From a Nation in Danger to CRT. how did we get here (Opinion)
forty years ago A nation in danger warned of the looming educational mediocrity and led to a bipartisan school reform movement focused on academic achievement, educational choices, and accountability. Today, that coalition has disintegrated, giving way to a series of heated cultural disputes over school masking, critical race theory, gender identity and parental rights.
Over at National Affairs, Checker Finn and I are trying to figure it out in The End of School Reform? (Be warned, it’s the long page.) In the essay, we argue that the dissolution of the reform coalition and the current heated battles over CRT and parental rights are best understood as a product of longstanding tensions.
1983, A nation in peril declared the country at risk from a “rising tide of mediocrity” brought on by low standards, poor teaching and lousy schools. It noted that if an enemy nation “had attempted to impose on America the mediocre education that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war.”
In the wake of this dire warning, a school reform coalition formed that would come to dominate education before eventually collapsing in the face of polarization and populist backlash. This coalition gained momentum in the early 1990s because leaders on both the left and right had political and cultural incentives to embrace a vision of bipartisan reform.
On the left, Democrats won the White House in 1992 by abandoning old tax and spending liberalism in favor of a new pact with those who “worked hard and played by the rules.” Since liberals spent much of the 1980s denouncing American callousness, Bill Clinton’s campaign portrayed America as a good and fair place. (He was the man “who still believed in a place called Hope.”) For the Clinton Democrats, education was a way to expand opportunities without getting caught up in big social criticism.
On the right, Republicans had spent most of the Reagan years winning elections by criticizing family fragmentation, “welfare queens” and illegitimate births. However, in the years after Reagan, the GOP began looking for ways to encourage opportunity and Ownership without centralizing everything in Washington. The school reform was well suited to this project.
Of course, for bipartisanship to work, it required concessions from both sides. Democratic reformers tacitly agreed to put aside big spending and social engineering schemes, challenge teachers’ unions, and stop dismissing their conservative partners as callous or racist. Meanwhile, Republican reformers stopped talking about parental responsibility, dropped the Reagan-era focus on values and school prayer, and agreed to consider a more ambitious federal role in education.
This tacit agreement lasted through much of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era, surviving the bitter partisan struggles that marked Clinton’s impeachment, the 2000 election, the invasion of Iraq, and the Affordable Care Act. During this time, as Checker and I recall, “reform developed its own narratives, its own heroes, and even its own Hollywood arm, like movies.” I’m waiting for Superman and The lottery gained national notoriety. Led by Jeb Bush, Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee on the East Coast, with the backing of West Coast philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, the reformist forces seemed to be on the rise during the Bush and early Obama years.”
But just as reform seemed to be in full swing, it lost its footing. While reformers in the early Obama years welcomed the common core and teacher ratings with a sense that they would only gain strength, the ensuing setback would ultimately mark the beginning of the end for the reform coalition.
The reform coalition had succeeded in turning school reform into a “political” debate and largely shielding education from cultural tides. The reformers insisted that they simply felt obliged to “leave no child behind” (which apparently made their opponents “anti-child”). As long as this mantra was repeated by a chorus of influential business leaders, civil rights groups, governors, foundations and attorneys, critics could be dismissed as cranks.
This approach was effective but inherently unstable. It left no room for compromise with critics, or even for acknowledging that critics might have legitimate concerns. The relentless focus on closing the benefit gap meant that reforms didn’t have much to do with many middle-class or affluent parents. And as reforms grew more self-absorbed, many Americans balked at what they saw as the work of elite foundations and Washington bureaucrats.
Meanwhile, the larger nation became increasingly polarized and suspicious. In the 1990s, politicians saw great benefit in playing in the middle. However, in the early 2010s, politicians saw increasing rewards for playing at grassroots level and an increased risk of being seen as a resource provider. Where the Bushes, Clinton and Obama had used education to woo the center, the education agendas of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden could have served as party activist wish lists.
As the nation’s discourse was consumed by our culture wars, it became more difficult to focus on politics rather than culture. And when the lion’s share of education advocates and foundations chose (or felt compelled) to align themselves with progressive causes such as “anti-racist” education and gender fluidity, they were eventually met with a hard-right mobilization against CRT and for an expanded notion of parental rights.
Thus has the old reform coalition collapsed, leaving an educational landscape dominated by bright teacher educators, “anti-racist” foundations and angry right-wing activists – all consumed by contempt and belligerence for the other side.
Of course, Checker and I have a lot more to say about all of this, how it happened, why it happened, and what it might mean. So if you’re curious, check it out.