The End of School Reform?

Chester E. Finn, Jr. & Frederick M. Hess

Current Issue

In 2021, amid a grim pandemic that had already brought American education to a standstill, the nation's schools were again assaulted, this time by fierce arguments about critical race theory (CRT) — a term that few outside of academia had previously encountered. According to some pundits, the brouhaha was just another instance of the right-wing media complex manufacturing controversy. But the CRT fight is more accurately seen as a product of decades of tensions lurking within the school-reform enterprise itself, coupled with dramatic shifts in progressive dogma. It sounded the death knell for a reform coalition that traced its roots back to A Nation at Risk — the famed Reagan-era blue-ribbon commission report on America's looming education catastrophe.

The report declared the country to be imperiled by a "rising tide of mediocrity" driven by low standards, poor teaching, and lousy schools. In their most quoted line, the commissioners who issued the report claimed that 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."

That 1983 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 come unglued in the face of polarization and populist backlash. A look at the history of that saga can clarify how today's great school-reform crack-up was likely inevitable, help explain why it matters, and perhaps signal what lies ahead.

THE BIRTH OF A COALITION

Before A Nation at Risk, there was a two-decade period — stretching from the Kennedy to the Carter years — when primary and secondary education, especially in Washington, was addressed mostly in terms of "equalizing opportunity." The focus was on desegregating schools, pumping federal dollars into programs intended to end poverty, ensuring a "free and appropriate" education for youngsters with disabilities, and supporting girls and immigrant students. That era also saw the creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979 — a move widely understood as Jimmy Carter's reward to the National Education Association for supporting his candidacy.

Did the equity emphasis of the 1960s and '70s contribute to the "tide of mediocrity" that alarmed the 1983 commission? Almost certainly. Even as they lavished energy and resources on school inputs, excessive litigation, and cultural clashes over issues like busing, phonics, and "new math," the education-reform efforts of those decades paid scant attention to learning outcomes.

A Nation at Risk hit at an opportune moment. The Cold War was raging, and educational decay had national-security implications. At the same time, Ronald Reagan declared it "morning in America" as the stagflation and malaise of the Carter years gave way to a resurgence of cheerful patriotism. The pressures of economic disruption combined with the possibilities of modernization spurred a handful of Southern governors — including Arkansas's Bill Clinton, Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, North Carolina's James Hunt, South Carolina's Richard Riley, and Florida's Bob Graham — to take the lead in tackling education.

Yet few educators saw anything wrong. Many leaders in the field denounced A Nation at Risk as scaremongering. Teachers' unions, school-board associations, and local superintendents routinely opposed gubernatorial reform initiatives. As for parents, in 1986, the annual Gallup education survey reported that two-thirds of public-school parents gave the schools their kids attended an A or a B, while just 15% gave the nation's schools as a whole a D or an F. For the most part, complacency reigned.

In Washington, save for the periodic renewal of Great Society programs and the attention-grabbing commission report, not much happened in the 1980s on the education-reform front. The Reagan administration made a feeble attempt to abolish the infant Education Department, but its effort went nowhere. (GOP Senate leader Howard Baker reportedly told Reagan's first education secretary, Terrel Bell, that nobody would introduce such a bill.) A cold congressional shoulder also greeted the White House's move to convert the largest of Lyndon Johnson's K-12 programs into vouchers. The only real actions were Secretary of Education William Bennett's adroit use of the bully pulpit during Reagan's second term and the historic revamp of the National Assessment of Educational Progress — the federal testing program that would, for the first time, yield the state-by-state achievement data that the aforementioned governors craved (and that their education chiefs would grudgingly accept after years of hostility toward such measures).

Things were different at the state level, where many of those same governors began placing K-12 improvement high on their agendas. Led by Alexander in 1986, the National Governors Association (NGA) embarked on a five-year school-renewal effort dubbed "A Time for Results." This move, along with the 1988 presidential election, contributed to the ascendant perception that education reform ought to be a nationwide priority.

