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.
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.