Since 1983, American public schools have been experiencing the most sustained and far-reaching reform effort in modern times. This national effort to improve school performance, in pursuit of excellence and economic growth, was galvanized by leadership from the Reagan Administration. Yet, unlike previous administrations, this one mobilized reform with a minimum of federal expenditures and no direct intervention into state and local educational affairs.
It has long been recognized that it is very hard to reform schools, for they are remarkably resistant to change. The perennial problems of schools and the traditional methods of teaching persist despite decades of efforts to alter them. Changing schools is like punching a pillow: They absorb innovative thrusts and soon resume their original shape.
Thus, the amount of reform that the Administration has prompted in school affairs recently is truly extraordinary. It’s been said that it would have taken 30 years to enact through regular education channels the wave of reforms many states have adopted in the past three years. How has all of this been accomplished?
If we compare the Reagan Administration’s approach to that of its predecessors, the contrast is striking. Beginning with the “Great Society’’ programs of the Johnson Administration, public education became a central feature of dramatic federal programs for social reform. For the first time, there was strong federal intervention in elementary and secondary education. Big bucks and major federal enforcement efforts were devoted to such programs as compensatory education and school desegregation. Yet, by the end of the 1960’s, there was a strong sense that such programs were not working very well. Many wondered, as one evaluation study of the time asked, “Should we give up or try harder?’'
Remarkably, rather than trying harder, as most administrations following Lyndon B. Johnson’s endeavored to do--within the fiscal and political constraints they faced--the Reagan Administration hit upon a strategy for reforming schools “without half trying.’' I say “hit upon’’ advisedly, because President Reagan began inauspiciously in the education domain.
Soon after being inaugurated, he commented that he wasn’t sure that there was any legitimate federal function to be performed in education. Technically, he was right. Education is not even mentioned in the Constitution and, consequently, is a function reserved for the states to carry out.
Yet, since World War II, the reality is that the federal government has become increasingly involved in education, because of its strong implications for national defense and welfare and for civil rights and social justice--all of which are very much in the Constitution. Nevertheless, Mr. Reagan began by denying there was an important federal role to be played in education by his Administration.
But the President had a problem. What’s been called the “Toyota problem’'was closing in on him. America was losing its technological and productivity edge to foreign competitors, notably the Japanese. Our economy and balance of trade were suffering.
Many observers felt that to preserve our standard of living, we had to improve substantially our system of schooling to meet this technological and economic challenge. Mr. Reagan concurred, but he maintained this was a problem for state and local governments to solve, not the federal government. Still, criticism was mounting, with the feeling that the federal government should be doing something about the emerging crisis. Wasn’t this situation similar to the sputnik crisis in 1957 that threatened national security and prompted passage of the National Defense Education Act? It seemed almost--to coin a phrase--that the nation was at risk.
Predictably, the Democrats called for major federal aid for the schools and introduced several ambitious bills along these lines. What was Mr. Reagan to do? Major federal intervention was antithetical to his “New Federalism.’' But things were heating up, and he was on the defensive. Then, in a masterful political stroke, Mr. Reagan turned the tables on his opponents.
In an address at Seton Hall University in the spring of 1983, Mr. Reagan said the answer to the problems of the schools lay in demanding excellence and improving the quality of teaching. The way to do this, he said, was to use merit pay so that teachers would be rewarded for outstanding performance.
The common-sense appeal of merit pay was extraordinarily powerful. Who could be against merit and rewarding excellence? Who could be, were, and still are against it are the teachers’ unions. Even today, four years later, the National Education Association still basically opposes it. But, under the shrewd leadership of Albert Shanker, the American Federation of Teachers moved almost at once to a more conciliatory stance.
The views espoused by Mr. Reagan in his Seton Hall address echoed and reinforced the findings of the extraordinarily influential report of the federally appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education. The belief that we need to demand and reward better performance from both teachers and students is at the heart of the commission’s report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The report, released in April 1983, argues that these goals could be accomplished best by state and local government, not by federal intervention. By successfully selling this argument, the Reagan Administration was able to pre-empt Democracts’ demands for increased federal aid to education.
But how was the President able to sell the idea that the states should take on this problem themselves? What set all this state-level reform activity in motion? Briefly, it was an astute combination of politics and leadership. As the education-policy analysts Richard K. Jung and Michael Kirst recently argued, Mr. Reagan and his Secretaries of Education--first Terrel H. Bell and now especially William J. Bennett--have made skillful use of their offices as “bully pulpits’’ from which to sermonize about what needs to be done to improve our public schools. With very little more than effective use of rhetoric and symbols, and their ability to command attention from the media, they have reshaped the semantics and agenda of American educational policy.
