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In 1988, the year school integration reached an all-time high,[1] the 8th grade reading scores on the NAEP Test (also known as “the nation’s report card”) showed the smallest “achievement gap” between white and black students in the test’s entire history at 18 points, having shrunk from 39 points since 1971. 

By 1992, the gap had increased to 30 points. It has not dropped below 25 points since

We are marking the 35th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” the report prepared by a committee at the behest of President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education in 1983, which first broadcast the “failing schools” narrative, warning us of a “rising tide of mediocrity” so severe even our national security was at risk.

At NPR, Anya Kamenetz provides some excellent history and background on the preparation and reception of the report, reminding us that even the report’s authors admit that it was flawed from its inception, a conclusion looking for cover. The committee members were convinced schools were failing, so they went looking for proof and by gum, they found it.

She also recaps the fate of the much less well known Sandia Report, commissioned by the Department of Energy in 1990 as a follow-up to “A Nation at Risk” which started without a fixed premise and ended up with the opposite conclusion, schools were not failing. In fact, most categories of students were showing steady improvement.

This report was suppressed by Republicans who had found a handy political cudgel in the “failing schools” narrative, which they could then use to clobber Democrats and their teachers union supporters with.

On the anniversary of “A Nation at Risk” there’s been a lot of discussion about the consequences of the report and its role in launching the assessment and standardization era of school reform. The belief in the benefits of competition to education had no foundation in either historical precedent, nor contemporaneous data, and yet, it became an article of faith so strong, that even after 35 years of failure as evidenced by the school reformers preferred measurements, there are many who continue to cling to it.

I think of “A Nation at Risk” as the Gulf of Tonkin incident or “Iraq has WMD’s” of education reform, a decades long war launched by a lie.

And like Vietnam and the Iraq invasion, “A Nation at Risk” was motivated not by reason or empirical evidence, but faith and ideology.

At the ceremony marking the completion of the report, President Reagan declared his intention to pursue a laundry list of privatization policies consistent with his party’s overarching governing philosophies, none of which received mention in the report itself:

“We'll continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education. Our agenda is to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control.” 

After many years of failing to help student achievement, but much success in eroding belief in education as a public good, while funneling public dollars into private hands, the program continues pretty much unchanged to this day. If I had said those remarks belonged to current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, no one would’ve bothered to check.[2]

“Education is the civil rights issue of our time” has become such a cliché that our most recent three presidents have all invoked it either in spirit or using those exact words, as President Trump in his first joint address to Congress in 2017. 

If this is true, we are fortunate to have a remedy for achieving equality, one that has been shown to work previously, desegregated schools.

As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones outlined in a two part report on This American Life, "The Problem We All Live With," the single greatest tool for shrinking the achievement gap is desegregation. It is also a solution which we seem incapable of embracing, as demonstrated recently by white parents from New York’s Upper West Side seemingly ready to riot over a proposal to make space for minority students at their high performing school. In these parents’ minds their children had somehow earned the right to a “good” school, and the mere presence of minority students would inevitably be somehow “unfair.”

And yet, research again and again has demonstrated that proximity to white students shrinks the achievement gap for minority students without harming the outcomes for white students. 

Separate but equal has always been a lie.

Instead of continuing a path which had been working, we began a steady program of school re-segregation couched in the language of choice, competition, and “freedom.” Charter schools and school choice have led to students going to schools which are racially “isolated.” The percentage of “hyper-segregated” schools, in which 90% or more students are minorities increased from 5.7% in 1988 to 18.4% in 2016. 

A recent study of New York City found that segregated schools cannot be blamed on segregated neighborhoods, with 40% of kindergartners attending a school to which they were not assigned, parents selecting schools which have fewer poor students and those which have higher test scores.[3] 

Guess which students are the primary beneficiaries of these policies.

The damage of “A Nation at Risk” is almost too great to reckon with. I believe you can draw a straight line between “A Nation at Risk” and the erosion of public support of public education until we have finally arrived at a point where teachers must put themselves on the line conducting wildcat strikes to save what needs saving.

And what happens if we imagine a world in which we had continued the difficult and fraught, but worthwhile work of desegregation?

By this point, we would have experienced two generations of students educated and socialized in increasingly integrated schools.

Am I wrong to think we would not see stories like those coming out of the Chicago-area Noble Charters where female students are not allowed sufficient time to use the bathroom during their menstrual periods, and are instead “allowed” to “tie a Noble sweater around their waist, to hide the blood stains”? 

Am I wrong to imagine that in such a world, Donald Trump’s mere mention of Hispanic people at a campaign-style rally in Michigan this past weekend would not have been met with a smattering of jeers? [4]

Am I wrong to think we might be able to retire “Education is the civil rights issue of our time once and for all”?[5]

The idea that the education reform efforts over the years have been mitigating the damage of diminished resources and increasing poverty requires us to forget that the last 35 years of reform are part and parcel with the policies that have allowed these larger inequalities to persist.

We have the blueprint for pursuing equality. We had it in 1983 when a desired political outcome dictated policy and overrode the evidence. Hell, we had it 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and we had it in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. What needs to be done hasn’t changed. The question is if those in power will be brave enough to step back from the big lie and dig in on the much more difficult truths.


[1]Just shy of 45% of black students attended majority white high schools. 

[2] Ironically, Reagan’s initial push was meant to move the Federal government out of education, with its role, in his words, “limited to specific areas, and any assistance should be provided with a minimum of administrative burdens on our schools, colleges, and teachers.” In the end, though, the failing schools narrative was so persuasive, more and more Federal oversight was not only tolerated, but became truly bipartisan. A significant reason for the bipartisan consensus on education reform was motivated by Democrats’ need to disarm schools as an electoral weapon. For example, Bill Clinton promised to “out tough” George H.W. Bush on education. The Obama Department of Education was virtually indistinguishable from that of George W. Bush. Indeed, by the 2016 election, education was barely an issue because there was so little daylight between the parties.

[3] Baltimore evidences a similar phenomenon. I would guess you could go to any city with a significant minority population and find the same.

[4] Approximately 45:45 into the speech.

[5] If the achievement gap had continued to close at the same rate as from 1971 to 1988, it would be less than three points.

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