Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Politics and Education: From Reagan/Bush to George W. Bush

[Excerpt from book currently in-press; chapter by P. L. Thomas]

In Reagan’s White House, the National Commission on Excellence in Education was formed in 1981 with the assumption that the public school system in the U. S. was failing—and had been in decline for decades. This perception of constant decline, this mischaracterization of the past as golden is a common flaw in popular thought; at any moment we seem to idealize the past. Nostalgia is a dangerous and inaccurate thing. For education, however, the assumption that education was failing proved to be catastrophic since the report this commission was charged to make was politically poisoned from the outset. Gerald Holton (2003) was a member of that commission and revealed some twenty years later that the much publicized A Nation at Risk, the damning report eventually generated from the commission’s work, was merely a political ploy driven by Reagan’s blunt claims for his agenda:

"We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. Or, at least, don't ask to waste more federal money on education—'we have put in more only to wind up with less.'" (Holton, 2003)

Possibly more disturbing than Holton’s own insider’s view of the corruption of A Nation at Risk by political ideology is Gerald Bracey’s analysis of the research and conclusions drawn by A Nation at Risk, a report that was widely available in the popular press and a report that is the primary motivation for the powerful accountability movement occurring over the past twenty years and culminating in the historically unprecedented No Child Left Behind legislation. Bracey (2003) has revealed that although A Nation at Risk touted itself as a report driven by research, the data are simply not there to support the claims. Broadly, Bracey reveals that the commission looked at “nine trendlines. . ., only one of which could be used to support crisis rhetoric” (p. 620). Essentially, we must realize that the accountability movement that was spurred by A Nation at Risk was born out of ideological rhetoric—not scientific evidence.

Ansary (2007) recognizes the misleading and continuing impact A Nation at Risk has on education today:

"Standing for reform apparently means supporting rigorous testing, a back-to-basics curriculum, higher standards, more homework, more science and math, more phonics, something called accountability, and a host of other often daunting initiatives. Some educators worry about the fallout from these measures, such as the proliferating plague of standardized testing, but don’t know how to oppose them without casting themselves as obstructionists clinging to a failed status quo." (p. 50)

And this current predicament can be traced back to the crisis rhetoric in A Nation at Risk, rhetoric that again is not supported by the data. Ansary notes the disjuncture between the data proclaimed by the Reagan-appointed study and the more nuanced analysis of the data that shows, for example, that SAT scores remained constant or improved within subgroups while the overall SAT average dropped between 1970 and 1990; this statistical phenomenon is called Simpson’s paradox, Ansary explains, but such sophisticated analyses are rarely offered in the political debate and results that are contrary to ideological aims (such as this data resulting from the Sandia report from the Secretary of Energy in 1990) are never revealed.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s both federal and state leaders beat the drum concerning our failing schools and the need for more accountability. Many states implemented high-stakes testing systems tied to graduation; then in 2001, George W. Bush brought his Texas Miracle to the White House and produced No Child Left Behind (See also Camilli). With No Child Left Behind, literacy was specifically targeted and seriously corrupted. First, as No Child Left Behind gained momentum, the Bush White House, fronted by Rod Paige as Secretary of Education, practiced the same pattern as the Reagan White House—portray ideology as research. Two well-documented situations connected to literacy reveal this pattern.

Similar to the Nation Commission on Excellence in Education, the National Reading Panel was formed by the Bush White House; the public charge was to gather the existing research on reading instruction in order to provide NCLB with scientific clout to improve reading among students. Yet, Joanne Yatvin (2002, 2003), an insider just as Holton was for A Nation at Risk, revealed that the panel was instructed and manipulated to create a statement on reading that fulfilled political and financial goals that contradicted what was best for reading instruction. As we have seen, political corruption of a commission is nothing new, but a more recent finding by the U. S. Department of Education does suggest the corruption has spread far beyond political rhetoric.

