Defining Ideas

A Short History of K-12 Reform

Thursday, March 14, 2013
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Barbara Kelley

Are “education years” more like “dog years” or “people years”? Is twenty of them a long time or a short time? How much can happen in education in two decades? More, it seems, than one might suppose.

Yes, the K-12 enterprise is slow to change, full of inertia and sameness. Yes, much about today’s schools resembles the schools attended by their pupils’ parents, even grandparents. Few can rebut the familiar comment that if Rip Van Winkle awoke in America today after a snooze of twenty years or longer, the two institutions he would find most like those when he fell asleep are our churches and our schools.

  a brief history of k-12 reform by chester finn  
  Illustration by Barbara Kelley

At the same time, primary-secondary education is also awash in fads, nostrums, and “innovations” that sometimes make it resemble a ping-pong game or pool table on which the instructional ball bounces off one notion, then caroms to the next new thing.

Indeed, part of what keeps our education system more dysfunctional and less effective than it ought to be is its weird blend of timeless and trendy, static and fluid, rigid and random.

Despite all that, much that’s significant can change in this system over twenty years, both for better and for worse. Some developments are straightforward and predictable, like the phases of the moon. During a two-decade period, an entire generation of children matures from infancy to college. Some sixty million Americans earn high-school diplomas—and maybe 20 million more drop out. Those who entered kindergarten at the beginning of the period will possess graduate degrees at the end of it—well, some of them will. Millions of teachers and tens of thousands of principals will be replaced by people not currently employed in those positions. Urban school districts will run through a half dozen superintendents each. States will elect up to five governors.

Yet more profound changes can also occur during such a time-span, changes that alter the norms, ground-rules or operating arrangements of the system itself. They may not all be positive and they surely won’t have the same impacts everywhere at the same time. But they may still be fundamental.

The Last Two Decades of Reform

One way to gauge what could actually occur in American K-12 education between now and 2030 is to recall some of what did occur over the previous two decades, i.e. between 1990 and 2010. Here I recount ten such developments. All were in some sense “national” but only three engaged the federal government to an appreciable degree. The others seeped, slithered, morphed, and metastasized from place to place via mechanisms that have more to do with the culture of education than with its formal governance.  

First, observe the extraordinary traction that was gained by “standards-based reform” at both state and national levels. One could fairly say this began with A Nation At Risk in 1983—and I’ll note with some satisfaction that Diane Ravitch and I were embarked on such a mission via the “Educational Excellence Network” as early as 1981. (One could also argue that James Coleman sowed the seeds in 1966.)  

But the enterprise really took off after the 1989 Charlottesville education “summit” attended by President Clinton and the governors and it gained momentum when America’s first-ever “national education goals” were announced in early 1990. The development of academic goals, standards, assessments, tracking metrics, and accountability systems began to be a big deal across the land—and this shows no sign of abating. We now judge schools (and districts, states, etc.) primarily by their results, not by their inputs, services, or intentions. That simply wasn’t true two decades ago.

Second, the era of standards-based-reform has wrought big-time changes in federal policy. In 1990, for the most part, Washington’s “aid to education” was just that—additional money to state and local school systems so they could provide added services of various sorts, primarily to needy and disabled youngsters. Strings were attached, yes, but these had more to do with the distribution and use of dollars than the reform of schools. Beginning in a big way in 1994, however, with passage of both the Goals 2000 Act and the “Improving America’s Schools” act, the federal government started deploying its funds in efforts to transform the performance of U.S. schools, primarily via the setting of goals and standards and the measurement of progress toward them.

Over this twenty year period, Uncle Sam shifted from “help” to “implore” to “push” to “require” and, while the money continued to flow, indeed in ever-larger amounts, the strings attached to it were now very different. This process reached its apogee—some would say nadir—with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the “Race to the Top” portion of 2009’s economic-stimulus package.

Third, besides fundamental alterations in the nature of education aid, Washington transformed its key monitoring system, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a.k.a. “The Nation’s Report Card.” The reauthorization of NAEP in 1988—which took effect around 1990—changed what had been a pokey and obscure testing program that yielded only general information into a modern performance-monitoring system that includes semi-independent governance, more frequent testing of more subjects at key grade levels, far greater transparency in reporting results and trends, bona fide state-by-state comparisons, and a semblance of uniform national standards by which to track and judge the academic prowess of young Americans and the performance of their education system.

The Rise of School Choice

Fourth, charter schools were invented, spread across the land, and won a measure of legitimacy. These “independent public schools of choice” are operated by myriad private entities rather than traditional districts, yet (unlike private schools) are financed by taxpayers, open to all comers, and accountable for their results to public authorities. Though they bear some resemblance to private schools, magnet schools, “alternative” schools, and other earlier arrangements, they are also something fundamentally new under the education sun.

The first one opened in Minnesota in 1992 and, by 2010, some 5,000 schools were serving 1.5 million youngsters in 39 states. Hundreds were run by statewide, regional, even national management organizations (some of which were starting to reach overseas), and the United States was seeing the emergence of chains of “brand-name” schools—e.g. KIPP, Achievement First, High Tech High, K12, etc.—that crossed traditional district and even state borders.