As Mr. Jung and Mr. Kirst emphasized, launching the commission on excellence and its report cost the federal government very little. But, because of the report’s powerful rhetoric--describing “a rising tide of mediocrity’’ and claiming it would have been seen as “an act of war’’ if an unfriendly power had imposed our educational system on us--the report captured the attention of the media and the public. Above all, the state governors, particularly the Southern governors, picked up the Nation at Risk agenda. They saw the connection between improved schooling and improving a state’s economy. Schooling, for the first time, became a hot and profitable political issue--one linked to the creation of jobs.
For just one example of how this worked and how the Nation at Risk rhetoric has influenced developments, we can look at Pennsylvania. There, Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh called his educational-reform package “Turning the Tide’’ and, at the end of his tenure, issued a report that declared, in its title, that “The Tide Is Turning.’'
Let us consider more closely how the Reagan Admistration has exerted this influential leadership. First, it has produced a dramatic reversal in the semantics, goals, and means of federal education policy. David Clark, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and Terry Astuto, an associate professor of education at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, have recently documented how, through a systematic program of policies and pronouncements, there has been a 180-degree shift in emphasis away from the values that guided federal policy in the 1970’s: from equity to excellence; from needs and access to ability and selectivity; from regulations and enforcement to deregulation; from the common school to parental choice and institutional competition; and from social and welfare concerns to economic and productivity concerns.
One of the great successes in the pursuit of educational excellence has been the introduction of statewide performance standards where few existed before, either for students or teachers. In this respect, one of the most influential federal initiatives has been the introduction of the controversial “wall chart’’ comparing student performance in the 50 states. Initially, many state leaders complained bitterly about what they viewed as unfair and inappropriate comparisons. But, ultimately, the Council of Chief State School Officers accepted the idea that such comparisons were here to stay and agreed to collaborate on the venture.
Finally, if Secretary Bell seemed to get a lot publicity for his ideas, it was nothing compared to the performance of his successor. Under Mr. Bennett, the use of the media has been made into an art form.
Undeniably, the successes of the Reagan Administration’s inexpensive strategy are impressive. But as with many strategies, the approach also carries with it weaknesses, which are now becoming increasingly evident.
First, basic features of the reform strategy are inconsistent with what we know about the process of organizational renewal and school improvement. The national-commission reports suggest that we can change schools by external mandates, that we can, in effect, “legislate learning’’ by heaping new requirements and accountability demands on schools. But this approach neglects the internal workings of schools and what we have learned from the “effective schools’’ movement. Instead, it focuses on such matters as course and certification requirements, the length of the school day and year, and supervision of instruction. Thus, some reform policies are helpful and highly visible, but do not address much of what goes on in schools; other policies attempt to alter behavior in schools, but without understanding the underlying organizational dynamics.
Another serious weakness in the reform effort is that the major professional groups in education have been against nearly all the reforms that have come in the wake of the “nation at risk’’ crisis. In a review of recent case studies of seven of the leading “reform’’ states, Allan Odden, professor of education at the University of Southern California, concluded that “the lack of enthusiasm of the education community and outright opposition by elements within the community to nearly all of the proposed education reforms is a consistent theme.’'
This opposition by the key institutional interest groups makes the progress to date of the current reform movement all themore remarkable. A key element in this at the state level, Mr. Odden notes, has been the insistence by state politicians that more dollars for education would be forthcoming only in exchange for acceptance of reforms. Indeed, in Texas, the businessman and school-reform leader H. Ross Perot used as his slogan, “Millions for reform, but not one dime for the status quo.’'
The opposition of educators to the reform movement comes largely because of the character of the reforms selected and the manner in which they have been implemented. Generally speaking, powerful actors external to the educational system have enacted “top down’’ reforms, and frequently these reforms have been forced onto unwilling teachers. This approach shows no sensitivity to the “bottom up’’ realities of organizational change. Further, it ignores the need for a fundamental restructuring of the career and incentive systems of teachers and school administrators so that real improvement in the performance of public schools is possible.
In reforming organizations, simply having an overall vision is not sufficient. Everything depends on the execution. Thus, we have to have a sophisticated plan for systemic organizational change if we are going to translate vision into reality, and this is precisely where reform through rhetoric gets into trouble. By themselves, exhortations and mandates will never be enough to produce fundamental and lasting change.
For despite the Administration’s extensive ballyhoo and touting of the sweeping reforms launched and being successfully implemented across the states, the truth is that there may be less real reform occurring than meets the eye.
