For School Reform’s Top Salesmen, It’s Been Some Year

By Thomas Toch — June 06, 1984 13 min read

Atlantic City, NJ--Squadrons of waiters in the hotel ballroom went about the business of serving chocolate mousse pie, their synchronized movements reflected in the banks of sparkling chandeliers that covered the ceiling of the sprawling banquet room.

Muzak played in the corridors and lobbies beyond, punctuated by an occasional splash of quarters at a slot machine.

The state’s governor, Thomas H. Kean, a Republican with a bold and controversial education agenda, had just finished speaking and was on his way to address another group down the boardwalk.

Now, with coffee and dessert, came Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the keynote speaker of the conference. He had come to talk about his book, High School, with 650 New Jersey superintendents and school-board members, only a few of whom, name tags abandoned, had disappeared after finishing their chicken cordon bleu.

As he does in his book, a study of American high schools, Mr. Boyer urged his audience to find ways to reward good teaching and to ensure that language instruction--reading and writing--is given the highest priority in their schools. He was applauded warmly for his remarks. And as the luncheon ended, many in the audience gathered on the long, elevated dais to share a personal word with Mr. Boyer.

Similar Scenes

Over and over during the past year, in hotels and convention centers in scores of cities, virtually the same scene has been repeated. Mr. Boyer and others--report authors like John I. Goodlad and Theodore R. Sizer, education-minded political leaders such as Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and, above all, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell--have been spreading the gospel of school improvement to thousands of the nation’s educators and policymakers.

Like modern-day circuit riders, they have traveled the nation exhorting, scolding, challenging--in effect, selling reform.

Secretary Bell alone made 140 speeches in the 12 months following the release last April of “A Nation At Risk,” the report he established the National Commission on Excellence in Education to deliver. They represented a small fraction of the 1,518 invitations he received during that period to speak about school improvement.

Such coast-to-coast barnstorming is new in American education, educators say. Previous commissions and study groups, for the most part, published their reports, touched off a spasm of publicity, then were forgotten.

This is the first school-reform movement, educators say, to be exposed to the full force of the nation’s vast communications network. And that has propelled and shaped the public’s response to the message that schools are ailing.

“It was much harder to reach the public in the 1950’s,” when the launching of the Russian rocket Sputnik sparked the last national effort to raise the standards of the schools, suggested Diane Ravitch, professor at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and author of The Troubled Crusade, a history of American education from 1945-1980. “There were fewer organizations to talk to and no television talk shows to get invited to, all you could do was write books.”

Signs Were Visible

“The concern that surfaced with ‘A Nation At Risk’ had been building for over a decade but had not found a voice--if it hadn’t been ‘A Nation At Risk’ it would have been something else,” said Mr. Goodlad, author of A Place Called School.

His view reflects the consensus among those who have led the current effort to improve the schools. All agree that the signs of decline in the schools--such as dropping test scores and lower academic standards--had been visible for some time.

Nonetheless, in recent interviews, those leaders said they had not been prepared for the magnitude of the response to their work. In fact, Secretary Bell suggested that the authors of the now-famous excellence commission report were reluctant to serve on the commission for fear that their work would go unnoticed.

“When I first approached Bill Baker [retired chairman of Bell Laboratories], Glenn Seaborg [professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Nobel Laureate], Dave Gardner [president-elect of the University of California] and some of the others, they said, ‘These studies are a dime a dozen, I don’t have time for this. This won’t make any difference.’

“In order to get them, I promised that we would use the full weight of this office behind the dissemination of the report,” the Secretary said. “But I had in mind that maybe we would have four, at the most five, dissemination-type regional forums around the country. But the demand, the absolute public demand, spread it out to 12 before we were through.”

‘Archival Material’

Mr. Boyer, too, feared that his work would become little more than, as he said, “archival material,” but for a different reason.

“After the national commission’s report came out in April,” he said, “I wondered whether anyone would care about our work--which was scheduled to be released with the opening of school in September-- with the nation having exhausted itself with this great orgy of interest.”

“For about two or three months,” he added, “anything you could put together with a staple became another national report. I’d get up in the morning and there would be the national this and the national that. It wasn’t adding anything that hadn’t been written 10 years ago, that you couldn’t write overnight on the back of an envelope.”

