Federal Opinion

Education in the 1980’s: A Concern for ‘Quality’

By Diane Ravitch — January 10, 1990 12 min read
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Decades cannot easily be characterized without running the risk of oversimplification. The 1920’s weren’t really “roaring,” except for a relatively small number of people, and the 1950’s were not as dull and conformist as legend has it. As we look back on the 1980’s, then, we can be sure that any effort at blanket labeling will be only partially successful.

Yet in education, this decade did have a distinctive character. Certain ideas and themes came to the fore; the national discussion about education shifted, and policies at the local, state, and federal levels reflected new priorities.

The overriding concern in the 80’s was the quality of American education. Study after study documented the poor performance of students in every subject area, in comparison both with those of the past and with those of other countries, or warned about the folly of failing to educate poor and minority children.

What happened in the 80’s was a response to the dominant trends of the 70’s. In the 70’s, the conventional wisdom held that “schools don’t make a difference.” A bevy of surveys and studies in those years debunked the ambitious reform programs of the 60’s. The most influential and widely publicized studies suggested that, compared with family background, schools had relatively little influence on students’ life chances. This determinist view of schooling led many to conclude that if schools don’t matter, then what you do in school doesn’t matter either. This logic justified the deconstruction of the curriculum and the lowering of standards and undercut those who believed that all children should study science, mathematics, history, literature, foreign language, and the arts.

If schools don’t make a difference, some people reasoned, why require children to study foreign languages or anything else they don’t choose on their own? Why insist that teachers have strong academic credentials? Why withhold diplomas from children who can’t read or write? Why not give everyone a diploma, since so many employers insist on them?

As the 70’s wound to a close, the consequences of this laid-back approach became evident. The College Board discovered that scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test had fallen steadily since the mid-60’s. A prestigious commission concluded in 1979 that foreign-language instruction was in a state of crisis because of low enrollments. The following year, another eminent commission warned that science and mathematics education was in dire condition because of declining enrollments and low achievement.

The conventional wisdom itself came under fire as the 70’s ended. The influential “effective schools” research of Ronald Edmonds showed that schools do make a difference and that school policies have a significant effect on student achievement. Mr. Edmonds’s findings were complemented by Michael Rutter’s Fifteen Thousand Hours, a major British study of the differential effects of school climate.

One other thing about education in the 70’s: The public was apathetic about the subject. Education was not an important public issue. It received little attention from the media, and the debates among educators were unknown to the general public.

Against this backdrop, the 1980’s began. When Ronald Reagan was elected President, his stated educational goals were to abolish the Education Department and promote prayer in the schools and tuition tax credits. In retrospect, it seems apparent that his first Secretary of Education, Terrel H. Bell, had other priorities. Mr. Bell appointed the National Commission on Excellence in Education in August 1981 and directed it to examine the quality of education in the United States.

The commission’s report, A Nation at Risk, became the paradigmatic educational statement of the 80’s. With its alarming predictions of national catastrophe resulting from a “rising tide of mediocrity,” this document captured headlines from coast to coast. Overnight, the crisis in education hit the top of the charts. The national newsmagazines discovered the schools, as did the television networks. For a change, their interest did not flag the morning after.

A Nation at Risk provided a much-needed national jolt, shaking Americans out of their complacency and indifference to the state of the schools. What sunk in—to business leaders, editorial writers, and civic agencies—was that America could not prosper unless its schools were successful.

The commission’s critique quickly turned into a nonpartisan chorus, joined by such illustrious reformers as Theodore R. Sizer, Mortimer J. Adler, John I. Goodlad, and Ernest L. Boyer. Neither their diagnoses nor their prescriptions for improvement were identical, but all agreed that major changes were needed in American education.

In a shift of major proportions, the locus of educational policymaking moved from the federal government and local governments to the states. Several governors promptly assumed the mantle of educational leadership. For governors like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Richard Riley of South Carolina, and Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, this was a risky gamble, because the political payoff that comes from investing more in education is necessarily a long-range investment, not the quick return that gets headlines and votes.

Appointed Secretary of Education by President Reagan in his second term, William J. Bennett brought a combative style to the office. To the targets of his wrath—the educational interest groups and bureaucrats he called “the blob"—Mr. Bennett was a pit bull in the bully pulpit. He barnstormed the country, calling attention to his “three C’s": content, character, and choice. He stepped on toes, taught the Federalist Papers to 5th graders, and kept the issue of education on the front pages. The “What Works” pamphlets, prepared by Assistant Secretary Chester E. Finn Jr., brought research findings to the general public in readable prose, a commendable innovation.

Meanwhile, hundreds of flowers began to bloom in the educational desert. As Emerson said about the 1840’s, almost everyone seemed to have a reform plan in his vest pocket. Commission reports tumbled off the printing presses like autumn leaves, offering criticism of some aspect of the schooling process and demanding reform.

Although there was a brief effort to label reforms as “the first wave,” “the second wave,” and so on, the changes came so fast that it became impossible to keep them neatly sorted.

Since American education is highly decentralized, reform efforts moved across a broken front in the 50 states and 15,000 districts. State legislatures pursued reform in different ways: They raised graduation requirements, increased teachers’ salaries, devised career ladders, and opened up alternative certification for new teachers.

