A Nation of Little Lebowski Urban Achievers

Now, instead of saying "our socioeconomic system is failing us,” an entire generation of children will learn to say, “I have failed myself.”

(photo by kenfagerdotcom / flickr)

The year Reagan was elected to his first term, the GOP’s educational agenda consisted of two main objectives: “bring God back into the classroom” and abolish the Department of Education. This put the Reagan-appointed Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell, in an awkward position. Pressured to dismantle the very organization he’d been chosen to oversee, Bell asked the President to devise a national task force on American education, which he hoped would show the necessity of federal involvement in public schools. Bell, notorious within the cabinet for being too liberal, was ignored.

He responded by assembling the task force himself. Chaired by David Pierpont Gardner, president of the University of Utah and an active member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the eighteen members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) were charged with synthesizing a vast archive of data that had been collected but never before analyzed by the Department of Education and making recommendations based on their findings. In his autobiography, The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir, Bell insists that he did not even hint to the NCEE what these recommendations should be — and yet, his designs were evident: “I wanted to stage an event that would jar the people into action on behalf of their educational system,” he writes. Milt Goldberg, a prominent member of the commission, later remarked in an interview that he believed Bell had always seen the NCEE “as a way to shore up the Department of Education.”

In 1983, the NCEE released A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform — arguably the most influential document on education policy since Congress passed Title I in 1965. But where Title I took an equalizing approach to reform, prioritizing the distribution of funds to districts comprised primarily of students from low-income families, A Nation at Risk called for higher expectations for all students, regardless of socio-economic status: “We must demand the best effort and performance from all students, whether they are gifted or less able, affluent or disadvantaged, whether destined for college, the farm, or industry.”

At the time of the report’s release, Americans were, as Bell recalls, fraught with anxiety over job loss, inflation, international industrial competition, and a perceived decline in prestige due to the hostage crisis in Iran. Education ranked low on the list of national priorities. So the NCEE used the language of warfare to conflate what was supposedly a crisis in public schools with a crisis in national security. The “risk” in the title refers to the once unthinkable loss of global dominance. The US was threatened by a “rising tide of mediocrity,” said the authors of the report, and, somewhat more ambiguously, by a lack of a shared vision. Riding the most recent wave of hysteria over the Cold War, they warned, “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.”

The problem, as they saw it, was that kids were graduating from high school unprepared for success in a global economy. Their solution was more effort, with an emphasis on the advancement of students’ personal, educational, and occupational goals. A list of action items to be implemented immediately included: performance-based salaries for teachers, the use of standardized tests for evaluation, grade placement determined by progress rather than by age, the shuttling of disruptive students to alternative schools, increased homework load, attendance policies with incentives and sanctions, and the extension of the school day — in other words, longer, harder hours. Every one of these ideas is rooted in the free market ideology of business. For the first time since Sputnik, the role of the public schools had been re-imagined as a kind of baptism by fire into the competitive world of adulthood.

“Overall, I felt that [Reagan] could support its findings and recommendations while rejecting massive federal spending,” says Bell. As one journalist noted at the time, the language of A Nation at Risk was clearly meant to jar Reagan into action. By that measure, the report was a smashing success. The publicity inspired by the narrative of a hidden crisis in the public schools made it politically impossible for Reagan to shut down the Department of Education. And the incorporation of free market language gave him a reason to embrace it, which he did, a year later – taking credit for having assembled the commission in his 1984 State of the Union Address.

In 1988, Congress’s reauthorization of ESEA (the bill that provides federal funding to American public schools) required for the first time that states “define the levels of academic achievement that poor students should attain” and “identify schools in which students were not achieving as expected.” George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s Republican successor, referred to himself as the “Education President,” an issue the Republicans had previously been happy to let the Democrats own. The conventional wisdom that schools were in crisis was now accepted as fact.

