A Nation of Little Lebowski Urban Achievers
By Megan Erickson
The year Reagan was elected to his first term, the GOP’s educational agenda consisted of two main objectives: “bring God back into the classroom” and abolish the Department of Education. This put the Reagan-appointed Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, in an awkward position. Pressured to dismantle the very organization he’d been chosen to oversee, Bell asked the President to devise a national task force on American education, which he hoped would show the necessity of federal involvement in public schools. Bell, notorious within the cabinet for being too liberal, was ignored.
He responded by assembling the task force himself. Chaired by David Pierpont Gardner, president of the University of Utah and an active member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the eighteen members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) were charged with synthesizing a vast archive of data that had been collected but never before analyzed by the Department of Education and making recommendations based on their findings. In his autobiography, The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir, Bell insists that he did not even hint to the NCEE what these recommendations should be – and yet, his designs were evident: “I wanted to stage an event that would jar the people into action on behalf of their educational system,” he writes. Milt Goldberg, a prominent member of the commission, later remarked in an interview that he believed Bell had always seen the NCEE “as a way to shore up the Department of Education.”
In 1983, the NCEE released A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform – arguably the most influential document on education policy since Congress passed Title I in 1965. But where Title I took an equalizing approach to reform, prioritizing the distribution of funds to districts comprised primarily of students from low-income families, A Nation at Risk called for higher expectations for all students, regardless of socio-economic status: “We must demand the best effort and performance from all students, whether they are gifted or less able, affluent or disadvantaged, whether destined for college, the farm, or industry.”
At the time of the report’s release, Americans were, as Bell recalls, fraught with anxiety over job loss, inflation, international industrial competition, and a perceived decline in prestige due to the hostage crisis in Iran. Education ranked low on the list of national priorities. So the NCEE used the language of warfare to conflate what was supposedly a crisis in public schools with a crisis in national security. The “risk” in the title refers to the once unthinkable loss of global dominance. The U.S. was threatened by a “rising tide of mediocrity,” said the authors of the report, and, somewhat more ambiguously, by a lack of a shared vision. Riding the most recent wave of hysteria over the Cold War, they warned, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
The problem, as they saw it, was that kids were graduating from high school unprepared for success in a global economy. Their solution was more effort, with an emphasis on the advancement of students’ personal, educational, and occupational goals. A list of action items to be implemented immediately included: performance-based salaries for teachers, the use of standardized tests for evaluation, grade placement determined by progress rather than by age, the shuttling of disruptive students to alternative schools, increased homework load, attendance policies with incentives and sanctions, and the extension of the school day – in other words, longer, harder hours. Every one of these ideas is rooted in the free market ideology of business. For the first time since Sputnik, the role of the public schools had been re-imagined as a kind of baptism by fire into the competitive world of adulthood.
“Overall, I felt that [Reagan] could support its findings and recommendations while rejecting massive federal spending,” says Bell. As one journalist noted at the time, the language of A Nation at Risk was clearly meant to jar Reagan into action. By that measure, the report was a smashing success. The publicity inspired by the narrative of a hidden crisis in the public schools made it politically impossible for Reagan to shut down the Department of Education. And the incorporation of free market language gave him a reason to embrace it, which he did, a year later – taking credit for having assembled the commission in his 1984 State of the Union Address.
In 1988, Congress’s reauthorization of ESEA (the bill that provides federal funding to American public schools) required for the first time that states “define the levels of academic achievement that poor students should attain” and “identify schools in which students were not achieving as expected.” George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s Republican successor, referred to himself as the “Education President,” an issue the Republicans had previously been happy to let the Democrats own. The conventional wisdom that schools were in crisis was now accepted as fact.
But had the NCEE really understood the data they were tasked with analyzing? A Nation at Risk contains zero citations, making its claims difficult to verify. Two sociologists of education, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, have argued that a main point on which the authors based their recommendations – that SAT scores had steadily declined since the 1960s – was actually a misinterpretation of the data. As a voluntary test taken specifically by those intending to go to college, the SAT should never have been aggregated to evaluate the quality of teachers or schools. The slight drop in test scores interpreted by the commission to mean that America’s schools (and its prosperity, security, and civility) were spiraling downward, instead reflected a postwar shift toward inclusion, as more and more people signed up to take the test. Disaggregated data shows that math scores for all groups during the years preceding the release of the report increased, while verbal scores remained constant.
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