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Education Reforms Instituted in the 1980s and 1990s

The failure of American public schools is a frequent topic in the news and on social media, with many articles and posts from both sides of the political spectrum. This article will discuss the history of educational reform and its implications for K-12 education in the United States. In particular, it focuses on two recent waves of educational reforms:
  • The “education accountability offensive” of the 1980s and 1990s. The program included school choice, charter schools, standards-based education, high-stakes testing, and teacher evaluation.
  • Teach for America. An alternative certification program that began in 1990 as a pilot project.

These two reform waves have significantly changed American education policies regarding standards, curriculum content, intervention programs, teacher preparation programs, professional development, and personal money management.

courtesy Depositphotos

American Education in the 1980s: The Reforms

The first wave of American education reform began in the 1980s and continued in the 1990s. This reform movement was influenced by schools of thought such as the standards-based education movement, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Constructivist theory of learning. Educational researchers and policymakers hoped to improve K-12 schooling and outcomes by increasing accountability, choice, and high expectations. During this era, there was a growing public consensus that educational outcomes were falling behind other developed countries. The United States dropped from first in the world in the 1950s to 12th in the 1990s regarding student performance in math and science, as measured by international comparative assessments. American education in the 1980s was also characterized by racism and segregation. American students were also more socioeconomically diverse than ever. There was a need to provide equitable education.

School choice and charter schools

The first wave of education reforms instituted in the 1980s made school choice a more prominent issue in America. School choice, or the availability of multiple public schools within a district, is a policy that empowers parents to choose a school other than the one that their child is assigned to. Before the 1980s, American public schools were considered “neighborhood schools”—anyone could attend the public school in their neighborhood, but parents could not choose a different one. Reformers increasingly advocated for school choice to improve schools and educational outcomes. The theory was that if parents could choose a different school for their children than the one assigned, competition for students would improve all public schools. School choice is now offered in various forms in many districts across the United States. Some districts provide magnet schools, which have specialized themes and curricula. Others have district-wide programs that allow parents to apply for their children to attend a different school or university than the one they are assigned to. Still, others allow parents to send their children to charter schools—public schools that are privately managed and often not unionized.

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Standards-based education

The reforms also pushed for the standardization of education in the 1980s in America. The standards-based education movement posited that American schools should adopt uniform, rigorous standards in core subjects such as reading, writing, math, and science. These standards should be the same across the country and comparable to other developed countries' expectations. Many advocates also pushed for a national curriculum that all school districts would use. They saw this as an effective method of improving educational outcomes. The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which began as a state-led effort in 2009, is one prominent example of this movement. The standards, which many states have adopted, call for more rigorous coursework in math and language arts in elementary and high school. In addition, the standards emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

High-stakes testing and teacher evaluation

Another hallmark of the standards-based education movement was the use of high-stakes testing to measure student outcomes. These tests were often used to evaluate teachers and schools, with the results determining a school's funding and the fate of teachers' jobs. Advocates for high-stakes testing believed that it could help to identify struggling schools, inform parents about their children's progress, and measure the success of teachers. Opponents of high-stakes testing thought that it was not an accurate indicator of student outcomes and that it was unduly stressful for students to take such tests. After the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2002, many states used standardized tests to measure student proficiency in core subjects, such as reading, writing, and math, and to determine whether schools were achieving adequate yearly progress. The law required public schools to make annual improvements in student test scores.

Teach for America

Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains college graduates to become teachers, began in 1990 as a pilot project. Wendy Sue Kopp created the program in response to teacher shortages in American public schools. Many reformers argued that low teacher pay and the increasing challenges of the profession were causing many people to avoid becoming teachers. By recruiting young, highly educated, and committed people, reformers hoped that Teach for America would partially solve this shortage. The program recruits college graduates (mostly from elite universities), trains them for five weeks at a training institute, and then places them in high-needs schools to provide much-needed help. While critics have often referred to Teach for America participants as "cure-alls" and "crash and burns," the program has grown in both size and popularity. In 2010, about 5,300 people participated in the program. In 2018, the number was about 30,000.

Concluding Thoughts

The history of educational reform shows that there are many theories about what works best in our public schools. Reformers have emphasized standardized curriculum, higher expectations, increased teacher training, and test scores as indicators of success. On the other hand, educators have criticized these approaches as being too top-down, too standardized, and not considering the students and communities they serve. We may never know what the "right" reform is, but it is crucial to understand the history of American educational reform to evaluate new ideas and policies critically. Furthermore, it allows us to scrutinize new reform papers more conclusively.

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