Special Report
Federal Opinion

Branding Education, Government-Style

By Shawn Maureen Powers — August 03, 2009 5 min read

A Nation at Risk. No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. These are a few of the headier titles and catchphrases found in federal education efforts over the last few decades. They inspire righteousness (No Child Left Behind), competition (Race to the Top), and fear (A Nation at Risk). They are provocative, arousing emotional responses to the holy grails of quality education. But how did these examples of federal branding develop, and what does that mean for our current approach to school reform?

A Nation at Risk was the landmark 1983 report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. It was notable for its declaration that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” The report made a number of recommendations that have been revisited in the years since, such as the adoption of more rigorous and measurable standards, and improving teacher quality.

Not surprisingly, the fear tactic represented by that document’s title resulted in tremendous media attention, the focus of which was inevitably on the bad news about schools instead of the commission’s recommendations. The phrase “at risk” suggested a state of vulnerability, threat, danger. In 1983, America was still in the midst of the Cold War, still smarting from the Sputnik launch that opened the space race decades before with the Soviet Union in the lead. We were still pondering “What Ivan Knows That Johnny Doesn’t”—the title of a 1961 book by Arther S. Trace Jr. And we were still asking questions about “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” echoing the 1955 book of that name by Rudolf Flesch, which also decried U.S. schools’ failures in comparison with the success of other industrialized nations.

Although the ads for President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984 portrayed the early 1980s as “morning again in America”—an image of renewal—the campaign rhetoric also placed a premium on striving to be prouder, stronger, and better. Even amid misty-eyed nostalgia, the Cold War imperatives of readiness, patriotism, and power were front and center in appeals to the nation’s voters.

By the turn of the new century, the political climate had changed, and so had the language. The phrase “No Child Left Behind” became synonymous with education reform during the administration of President George W. Bush. It was a phrase adapted from the opening-night theme of the 2000 Republican National Convention: “Leave No Child Behind.” As some press reports noted at the time, “Leave No Child Behind” was the registered trademark of the Children’s Defense Fund, a national advocacy group established in 1973 to “ensure a level playing field for all children.” The civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman, a founder of the organization, had used the phrase in her speeches, and it became the mission of the organization.

Though the Children’s Defense Fund considered a trademark-infringement suit against the Republican Party, the ultimate language detective William Safire noted in a 2001 column in The New York Times that the phrase was actually coined in 1983. According to Safire, its first use was at a White House reception in which President Reagan “told the National Council of Negro Women that he had ‘begun to outline an agenda for excellence in education that will leave no child behind.’ ”

Yet something happened when this borrowed grassroots call to action became a federal brand. Until then, reauthorizations of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act featured working titles that were short on emotional evocation. The Clinton administration, for example, chose to call its 1994 reauthorization the Improving America’s Schools Act. The Reagan administration’s wordsmithing produced the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act of 1981. But in naming the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration produced what is perhaps the most emotionally charged brand to date in the presidential repertory.

Part of the passion evoked by NCLB is fixed in its rhetorical link to the legacy of grassroots movements for social justice. But because of implementation problems and political fallout, the law quickly became a symbol of division, and the name lost its positive connotations. Now, this once-powerful brand is often accompanied by qualifiers such as “tainted” (The Washington Post, 2008), “failure” (The New York Times, 2006), and “irreparably damaged” (Time, 2008).

Switch forward to the Obama administration, where the newest kid on the education branding block is “Race to the Top.” This is the title of the grant program that will distribute more than $4 billion to schools as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The “race” aspect of this brand is both literal and metaphorical. The metaphor is embedded in the goal of student achievement and quality education on a global scale. That the United States continues to lag behind other industrialized nations in international comparisons continues to drive reform efforts (though it still isn’t clear that standardized-test scores correlate with career success or life readiness). And while the Cold War may have ended, Americans are still asking “What Does Ivan/Akira/Seung/Jafar Know That Johnny Doesn’t?” We remain in a global race to outrank our competition on standardized tests.

But the Race to the Top brand is literal as well. This grant program is described by the U.S. Department of Education as a “national competition among states for a $4.35 billion state incentive ‘Race to the Top’ fund to improve education quality and results statewide.” The Obama administration is using a sports image to prod states to improve education. And where there is competition, there will be winners and losers. In which case, to mix metaphors (and brands), some states will be left behind.

I sometimes teach an undergraduate course in the history of education. As part of the class, I ask students to read a newspaper and bring in accounts about education. The most prevalent place for news about local schools, of course, is the sports page. So we really shouldn’t be too surprised by the current administration’s use of a sports metaphor in its first foray into education policy—especially since the president got to know his secretary of education on the basketball court.

There are myriad stakeholders when it comes to U.S. education policy, not least of which is the business community. It has shaped the framework of the public school system since its beginnings in the 19th century, and continues to exert influence in its quest for a labor force skilled for the 21st century. These government “brands” reflect the values of the stakeholders. And it is often the loudest voice (or largest lobbying force) that is heard. The taxpayers, parents, and other stakeholder groups usually adopt the values of the prevailing group because they need whatever funding comes with those brands.

So, here we go—race you to the top! Ready, set, go!

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Branding Education, Government-Style


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