This interview focuses on A Nation at Risk at 40, a report by the Hoover Education Success Initiative (HESI) that looks at the birth, struggles, and future of the modern education reform movement. Learn more about this new publication and download it here.

Jonathan Movroydis: We’re talking with distinguished research fellow Stephen Bowen, the executive director of the Hoover Education Success Initiative (HESI). How was A Nation at Risk received forty years ago, and what was its impact?

Stephen Bowen: A Nation at Risk came out in 1983. It was produced by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which was chaired by Terrel Bell, President Reagan’s secretary of education. People who remember the Reagan era recall that one of the things President Reagan campaigned on was getting rid of the Department of Education, which had been created by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Poor Terrel Bell was tasked with getting rid of his own department. That didn’t happen, but Bell thought, all right, at least if we’re going to make this argument, let’s get a sense of how things are going. So, he pitched the idea of a presidential commission on education. The administration was reluctant to do that because they didn’t think there should be a significant federal role in education, but they allowed Bell to create his own commission instead. I don’t think anybody realized the impact it might have—it’s very brief, only thirty-some pages, plus an appendix—but it was written in very alarming language about this crisis of public education. As it turned out, it became a huge hit. Millions of copies were printed and ultimately it drove a lot of reforms.

Because President Reagan still didn’t see a big role for the federal government in K­–12 education, it was the governors who picked up the ball and ran with it; they were convinced by the argument in A Nation at Risk that America’s economic prosperity was at stake, as well as our national security. If you remember, in that era there was concern about competition from Germany, there was concern about Japan and our economic competitiveness—those were the prominent challenges.

A lot of governors jumped onboard and started putting some of the suggestions from the report into place at the state level, and over time, those grew. Our researchers went back to the original recommendations and followed up on the reforms that grew out of them. For a US government report only thirty or so pages long, I don’t think anybody really anticipated it to be as much of a driver of reform as it ended up being. But we know it generated a lot of action. The more important question is, did it have any real impact? That was something we wanted to dig in on.

Movroydis: You say that state governors were the key drivers of this reform. Were the states more or less aligned on this issue?

Bowen: I think the states understood the economic-competitiveness argument of the report, but saw that their competition was not foreign countries, it was the state next door. That was what they were worried about. And so, there was a sense, particularly in the Southern states and among a generation of Southern leaders—Bill Clinton was one, as governor of Arkansas, who leaned into this space—that “we really have to focus on K–12 education if we hope to be economically competitive.” Those Southern governors led the way, spinning up a lot of task forces and working groups to figure out what to do about this. And again, because there wasn’t much of a federal role in K–12 education at a policy level, it fell to the states to respond, when, for example, the Nation at Risk report called for more rigorous standards. That led to the standards movement, in which we saw the states adopting these rigorous learning standards for the main content areas like math and English language arts. There was also a lot of focus on teacher policy. Many states realized that they would have to pay their teachers more if they were going to be competitive, in order to attract and retain good teachers.

So, a lot of the governors went through the report’s list of recommendations and changes were pretty widely adopted—you didn’t want to be the governor who wasn’t responding when the governors around you were all making a big push on K–12 education These governors also soon discovered that they didn’t have a good sense of how well their kids were doing, since states weren’t doing large-scale standardized testing. That eventually led to state standardized tests, as well as to NAEP, the national test done on a sampling model across the country.

Movroydis: Was it met with opposition?

Bowen: In terms of the recommendations themselves, there wasn’t anything particularly controversial, if you look at it now. It’s a lot about improving teaching, and improving standards, focusing on instructional time—let’s lengthen out the school day and the school year, and so on. President Reagan, of course, was advancing his own agenda, which touched on things like school choice, education savings accounts, prayer in school, and issues that at the time were more controversial.