On the 1988 campaign trail, George H. W. Bush told voters he wanted to be "the education president." During his first year in office, he made good on his promise by inviting all the nation's governors to join him in Charlottesville, Virginia, for an education summit. All but Minnesota's Rudy Perpich showed up. Clinton — who had just left his perch as head of the NGA — played a key role in the discussions.

The Charlottesville summit yielded something unprecedented: a set of national education goals that the president and governors set for the century's end a decade later. The goals themselves were fantastically ambitious — "every adult American will be literate," "U.S. students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement" — but they catalyzed a series of forceful moves in Washington that were intent on accomplishing them.

Prior to the summit, Republicans had long viewed schooling as a local issue, while Democratic orthodoxy had emphasized spending and civil rights. Post-Charlottesville, however, leaders on both the left and the right had political and cultural incentives to embrace bipartisanship regarding education.

On the left, Clinton campaigned on a message that eschewed the old tax-and-spend liberalism in favor of a new compact with those who "worked hard and played by the rules." Whereas Democrats had spent much of the 1980s decrying American callousness and greed, Clinton depicted America as a good and hopeful place; his goal was simply to ensure that every American had a real shot at success in the new economy. Especially after proclaiming that the "era of big government is over," Clinton offered education as a way to expand opportunity while setting aside grand societal critiques and ambitious spending plans.

A similar shift was occurring on the right. Republicans had spent most of the Reagan years winning elections by riding critiques of family fragmentation, "welfare queens," and out-of-wedlock births. But now — as foreshadowed by Bush and Alexander, the latter of whom was named education secretary under the former — the GOP began seeking ways to promote opportunity and personal responsibility without centralizing everything in Washington. School reform was well suited for this project.

As the left looked to rehabilitate its brand and the right sought to retain and expand its appeal, both parties found it convenient to talk about "making government work." Holding schools accountable and preparing the nation's children for the new economy thus proved a timely and useful project for both sides — one that would propitiously cement the reform coalition birthed in Charlottesville.

Making bipartisanship work required both camps to make concessions. Democratic reformers tacitly agreed to set aside grand spending and social-engineering plans, to challenge teachers' unions, and to cease dismissing their conservative partners as heartless or racist. At the same time, 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.

During Clinton's first term, Congress enacted two landmark pieces of legislation: Goals 2000, which picked up and ran a considerable distance with the Charlottesville baton; and Improving America's Schools, which linked federal school funding to whether states adopted academic standards, tests, and accountability plans. These pieces of legislation represented both an expression of the era's consensus on school reform and the beginning of a shift back to "big government" that would eventually backfire.

Throughout the 1990s, the twin strands of modern education reform took shape. The first, driven mostly by Washington, was an earnest quest for higher academic standards, better metrics for student and school performance, and mechanisms for holding schools and districts to account for their results. This effort won backing from presidents Bush and Clinton, congressional players on both sides of the aisle, and a host of business leaders, governors, and philanthropists.

At the same time, a loose network of activists, state leaders, economists, and policy wonks launched the second reform strand: the modern school-choice movement. Voucher programs first emerged in Milwaukee in 1990, followed by charter-school laws in Minnesota in 1991 and California in 1992. These moves opened the floodgates for a wave of school-choice activity nationwide. Washington had little to do with this movement, which was primarily driven at the state and local levels by an array of energetic reformers, open-handed donors, and advocacy organizations.

The focus on systems and their schools — and not, say, on the shortcomings of parents or the role of larger societal forces — was a big part of what made the reform consensus possible. Those on the left calculated that, at least for the time being, they could promote equity and ease the plight of the marginalized by concentrating on standards, testing, teacher quality, and the role schools played in closing achievement gaps. They could even tolerate a carefully modulated amount of (public) school choice. Meanwhile, reformers on the right — finding that talk about family structure, parental responsibility, character development, and the cultural determinants of success could sound harsh and divisive — focused their fire on schools and teachers' unions instead. This made it possible for them to find common ground with their Democratic counterparts.

