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School Reform

A Nation at Risk, Reform in Action, Greater Goals Better Teachers and More Accountability

Two decades of school reform came to a close at the end of the twentieth century. These efforts, led by E.D. Hirsch and Ted Sizer, began in the early 1980s and continued through the 1990s, leading to the development of programs such as Success for All. These programs were aimed at developing comprehensive school reform models. The New American Schools Development Corporation supported many of these models.

This massive education reform effort set out to achieve educational goals never before attempted in the United States. Two major premises drove these ambitious goals. The first premise was that nearly everyone in the United States deserved, was capable of, and should be required to receive academic instruction through high school regardless of race, economic status, or post–high school plans. Second, academic standards needed to be raised considerably for all students. These driving premises were a result of the nation's leaders coming to an understanding that education, the economy, and a sustainable democracy are deeply intertwined in a postindustrial society.

The impetus for these two decades of reform took place in the 1980s, but it was a result of the major challenges facing education in the years before. In these years the nation's education system realized a major decline in enrollment. The 1970s marked the baby boom's departure from the schools and schools all over the country faced a sharp decline in enrollment. Along with this came a growing disengagement with education. As fewer and fewer residents had children in school, communities became less interested in schools and began resenting funding them through property taxes. This, along with other economic factors, brought on a major property-tax revolt in the late 1970s.

The school system was further challenged by social revolution. Teacher unions, the disabled, students with limited English proficiency (LEP), minorities, and women began to demand fair treatment in schools. Teacher unions in the late 1960s became increasingly active, organizing strikes regularly. Congress and the judiciary became more involved in protecting school-age citizens from discrimination with resolutions such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, and the 1974 Supreme Court decision Lau v. Nichols.

Perhaps the most important of all the discrimination decisions was Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which demanded that public schools be racially desegregated. In order to desegregate schools busing was mandated. This practice caused major upheaval. As minorities entered traditionally segregated schools looking for stable learning environments, they found themselves amid great chaos and violence. The result of the efforts mainly led to "white flight" from public education to private schools.

Concurrent efforts to make education a place of equal opportunity for all led to a de-emphasis on teaching and learning. Schools across the nation became increasingly bureaucratic as the nation became more litigious. School employees were often more concerned with enforcing and maintaining order and the new regulations than with teaching their students. It was said educators became more concerned with "dodging lawsuits than with the quality instruction in their schools, and they made the broadening of education opportunities rather than the quality of education the priority in much of public schooling" (Toch, p. 7).

As American public education was deteriorating rapidly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it began to draw the attention of critics who published many reports detailing the problems in schools and calling for widespread reform. In 1966 James S. Coleman released a study reporting that socioeconomic status was the primary determinant in academic achievement. In other words, schools, teachers, and money had little bearing on the level of academic achievement that a student could reach. Another leading sociologist, Christopher Jencks, reaffirmed Coleman's study by stating that academic achievement was more an indicator of the student's characteristics than of the school input.

Despite more and more public attention to the education crisis, the federal role was still limited. Not until 1979, after a major lobbying effort by the National Education Association (NEA), which later became the largest teacher union in the country, was the U.S. Department of Education created by the Carter administration.

With a cabinet-level education office the problems in education drew more and more public attention. Newspapers reported major declines in students' scores on the SAT and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The National Science Foundation also reported that academic standards were declining in the nation's schools. This news was alarming when compared to the high standards that the United States' economic competitors required of their students. By the early 1980s business leaders, the government, and the general public had decided that public education in the United States was in "parlous trouble" (National Commission on Excellence in Education).

A Nation at Risk

Major economic problems in the 1980s magnified the public's disenchantment with public education. More and more people began to connect the downturn in the economy to the poor system of education in the United States. Under the direction of President Ronald Reagan, the Department of Education faced sharp criticism and calls for its abolition from the president's own political party. Reagan had appointed Terrel H. Bell to the department as Secretary of Education despite the skepticism of the Republican Party, who considered Bell too moderate. The new secretary of education was sympathetic to the department and was reluctant to entertain efforts to abolish the new cabinet office.