For instance, research to date suggests that in many cases teachers and their unions are successfully resisting reforms, such as merit pay and career ladders. This has been especially well documented in Utah--a state generally thought to be strong on educational reform--in a forthcoming paper by the educators Betty Malen and Ann Hart. More broadly, a national opinion survey last fall underscored the divergence in views between teachers and the leaders of the reform movement--governors, education-school deans, and union leaders.
Significantly, one of the most vulnerable points about the strategy of reforming schools through rhetoric has also been one of its great selling points--namely, promoting change “on the cheap’’ by arguing that federal dollars aren’t needed. Consistent with this theme, Secretary Bennett told the Congress in January that more homework and more 3rd-grade students who can read--not more federal dollars for schools--are what the nation’s education system most needs.
Here, however, some recent developments, emphasizing such problems as the critical needs of urban areas and minorities, suggest a shift of opinion is beginning. As Mr. Thornburgh has said, the “tide is turning,’' but this may be happening in more than just improved school achievement. As the social and political mood of the country changes, Mr. Reagan’s bully-pulpit advocates are going to find themselves increasingly on the receiving end of the rhetorical war.
Last November, for example, “To Secure the Blessing of Liberty,’' a report of a 22-member panel prepared for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and chaired by former Secretary Bell, said the United States was in grave danger unless it sharply increased spending on its schools and colleges. The report called for a domestic Marshall Plan to nearly double the number of college-educated adults by the turn of the century, and it excoriated cutbacks on spending for remedial programs: “Public officials who propose budget reductions in education at a time when the republic is handicapped by the burden of an undereducated populace are unthinkingly abetting an act of national suicide.’' In addition, it claimed that the real value of federal aid to students had dropped 25 percent since Mr. Reagan took office in 1981.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Bennett and his associates reacted strongly against the report. They called it “silly, overblown rhetoric,’' and suggested Mr. Bell was a turncoat for attacking the very Administration he had served. The great irony, of course, is that they were merely being subjected to the same sort of rhetoric they have been using for their own purposes all along. Increasingly, they are going to be facing the point of view voiced by Speaker of the House James C. Wright: “While it may be true that you can’t solve these problems by simply throwing money at them, you surely can’t solve them simply by throwing words at them.’'
Fortunately, there may be a happy ending to this story. Efforts are now under way to replace rhetorical reform with more substantive programs aimed at transforming both the fundamental characteristics of public schools and the teaching profession. Part of this effort includes an increasing recognition of the need to enhance parental choice among public schools. Also, by revitalizing the career and incentive structures for teachers and school administrators, it will be necessary to break up the complacent, consumer-insensitive monopoly relationship that public schools now enjoy in relation to most of their clients.
At the forefront of what is being called the “second wave’’ of reform are the efforts of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, the Holmes Group, and the National Governors’ Association. The influential reports of these three groups represent a comprehensive and far-reaching agenda for reform and revitalization of America’s public schools.
Significantly, the three groups recognize that they need to collaborate and work together as a coalition for effective reform. In one sense, of course, this represents a victory for the federal leadership embodied in the “half trying’’ approach, because nonfederal actors have taken on this responsibility. On the other hand, as the recent Bell report argues, greater federal funding will be a necessary component in meeting critical national education needs.
Although the federal budget deficit presents a major obstacle to obtaining needed federal dollars, there is mounting Congressional concern about the need for policies that will promote U.S. economic competitiveness. Revelations about such matters as the continuing poor mathematics performance of American students, when compared with those of other nations, are likely to bolster the view that improved educational achievement is imperative for better economic performance in this technological age. Just as the sputnik crisis spawned the National Defense Education Act of 1958, it is probable--as the Reagan revolution runs down--that a more substantive federal role in meeting the current crisis will yet be forthcoming.
Finally, the case for optimism about the long-range success of the second wave of the reform movement is bolstered by recent research on federal policy innovations of the recent past. This research suggests that, despite initial resistance and setbacks, reforms nevertheless may succeed over the long haul, if advocates persist and manage to gradually gain legitimacy and acceptance for such ideas.
Too often in the past, we have prematurely judged the success of new programs or policies. Early evaluations frequently highlight the confusion and inefficiency of initial efforts at implementation. But as reform programs mature and external advocates maintain their support and encouragement, the fidelity and commitment of local implementation can grow substantially.
This is the great hope of the second wave of reform, as we move form the easy victories of the “half trying’’ approach to the more difficult challenges before us.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 1987 edition of Education Week as President Reagan’s School-Reform Agenda