Journalists labor under the notion that their words are the first draft of history, and as a result, they toss around phrases like “watershed year” with great abandon. This magazine has been guilty of such indiscretion more than we care to remember. Yet at the risk of compounding our sins with even more historical hype, we would argue that 1989 was a turning point in American education.
Consider the evidence. In September of that year, just weeks after we published Teacher Magazine’s first issue, President George Bush and the nation’s governors gathered for an education summit in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a significant event-the last president to convene a meeting of the governors had been Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression. And though the summit’s specific policy agreements did not fare well during the years to come, the meeting made clear that education was now good grist for politics.
1989 also saw the American public take new interest in education. A Nation at Risk had given people ample reason to worry over schools six years before, with its dramatic conclusion: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might as well have viewed it as an act of war.” But it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that Americans could afford to turn their eyes from the enemy abroad to the enemy within. It’s no coincidence that in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, education stood out as a prominent theme in American culture. Witness the success of Stand and Deliver, the film about famed math teacher Jaime Escalante; Dead Poets Society, with Robin Williams as a maverick prep school teacher; and Among Schoolchildren, Tracy Kidder’s bestselling account of his year with a 5th grade class.
Ten years later, education has surrendered little of the high profile it acquired in 1989. Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Monica Lewinsky have all stolen the limelight at various times, but in a decade marked largely by peace and prosperity, “bad schools” have been one of the country’s most durable foes. Though most schools and classrooms changed little as a result, the threat has mobilized many parents, activists, judges, politicians, and educators to become “school reformers"-a label once reserved for ivory tower intellectuals.
With these new people and forces tugging at the system, we’ve seen any number of small, even exotic experiments spring up. At the summit, Bush warned: “The status quo is a guarantee of mediocrity, social decay, and national decline"-an assessment that quickly turned into conventional wisdom. Anything that promised radical change to schools got a serious look in the 1990s, and some ideas long considered anathema began to look good. The decade saw not only the first education summit but also the first charter school, the first public voucher program, the first state takeover of a district, and the first effort to award teachers national certification.
It’s impossible to predict what trends born in the ‘90s will survive through the next decade. As education historian Larry Cuban once wrote, school reforms are “like a large weather front of uncertain origin moving erratically and unpredictably across the nation.” But we’ll wager that school choice as embodied in the charter school concept will prosper in 2000 and beyond. Charter schools give people alarmed about the state of education a chance to do something about it, and that fact alone should boost its popularity. We’ll also bet that states will stick to the reforms that go by the name of “standards and accountability.” Policymakers have spent the better part of the decade setting standards for what children should know, and despite a growing backlash, the idea continues to gain in popularity. Says scholar Diane Ravitch: “Who would have believed back in 1983, when A Nation at Risk was published, that the leading candidates for president in 2000 would all be talking about the importance of standards and offering competing ways to get good results?”
Where do teachers stand today? Many in the classroom argue they’re worse off than they were at the start of the decade. Some say teaching has lost its joy, that alienation and bitterness are the hallmarks of a generation of kids that includes Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, and the other teenage school shooters of the ‘90s. Others say parents have changed, that mothers and fathers no longer help educate their children. Meanwhile, at the policy level, reforms aimed at boosting the quality of teaching may sadly have had the opposite effect, driving from the classroom the best and the brightest.
Still, the decade has seen big improvements for teachers. Polls suggest they are better paid and more respected today than they were in the ‘80s. Teaching also seems to be enjoying a renaissance among young people, as more college students are now eyeing a career in the classroom than at any point since the 1970s. At the same time, one of the decade’s quieter initiatives has built the architecture to make teaching a profession akin to medicine or law-a profession where the practitioners decide for themselves what defines quality in their field.
All this and more are covered in the pages that follow. We hope that you enjoy the 10th anniversary issue of Teacher Magazine.
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1999 edition of Teacher