But had the NCEE really understood the data they were tasked with analyzing? A Nation at Risk contains zero citations, making its claims difficult to verify. Two sociologists of education, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, have argued that a main point on which the authors based their recommendations — that SAT scores had steadily declined since the 1960s — was actually a misinterpretation of the data. As a voluntary test taken specifically by those intending to go to college, the SAT should never have been aggregated to evaluate the quality of teachers or schools. The slight drop in test scores interpreted by the commission to mean that America’s schools  (and its prosperity, security, and civility) were spiraling downward, instead reflected a postwar shift toward inclusion, as more and more people signed up to take the test. Disaggregated data shows that math scores for all groups during the years preceding the release of the report increased, while verbal scores remained constant.

A Nation at Risk also failed to recognize that achievement in the more affluent districts of the US is relatively strong compared to students in other countries. US test scores are lower than those of Canada and Sweden because we have a disproportionate amount of low-income students compared to those countries (over 20 percent of children in the United States live in poverty). One of the few consistent findings of education researchers is that concentrated poverty lowers the quality of education in every school where the percentage of poor students rises above a certain level. Class integration, it seems, is the only proven means of raising educational outcomes.

The American habit of viewing public schools as the great equalizer of our society has often lead us to graft our fantasies, anxieties, and dreams onto the education system. For most of our history, education has been the only real form of a social safety net, meaning that the schools are the arena in which social apprehensions are played out. It makes sense then, that as mainstream attitudes toward the problems of the country’s growing lower class changed in the 1980s, the way politicians and policymakers talked about the problems facing the nation’s schools also changed. If self-reliance was all that was required to compete financially, it followed that raising standards and holding students, parents, and schools accountable was all that was required to succeed academically.

Over the past thirty years, as the focus of educational policy has shifted from equity to excellence, the gaps in achievement between black and white students and rich and poor students have widened. The gains of the 1970s are gone. “Excellence” and equity have been shown to be almost mutually exclusive in practice.

Of course, A Nation at Risk wasn’t influential because it was accurate. It was influential because it was the version of events that American voters and policymakers wanted to believe at the time. It had the convenient effect of converting what had been a material crisis into a struggle for the soul of American schools, a corporeal problem into a deficiency of gumption. Its tantalizingly simplistic implication was that social problems arise not from a specific set of policies and realities — segregation, discrimination, poverty — but from a lack of willpower: the obscure malaise hinted at in A Nation At Risk. If a poor kid couldn’t succeed, she just didn’t have the right attitude. That is not an overstatement; it is the central assumption that animates every initiative we gather together and call education reform.

And though today this view usually hides behind the kind of technocratic utopianism we associate with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Newt Gingrich’s recent comments about what to do with “a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing” cut to the vulgar core of the whole enterprise. Gingrich believes that such schools “ought to get rid of the unionized janitors . . . and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash . . . they’d begin the process of rising.” This may sound crass, but it shouldn’t be surprising. It is simply a tactless articulation of the market-based mindset — advocating for choice, merit-pay, and standardization of assessments and curriculum — that has dominated policy discussions since the 1980s.

The problem, according to Gingrich, is that poor kids just aren’t up to the boot-strapping required for success in today’s economy: “Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday.” The problem, according to proponents of marketization and accountability, is that poor kids don’t have access to the kinds of opportunities — or the system of goals, rewards, and punishments — that would allow them to pull themselves up. The diagnosis is the same: better yourself, work harder, perhaps find a rich mentor, and you will be rewarded. Days after Gingrich was excoriated in the New York Times, a blogger at the pro-charter Hoover Institute asked, Is it time for education reformers to pay Gingrich some more attention? Yeah, Newt’s a goofball, and an easy target for bleeding-heart liberals, the writer argued, but he’s also right.

Under the influence of these reformers, the American education system has become less about curriculum and critical thinking, and more like Oprah: a program of self-mastery framed as a moral imperative. In public schools across the country, particularly urban ones, social studies and music classes are commonly replaced by the kind of glorified vocational training called for in A Nation at Risk. The pro-charter Gates Foundation, which has spent $5 billion dollars on urban education initiatives over the past ten years, began to advocate that summer internships be made a permanent part of the high school curriculum in 2006. Andrew Carnegie was content to control the building and naming of cultural institutions; the new wave of philanthrocapitalists, with Gates at the forefront, wants a say in what goes on inside them.