In response to claims that he was too soft on the problems in education, Bell proposed the creation of a independent presidential commission to investigate the state of education in the United States in a fair and balanced manner. Reagan, who saw little value in presidential commissions, turned down Bell's proposal. As a result, in 1981 Bell commissioned his own cabinet-level panel, to be called the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE), to review education. The eighteen-member panel was composed of representatives from a wide spectrum of political perspectives. The panel produced the report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, which stands as perhaps the most important document in the late twentieth century's history of education reform. A Nation at Risk became the impetus for two decades of standard-sbased reform. Ironically, once the report's themes became known at the White House, Reagan adopted the report as his own.

The seminal report came in the form of an open letter to the American people and President Reagan in April 1983. The report was a serious indictment of education in the United States. It stated, "Our nation is at risk…. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre education performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war" (p. 5). Despite acknowledging some gains in education, the report overall displayed a severely negative portrait of American education. Even though Bell's commission was pessimistic it maintained that if their strict recommendations were followed, they could reverse the declines and restore excellence in education.

A Nation at Risk made five recommendations for attaining excellence in education. The recommendations were: (1) that "five new basics" be added to the curriculum of America's schools. The basics included four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, three years of social studies, and half a year of computer science in high school; (2) that more rigorous and measurable standards be adopted; (3) that the school year be extended in order to make more time for learning the "New Basics"; (4) that the teaching be improved with enhanced preparation and professionalization; (5) that accountability be added to education.

A Nation at Risk shocked the country. The report galvanized the public to demand action to restore education in the United States. The report was followed by a series of other critical reports on education from organizations such as the Committee for Economic Development and the Education Commission of the States. While no other report had the impact that A Nation at Risk did, the accumulation of the reports created the impetus for the start of two decades of education reform. The nation needed to regain its competitiveness among its economic rivals globally.

The calls to arms energized the nation's governors. Education reform became one of the most politically popular agendas for governors regardless of political leanings. The South became the hotbed for education reform led by governors. Progressively minded governors such as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, William Clinton of Arkansas, James Hunt of North Carolina, and Richard Riley of South Carolina accepted the challenge of reforming education in their states and in turn led the country. The president, who even before A Nation at Risk wanted to return the responsibility of education to the states, embraced the new energy of the governors.

Leadership from the nation's "education governors" inserted itself into the National Governors' Association (NGA), which released its own report on the state of education. The NGA report reaffirmed the NCEE notion that without reforming education the nation would not continue to be economically competitive on a global level. This theme was especially provocative for the nation's business leaders, who began to call for improvement in the schools. Business leaders became a strong force in the reform movement and influenced political leaders to allocate more resources to education.

Education reform desperately needed the support of an unlikely ally–the president. Reagan had been opposed to a major federal role in education, had attempted to dismantle the Department of Education, and even denied the creation of the presidential commission, eventually established at the cabinet level by Secretary Bell, that wrote A Nation at Risk. After this report, however, Reagan realized the importance of the growing reform movement and began to champion school reform.

Reagan took A Nation at Risk on the road for eleven weeks after its release to announce his new emphasis on education. The president's leadership was essential in elevating the movement to the highest level. Reagan was able to use his control of the media to make education reform the highest national priority.

Reform in Action

With new levels of publicity, recommendations at hand, and ambitious governors, education reform activity was high. In fact some real improvement was taking place. High school curricula broadened and became more focused on academics. High school graduation requirements increased, modeled after the NCEE recommendation, in opposition to old ideas that proposed that intellectual/academic education was not for everyone. Reformers, especially business leaders, recognized that a new postindustrial economy needed skilled workers with higher-order thinking skills. No longer was an uneducated worker needed to stand in an assembly line. Employers demanded workers who could think.

