, Keppel dabbled in sculpture and, after graduation, pursued art studies at the American Academy in Rome. He returned to the States after a year and was named assistant dean of freshmen at Harvard University.

During World War II, Keppel was secretary of the Joint Army-Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation in Washington, DC. He later entered the U.S. Army’s Information and Education Division. Following the war, Keppel returned to Harvard as assistant to the provost. James Bryant Conant, then president of Harvard, was so impressed with Keppel’s enthusiasm and character attributes that he named Keppel the dean of the Graduate School of Education.

During his 14 years as dean, the School of Education more than quadrupled in size, applications increased tenfold, and the endowment swelled to over $9 million. Keppel focused on improving the quality of teaching, testing reform ideas, and suggesting innovations for practice. He revitalized the Master of Arts in Teaching and introduced a Master of Arts for Elementary Teachers. He also created Harvard’s School and University Program for Research and Development. His liberal and progressive views promoted cutting-edge experimentation in team teaching, programmed learning, curricular reform, and the use and development of educational television. These practices set Harvard apart from other educational schools. Keppel was widely respected as a national leader and served on numerous committees, task forces, and councils during his tenure.

In 1962, President Kennedy appointed Keppel the U.S. Commissioner of Education. An aggressive proponent of civil rights, Keppel threatened to withhold federal funds from racially segregated school districts under provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many believe this posture of assertive enforcement led southern schools to begin complying with desegregation initiatives in the 1960s.

This position also offered Keppel a unique opportunity to influence federal legislation. He is credited with being a major force in the development of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which substantially increased the federal government’s role in public education and created the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He also is credited with influencing the passage of the Higher Education Facilities Act, the Manpower Training and Development Act, and the Library Services Act. When President Lyndon B. Johnson elevated the department for Health, Education, and Welfare to a cabinet-level office in 1965, Keppel became the assistant secretary of education.

After serving the federal government, Keppel became chief executive officer of the General Learning Corporation, a joint venture between General Electric and Time magazine. He later served as vice chair of the New York City Board of Higher Education and director of the Aspen Institute. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1977, Keppel returned to his beloved Harvard University as a senior lecturer where he continued teaching until his death.

Contributed by Linda L.G. Brown, The University of Texas at Austin.

Cattell, J. M., and J. Cattell, eds. 1974. Francis Keppel. In Leaders in education, 5th edition, 585. New York: R.R. Bowker.

Hoffman, N., and R. Schwartz. 1990. Remembrance of things past: An interview with Francis Keppel and Harold Howe II. Change 22(2): 52–57.

Keppel, F. 1969. Turmoil in the schools: The partners respond. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Education Commission of the States, July 8, Denver, CO.

Keppel, F. 1976. Educational policy in the next decade. Paper presented at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, August 24, Palo Alto, CA.

Keppel, F. 1986. A field guide to the land of teachers. Phi Delta Kappan 68(1): 18–23.

Keppel, F. 1990. “Paideia,” then and now. Teachers College Record 92(2): 287–92.

Obituary of Francis Keppel, New York Times, February 21, 1990.

Ohles, J. E., ed. 1978. Francis Keppel. In Biographical dictionary of modern American educators, Vol. 2, 740–41. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Ohles, F., S. M. Ohles, and J. G. Ramsey. 1997. Francis Keppel. In Biographical dictionary of modern American educators, 190. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Parker, F. 1963. Francis Keppel of Harvard: Pied Piper of American education. School and Society 91: 126–28.

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