Remembering “A Nation At Risk”: Reflections on Politics and Policy

It’s hard to believe that April marks 35 years since the National Commission on Excellence in Education, formed by then Secretary of Education Ted Bell, issued its blockbuster report on education in America entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

Edward B. Fiske, who for 17 years was Education Editor of the New York Times, described the report as “35 pages that shook the US education world [and became] one of the most significant documents in the history of American public education.”

It was unlike the usual studies, analyses, and broadsides in education. For example:

• Instead of being directed to education experts and others in the field, the Commission called it an “Open Letter to the American People”.

• It contained apocalyptic rhetoric like “…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.”

• It used military analogies to call the Nation to arms to roll back that tide and end the threat: : “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war.”

Initial battles within the Administration

Politically, the report caused significant early wrangles between White House aides to Present Ronald Reagan, who had opposed creating a Presidential Commission, and Secretary Bell, who when faced with that resistance opted to employ the Department’s statutory authority to create the Commission at the Cabinet level.

These tussles intensified when the report didn’t focus on White House priorities for education circa 1983, namely abolishing the young Education Department itself (widely seen as a bone tossed to teacher unions for their support in the 1980 election), allowing organized prayer in schools, and supporting vouchers and tuition tax credits for private school expenses.

Eventually, however, as they saw the report striking a major chord with voters, White House aides embraced it. Reagan would himself attend three of twelve regional meetings convened by Bell to discuss the report. Surprisingly, he would also address the 1983 annual convention of the American Federation of Teachers, invited by union President Albert Shanker, to discuss the report’s findings.

Finally, the administration would make education reform into a political issue for the 1984 presidential campaign, using President Reagan’s deftness in the “bully pulpit” to argue for the Commission’s conclusions regarding the lackluster state of student achievement in the U.S.

Bill Bennett and the three C’s

Once Reagan was re-elected, he nominated William Bennett to be the nation’s third Secretary of Education, coming to the Department from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which he chaired during the first term.

It fell to Bennett and his team to create a formal policy agenda for K-12 education reform, an agenda that would be based on A Nation at Risk but also aligned with the administration’s political and policy priorities. Bennett unveiled it on March 27 (1985) in a speech at the National Press Club.

Bennett suggested that the traditional three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic, a longstanding, shorthand way of reminding the nation of what K-12 students should learn—needed to be supplemented due to the new challenges facing education in America as described in A Nation At Risk. He called this a “new trilogy of ideas” and summarized it as “the “three C’s of content, character, and choice.”

Content: For Bennett, content was about curriculum. He was clear that the federal government is prohibited from prescribing curriculum for states and localities. But he framed the content discussion by talking about how Washington can contribute to educational excellence by urging high educational standards—what the report described as “more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance….”

This focus included what the Commission dubbed “the five new basics”—i.e., 4 years of English, 3 years of mathematics, 3 years of science, 3 years of social studies, and one half year of computer science. (Two years of language were strongly recommended for college bound students.) Later, Bennett would make his own strong personal curricular recommendations in two publications released by the Department: James Madison Elementary School and James Madison High School. He was not at all inhibited in spelling out what he thought students should know and be able to do before graduating from high school.

Character: For Bennett, the mastering of content developed intellect which goes hand in hand with developing character—what the report called “student conduct”—while acknowledging that developing intellect is no guarantee of good character. Schools must expose children to good character and invite its imitation.

Schools must also have character themselves, i.e. i.e., must model what they want students to develop. Educators must articulate ideals to students, develop a school ethos, and transmit it to them by example. With a nod to the administration’s political posture, Bennett commented that “voluntary school prayer [can] be an auxiliary to character in some places.”

Choice: For Bennett, a key problem with schools was—and still is—that they cannot be directly held accountable by parents. A key way to improve them is “if parents had a greater ability to choose another school—a better school.” He called for a redesign of public education through “instruments of choice…within public education and between public and non-public education.” This would include both vouchers and tuition tax credits.

He observed that many Americans already had “a voucher…known as the ability to buy the school of their choice by buying the neighborhood of their choice.” With this formulation, Bennett was again able to link the administration’s agenda to what he proposed for the Department’s K-12 policy agenda.

Finally, while not explicitly calling for the agency’s abolition—Bell had earlier failed to locate any Congressional support for such a move—Bennett made clear that the role of the Department vis-à-vis the “three C’s” was “limited by the fact that education in America has been and always should be a local and state responsibility…[and that] real reform…cannot come from inside the Department of Education in Washington. It has to come from inside our schools and our communities.”

A legislative agenda

The Department went on to advance four legislative proposals grounded in the three Cs to create what Bennett called “…our agenda for the next four years….”

The first two items were predictably contentious.

• Converting traditional Title 1 basic grants that went to schools districts and provided special financial support to schools with high percentages of children from low income families into compensatory education vouchers worth several hundred dollars to purchase public or private education services.

• Creating tuition tax credits whereby parents could recover up to $300 of a child’s private school tuition.

The other two items were more esoteric but garnered support from significant elements of the K-12 reform community.

• Expanding data collection for the National Assessment of Educational Progress/NAEP—the Nation’s Report Card—from providing only national and regional data on student achievement to state specific achievement data, thereby making state to state student achievement comparisons possible for the first time.

• Reorganizing the National Center for Education Statistics to address problems associated with its data collection quality, accuracy, and publication timeliness, including significant expansion of its data collection surveys for K-12 public and private education.

The administration failed in the first two efforts, though various Republican administrations since have continued to propose similar legislation.

Bennett and his team did, however, succeed in working with the Democratic Congress to enact the other two proposals, thereby establishing a recurring state by state trove of student achievement data and background information for different academic content areas. It would go on to include international assessments making comparisons possible between US students and other students around the world. (As befits this 35th anniversary, NAEP 2017 results are being released this April.) This formed the basis for all types of analyses that led to debates that continue to this day about how well—or poorly—schools are preparing students for college, careers, and citizenship.

The long term outcome

The continuing flow of solid information on K-12 education emerging from the Administration’s legislative successes would become the fuel that stoked the education reform movement—or what would be called by some “the excellence movement”—to this day.

So with the three C’s Bennett (and his team) skillfully integrated the administration’s political agenda for education with a broader K-12 “excellence” agenda that he would magnify with his use of the bully pulpit for the remainder of the Reagan administration.

Moreover, his forceful articulation of content, character, and choice along with a legislative agenda would prove to be prescient.

For example, significant elements of that agenda were taken up by the Nations’ governors under their multiyear project that spanned 1985 to 1991 called “Time for Results” and also in their 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, Virginia with President George H.W. Bush.

In short, the three Cs and that legislative agenda would frame many of the education reform conversations that occurred over the following thirty-plus years (and that continue to this day) . They would create the framework for the two key elements that would dominate education reform discussion to this day: standards based reforms—including testing and accountability—and choice based reforms—e.g. charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, and other mechanisms that allow public dollars to be used for a variety of school choice options.

Over these 35 years, the message of A Nation at Risk has had remarkable durability and resilience.

— Bruno Manno

Bruno Manno served in several senior positions in the US Department of Education from 1986 to 1993, observing first-hand the development of the agenda described in this piece. He is now senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 program and co-author of Charter Schools at the Crossroad.

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