A central component of NCLB is the Reading First Initiative, which is grounded in the distorted work of the National Reading Panel. The Final Inspection Report (U. S. Department of Education, 2006) has uncovered corruption by those implementing Reading First, political ideologies being promoted through federal funding and textbook companies creating their own markets through that same federal funding. And we should not be surprised since there has been growing evidence over the past decade that the Texas Miracle proclaimed by George W. Bush and Rod Paige during their tenures in Texas actually was a political misrepresentation of data, not a miracle of school reform at all (Thomas, 2004).

Since NCLB has been a cornerstone of the Bush administration and since NCLB was modeled on education reform in Texas under Bush as governor and Rod Paige, who led education in Texas before becoming Bush’s Secretary of Education, the U.S Department of Education has a great deal invested in both accountability standards and their success. The NCLB web page and comments by then-Secretary Paige and current Secretary Spelling are primarily positive interpretations of both raising standards and increasing testing. While assessments of state standards such as those by the Fordham Foundation offer a resounding endorsement of continuing accountability standards and high-stakes testing, these reports should be credited for also acknowledging their own versions of relative success by the process; both the Hoover and Fordham reports present a wide range of “success.” The information coming from the Secretary of Education, however, does not deserve the same praise. . . .

In 2006, the U. S. Department of Education (2006, September) uncovered serious corruption in the Reading First Program spawned by NCLB and the Reading Panel. While this disturbing report was primarily ignored by the press and the average citizen, often we read in that same press comments by Secretary Spelling and even hear addresses by President Bush touting the success of NCLB as measured by NAEP scores. However, both Gerald Bracey and Stephen Krashen (2006) have revealed that the claims by the Bush White House about NCLB positively impacting student achievement is false. Spelling and Bush refer to a five-year trend for increased reading scores of fourth graders in NAEP. Yet, the increase from 212 in 1999 to 219 in 2005 primarily occurs only from 1999 (212) until 2002 (219). In 2002 (219), 2003 (218), and 2004 (219), the scores remain flat.

Why is this important? The entire increase claimed by Spelling to be the result of NCLB occurred before the implementation of the legislation. While the administration has also referred to other studies supporting their claims of success by NCLB (one from Michigan and one from Washington), Krashen (2006) and Bracey have shown positive conclusions from those studies to be terribly misleading. Many of the messages offered by politicians when addressing education and particularly the accountability movement trigger assumptions that most people have about teaching, learning, and academic rigor. The ability of both the Secretary of Education and the President to express provably inaccurate information without negative consequence is a testament to the difficult task that lies ahead for literacy educators.

Ansary (2007) offered a comment above that suggests Krashen and Bracey along with those of us in the classrooms are destined to be rejected if we question the claims of organizations or elected officials who support accountability standards and high-stakes testing. As Ansary stated, when we reject the calls for higher standards we often appear to be endorsing the status quo, which has been clearly established in the average person’s mind as a failure. Yet, we should begin to acknowledge the growing body of research that does show accountability standards to be ineffective at both raising academic rigor and creating educational reform.


Ansary, T. (2007, March). Education at risk. Edutopia, 48-53.

Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621.

Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13.

Krashen, S. (2006, October 2). Did Reading First work? The Pulse. Available on-line:

Thomas, P. L. (2004). Numbers games: Measuring and mandating American education. New York: Peter Lang.

U. S. Department of Education. (2006, September). The Reading First Program’s grant application process: Final inspection report. Office of Inspector General. Washington, D. C. Available here:
  • The Reading First Program's Grant Application Process. ACN: I13F0017. Date Issued: 9/22/2006 download files PDF (2.9M) MS Word (8M)
Yatvin, J. (2003, April 30). I told you so!: The misinterpretation and misuse of the National Reading Panel Report. Education Week, 22(33), 56, 44, 45.

Yatvin, J. (2002, January). Babes in the woods: The wanderings of the National Reading Panel. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(5), 364-369.

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