For all its deliberate focus on schools rather than families or cultural forces, post-Nation at Risk school reform was inevitably entangled with questions of race, starting with the plain fact that much of the reforming was done in the name of bettering the education of disadvantaged children, many of whom were poor and of a minority race. These students' parents had long been the least content with the education available to their children but had little ability to either transform or escape the grim "dropout factories" that many urban schools resembled.

The notion that reform was mostly a solution to the plight of black children had short-term benefits, but also long-term costs. On the plus side, it addressed an undeniable problem — that too many black and urban students were miserably served by their schools — and avoided alienating contented suburban parents. This tack also paid large dividends for charter-school advocates and fragile new ventures like Teach For America. Over time, though, the costs of this strategy would mount. Reform's urban focus meant that it came to be seen by many suburban and rural parents as out of touch and irrelevant, if not hostile. In places like Newark and New Orleans, the movement would eventually be pilloried as a caricature of white, carpet-bagging funders and do-gooders.

The race question also loomed large in the eyes of influential black education reformers like former Milwaukee superintendent Howard Fuller, who questioned whether white-led charter and private schools, governed by white trustees and staffed mainly by white teachers, should be the only viable alternatives available to black and Latino families. Left-leaning reformers like Fuller were game to team up with white conservatives to enact laws and change policies, but they were also intensely attentive to race dynamics and wanted to ensure that power and control over resources would ultimately belong to the communities affected.

THE TRIUMPH OF ACCOUNTABILITY

By century's end, several states were making visible progress in boosting achievement and narrowing gaps, even as plenty of others lagged behind. Among the most successful states were Texas and Massachusetts, with their sharply dissimilar political cultures and somewhat disparate reform strategies. George W. Bush, who had been governor of the Lone Star State, brought with him to Washington the conviction that the federal government ought to require every state to install school-accountability regimes and choice programs, much as he had done in Texas. To make that happen, he reached across the aisle to the Bay State's Ted Kennedy — a longtime leading voice on education and arguably the best friend teachers' unions had on Capitol Hill.

The result, just months after the September 11th attacks, was Congress's enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which garnered the support of sweeping, bipartisan majorities. A triumph of old-fashioned compromise resting on an underlying consensus, NCLB mandated a Texas-style approach to forceful accountability along with some elective measures. Its great accomplishment was to shine a bright, unavoidable light on school performance, changes in performance over time, and gaps in performance between subgroups, whether gauged by ethnicity, gender, disability status, or English fluency.

The act's intent was indeed to leave no child behind. Unfortunately, as with the earlier national goals, its stated targets were unrealistically ambitious, and its laudable aspirations were paired with a set of rickety performance measures, rigid accountability directives, and formulaic remedies that resulted in unreliable measures of school performance, dubious interventions, and clumsy strategies for improvement.

Outside of Washington, school choice was going gangbusters — most visibly in the rapid spread of public charter schools. By 2011, some 1.8 million students were enrolled in almost 5,300 charter schools in the 41 states that had enacted charter-enabling laws. Nor were charter schools the whole story. Several districts created specialized magnet schools while making it easier for families to exercise "public choice" among district schools. At the same time, a number of states allowed students to enroll in neighboring districts. Voucher-style programs also sprang up nationwide. The last of these approaches received a boost in 2002 when the Supreme Court held that Cleveland's voucher program did not run afoul of the First Amendment so long as parents, rather than public officials, were choosing to use those dollars for religious schools. Home schooling was on the rise as well, engaging about 3% of all K-12 pupils by 2007. Online curricula and "virtual charter schools" made it easier for parents to teach children at home rather than having to rely on a conventional schoolhouse.

Throughout the century's first decade, school reform was enjoying its salad days on both the accountability and choice fronts. Reform developed its own narratives, its own heroes, and even its own Hollywood arm, as movies like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery gained national prominence. Led by the east-coast trifecta of Jeb Bush, Joel Klein, and Michelle Rhee, and with support from west-coast philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, the forces of reform appeared ascendant throughout the Bush and early Obama years. Education reformers were featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and on the cover of Time. The launch of Democrats for Education Reform, the success of Teach For America and no-excuses charter schools like KIPP, and the philanthropic largesse of new-economy titans like Reed Hastings, Michael Dell, and the Walton family, all fed the impression that these "rock star" reformers (as the argot of the time had it) were creating a robust new education firmament.