Reform of teacher education and of the teaching profession became a key item on the agenda of the 80’s. The Holmes Group, a consortium of 96 higher-education institutions, called for an overhaul of teacher education. The Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy endorsed restructuring of schools to strengthen the role of teachers. And, in a related move, a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was created to develop examinations on which to base national certification of expert teachers..

Each subject area in the curriculum became the object of close scrutiny and demands for reform. Reports on mathematics education—"Everybody Counts"—and science education—"Science for All Americans"—represented state-of-the-art thinking in these fields.

The National Geographic Society and the Bradley Commission on History in Schools produced practical guidelines to reform the teaching of history and geography, which, like the science and mathematics reports, were well received in schools across the country.

The best-selling success of two books about education—Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s Cultural Literacy—showed there was significant public interest in the content of the curriculum. While stirring controversy within educational ranks, both books forced people to see the curriculum as a vehicle for ideas and substance, not just a package of skills. Once cultural content became a matter of contention, pitched ideological battles began about whose culture should be taught in the classroom. Defining the cultural content of the curriculum is sure to be a major issue for the 90’s.

Energetic national leadership in curricular reform came from California, where Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig launched a far-reaching revision of all subject areas. At his behest, the state curricular frameworks in science, mathematics, history, reading, and health were completely rewritten to reflect the best thinking in each field. Mr. Honig also pressed textbook publishers for better books, prodded the state assessment program to go “beyond the bubble"—that is, beyond multiple-choice testing—and supported major staff-development programs.

One of the most significant shifts during the 80’s was the changing role and nature of testing. With the expansion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the advent of state-by-state assessment, the pressure for school improvement seems sure to increase. Public opinion does respond to test results.

As the decade ends, however, the tests themselves are changing in significant ways. The trend toward limiting or eliminating multiple-choice questions seems decisive. NAEP had already developed free-response items and short-essay questions; the venerable sat, which was created to replace the College Board’s essay examinations, is also moving away from its near-total dependence on multiple-choice questions.

Throughout the decade, tireless advocacy by Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, reminded educators and the general public that the “nation at risk” could not afford to ignore its children at risk—those youngsters, largely from poor and minority families, who are more likely to fail in school, drop out, become pregnant, or abuse drugs. Ms. Edelman kept up pressure on school officials and the Congress to support programs directly addressing these children’s needs.

In the closing years of the decade, support mounted for policies allowing students and their parents to choose the public schools the children would attend. This approach was a far cry from the earlier idea of expanding choice to private schools with vouchers or tuition tax credits.

Perhaps one of the most promising developments of the 80’s was the private sector’s recognition of the need for better schools. In many districts, the local business community created partnerships with the public schools, set up scholarship programs, and provided summer jobs for students. At the national level, corporate leaders lent their support to school reform.

In the closing months of the decade, President Bush convened a first-ever education summit of the nation’s governors. The participants agreed to set national goals for improvement in such areas as academic performance, children’s readiness for school, the dropout rate, and adult literacy. During the early 90’s, the governors will need to become specific about their goals. Even stickier will be devising the means to reach them.

As a result of these many activities, a new cohort of actors and strategists came to national prominence. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Mr. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, became for many the most articulate voices of the national reform movement.

Mr. Honig surfaced as a modern-day Horace Mann, actively leading reform battles in his state. Lee S. Shulman of Stanford University was the driving intellectual force behind the establishment of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The work of Lauren Resnick popularized the idea of the “thinking curriculum.” Mr. Sizer of Brown University provided the intellectual impetus for school-based management and pioneered the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Linda Darling-Hammond of the rand Corporation and, later, Teachers College, Columbia University, became a forceful advocate for improved professionalism in teaching. Judith Lanier, chairman of the Holmes Group, spearheaded the movement to strengthen teacher education.

Business leaders, like H. Ross Perot, David T. Kearns, and Owen B. Butler, promoted school improvement. Mr. Adler, though hardly a newcomer, became the intellectual father of the Paideia movement.

As the new decade begins, old problems remain. Chief among them is the lagging achievement of poor children. Raising standards without providing the means to reach them will push these children even further behind. A challenge for the 90’s will be to provide learning environments that promote the success of children who are presently failing.

A likely source of assistance in meeting that challenge will be technology—which, in the past, has never lived up to its promise. But with the electronic advances of the past decade, high technology is now poised to enter the schools with a dazzling array of treats. An explosion of new hardware and software will shower the schools with programs allowing youngsters to perform experiments, conduct research, write essays, solve problems, and interact with a multimedia universe.

Another area ripe for renewal in the 90’s is civic education. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the advance of the global democratic revolution elsewhere seems likely to revive attention to the teaching of democratic values and institutions in American schools.

What happens in the 90’s will determine whether we remember the 80’s as a time of change or a time of talk about change. Now comes the hard part. Sounding an alarm is not the same thing as solving a problem. Many parents continue to be complacent about their children’s education; many adolescents continue to devote more time to their after-school jobs than to their schooling. The corner has not been turned.

Whatever else the 80’s were, they were a decade when politicians and educators and business leaders concluded that we must not choose between quality and equality; a decade when American schools were asked to raise their expectations so that all students might learn more; a decade in which a consensus developed that America could not afford to neglect its schools, nor any part of the rising generation.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as Education in the 1980’s: A Concern for ‘Quality’


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