What the Last Two Decades Have Taught Us About School Reform

At the end of last year, my colleague Ilana Ovental and I took a deep look into the media coverage of education during the pandemic. Part of that analysis asked whether — and how — coverage changed over time. So, we used Lexis Nexis to track the attention devoted to leading K-12 topics over the past couple decades. If you want to see the results for yourself, check it out here.

I was struck by how neatly the past two decades can be broken out into three (or perhaps three and a half) eras of school reform — a framing that can help us understand where we are and how we got here. Especially in a time when pandemic, political strife, hyperactive news cycles, and culture war can make six months seem like a lifetime, it’s worth taking a moment to step back in search of context.

If you’ll eyeball the peaks in the above graph, you’ll note that the 21st century seems to order itself pretty neatly into a series of successive eras. The first of these, spanning roughly the length of the Bush administration, was the decade long rise and fall of No Child Left Behind. It took a couple years for NCLB to settle into the public consciousness, but, before long, it was the ubiquitous framing for all matters K-12. “Achievement gaps” became the lingua franca of advocates and funders; “AYP” (adequate yearly progress) became the measure of success.

By the dawn of the Obama years, amid concerns about excessive testing, high-stakes accountability, and a “race to the bottom,” NCLB had started to collapse under its own weight. In response, there was bursting interest in Obama’s Race to the Top, though attention to that was dwarfed by the rapid ascendance of its most controversial element: the Common Core State Standards.

The emphasis on testing and accountability shifted to academic standards. There was heated debate about new math, the status of fiction, and whether standards were a stealth mechanism for increasing federal control. Talk of “international benchmarking” and “systems interoperability” became the mantra for would-be reformers and enthusiastic funders.

So, we’d gone from federally driven testing and accountability to federally encouraged/subsidized/mandated (choose your verb) efforts to standardize reading and math standards. And then — as Checker Finn and I observed last year in “The End of School Reform?” — these efforts ran afoul of the populist wave that swept the nation in the 2010s. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to the Trump/MAGA phenomenon, there was a multipronged attack on established institutions.

Thus, it’s not all that surprising that no new program rose to prominence as the Common Core lost altitude. Instead, there emerged a half-peak for school choice — perhaps the single education reform most aligned with a populist skepticism of institutional power. At the same time, this was less a case of choice exploding to prominence and more a case of steady growth amid something of a vacuum. Even with the determined, controversial efforts of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, school choice got barely half the media attention that NCLB and Common Core did at their peaks.

And more recently, we’ve seen the explosive, culture clash-fueled rise in attention to race-based curriculum and pedagogy (all playing out under the banner of critical race theory). Whether this third, culture war-driven wave will have the staying power of the wonkier previous waves remains to be seen.

Looking over two decades, I see the larger shift from slow-building policy debate to the rapid emergence of cultural conflict being noteworthy, even if I’m not sure what to make of it. For starters, I’ve no idea whether it’s a cyclical thing or something more permanent, or whether it tells us more about shifts in the schooling, media, public debate — or something of each.

One final thought: After doing this work for several decades, I can’t help but notice how seamlessly advocacy groups, associations, and other activists will pivot to reflect the zeitgeist of the day. So, in 2007, mission statements were all about “closing achievement gaps.” Five years later, they’d morphed into celebrating the importance of common standards. Today, the language has morphed again.

Some of this, I’m sure, is inevitable and even healthy. But chasing currents can also make organizations look unprincipled, feed cynicism, and leave them chasing every spin of the wheel. Keeping in mind that these tides ebb and flow might just give educators, leaders, and advocates more confidence to hold tight to the things they really value and more pause when they feel that pressure to chase the crowd.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.



Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.

Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.