This early 21st-century focus on accountability and choice signified a pair of important shifts in Americans' understanding of K-12 education. In the era before A Nation at Risk, people generally gauged school quality on the basis of inputs, resources, and reputation, not student-learning outcomes. Americans also generally took for granted that, unless their families were wealthy or Roman Catholic, children attended the district-operated public school nearest their home. Yet by the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, a "good" school had come to mean one with high reading and math scores — at least from the perspective of parents and policymakers (not to mention real-estate agents). And though many places did not yet furnish families with a decent supply of quality schools to choose from, the right of parents to select their child's school was increasingly taken for granted.

That sentiment feels like it's here to stay, especially after three school years of pandemic disruption. But results-based school accountability is a different story. NCLB's heavy-handedness led to widespread backlash as schools that had long enjoyed fine reputations were dinged for not making "adequate yearly progress" for one or another student subgroup. By 2011, just under a majority of the nation's schools had been deemed failing. Given the choice of trusting a procrustean federal scheme or their own eyes, increasing numbers of parents, voters, and politicians lost faith in NCLB. Meanwhile, the federally prescribed grab bag of interventions intended to fix such problems was seen — not unreasonably — as rigid and often unworkable.

All of this would unexpectedly worsen with the additional reform wave powered by Obama's 2008 election.

PEAK TECHNOCRACY

When the 44th president took office in the teeth of the Great Recession, he moved rapidly to enact a massive economic-stimulus bill, which included over $100 billion for education generally and $4.35 billion more for Race to the Top — a program through which Congress instructed the Department of Education to reward states that improved on metrics like data quality and teaching effectiveness. As recession-afflicted states scrambled for the funds, the program appeared to be off to a promising start. Applicants were able to score up to 500 points by demonstrating fidelity to a checklist of 19 reforms, including replacing their own academic standards with the newly developed "Common Core" standards and signing on to elaborate protocols for evaluating teachers with the help of students' test scores.

On the surface, all seemed fine. The Common Core was energetically backed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a who's who of major foundations, and an all-star cast of reformers. Even Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, suggested that there could be a useful role for "value-added" scores in evaluating schools and teachers. But as states began to bridle at government overreach and the fight over Obama's massive federal spending fueled a Tea Party backlash that led to sweeping GOP midterm gains, both the Common Core and teacher evaluations became political flashpoints.

No one in school-reform circles believed those warning that the new reading and math standards, quietly adopted by dozens of states, would cause a fuss down the road. Yet those fights would ultimately mark the beginning of the end for the contemporary reform coalition. In hindsight, that collapse might well have been foreseen: Many teachers already resented the pedagogical, cultural, and curricular impact of having schools judged primarily on test scores in reading and math, and their resentment only deepened when it appeared that their livelihoods might be at stake on the basis of complex, opaque, value-added calculations that would soon be based on as-yet-unseen Common Core tests. All the while, the fond hope that good schools and teachers could be identified based on test scores was increasingly attacked by populists on the left and right as technocratic overreach.

These fights have been the subject of whole volumes (including some by the two of us). And while they can be explained as ferocious debates about the technical merits of how to evaluate teachers or structure math instruction, it's now clear that they can be better understood as cultural clashes masquerading as policy disputes. Reformers' success had been rooted in their ability to make school improvement about policy, insulating education from cultural tides. They had defended testing, standards, charter schools, and teacher quality with the mantra that these would help "leave no child behind." So long as this mantra was chanted by a chorus of business leaders, civil-rights groups, governors, and school reformers, critics could be dismissed as cranks and selfish partisans who were all too willing to leave children behind.

This approach was hugely effective, but also inherently unstable. Its certitude left no room for reformers to compromise with critics. The relentless focus on closing achievement gaps in poorly performing urban schools signaled that reformers didn't have much to say to all those parents in middling suburban or rural schools. And as the reforms grew increasingly esoteric and high-handed — as with teacher evaluations and the Common Core — many Americans started to recoil from what they saw as the handiwork of elite foundations, Washington bureaucrats, and over-credentialed experts.