With the reform movement's success in establishing more rigorous intellectual content in American education, students returned to the public schools. Enrollment surged and course work in the academic subjects became standard for almost every student. Students graduated with evidence of solid backgrounds in mathematics, science, history, and foreign languages on their transcripts. Many students even took Advanced Placement tests for college. As a result of the new emphasis of academic subject matter and higher rates of enrollment more teachers prepared with strong content were required. Unfortunately, there were not enough teachers with the content knowledge to meet the demand. Teachers were underprepared and their teaching methods were inadequate. As a result, curricular reform for most students came in name only; most students did not receive real academic training due to the lack of infrastructure to support it.

In addition, watered-down courses began to pop up in the school curricula across the country. In essence a new sequence of courses was created. Students could spend most of their high-school careers without being exposed to academic subject matter in depth. Critics began to note that American education was "an inch deep and a mile wide" for most students. Many students migrated to the easier tracks and many were forced into a shallow education experience. Despite advances in curricular reform, the majority of students felt few real learning gains. At the same time, with the new emphasis on academics, vocational education was fighting to stay alive in schools.

Still the education reforms were mostly undercut by the lack of teachers with the essential content knowledge to teach students adequately and accommodate the growing enrollment in academic courses. Teachers were being assigned to subjects in which they had no training or experience, just to satisfy the new curricular requirements. Tracking persisted and became more problematic as students in the lower tracks received instruction more often from the least-qualified teachers.

This led to a movement that spawned many initiatives promoting the professionalization of teaching, although the NEA often attacked the movement. Despite much work done to improve teaching and to improve the profession, it remained "business as usual" for most teachers. The NEA preserved the status quo.

Greater Goals Better Teachers and More Accountability

In response to the Carnegie Forum on Education report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the Twenty-First Century, the focus on the teaching profession was magnified. The Carnegie task force responded to A Nation at Risk by proposing solutions to improve the teaching profession. The report called for the formation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and later national board certification for exemplary teachers.

With the reform movement well underway in 1987, there was a call by the U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett for accountability. The significant amount of money and effort spent to reform education required results. Business leaders and state lawmakers led the way in demanding evidence of change in education. The National Governors Association also began demanding greater accountability from the schools.

The nation's governors had played a large role in education reform since the announcement of A Nation at Risk. Their leadership became most prominent in September 1989 when President George H.W. Bush convened them in Charlottesville, Virginia, for an education summit.

The nation had already come to grips with the fact that improvement in education needed to be measurable if all the attention and resources were going to be recognized as worthwhile. In order to be able to recognize educational progress goals had to be established. President Bush and the governors made a commitment to establish measurable goals for education reform that they named America 2000. They agreed on a process for developing the goals at the education summit that would involve teachers, parents, local administrators, school board members, elected officials, business and labor communities, and the public at large. Their charge was to establish a common mission for improving education for all.

The goals the panel finally agreed upon and released early in 1990 were:

  • By the year 2000, all children will start school ready to learn.
  • By the year 2000, the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
  • By the year 2000, all students will leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography. Every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation's modern economy.
  • By the year 2000, the nation's teaching force will have access to programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century.
  • By the year 2000, U.S. students will be the first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.
  • By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

The governors and the president accepted responsibility for achieving these measurable goals. The conclusion of their declaration stated that "as elected chief executives, we expect to be held accountable for progress in meeting the new national goals, and we expect to hold others accountable as well …. The time for rhetoric is past; the time for performance is now."

Striving to Achieve Measurable Goals

In response to growing talk of creating academic standards Congress established the National Council on Education Standards and Testing (NCEST) in June 1991. The council was formed to explore establishing national education standards and to assess progress in reaching these standards. In 1992 NCEST released its report recommending that voluntary national standards be created. This report, combined with statements from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the National Research Council, propelled the creation of rigorous academic standards that would establish the appropriate content for learning grade by grade. It was hoped that the depth and breadth of knowledge would be increased for all students.

In March 1994 President Clinton signed into law the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Goals 2000 encompassed the goals established at the Charlottesville education summit as well as two additional goals that stated:

  • By the year 2000, every school in the United States will be free of drugs, violence, and the unauthorized presence of firearms and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning.
  • By the year 2000, every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children.

