A Movement Inspired: The Enduring Impact of A Nation at Risk
April 20, 2018

Last week, The 74 published a special series “A Nation at Risk: 35 Years Later” including my article about three ways the report gave voice to a new generation of education advocates and priorities. I observed that while “A Nation at Risk” created a common sense of urgency, it also launched champions for change on the multiple footpaths reformers still travel. Here are still more routes leading reformers to this work, with more ways those leaders added ideas to the movement that resonates broadly today as “education reform.”

More Voices for Choices

Bruno Manno’s essay in The 74’s series draws the through-lines from “A Nation at Risk” to another major reform theme, the need for increased choices in education. Championed by then Secretary of Education, William Bennett—who knew how to command his bully pulpit— “choice” took its place in reform’s mix.  While choice and “content” (Bennett’s shorthand for standards-based reform) were both ingredients in the administration’s framework responding to the report, champions attracted to these ideas also carved divergent paths.

A growing number of reform champions were converted to the cause because their kids needed different options for schooling. Minnesota put charter schools on the map, with enabling legislation passed in 1990. However, the notion of “standards” ran contrary to the opportunity charters gave to innovative educators, eager to explore different models of schooling. As options grew, more leaders became advocates for charter schools by necessity. State charter associations grew to protect and support their states’ schools, bringing the voices of educators and parents into statehouses. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, founded in 2005, became a leading voice for charter schools nationally. (See more from Derrell Bradford on the history and future of charter advocacy here.)

The first modern “voucher” bill also passed in 1990, in neighboring Wisconsin—creating a fork in the road that “choice” and “charter” advocates also often travel. Over time, laws changed to provide scholarships, tax credits, and other vehicles that tied resources to a family’s preferences for schooling. National organizations such as EdChoice (formerly the Friedman Foundation, established in 1996) and the American Education Reform Foundation (founded in 1998) and Alliance for School Choice (founded in 2004), which later became affiliated with the American Federation for Children (founded in 2009), were the most prominent voices in state capitols, providing early leadership on choice-related policy and working to counter choice policy myths.

While standards, charters, and choice all forged separate paths, one notable think tank always understood how these ideas worked better together. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute was one of the leading voices offering these ideas in a mutually reinforcing framework, recognizing that innovative schools needed the yardstick for quality that standards create, and accountability systems alone don’t build the pressure that the school choice agenda promised.

Excellence and  Equity

Debate still lingers about how “A Nation at Risk” addresses equity. Some say “It’s in there,” expressed with statements such as, “We do not believe that a public commitment to excellence and educational reform must be made at the expense of a strong public commitment to the equitable treatment of our diverse population.” Yet, others observe that while the deeper narrative describes equity as a “twin goal” of excellence, only excellence (and not its so-called twin) rise to the level of a headline in the document.

The Education Trust came on the scene in the early ‘90’s and has worked in partnership with many civil rights organizations to ensure that the equity agenda would command more headlines in the future. Indeed it has. Yet the gist of this debate lingers still, with many organizations championing equity as a primary focus, while others follow the lead of the report, treating “equity” as a component of their broader commitment to high standards.

Similarly, last week’s essay credited urgency generated by the report as launching a wave of innovative  new organizations, including Teach For America and its many offspring organizations. However, TFA became a juggernaut of its own right, with the cause of equity central in its campaign to recruit educators to the classroom. As the ranks of alumni have grown, TFA remains a significant point of entry to reform.

Other equity warriors followed the path carved by our nation’s first black president, whose education secretaries (Arne Duncan and John King) also wielded their respective pulpits expertly, moving issues like “teacher quality” front and center in the reform agenda. Obama Rocked the Vote, attracting younger leaders to the issues he championed, including education reform. He also made “community organizing” cool again; thus, many of the leaders so drawn to this work elevate community empowerment in the conversation. All this tilted the center-weight of education reform more toward the left, bringing with it a host of social and other non-cognitive issues to reform debates.

Champions of an Enduring Vision

The “big tent” of education reform spans the ideological spectrum, from civic leaders and business-backed advocates for higher standards and champions for charters and choice to the commitment of innovative educators and the relentless pursuit of equity by civil rights leaders and organizers. Education reform has remained an enduring force due to the breadth and depth of the many leaders drawn to the cause. While federal policy from No Child Left Behind, to Race to the Top and the Every Student Succeeds Act defined multi-issue agendas that included elements of the accountability, choice, and equity agendas, within the advocacy sector, “education reform” has never been a unifying framework. From A Nation at Risk until now, different constituencies have championed select elements within these broader frameworks.

Perhaps the reason “A Nation at Risk” played such an outsized role in education reform is because it spoke to this very ideal of America as a nation of strivers too big to be constrained by conventional ideological boundaries. It asserted that to thrive, our nation’s schools must strive too. To the extent it did so, it sparked the passions of so many who agree that education is fundamental to our nation’s prosperity and holds the promise of opportunity for all.

    Suzanne Tacheny Kubach

    Suzanne is PIE Network's founder and former Executive Director

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