Although the backlash against the Common Core did feature wonky critiques of the high-school math sequence and the language-arts standards' focus on non-fiction, it took off as complaints gained a populist edge — as when comedian Louis C. K. ridiculed his child's math homework on Twitter. Similarly, the debate about teacher evaluation turned into a proxy fight for educators bitter about anti-union celebrity superintendents, mocking magazine covers, and the attention lavished on school-reform movies that seemed to vilify teachers or their unions. The result was a populist uprising among parents and teachers who felt they'd been sidelined by distant, out-of-touch reformers. It resembled (and indeed, was part of) the general alienation that contributed to Donald Trump's electoral success a few years later.

Nor did reformers help themselves. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan denounced critics of the Common Core as conspiracy theorists and the Gates Foundation spent hundreds of millions to entice prominent school districts to replace their teacher evaluations, many felt that reform was being pushed forward by bullying and bribery. These efforts also ran afoul of the dreaded education "blob" consisting of recalcitrant school-system leaders, association heads, and teachers' unions — all of whom knew how to mouth the refrains required to pocket philanthropic and federal funds but then drag their heels, avoid uncomfortable measures, and blame inaction on dense webs of rules and regulations.

Things came to a head with the testing backlash, which put the reform coalition in tension with a widening swath of parents and teachers on both sides of the aisle. Critics of reform charged that testing took too much time, judged schools by overly cramped criteria, and led to an unhealthy narrowing of what was taught in classrooms. A brewing "opt-out" movement drew the media spotlight, especially when more than 20% of New York families refused to allow their kids to sit for state tests.

Uncle Sam's heavy hand on school accountability eased a bit with Congress's passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. Given the increasingly polarized environment on Capitol Hill and beyond, this act was another remarkable bipartisan accomplishment, effected primarily through arduous negotiations between Republican senator Lamar Alexander (the former governor and education secretary) and his Democratic counterpart, Patty Murray. Much of the decision-making regarding school performance and what (if anything) to do about faltering schools was returned to the states, leaving the accountability strand of reform to the tender mercies of each state's leaders and political culture.

Yet ESSA may have been the last gasp of the old reform coalition, illustrating the challenges of using policy changes to respond to roiling cultural conflicts and popular discontent. It passed shortly after Black Lives Matter emerged, and just as Trump was sailing to the lead in the Republican presidential primary. While ESSA showed that Washington could answer some of the concerns regarding the particulars of federally mandated reforms, it did nothing to assuage the frustration with reform in general or address long-submerged disagreements over what students were being taught about themselves, their country, and their values.

CULTURE TRUMPS POLICY

The unraveling of the education-reform coalition paralleled unhappy developments in the nation's broader political firmament. In the K-12 realm, reformers on the left backed away from both school choice and results-based accountability, and instead hotly pursued a new social-justice agenda notable for its emphasis on race consciousness, dismissal of traditional notions of merit (which it derided as systemically racist), historical revisionism of the kind pioneered by Howard Zinn, and alternatives to traditional academic instruction (such as social-emotional learning). At the same time, reformers on the right largely set aside their interest in accountability while doubling down on school choice.

The sparks were lit during the movement to opt out of testing, as fights over teacher evaluations morphed into a teachers' union counterattack on core elements of school reform. Starting in West Virginia, then spreading to Oklahoma, Arizona, California, Colorado, and elsewhere, teachers seeking higher pay launched the first widespread American teacher strikes since the 1970s. The movement — quickly branded "Red for Ed" because the first several strikes unfolded in Republican states — racked up a series of victories. It also shifted the public narrative: For the first time in ages, teachers' unions found themselves portrayed as the good guys. Tales of hardworking, unappreciated, and sorely underpaid teachers filled the papers. Democratic reformers who had long sparred with the unions suddenly rebranded themselves as allies.