“Then, when the book was published,” he continued, “I realized the demand to speak to groups would be intense. I decided, with a few members of my board, that this is a special moment. So I changed the pattern of my life that I had lived with pretty conscientiously for 20 years--that is, to speak one week a month. It reversed itself, and I have been speaking three or four days a week. I accepted this as, I guess, an obligation that perhaps is once in a lifetime. I have been enormously enriched by it.”

“But on July 1 it is over,” he said. “I can’t do it forever. For two and a half months I will not be doing anything, then I will move on to other things.”

Sharp Cutback

Mr. Goodlad said he, too, intends to “cut back very sharply” in his public appearances.

“It has been a very, very difficult year for me,” he said. “I have no telephone protection, no travel funds, no promotion funds, and a part-time secretary back in Los Angeles. People think, ‘Oh, you must have a press agent or you are promoting your book’ and all of that. Well, I’m just one person trying to manage the deluge.”

“The dreary realization is that there is no romance in all of this,’' he added. “Making a speech is almost impossible for me now, it is a painful thing.”

Power of Media

Each of those interviewed attributed the return of education to the national agenda primarily to the capacity of the media to galvanize interest in an issue.

“There is no doubt that this is a reform movement generated primarily by the media,” said Mr. Boyer.

“To confess, I was startled by the response to the commission’s report,” he added. “I read it, and without any disrespect intended, I thought it said what had been said for a decade.”

Wider Recognition

To Mr. Goodlad, exposure in the mass media meant wider recognition for his work.

“From the moment the story broke in the front page of The New York Times, my life has been like it’s never been before. Frankly, it is the first time that the general public has become aware of my ideas.”

Mr. Sizer suggested the broad influence of media in another way.

“A page and a half of my book talks about the issue of political philosophy, suggesting that the state may have some limits on what it can require kids to be taught,” said Mr. Sizer, author of Horace’s Compromise. “Well, that section, because of an article in People Magazine, dominated the press’s interest. I get a phone call from a radio station and 99 percent of the time, I’m questioned on that page and a half and not the rest of the book.”

“But the Merv Griffin’s and the McNeil/Lehrer’s legitimate an agenda, even if they don’t offer much substance,” he added.

Mr. Boyer and others suggested that a combination of factors may have prompted widespread media attention to school reform, including the provocative language of “A Nation At Risk,” the national stature of the commission, and the reinforcing effect of a number of reports being released in quick succession, some rhetorical in focus, some scholarly.

It has been sustained, in part, they said, by the creation of a large second generation of state and local commissions on school reform.

“It’s just one of those times when things fit together right,” Secretary Bell said.

Television and Radio

Once those with an agenda for change had gauged the galvanizing force of their reports and the media’s interest in them, they moved swiftly to make use of the climate.

In addition to their crowded speaking calendars, Mr. Boyer, Mr. Sizer, Mr. Goodlad, and Secretary Bell have all appeared on dozens of television talk shows and radio programs and have been interviewed by hundreds of newspaper reporters nationwide.

Mr. Boyer said one woman called his office “wanting a copy of the latest study entitled ‘A Nation At Risk’ that had been written by Governor Hunt of Tennessee and had been published by the Carnegie Foundation.”

More seriously, he said, “The thing that startled me is that you go from coast to coast and they are all talking about pretty much the same things.”

Rapid Dissemination

One reason for that, he and others suggest, is that their reports and books have been more rapidly and widely disseminated than any other similar documents in the history of American schooling.

Moreover, this appears to be the first national school-reform movement in which a book on the subject was made into a movie.

The Carnegie Foundation has sold some 140 copies of a film version of Mr. Boyer’s report, as well as 25,000 copies of his book, which is scheduled to be released in paperback next winter. It has also been translated into Japanese and recently published in Japan. The royalties from the book go to the Carnegie Foundation, Mr. Boyer said.

According to Mr. Goodlad, some 35,000 copies of his study have been sold. The royalties will go to a nonprofit organization for school-improvement projects.

Mr. Sizer reports that 12,500 copies of his recently released study have been sold and that some 150 schools have expressed an interest in becoming part of an experiment in school reorganization conducted by Mr. Sizer. The first two schools of an expected 15-20 participants will be named by the end of the year, he said.

High Profile

Secretary Bell has been perhaps the most visible federal education official in history. “It has certainly been a pleasant surprise,” he said.

In addition to the 12 national forums, which attracted more than 10,000 participants, he has drawn attention to the recommendations of the national commission and his own agenda for reform in a variety of ways.

