From a nation in danger to CRT. How did we get there ? (Opinion)
Forty years ago, A nation in danger sounded a grave warning about the threat of poor education and spawned a bipartisan school reform movement focused on educational achievement, educational choice and accountability. Now that coalition has crumbled and given way to a series of heated culture clashes over school masking, critical race theory, gender identity and parental rights.
At National Affairs, Checker Finn and I try to settle the problem in “The End of School Reform?” (Be warned, it’s long.) In the essay, we argue that the collapse of the reform-minded coalition and the ongoing heated battles over CRT and parental rights can best be understood as the product of long-standing tensions.
In 1983, A nation in danger said the country was in peril from a “rising tide of mediocrity” produced by low standards, poor teaching and lousy schools. He observed that if a hostile nation “had tried to impose on America the poor educational performance that exists today, we could very well have seen it as an act of war.”
As a result of this dire warning, a coalition for school reform took shape, a coalition that would dominate education before finally breaking apart in the face of polarization and populist backlash. This coalition reached its peak in the early 1990s because left and right leaders had political and cultural incentives to embrace a vision of bipartisan reform.
On the left, Democrats won the White House in 1992 by eschewing old tax-and-spend liberalism in favor of a new deal with those who “worked hard and played by the rules.” While liberals had spent much of the 1980s denouncing American callousness, Bill Clinton’s campaign portrayed America as a good and just place. (He was the man “who still believed in a place called Hope.”) For Clinton Democrats, education was a way to expand opportunity without getting sucked into big societal criticism.
On the right, Republicans had spent most of the Reagan years winning elections by railing against family fragmentation, “welfare queens” and out-of-wedlock births. In the post-Reagan years, however, the GOP began looking for ways to promote the opportunities and personal responsibility, without centralizing everything in Washington. School reform was well suited to this project.
Of course, making bipartisanship work required concessions on both sides. Democratic reformers have tacitly agreed to shelve big spending and social engineering projects, challenge teachers’ unions and stop dismissing their conservative partners as heartless or racist. Meanwhile, Republican reformers stopped talking about parenting, abandoned the Reagan-era emphasis on values and prayer in schools, and agreed to consider a more ambitious federal role in the education.
This tacit agreement lasted through much of the Clinton-Bush-Obama era, surviving the fierce partisan fights that marked Clinton’s impeachment, the 2000 election, the invasion of Iraq, and the Affordable Care Act. . As Checker and I remember, during this period, “reform developed its own narratives, its own heroes, and even its own Hollywood branch, as films like I’m waiting for Superman and The lottery gained national notoriety. Led by the East Coast trio of Jeb Bush, Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, with the support of West Coast philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, the forces of reform seemed to be ascending throughout the Bush years and early Obama years.
Yet just when reform seemed to be flying high, it was losing ground. While reformers embraced the Common Core and teacher evaluations in Obama’s early years with the sense that they were only gaining strength, the subsequent setback would ultimately mark the beginning of the end for the reform coalition.
The reformist coalition had succeeded in making school reform a “political” debate, largely isolating education from cultural tides. The reformers insisted that they had simply pledged to “leave no child behind” (making their opponents, of course, “anti-child”). As long as this mantra was repeated by a chorus of influential business leaders, civil rights groups, governors, foundations and advocates, critics could be considered eccentrics.
This approach was effective but inherently unstable. It left no room for compromise with critics or even recognition that critics might have valid concerns. The relentless focus on closing achievement gaps meant that reform had little to do with many middle-class or affluent parents. And as the reforms grew increasingly authoritarian, many Americans recoiled from what they saw as the work of elite foundations and Washington bureaucrats.
All the while, the great nation was becoming increasingly polarized and distrustful. In the 1990s, politicians saw a big advantage in playing center. By the early 2010s, however, politicians were seeing growing rewards for playing grassroots and an increased risk of being seen as dealing with the middle. Where the Bushes, Clintons and Obamas had used education to court the middle, the education programs of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden could have doubled the wish lists of party activists.
As the discourse of the nation became absorbed in our culture wars, it became more difficult to focus on politics rather than culture. And, as the lion’s share of education advocates and foundations chose (or felt compelled) to embrace progressive causes, such as “anti-racist” education and gender fluidity, they were eventually responded by mobilizing the hard right against the CRT and for an expanded notion of parental rights.
In this way, the old reformist coalition expired, giving rise to an educational landscape dominated by woke teacher trainers, “anti-racist” foundations and angry right-wing activists – all consumed by contempt for the other side. and spoiling a fight.
Checker and I have a lot more to say about all of this, of course, about how it happened, why it happened, and what it might mean. So if you’re curious, check it out.