The Goals 2000: Educate America Act also established the National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NESIC), which had the responsibility to review and certify voluntary state and national education standards that were being developed. The NCEST and NESIC faced severe opposition, however, from those who raised the specter of federal involvement in education.

Despite opposition to national standards, efforts to develop state standards and assessments continued. The chief executive officer of IBM, Louis Gerstner, and Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin convened the nation's top business leaders, governors, and the White House and Department of Education elite in Palisades, New York, for the 1996 National Education Summit. The summit was a reaction to the declining progress in education reform after Goals 2000.

The participants in the summit continued the work started in Charlottesville. In fact, the summit pushed for a sustained and more directed effort in establishing academic standards and assessments. Participants recognized that some opponents criticized standards as too much federal involvement in education, but noted that state standards were essential for improving education for all. Writing and measuring standards was not enough for the summit participants, however. They recognized that a commitment to helping students achieve the standards was essential. Another outcome of the summit was the call for an independent clearinghouse, free of ties to any federal agency, that would provide information to help the coordinate states' efforts to establish standards and assessments.

In 1997 in a landmark report, What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future once again established that teachers were critical to improving student achievement. The report challenged the nation to install high quality teachers in every classroom in America by 2006.

Options for Parents and Students

Throughout this period of reform many suggested school choice as a solution to improving education. School choice can mean several different things. Some of the models are districtwide, or intradistrict, which allow parents to choose from schools within their own district; statewide, or interdistrict, in which students can choose from the entire state's public schools; and perhaps the most controversial, private-school choice, which permits parents to send their children to private schools using public funds.

Although controversial, school choice has been a significant contributor to education reform. Perhaps the most salient examples took place in Wisconsin and Ohio. Since the early 1990s the city of Milwaukee has engaged in an experiment in private-school choice. Milwaukee offers vouchers for children to attend private schools, including religious schools. Although the program has come up against lawsuits, the courts have upheld the practice in Wisconsin. In November 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a case against Milwaukee that claimed that the program led to racial segregation in Milwaukee schools. The U.S. District Court in Ohio questioned the Cleveland school-choice program because 98 percent of the students leaving public schools were migrating to religious schools, raising the issue of separation of church and state. In June 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling and upheld the use of public money for religious school tuition.

The court decisions have helped proponents of school reform who claim that a free-market approach to education will improve the schools. In addition, the movement has also gained some victories as more and more analysis of data shows some success in educating children though school choice. Studies from Harvard University and Princeton University suggest that children participating in school-choice programs are at least performing as well as their counterparts in traditional public schools and the Harvard study even suggests that privatization might make schools more efficient.

Staying the Course

The contemporary standards movement that resulted from A Nation at Risk continues; in fact the message remains that the nation must "stay the course." In 1999 another national education summit was convened and it reasserted that the standards movement was the most prudent way to improve education for all. In addition, the participants demanded that action be taken to ensure that all students achieve the rigorous standards that had been set.

Yet the United States continues to be "a nation at risk." Business leaders, government officials, educators, and the public at large are heeding the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) warning that the United States ranks in the middle of the pack of its global economic competitors in student achievement. Continued focus on raising standards, improving teachers to help students achieve the standards, and holding all stake-holders (parents, teachers, and the business community) accountable for the education of the nation's future leaders is essential.

President George W. Bush continues to follow the direction of Secretary Bell's National Commission for Excellence in Education. President Bush's proposal for education calls for higher standards, annual measurement and accountability, more parental choice, and greater flexibility in federal funding. Perhaps the most significant part of Bush's proposal is the annual assessment of student achievement from grades three through eight to determine the value added by each school year and increase accountability.


NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR EXCELLENCE IN EDUCATION. 1983. A Nation at Risk. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

TOCH, THOMAS. 1991. In the Name of Excellence. New York: Oxford University Press.

VINOVSKIS, MARIS A. 1999. The Road to Charlottesville. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel.


ACHIEVE. 1999. "1999 National Education Summit." <www.achieve.org>.

EAKIN, SYBIL. 1996. "Forum: National Education Summit." Technos Quarterly 5 (2): <www.technos.net/tq_05/2eakin.htm>.



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