Fifth, charters turned out to be the tip of an iceberg of school choice that, when tallied in all its variety, touched roughly half of all students by 2010. That is, five in every ten pupils were enrolled in schools that they or their parents played an active role in selecting rather than passively being assigned by a district bureaucracy with geographically-based attendance zones.

To be sure, the fifty-percent estimate (some analysts say it’s more like sixty) includes millions families that exercise choice via the real-estate market, i.e. kids attend “neighborhood” schools but in neighborhoods that their parents moved into because of the schools there. But more than one in three were being educated in bona fide “schools of choice” of many sorts—including learning at home from their parents or from a widening array of distance-learning and “virtual education” providers.

Some even attended private schools with the help of publicly-financed vouchers, these having passed a key federal constitutional test with the Supreme Court’s 2003 Zelman decision. (Voucher advocates continued, however, to face many hurdles in state constitutions and legislative chambers.) Though tens of millions of youngsters still had no viable options other than neighborhood-based and district-operated schools—which served some of them well but yielded educational tragedy for others—America by 2010 had changed a fundamental ground-rule: school was now something you could expect to select for yourself rather than be assigned to by the system.

Sixth, the operation of individual schools was not the only core education function that witnessed the entry of unconventional and entrepreneurial providers. Though most teacher preparation still took place in traditional colleges of education and most of their graduates were still “certified” by states in familiar ways, lots more alternatives were visible by 2010. Many states had pathways into public-school teaching that did not pass through education schools, at least not in advance of one’s first teaching assignment. A number of school systems ran their own preparation-and-certification programs as did at least one charter operator (California’s High-Tech High).

National non-profit groups such as Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools recruited, prepared, and placed talented individuals in classrooms and principals’ offices who otherwise would not likely have gotten there. And dozens of for-profit firms (e.g. Kaplan, Wireless Generation,, SchoolNet) supplied schools with data systems, tutoring programs, curriculum packages, and more. Though traditional education groups continued to hold their enormous conclaves, anyone who set foot in the annual “summit” organized by the New Schools Venture Fund might well think he had entered an alternate universe. 

Seventh, hoary patterns of governance and leadership also underwent revision—at least in some places. Governors asserted themselves in state-level K-12 policies and operations in ways that most had historically shunned. In several major cities, mayors assumed control of the school system. And where formerly the title of district superintendent was invariably bestowed on a career-long educator who had climbed the well-worn ladder from teacher to principal to assistant superintendent, etc., the leadership mantle in a handful of pioneering communities was now conferred on such unconventional characters as Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, Michelle Rhee, David Bennet, Arne Duncan, and Alan Bersin. Some state superintendents, too, now hailed from the ranks of non-educators (e.g. California’s Jack O’Connell, Texas’s Robert Scott).

Eighth, as we might expect—because much the same thing was happening in nearly every other sector of our lives—technology wrought major changes in education delivery and management. Whether taken in school under the teacher’s eye, at home under a parent’s supervision, or through organizational hybrids such as the Florida Virtual School or Ohio Virtual Academy, “online” courses spread far and wide and management gurus such as Harvard’s Clayton Christensen prophesied dramatic growth in the years ahead.

Improved data systems made it possible to track pupil and classroom performance, to evaluate teacher effectiveness, to provide parents as well as teachers and principals with instant access to information about children’s progress, and much more. E-mail enabled parents to communicate with teachers and the internet enabled teachers and students alike to access vast troves of information and materials. A vibrant market in both hardware and software meant that, at least for individuals and families that could afford it, teaching and learning of one kind or another could now occur anytime and anyplace.

Ninth, change even edged into how America pays for public education. Though school finance in most places remains an amalgam of federal, state, and local tax dollars channeled through innumerable formulas and programs, a few states (e.g. California, Michigan, Indiana) essentially shouldered full responsibility for paying for their public schools—not counting the federal parts—and several communities experimented with “weighted” funding that varied with children’s educational needs. There was even a sea change in litigation over school finance, with the controversial concept of “adequacy” replacing the much-fought-over principle of equality as activist attorneys made their way into courtrooms in their ceaseless campaign to get the third branch of government to change the flow (and quantity) of dollars in ways they usually could not accomplish through the first and second branches.

Tenth, schooling began to lose its longstanding isolation, both from other levels of education and from other social services. Instead of viewing  “K-12 education” as a hermetically-sealed function of government, state after state explored ways of integrating it more fully with preschool and postsecondary education as well as with other sectors such as health, housing, child welfare, and criminal justice. New data systems eased the former exploration—it began to be possible to track individuals’ educational progress from early childhood to graduate school—while altered governance arrangements simplified the latter. (Nothing like having all those agencies and programs under the governor’s or mayor’s aegis.) While it was premature in 2010 in most of the country to term these developments more than exploratory, the path to the future seemed reasonably clear.

Yes, a great deal of change can occur in two decades, even in so stodgy an enterprise as public education. That’s why our prognostications for the year 2030 may not be so wild-eyed or blue-skied as readers may initially suspect.

Editor's note: This essay is from an online publication of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, American Education in 2030.