He brought 2,300 educators and policymakers--as well as President Reagan--to a national forum on school reforms held last December in Indianapolis. He has distributed 78,000 copies of “A Nation At Risk” (the Government Printing Office has sold another 80,000 and the Education Department estimates that some 5 million reprints of the report have been made) and 20,000 copies of a recently released follow-up report, ''The Nation Responds.”

The Secretary has also, as he says, “sought to keep education on the front burner” by establishing and widely publicizing various competitions intended to recognize “excellence” in the schools. Such programs now exist for public and private secondary schools and high-school seniors.

The Education Department plans to hold a ceremony honoring top school boards in the nation in September, he said, adding that “we’ve been talking up state-level action, but when you get right down to it, it is the locally elected board that is going to make the difference.”

He has also held numerous press conferences to promote his reform agenda.

White House Honors

President Reagan, largely at the urging of his political advisers and pollsters who find improved schools an important issue with the voting public, has also turned his attention to education since the release of the excellence commission’s report 14 months ago.

After an initial reaction to the report that moved some of its authors to suggest he had not read it, President Reagan began visiting schools, talking about education in his public statements, and honoring academic achievement at White House ceremonies.

Governors and Legislators

Extensive media coverage has made school reform a public issue and given many non-educators a greater role in establishing reforms than they had during the post-Sputnik era, educators say. In particular, elected officials in the states, who are, like President Reagan, sensitive to public-opinion polls, have played an active role since the release of “A Nation At Risk” last April.

“I hadn’t been invited to meet with the national governors last summer,” Secretary Bell said. “But after all the visibility education had been getting, I was asked to address them. In fact, I helped Vice President Bush host the governors at his summer residence in Maine for three or four days.

“That helped me build some rapport with them,” he said. “Before then, my working relationships [at the state level] were largely with the chief state school officers. After that, I was working directly with the governors.”

Mr. Bell also points to the education- and finance-committee members in the state legislatures and the business community as key players in the effort to reform the schools.

“You can turn to the education es-tablishment,” he said, “but the way you get the attention of that group is get those with visibility and authority outside the school to take an active interest in the schools.”

Several governors, including Robert Graham of Florida, Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mark White of Texas, and James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, have invested a good deal of their political capital in education in the past year.

State Mandates

State elected officials have moved quickly to enact changes, a study by the Education Department shows. Many of them have focused on increasing instructional time and graduation requirements.

While Mr. Bell has supported such moves, which are among the recommendations of the national commission, Mr. Boyer, Mr. Sizer, and Mr. Goodlad have expressed strong reservatons about them.

“The Bell Commission continues the notion that the coinage of education is the expenditure of time,” said Mr. Sizer.

“It grotesquely oversimplifies very complicated issues.”

“The depth of discussion about the curriculum has been disappointing,” said Mr. Boyer. “It has not led to a serious and creative look at the nature of the curriculum. Instead, states have simply been adding units along traditional lines, almost mindlessly, without asking what it is we ought to be teaching in them. It is bewildering to see so few of the scholarly associations taking a lead in this area.”

“I’m also concerned that by being comforted by these kinds of bureaucratic reform,” he continued, “we are going to fail to build some kind of human renewal into the schools. Unless we do, unless we make the schools exciting places to work, they aren’t going to get any healthier.”

Future Prospects

Secretary Bell predicted that the effort to upgrade the schools “will sustain itself” over the next few years. “Six or seven states are going to start to show the most dramatic results and that is going to put pressure on others to move along,” he said.

Mr. Goodlad observed that “there is a great body of energy that seems to be getting organized very quickly in response to the calls for reform.” Like Mr. Sizer, he is not sanguine about the likelihood of widespread fundamental changes being made in schools in the next few years, though he said he was encouraged by the interest in reform that has been sustained over the past year.

For their part, New Jersey school officials who gathered in Atlantic City this month said they were happy to have education on the national agenda. Yes, they said, the calls for reform and the blueprints for change had filtered down to their ranks.

A number of school systems have set up their own task forces or are already taking improvement steps, the officials said.

Noted Daniel Hicks, superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional School District: “A lot of the ideas being talked about today have been around for a long time. But then again, an expert is someone who lives more than 25 miles from the district.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 1984 edition of Education Week as For School Reform’s Top Salesmen, It’s Been Some Year