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The Nation at Risk Report

While federal funding was on the decline, a broad-based push for education reform was on the way. President Reagan's Secretary of Education was Terrel Bell, a veteran education leader from Utah who had served as U.S. Commissioner of Education during the Ford administration. He may have been the most liberal member of the Reagan cabinet, but he was a strong believer in local control. He had advised President Ford to veto the special education legislation in 1975 because he thought it was too costly and intrusive (Bell 1975). Bell had little stature with the President, but he was convinced that America's schools needed reforming, and he asked the White House to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to look into it. When the White House ignored his request, Bell appointed a department commission on his own authority.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education worked with data from researchers at the Education Department, who provided tons of information on the good news and bad news about schools in the U.S. However, two of the scientists on the panel, Gerald Horton, a physicist from Harvard, and Glenn Seaborg, a chemist at Berkeley, were not satisfied with the initial staff draft. Horton wanted something more decisive. He and other members crafted a theme of crisis, which framed the research data around alarming trends and gave them a slogan: A Nation at Risk. Journalists picked up on this eagerly. There was already much publicity about poor test results and their possible relation to America's competitive position in the world. Nation at Risk fanned the fires. The Department of Education counted 700 newspaper articles about the report in the first four months after its publication. Reagan met to congratulate the members. A side effect of this highly publicized report was that it weakened public and Congressional sentiment to abolish the Education Department (Vinovskis 2009).

However, it did not change the determination of the Reagan administration to back away from a federal role in education. In response to a President who said that education was the states' business and a federal report that said there was an urgent crisis, officials in the states took up the slack. It led to a decade of reform activity, resulting in new legislation in most states and capacity building in the state education agencies. The theme was excellence; the goal was to raise average test scores, not necessarily to reduce the gap between some groups and others.

The commission, along with several other reform reports, recommended more homework, higher graduation standards, more academic focus in schools, and better teacher preparation. Many states passed laws incorporating these recommendations. However, within three or four years, journalists and educators were bemoaning the failure of these reforms to increase test scores. The reform movement was fading. Its theory of action, plausible enough, was that if kids worked hard enough, and if teacher-training programs raised their standards, academic achievement would rise. However, that strategy did not work in the short run. By 1985 the National Governors' Association was calling for better testing and task forces to recommend better reforms.

Reagan Faces Reversals: Hawkins-Stafford Bill of 1988

In the waning years of Reagan's second term, Congress reversed some of his policies on education. This effort was led by Augustus “Gus” Hawkins, Democratic Congressman from Los Angeles and chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and his co-sponsor, Robert Stafford, a renegade Vermont Republican who believed in a strong federal role in education. Their bill deleted the signature provision of ECIA, the block grants under Chapter II. Hawkins-Stafford increased Chapter I spending staunchly but required the states to make gains on achievement and narrowing gaps. Any state that did not make its target two years in a row was required to review its districts' programs and supervise remediation. Equalization was the goal; tighter monitoring of test scores was the strategy.

The bill also strengthened the role of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) by establishing an independent governing body, the National Assessment Governing Board, to set goals for what students should know and be able to do at various grade levels in various subjects. The new ESEA was not a panacea, however. The federal government still yielded to the states the job of setting performance standards, and there was great variability in how ambitious the goals were in different states. Nonetheless, as Jennings emphasizes, the emphasis in the Hawkins-Stafford amendments on accountability was a strong factor in the almost unanimous bipartisan support for the bill; also, the emphasis on standards helped lay the groundwork for the standards movement as the basis for school reform and accountability. [1]

  • [1] For the provisions of the law, see Augustus F. Hawkins-Robert T. Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Amendments of 1988, H.R. 5, 100th Cong. (1988). For Hawkins, see “Hawkins, Augustus Freeman (Gus), (1907–2007).” n.d.; for Stafford, see Reagan Walker, “Stafford: Republican Rebel During Reagan's Revolution,” Education Week, November 2, 1988,, and essays on “HawkinsStafford Amendments,” and “Targeting the Achievement Gap” in Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945–2009 (2009). On the importance of bipartisan support and accountability, see Jennings (2015, 48–49).
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