“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.” This sentence, rooted in misleading and skewed data, changed education forever. Forty years ago, starting in April 1983, this country manufactured an education crisis that effectively put targets on the backs of its children, especially Black children. U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, under the direction of President Ronald Reagan, released a 36-page report titled “A Nation at Risk.” It told the world that not only were American children failing academically, but “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
The authors claimed that data proved American children were lagging behind those in other industrialized nations in student achievement, citing, among other references, plummeting SAT scores and a functional illiteracy rate among minority children as high as 40 percent. The report kindled education reform as we know it. However, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, tests that are the most widely respected yardstick of student achievement nationally, reported that from the 1970s to the early 1980s, the performance of elementary and secondary pupils increased moderately on some examinations while dropping slightly on others. The report intentionally omitted such positive educational data, but why?
When Reagan took office in 1981, some of his education goals were to cut federal spending on education, abolish the Department of Education, put prayer in schools, and allow school vouchers so that public dollars could be spent at private schools. Reagan and the right wing needed a report to show the American people that public education was failing in order to advance their educational goals and military spending. For instance, Reagan had an interest in showing that the United States was falling way behind the Soviet Union so that more resources would be made available to win the Cold War. With that in mind, the administration was happy to see cherry-picked data that villainized America’s public schools. According to education historian Diane Ravitch, Reagan wanted the report to “make American public schools look as bad as possible.”
Although the report said little about race, in America, it did not have to. Immediately following its release, Heritage Today, a publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, covered “A Nation at Risk,” stating,
“The most damaging blows to science and mathematics education have come from Washington. For the past 20 years, federal mandates have favored ‘disadvantaged’ pupils at the expense of those who have the highest potential to contribute positively to society. ... By catering to the demands of special-interest groups—racial minorities, the handicapped, women, and non-English speaking students—America’s public schools have successfully competed for government funds, but have done so at the expense of education as a whole.”
Heritage Today said out loud what “A Nation at Risk” could only imply.
Education and crime reforms worked in unison, spurring the disposal of Black children without a pang of conscience.
The report created a faux national crisis to usher in the right’s education agenda. Prominent scholars Bruce Biddle and David Berliner wrote, “‘A Nation at Risk’ merely gave public voice to charges about education that right-wing ideologues had already been telling one another.” They note that it was all a “politically inspired hoax.” But it did not stop there.
“A Nation at Risk” was propaganda used to merge education with the attack on Black lives under the Reagan administration. The report was released a year after Reagan manufactured another crisis, the War on Drugs, which many have called a War on Black People. The War on Drugs and “A Nation at Risk” worked in concert, providing cover and encouragement for the labeling of Black children as crack babies and Black young people as thugs and superpredators.
“A Nation at Risk” also laid the foundation for one of the most punitive education reforms of the last 40 years, the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB allowed officials to punish schools through closings, funding cuts, and the firing of teachers and school administrators. In short, education and crime reforms worked in unison, spurring the disposal of Black children without a pang of conscience and ushering in the emergence of high-stakes standardized testing that pushes students out of school, the DARE program that functions as the education arm of the War on Drugs, charter schools like KIPP where the strict discipline of “no excuses” functions like zero tolerance, “broken window” theories of criminology, metal detectors, police patrolling school buildings and arresting and assaulting students, and truancy laws that fine parents and in some cases put them behind bars.
The same playbook is in use today. Banning critical race theory and certain books and curricula about Black and queer people are responses to a new politically inspired hoax—the hoax that educators are creating hatred and division by acknowledging the wrongs of racism and endorsing the full humanity of queer people. And once again, Black children are being punished as are queer students.
We must see these bans as part of a larger plot to destabilize public education, sow distrust in America’s belief in it, and make Black and queer students feel as if they do not belong in schools or this nation. The end goal is to pick up where Reagan left off and privatize education. To achieve that aim, people must believe that public education is failing their children, that the institution is so corrupt it can no longer serve the people.
These book bans are not the end; they are an essential component of the plan to undermine and ultimately destroy public education. Such a formula has been in motion for the last 40 years, relentlessly punishing Black children.
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Lies America Tells Itself About Black Education