Education Opinion

Why Reform Was ‘Dead On Arrival’

By Myron Lieberman — January 29, 1986 7 min read

What killed educational reform? Nothing--it was dead on arrival. This is the embarrassing truth of the matter. Because our political and educational leaders cannot afford candor on this issue, it will take a while for most people to distinguish the realities from the rhetoric of reform. Probably 1986 will be the year in which widespread disillusionment and disenchantment with the reform movement will emerge on a broad national scale. Whatever the timing, the reasons for the stillbirth of educational reform (or its demise, if you prefer), can be summarized as follows.

• The reform movement does not recognize the fact that many groups can block reform, and have a strong reason to do so, whereas no agency has the power by itself to achieve reforms. The existence of more than 15,000 school boards; overlapping control between local school districts and state governments; the independence of higher education on critical reform issues; the fragmentation of state authority between governors, legislatures, state boards of education, state superintendents of public instruction, state departments of education, and independent textbook commissions; staggered terms for governing boards at every level of education- these and other obstacles to reform have been ignored by the reformers. They rely upon a massive voluntary effort, coordinated by some unseen hand, to get the job done. While wishing reformers good luck, we should not blind ourselves to the facts they have ignored.

• The reform movement has largely ignored the relationships between public education and religious views, sexual attitudes, dress, language, and many other nonacademic areas of concern.

• The role and influence of interest groups opposed to reform are consistently ignored or underestimated. Reform strategy also fails to take into account the fact that the benefits of reform are widely diffused, and it is often impossible to assess the benefits or even identify the beneficiaries in the early stages of reform. In sharp contrast, the opponents of reform are often faced with immediate and substantial loss if reform is implemented. Thus the opponents of reform are frequently better organized and more highly motivated than its supporters.

• The reform movement pays little or no heed to an imposing list of legal obstacles to reform, such as tenure laws, collective bargaining, and state aid based upon average daily attendance. For this reason alone, reform programs are fatally flawed, conceptually and programmatically.

• The importance of inertia is simply ignored, although it is a negative in the reform situation. Much of the action needed to achieve reform is voluntary--that is, the individuals who must act if reform is to be achieved will not suffer any adverse personal consequences if it is not achieved. Quite frequently, life is so much easier and more pleasant if the status quo is left alone. Doing nothing is especially easy because agreement on reform is often agreement on vague generalities that are interpreted differently at the action level. For this reason, support for reform is easily overestimated, as is its actual occurrence.

• The reform movement does not relate public education to either higher education or the mass media in ways adequate to the task at hand. The relationship between public education and higher education is viewed much too narrowly; media treatment of education is not discussed at all. On the contrary, the sponsors of each reform document concentrated solely upon achieving adequate media coverage of their document, including its alleged impact. For this reason, media vulnerability to being used by the reformers explains more about the reform movement than any actual change in the schools.

A statement by former Secretary of Education T.H. Bell illustrates the preceding point. Commenting on developments during the year following release of A Nation at Risk, Mr. Bell asserted:

''The Administration has taken a number of actions in response to the commission’s report. Some of them include:

Submitting an education budget that would be the largest in history, if enacted, for the 1985 budget.

Increasing state block-grant funding by 52 percent and focusing the Department of Education’s discretionary funds on activities to promote excellence.

Launching an initiative aimed at diminishing and ultimately eradicating adult illiteracy.

Creating the Secondary School Recognition Program to recognize the nation’s outstanding high schools.

Raising public awareness of the close relationship between discipline and learning . . . .

When the commission issued its report, it hoped it would serve as a clarion call for improvement. Fortunately for our nation, that hope is rapidly becoming a reality. We are witnessing a tidal wave of reform, unprecedented in its breadth and support, that promises to restore excellence as the hallmark of American education.”

Secretary Bell’s statement illustrates how the media are manipulated to substitute the appearance of reform for its substance. Thus the Administration was “submitting” the largest education budget in history; the facts that it was submitted in an election year, was the largest by the slimmest of margins, and was to be followed by substantial reductions in the fiscal 1986 education budget were, of course, not mentioned. Similarly, the Administration is “launching an initiative” to reduce illiteracy. This is merely another way of saying it has no concrete progress to report. It is ''raising public awareness of the close relationship between discipline and learning"--even though the Gallup Poll on education revealed that the public has considered the need for more discipline as the top priority in schools for over 10 years. Reliance upon such weak evidence of reform confirms the argument that reform is not taking place, and that our political and educational leaders often have a vested interest in fostering the belief that it is taking place.

In my opinion, competent media treatment of A Nation at Risk when it was released would probably have consigned it to oblivion. Its failure to deal with such critical issues as the inefficient governance structure, collective bargaining, and teacher-tenure laws are only part of the explanation of its futilitarian nature. Significantly, the national commission that sponsored the report deliberately avoided several issues in order to have a unanimous report. There would be nothing necessarily wrong with this if the commission had informed the American people of this important fact. Minimally, its failure to do so reflects a lack of candor.

In submitting the report, the commission said in effect to the American people: ''This is what we believe is wrong about public education and what should be done about it.” What it should have said is this: ''This is what’s wrong with American education, and what should be done about it, insofar as we can achieve unanimity among the commissioners. However, we have omitted any discussion of several critical issues because it would have been impossible to achieve unanimity on them. Readers should decide for themselves how these omissions affect their conclusions about what’s wrong and what should be done about it.”

The important point here is not, however, the commission’s lack of candor. It is the media’s failure to pursue some obvious questions about the report. For example, in view of the fact that a majority of the American people appear to support tuition tax credits/vouchers, why was this issue not addressed in the report? What other important issues (and there were others) were not discussed because the commissioners could not achieve unanimity on them? Or for any other reason? If implementation of the commission’s report depends partly upon the resolution of issues on which there was not unanimity, what is the value of the report? Questions such as these could and should have been raised, not only about A Nation at Risk but about other reform reports. If such questions had been raised, educational reform might have been greatly enhanced.

As it is, our educational Pollyannas are left with the assertion that the greater public and media attention being paid to education is itself progress. In my view, a national preoccupation with wish lists and pseudo-issues is not progress. At best, it is a dissipation of scarce resources on conventional controversies between educational interest groups. Arguably at least, our nation is less able today than it was three years ago to confront the underlying obstacles to educational reform.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1986 edition of Education Week