With donor cash comes a set of beliefs, awkwardly transplanted from the business world to the classroom: the management guru’s vision of empowerment as a personal struggle, the CEO’s conviction that individual success is limited only by a lack of ambition, life as a series of goals waiting to be met. The type of advice once reserved for dieters, rookie sales associates, and the unemployed is now repeated to public school children with new age fervor: Think positive. Set goals and achieve them. Reach for the stars. Race to the top. It’s never too early to network. Just smile. Like the promise of A Nation at Risk, these admonitions are at once wildly idealistic and bitterly cruel: “You forfeit your chance for life at its fullest when you withhold your best effort in learning . . . When you work to your full capacity, you can hope to attain the knowledge and skills that will enable you to create your future and control your destiny. If you do not, you will have your future thrust upon you by others.” Convert every challenge into an opportunity, or else.

But who will coach you towards your goals? As it happens, this is exactly the kind of thing at which the business community excels. A new genre of nonprofits has been invented solely for the purpose of connecting business leaders with high school principals. The website for PENCIL, one such organization, features pictures of prominent business people (the VP of human capital management at Goldman Sachs, the CEO of JetBlue) smiling in front of a chalkboard, surrounded by drawings of mountains, and spaceships. “See how an airline mogul is encouraging students at Aviation High School to soar. See how a visionary is helping students at P.S. 86K build a greener planet,” reads the accompanying text. The business leader is the ultimate embodiment of success. When you conceive of the schools as a holding pen for grooming tomorrow’s talent, it makes sense to turn to him or her for expert counsel. This is exactly the kind of thinking that lead New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to plea to the business community for support on PENCIL’s behalf. The message to businesses: we need you now more than ever.

Just as Oprah’s exhortation to Live Your Best Life was eventually stamped and sold on a line of low-calorie packaged foods, a for-profit testing industry has risen to provide the instruments of American students’ transformation into fearless, proficient, and likable employees. However, neither the food sales, nor the Scantron tests, are the point. The most radical change currently underway in American public schools is the reconceptualization of the role of the student from learner to beneficiary.

A press release for the Goldman Sachs Foundations’ Next Generation Fund refers paternalistically to “disadvantaged youth” as “undeveloped ‘diamonds in the rough,’ unprepared for the intense competition for coveted places in higher education and the professional world.” But, as John Dewey wrote, perhaps too optimistically, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Children are by definition low performers compared to adults. The business leader and the education reformer seek to improve the child, because childhood, in the logic of capitalism, is a temporary setback from productivity which must be overcome. There are two conditions that students and teachers can feel in response: self-mastery or gratitude.

The movement towards higher standards and market-based reforms ignited by A Nation at Risk took place within the historical context of an intensifying stratification of resources along race and class lines, and the division of people into leaders and subordinates is an intrinsic aspect of education reform. Its leaders are overwhelmingly adult administrators, philanthropists, and venture capitalists (usually men) while the people who are most affected by it are teachers (usually women) and children with comparatively little or no economic power. The crisis we face is one of inequality and wealth distribution, not a vague collective decline towards sloppiness.

It is questionable whether public schools have actually “failed” on a national level, but even if that’s the case, the failure is systemic, not the product of the inexplicable, synchronized mediocrity of a few individuals who need a little encouragement. The religion of self-improvement is a way of redirecting criticisms or outrage from socio-economic structures back to the individual, imprisoning any reformist or revolutionary impulse within our own feelings of inadequacy — which is why the process of improving our nation’s schools has taken on the tone of a spiritual cleansing rather than a political reckoning. Now, instead of saying “our socioeconomic system is failing us,” an entire generation of children will learn to say, “I have failed myself.”