The opposition was mostly around the tone that the report took. It has these very memorable lines such as, “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.” It spoke in very stark language about how bad the schools were and what a challenge that was going to be for the nation. And I think some folks in the school community responded with, “Look, we’ve got problems, but this seems a little over the top to suggest that if we don’t do something dramatic with our schools, our future prosperity as a nation is literally at risk.” If you read the early press reports, that seemed to be most of the pushback—that the commission was over the top in its critique of the existing system.

Movroydis: The new Hoover volume, A Nation at Risk at 40, is edited by you and Hoover fellow Macke Raymond. What are you and the other scholars hoping to accomplish with this publication?

Bowen: The Hoover Education Success Initiative, which I lead, is a project that’s really about connecting the research we’re doing with policy makers. So, we have something called the Practitioner Council, a group of state education officials, district leaders, and folks at nonprofits and advocacy organizations. We wanted to get their sense of what we should be working on, and, as you might imagine, as we were coming out of the COVID crisis, they wanted to know what we should do. We have this huge learning loss that we need to make up; how should we respond? The problem is, we don’t really have a lot of good data on that yet. Instead, we thought that since we’ve reached this anniversary of A Nation at Risk, maybe it would make sense to back up and see what reforms have been tried in the years since and whether there were any lessons learned there that would be of help. Was there any impact? We sat down with the report, went through its recommendations, and then built out this collection of essays. We said to our authors, “What’s the problem each attempted reform was trying to solve? Why were these reforms attempted in the first place?” The second piece was, “What happened? Did it work?” And third—and this was the key part—“What are the lessons learned? What are your recommendations for policy makers?”

So, the ultimate goal was to extract from these forty years of history some concrete recommendations for policy makers for what they could do to improve schools as we come out of the COVID crisis.

Movroydis: What kind of recommendations are you advancing?

Bowen: A lot of them are topic-specific. The paper on early childhood, for example, says early childhood education can be really impactful, but it has to be high quality, you have to train the staff and have strong curricula. A paper on school choice talks about how school-choice programs are structured and how important it is to structure them the right way. The school-finance paper that Hoover senior fellow Rick Hanushek wrote talks about how important it is to understand that simply spending money on schools isn’t enough, we have to get better at figuring out which money spent in which way is having the most impact. And Macke Raymond wrote a concluding essay where she went through all twelve papers to identify common themes, and she came up with this list of “I words”: impulsive, incremental, incoherent, impatient, intransigent, ineffective.

Impulsive: If you look across the reforms, you can see that people put them in place without a lot of planning, without thinking about how hard they were going to be to implement, without thinking about how to sustain them over the long term.

Incremental reforms are those that nibble around the edge: they’re over here on the side, taking on this tiny piece of the puzzle and not really systemic in nature. And those little incremental reforms don’t add up to much in the way of big systems change.

Incoherent reforms were put into place with little consideration for how they intersected with other reforms—including those that might have been enacted at the exact same time. Each reform was just “bolted on” and they often were in conflict with each other.

The impatient piece is about policy makers not giving things time. If you’re a state legislator with a two-year term, you come in saying, “I want to do something.” You don’t have the patience to give a complicated new initiative the time it needs to get established, get underway, and (hopefully) improve over time.

The intransigent piece speaks to the education system’s response to this endless “churn” of reform. It’s been able to build this resistance against reform, so it’s become really hard to change schools in any meaningful way. You have this weird dynamic where there always seems to be some kind of new math curriculum and a new teaching practice and all these other reforms all the time, and yet the systems don’t really change in any meaningful way, especially in high-need communities. Our advice here is that you have to think about systems change and how to bring people along over the long term to make real change.

The last piece is ineffective. That’s about the education system not being very good at researching what it’s doing. When it puts a policy in place, it doesn’t think about how it is going to know whether it is going to work. There is so much more to learn about what works, and that drives our research agenda, too, and Macke’s concluding paper; looking across the research to find bigger-picture recommendations—lessons we can take from these efforts of the past forty years.

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