Meanwhile, reformers on the right went all in for school choice. No longer calling for just charter schools and targeted voucher programs, they gave voice to a much more sweeping demand for universal choice — including expansive voucher programs and education savings accounts. At the same time, support for results-based accountability largely waned, partly due to the Common Core backlash and partly because anything pushed from Washington — particularly Obama's Washington — stuck in the conservative craw.

The Obama administration itself only fanned these flames. In the civil-rights realm, for example, Obama's education and justice departments effectively called for race-based disciplinary quotas, threatening school districts with serious consequences if their disciplinary practices had a disparate impact on minority youngsters (never mind whether the classroom disruptions that led teachers and principals to suspend students may have had disparate origins). The presumption of racism began to take root in federal policy. That stuck in many craws — and not just those on the right.

All this, it is important to note, was underway long before Trump darkened our national mood, widened schisms, and embraced school choice, prompting progressives to back further away from any reform agenda with which he might be associated. During the Trump years, race-related issues would loom larger in American life than they had for decades. This came as a bit of a surprise to many Americans in the chattering classes, who thought they had witnessed racial tensions ease in the aftermath of the civil-rights advances of the 1960s and '70s (and, of course, with Obama's own election). It wasn't crazy, they imagined, to suppose that a moment of racial harmony and semblance of equality had finally arrived.

It wasn't crazy, but neither was it accurate. For decades, tens of millions of Americans had opted to send their children to schools with others like them, whether racially or culturally or socioeconomically. There had long been pushback against forceful efforts to integrate "those other kids" into "my kid's school." These fights were race-conscious and class-conscious (as well as convenience- and safety-conscious), even if people didn't discuss such things in those terms. Race-consciousness was also resurfacing in conjunction with aggressive federal civil-rights enforcement, race-baiting electoral strategies, and shocking episodes of law-enforcement violence that were often racially tinged.

These race-centric tensions would take on new salience when it came to education. Some of this took the form of policy debates — over admission to gifted-student programs and elite colleges, the fairness of the SAT, and the value of aggressive enforcement of civil-rights laws, for example. The more radical language and viewpoints tended to seep from the academy into the webs of left-leaning funders, school leaders, advocates, and curriculum developers. In time, it was probably inevitable that all of this would bear fruits like the 1619 Project and the panoply of theories and practices loosely labeled "critical race theory."

As that brew percolated deeper into core cultural institutions — including the academy, the media, the commentariat, and even the sports and entertainment industries, not to mention elected officials and those campaigning to replace them — school reformers' tacit agreement to eschew cultural clash in favor of policy unity became increasingly untenable. Those who yearned for the policy-centric agreements of the recent past were no longer heralded as responsible leaders or rewarded for courting the middle; instead, performative critics on the left and right attacked them on social media and cable news as unprincipled and out of touch.

The upshot was that the activists, advocates, foundation staffers, education-school professors, and 20-somethings who dominated the left's education efforts finally felt liberated from the discipline imposed by bipartisanship and the focus on policy. Swept along by Black Lives Matter, an increasingly strident Twitter presence, and a furious tide of anti-Trumpism, they put race, gender, and an ever-expanding notion of equity at the heart of their efforts. "Anti-racism," as pioneered by MacArthur genius-grant winner Ibram Kendi, became the watchword for the education left, fueled by the conviction that America is defined by deep-seated, systemic racism that can only be addressed by race-conscious responses.

Many of the same advocates and foundation officials who had embraced testing, intricate teacher-evaluation systems, "no excuses" charter schools, and new math standards just a few years earlier reimagined themselves as anti-racist culture warriors. They pushed teacher training that would force white teachers to confront their "hardwired" biases. They rejected norms related to timeliness, merit, and personal responsibility as vestiges of white culture, with even the famed KIPP charter schools abandoning their quarter-century old motto "Work hard. Be nice." Activists also took aim at test-based admission to magnet schools, advanced coursework, graduation requirements, and even the expectation that students answer math problems correctly — dismissing all these, too, as systemically racist.

