Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Policy & Politics Opinion

From A Nation at Risk to CRT. How’d We Get Here?

By Rick Hess — July 25, 2022 4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Forty years ago, A Nation at Risk sounded a grave warning about the threat of educational mediocrity and gave rise to a bipartisan school reform movement focused on academic achievement, educational choice, and accountability. Today, that coalition has unraveled and given way to a series of heated culture clashes over school masking, critical race theory, gender identity, and parental rights.

What happened?

Over at National Affairs, Checker Finn and I try to sort it out in “The End of School Reform?” (Be forewarned, it’s on the long side.) In the essay, we argue that the unraveling of the reform coalition and the current hot-button fights over CRT and parental rights can best be understood as a product of long-standing tensions.

In 1983, A Nation at Risk declared the country to be imperiled by a “rising tide of mediocrity” produced by low standards, poor teaching, and lousy schools. It observed that if a hostile nation “had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

In the wake of that dire warning, a school reform coalition took shape, one that would dominate education before ultimately coming apart in the face of polarization and populist backlash. That coalition hit its stride in the early 1990s because leaders on both the left and the right had political and cultural incentives to embrace a vision of bipartisan reform.

On the left, Democrats won the White House in 1992 by eschewing the old tax-and-spend liberalism in favor of a new compact with those who “worked hard and played by the rules.” As liberals had spent much of the 1980s decrying American callousness, Bill Clinton’s campaign depicted America as a good and fair place. (He was the man “who still believed in a place called Hope.”) For Clinton Democrats, education was a way to expand opportunity without getting embroiled in grand societal critiques.

On the right, Republicans had spent most of the Reagan years winning elections by riding critiques of family fragmentation, “welfare queens,” and out-of-wedlock births. In the post-Reagan years, however, the GOP began seeking ways to promote opportunity and personal responsibility, without centralizing everything in Washington. School reform was well-suited for this project.

Of course, making bipartisanship work required concessions from both sides. Democratic reformers tacitly agreed to set aside grand spending and social-engineering plans, to challenge teachers’ unions, and to cease dismissing their conservative partners as heartless or racist. Meanwhile, Republican reformers stopped talking about parental responsibility, dropped the Reagan-era focus on values and school prayer, and agreed to consider a more ambitious federal role in education.

This tacit agreement held through much of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era, surviving the ferocious partisan fights that marked Clinton’s impeachment, the 2000 election, the invasion of Iraq, and the Affordable Care Act. As Checker and I recall, during this period, “reform developed its own narratives, its own heroes, and even its own Hollywood arm, as movies like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery gained national prominence. Led by the East Coast trifecta of Jeb Bush, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee, with the support of West Coast philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, the forces of reform seemed ascendant throughout the Bush and early Obama years.”

Yet, just when reform seemed to be flying high, it was losing its footing. While reformers embraced the Common Core and teacher evaluations in the early Obama years with a sense that they were only gaining strength, the subsequent pushback would ultimately mark the beginning of the reform coalition’s end.

The reform coalition had succeeded by making school reform a “policy” debate, largely insulating education from cultural tides. Reformers insisted that they were simply committed to “leaving no child behind” (making their opponents, obviously, “anti-child”). So long as this mantra was repeated by a chorus of influential business leaders, civil rights groups, governors, foundations, and advocates, critics could be dismissed as cranks.

This approach was effective but inherently unstable. It left no room to compromise with critics or even acknowledge that critics might have valid concerns. The relentless focus on closing achievement gaps meant that reform didn’t have much to do with many middle-class or affluent parents. And as reforms grew increasingly high-handed, many Americans recoiled from what they saw as the handiwork of elite foundations and Washington bureaucrats.

All the while, the larger nation was becoming more polarized and distrustful. In the 1990s, politicians saw great benefit in playing to the center. In the early 2010s, however, politicians saw increasing rewards for playing to the base and heightened risk in being seen as catering to the middle. Where the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama had used education to court the middle, the education agendas of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden could’ve doubled as the wish lists of party activists.

As the nation’s discourse became consumed by our culture wars, it became harder to focus on policy rather than culture. And, as the lion’s share of education advocates and foundations opted (or felt obliged) to embrace progressive causes, such as “anti-racist” education and gender fluidity, they were eventually answered by mobilization on the hard right against CRT and for an expanding notion of parental rights.

In this way, the old reform coalition expired, giving rise to an education landscape dominated by woke teacher trainers, “anti-racist” foundations, and angry right-wing activists—all consumed by contempt for the other side and spoiling for a fight.

Checker and I have much more to say on all this, of course, on how it happened, why it happened, and what it may mean. So, if you’re curious, give it a look.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Biden Admin. Asks Supreme Court to Allow Part of Title IX Rule to Take Effect
The solicitor general asks that most of new Title IX rule be allowed to go into effect, even as gender-identity provisions remain blocked
3 min read
The Supreme Court building is seen on Friday, June 28, 2024, in Washington.
The Supreme Court building is seen on Friday, June 28, 2024, in Washington. The Biden administration on July 22 asked the justices to allow parts of the new Title IX regulation to go into effect even as provisions on gender identity remain blocked.
Mark Schiefelbein/AP
Education Funding Project 2025 Would Dramatically Cut Federal Funds for Schools. Then What?
A key federal funding source for schools would disappear under the conservative policy agenda.
9 min read
Kristen Eichamer holds a Project 2025 fan in the group's tent at the Iowa State Fair, Aug. 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. A constellation of conservative organizations is preparing for a possible second White House term for Donald Trump. The Project 2025 effort is being led by the Heritage Foundation think tank.
Kristen Eichamer holds a Project 2025 fan in the group's tent at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. Conservative organizations preparing for a possible second White House term for Donald Trump have assembled a policy agenda that would eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and phase out Title I funds for public schools.
Charlie Neibergall/AP
Federal AFT's Randi Weingarten on Kamala Harris: 'She Has a Record of Fighting for Us'
The union head's call to support Kamala Harris is one sign of Democratic support coalescing around the vice president.
5 min read
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's annual conference in Houston on July 22, 2024.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's biennial conference in Houston on July 22, 2024. She called on union members to support Vice President Kamala Harris the day after President Joe Biden ended his reelection campaign.
via AFT Livestream
Federal Biden Drops Out of Race and Endorses Kamala Harris to Lead the Democratic Ticket
The president's endorsement of Harris makes the vice president the most likely nominee for the Democrats.
3 min read
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington. He announced Sunday that he was dropping out of the 2024 presidential race and endorsing Vice President Kamala Harris as his replacement for the Democratic nomination.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP