Changing Tide (1980-1989)

Reagan’s Election

As the 1970s drew to a close, citizens had a much bleaker outlook than when the decade began.  President Carter’s troubles were highlighted by the struggling economy, a minor energy crisis and the hostage standoff.  The public seemed to decide, en masse, that it was fed up with the administration and to a greater extent, the liberal swing the nation took over the past two decades.  As the American people seemed ready for a drastic change, the 1980 presidential election arrived

Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party nominee, campaigned on a platform of addressing the social and defense issues that faced the nation.  He campaigned on the idea of restoring the nation to the way it had been, and bringing about what would later be termed as the new “Morning in America.” (Youtube link to this ad here)  He brought a return to the America of old in many ways; most notably of which was the return to state’s rights.  As part of his actions upon winning the office, he cut both federal taxes and federal government spending, increased spending on defense, and instituted the idea of “supply-side economics” as a way to pull the nation out of it’s economic slump (Shogan 2004).  As part of his plan to decrease spending by the federal government, Reagan initially planned to disband the Department of Education, a federal executive department created under the Carter administration, claiming that it was too much of a federal impingement on a state and local issue (de Rugy & Gryphon, 2004).  This time period was also marked by a national shift in priority from equality to excellence, and one of the areas in which this priority shift was most apparent was in education (Berger 1987).

A Nation at Risk

Written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk was the title of a Presidential Report on the state of the education system in the US.  Such reports are actually quite common and typically don’t have any inherent bias.  As example, the Truman Report on education indicated the need for far greater federal involvement in the US education system (to read the original Truman Report, click here).  A Nation at Risk had a very bleak tone though, and indicated that major reform was necessary.  It cited two major problems of the time, the lack of a unified purpose or guiding goal to the education system, and the fact that US testing scores are falling both below our previous levels and below other nations (Barger, 2004).  The study claimed that the problem of the US education system falling behind seemed improbable in decades past, but nevertheless is the case today, and that it could have dramatic economic repercussions in the coming years.  As suggestions for how to address this problem, the study presented a potential overhaul of the then-current system.  This consisted of requiring students to attend four years of English classes, three years of math, three years of science, three years of social studies, a half year of computer science, and proposed a longer class day and 200-220 day school year as well (full text of A Nation at Risk is provided here on this site).

This report was a complete game-changer for the education system and gave proof to the feelings that some were beginning to have in the years prior.  It is interesting to note however, that while the study noted that standardized test scores as a whole were on the decline, each individual subgroup of students showed improving test scores and only the aggregate data showed a decline (Stedman, 1994).  The debate over the validity of basing policy changes off of test scores is far too large to be discussed here, but I highly encourage any interested to look into this field further.  A Nation at Risk had a major impact on education policy for years to come, and can be traced as one of the roots of the standardized testing movement of the last decade, the emergence of charter schools, the normative approach to school evaluation among other trends.

Conclusions

As the timeframe examined in this web history comes to a close, it’s important now to summarize the changes that have occurred.  The federal government transitioned out of noninvolvement in the education system by means of compensatory and defensive spending as a result of WWII and the Cold War.  Shortly thereafter, there was a strong enough combination of social and governmental impetus to push the federal government into full-on educational involvement with the Great Society policies.  The period that followed was marked by an expansion of and fighting for rights that happened both in and for educational systems.  As the 1970s drew to a close and equality was less of an issue though, a social and federal push for excellence in America’s public schools began.  From here, the present day is just around the bend.  I hope that this web history was as informative for you to read as it was for me to create, and if you have any comments about the material or questions for me, feel free to leave it in the comment boxes located at the bottom of each page and I’ll try to get back to you in a timely manner. Thanks for reading!

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