The “Clown Show” Backstory of the Most Influential Report on Schooling in American History

A missed chance to downsize the Department of Education
Secretary of Education Terrel Bell with President Ronald Reagan, 1983.
Secretary of Education Terrel Bell with President Ronald Reagan, 1983.

Forty years ago this month, in April 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, issued A Nation at Risk. In a furious call to arms, the report declared, “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 warning of catastrophe resonated in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and an economic rivalry with a rising Japan.

The document went on to become, arguably, the most influential report on schooling in American history. Which is pretty remarkable because the backstory was kind of a clown show. You see, Bell had convened the national commission because he was trying to save his job.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency while pledging to abolish the just-founded U.S. Department of Education. That department had been created by the Democratic Congress a year earlier, in 1979, to fulfill a promise that Jimmy Carter had made to the National Education Association during the 1976 Democratic primary.

As a small-government conservative, Reagan wanted to abolish the department. As Reagan’s first secretary of education, Bell was charged with leading that effort. Bell, though, was a member in good standing of the education establishment (he’d been a K-12 superintendent, Utah’s commissioner of higher education, and U.S. commissioner of education under presidents Nixon and Ford) and didn’t want to see his young department abolished.

So Bell sought to make his department seem useful to the Reagan White House. First, he asked to launch a formal blue-ribbon commission on the state of American education. When the White House said no, Bell put together his own 18-member National Commission on Excellence in Education. In April 1983, the commission’s report was originally just going to be released by Bell at the Department of Education.

When White House staff saw the report, though, they liked its message so much that they decided to treat it as if it had been the president’s baby all along. For a Reagan team intently focused on winning the Cold War, it’s easy to see the appeal of a report that declared, “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.”

In the following months, Reagan highlighted the report and embraced its hard-hitting critique. For all practical purposes, that pretty much ended his push to abolish the department. After all, a national crisis would seem to demand a national response. While Republicans would remain committed to abolishing the department for decades to come, and that’s still true today, the notion has long been more a rhetorical flourish than a substantive proposal.

Cover of "A Nation At Risk"Penned primarily by Jim Harvey (a gifted writer whom I got to know a bit many years later), the searing report also caught the eye of energetic Southern governors like Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, South Carolina’s Richard Riley, and North Carolina’s Jim Hunt. With the South in the midst of an economic transformation, they saw school reform as a way to catapult their states (and political prospects) forward. They pushed to raise graduation requirements, improve testing, promote teacher professionalism, and bolster high school curricula.

Indeed, as Checker Finn and I recounted last year, the report’s “clarion call would go on to launch an education-reform movement that would bestride both sides of the political aisle for most of the ensuing 40 years, only to [eventually] come unglued in the face of polarization and populist backlash.”

Are there any useful takeaways from this little trip in the way-back machine? Three leap to mind.

First, purple prose is no cure-all. If you read A Nation at Risk, you’ll note that neither the data nor the recommendations are all that compelling. But the report was so influential, anyway, because of the message, moment, and muscle behind it. Well, today’s social media noise, 24-7 advocacy, and constant catastrophizing make it hard to imagine replicating that kind of impact. Each year, while many groups spend a lot of money issuing reports rife with their own purple prose, the impact is inevitably negligible.

Second, missed moments have long-term consequences. If there was ever a moment when a Republican president might possibly have downsized the Department of Education and folded it back into the Department of Health and Human Services, it was in Reagan’s first term. The department was new and its roots shallow. But the Reagan team failed to put a loyalist in as secretary and couldn’t resist the short-term appeal of the message of A Nation at Risk. As a result, they missed their chance. In policy and governance, when opportunities arise, it can be easy to get captured by the currents.

Third, as A Nation at Risk turns 40, it’s a reminder that legacies are unpredictable things. When A Nation at Risk is remembered today, it’s often as the impetus for decades of school reform dominated by a focus on school choice, testing, and standards. But the report’s recommendations said nothing about school choice, and those regarding testing and standards addressed grade inflation, college admissions, and the need for tests at “major transition points” (particularly graduation). The actual consequences of advocacy or political activity can take a very different path from what we may imagine.

As I noted in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, ours has been an era of capital-R Reform: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core. Well, it’s fair to say that A Nation at Risk is the granddaddy of them all. And it’ll be telling to check back in 2040 or 2050 to see how their legacies compare with this call to action by an unwanted commission.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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