Given how school reform had placed achievement and its gaps at the forefront, this increasing radicalization of the left had profound effects on what remained of the education-reform consensus. Conservatives who still thought school reform rested on a vision of working hard and playing by the rules were caught off guard by reformers who suddenly viewed American values like personal responsibility as indelibly stamped with white supremacy. Meanwhile, progressive reformers cast off the terms of the coalition's one-time cultural truce and showed themselves quite willing to depict conservative school reformers as racists and mendacious Trump enablers.

The left's new reform agenda appealed to many in part due to the unhappy fact that the bipartisan reform agenda had delivered skimpy results. Achievement increased only modestly in the 2000s, then plateaued in the 2010s. Little or no progress, overall or on closing racial gaps, had been made since George W. Bush turned the Oval Office over to Obama. The right could point to this record as proof that public education was irrevocably broken, bolstering its case for school choice. (In fact, Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos repeatedly made that very argument.) But the reform left was deeply invested in Race to the Top, the multibillion-dollar School Improvement Grant program, teacher evaluation, and the Common Core — and it would have to own a disappointing record of failure if miscalculation and federal fumbling were to blame.

All of this made the anti-racist narrative awfully convenient. If the central problem — the root of all other failings — was America's deep-seated racism, then it wasn't that reformers had miscalculated or that their reforms had failed; it was that American culture writ large was systematically stacked against minority children. This alternative explanation naturally appealed to the progressive denizens of foundation offices and education-advocacy groups, who were able to seamlessly shift their diagnoses from weak standards and inadequate accountability to the need for anti-racist curricula, "privilege walks," ethnic studies, social and emotional learning, and "action civics."

THE NEXT REFORM COALITION

By the dawn of the Biden administration — as the public fought over school closures, remote learning, and mask and vaccine mandates — conservatives had rallied around school choice and opposition to CRT, while the left embraced more school spending and argued that only transformational civic and cultural change could save a failing nation. Thus, in curious but crucial ways, the nation's education debates came full circle — back to a pre-Nation at Risk focus on dollars and culture, with genuine policy disputes relegated to the back seat.

Pundits, philanthropists, and a few diehard centrists seem to regard the headline here as the "end of bipartisanship." That's not exactly wrong, but it tends to seize the wrong end of the stick. Bipartisanship on school reform was due less to a transcendent impulse to come together than to a baseline agreement on core issues — which is all but gone today. Yesterday's school-reform bipartisanship was born of broad-based consensus about the role of government, the importance of personal responsibility, the meaning of opportunity, and the economic importance of formal education. As that consensus gave way, the reform movement came to rest on an ever-shakier foundation.

Did the movement do any good while it lasted? It certainly yielded unprecedented transparency regarding student achievement. It produced a massive expansion of charter schooling and parental choice. And it pushed educational outcomes to the center of the national conversation about opportunity and economic growth. Yet there's scant evidence that it improved student outcomes, especially in the upper grades. Meanwhile, by enlisting Uncle Sam as the nation's school superintendent, reformers helped entangle education fights with broader clashes over politics and culture. Along the way, they narrowed school curricula, dismissed the concerns of middle-class parents, and defined success using a race-centric notion of achievement gaps.

That is not the end of the story, of course. Much as the era just past emerged from the aftermath of the spending/busing/special-education era that had preceded it, so too will future reform arise from the aftershocks of the NCLB/Race to the Top era. For a new reform coalition to muster the strength needed to successfully battle a recalcitrant education blob and powerful teachers' unions, it will need the muscle afforded by a broad alliance rooted in shared cultural agreements and goals. It goes without saying that opportunities for agreement are difficult to spot right now, and such a coalition would have to pull against the centrifugal forces of polarization — a marked contrast to the previous era in which prominent politicians and advocates found centrism a source of political reward.

That means it may be a while before a broad new reform agenda begins to coalesce. Until then, we may be in for a period of red reform and blue reform. But since the time of Horace Mann and his fellow "common school" reformers nearly two centuries past, school reform has proven to be a phoenix, with each movement's demise inevitably clearing the way for the next. Given that history, it's a safe bet that some new coalition will eventually rise from the ashes. What shape it may take and how long it will be until then, we cannot yet say.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


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