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Posted at 11:46 AM ET, 02/ 6/2011

Ronald Reagan's impact on education today

By Valerie Strauss

In the category of "the more things change the more they stay the same," it is interesting to look back at Ronald Reagan's education views on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The issues that were controversial back then -- merit pay, standardized testing, vouchers -- remain so today.

Reagan may best be known for his oft-stated desire to eliminate the Department of Education. What some may forget is that he changed his mind. Here are some of his positions on education issues:

Department of Education
When he was running for president in the 1980 election, Reagan called the newly created department "President Carter’s new bureaucratic boondoggle." He said he wanted to eliminate it and give “control” back to states and localities. Then in 1983, he changed his position after the release of the report “A Nation at Risk,” which warned of a “a rising tide of mediocrity.” With education becoming a political issue, Reagan told his secretary of education, Terrel Bell, to pursue excellence in education.

Standardized testing/accountability
A key tool for the Reagan administration to advance its education agenda was with standardized tests. In fact, rising test scores became linked to federal aid, but, according to a historical analysis of the history of American public education, the effort did not result in improvement in schools, just more testing.

By 1984, some schools started to admit that they were seeing higher dropout rates. "For the first time, we are seeing high-school dropout rates increasing," former state commissioner of education in Massachusetts, Greg Anrig, said. "Does this mean we are getting higher standards, or does the threat of tests encourage teachers just to get rid of kids who might not pass? In other words, are we having more push-outs? And doesn’t that tend to hurt minorities?"

Reagan’s second education secretary, William Bennett, continued to pursue a policy that focused on standardized testing. Bennett’s philosophy was that the department’s central role was to collect and disseminate program evaluation data. That approach sounds remarkably similar to education policy over the past decade.

Merit pay
After the report was released, Reagan resurrected merit pay, an idea that had been tried and abandoned, as a key focus of educational change. “Teachers should be paid and promoted on the basis of their merit,” he said. Teachers unions were opposed and the idea got no real traction -- until now. Linking teacher evaluation to test scores is one of the key reforms supported by President Obama's administration.

Mandatory prayer in public schools
Reagan called for a constitutional amendment mandating prayer in public schools, but as president he never did much to get Congress to go along.

Tuition tax credits for private schools
He supported them, but, as with mandatory prayer, didn’t do much to get Congress on board.

From a March 2, 1984 speech Reagan delivered to the 11th annual Conservative Political Action Conference dinner:

"...Strengthening values also demands a national commitment to excellence in education.

"If we are to pioneer a revolution in technology, meet challenges of the space age, and preserve values of courage, responsibility, integrity, and love, then we can’t afford a generation of children hooked on cocaine and unable to read or write.

"Conservatives have pointed out for years that while federal spending on education was soaring, aptitude scores were going steadily down.

"Look at the case of New Hampshire.

"It ranks dead last in state spending on education, but its students have the highest SAT scores among those states where at least half the students take the test.

"And they’ve maintained that honor for more than 10 years. America’s schools don’t need new spending programs; they need tougher standards, more homework, merit pay for teachers, discipline, and parents back in charge...."

What is striking about all of this is how an obsession with standardized tests over decades has failed to give us the schools we want. Yet the Obama administration is pushing for more tests in more subjects.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 6, 2011; 11:46 AM ET
Categories:  History, School turnarounds/reform, Standardized Tests, Teacher assessment  | Tags:  merit pay, reagan, reagan 100, reagan administration, reagan birthday, reagan commemoration, reagan policy, ronald reagan, ronald reagan education, ronald reagan policy, ronald reagan views, standardized testing, vouchers  
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Next: Taming teacher turnover: A lesson from Oakland


Another good reminder that beliefs trump reality when it comes to merit pay for teachers. The belief that somehow monetary rewards will produce better results is without merit itself. Research demonstrates that it does work for certain kinds of mindless tasks, however teaching is far from a mindless endeavor.

For an excellent overview of the surprising science of motivation, take a look at this TED talk by Daniel Pink.

One can disagree with the research, but it can't and shouldn't be ignored.

Posted by: literacygurl | February 6, 2011 12:32 PM | Report abuse

It's a little more then sad to see and hear the enormous gorge created by these conservatives over the last 30 years. The tactic started with Reagon . Rove took it to new hieghts and it culminated in those that believe Fox...and ther rest of us in the majority. For that alone Reagon should be vilified. Not canonized. He and the Bushs have systematically raped this country for their rich masters. I remember Reagon today, for being the beginning of the most Un-American behaviour in my lifetime.

Posted by: msmith97emerald | February 6, 2011 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the post, literacygurl. I believe it. I've seen it happen in my lower level classes, although I inevitably have to get back on the carrot and stick treadmill.

Posted by: Playitagainsam | February 6, 2011 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Ronald Reagan was, and on almost all things, an ideologue foremost and first. Evidence or the lack there of always took second place for him. When he left acting behind he became a corporate spokesperson and pitchman. Even all through his presidency he maintained an almost pathological belief in the righteousness of big business and it's interests, even conflating them with state interests and the peoples needs despite all the evidence to the contrary. He often dismissed out of hand any notion that those interests may at times be at odds and always came down rather loyally on the side of wall streets perspective. This defines an ideologues mentality. The right has always been at odds with a department of education, or a free thinking, or liberal arts education, preferring vocational, or a sort of job training as education. They want particular job skills not penetrating questions, free thinking is anathema to them and simple obedience praised. Sadly this is at odds with the type of reflectiveness needed for basic research in all subjects. It is no coincidence that America has continued to plummet in quality and quantity with regards to basic scientific research. It has no immediate pay off for wall street but the gutting of such and it's underfunding has dire long term consequences for competitiveness as well as political adaptability to changing times. Like most of his colorful stories, and his beliefs, and it can be argued his presidency itself, have all become mythology where facts need not apply. Education will continue to suffer and sink as long as a "Reaganistic" methodology is applied to it. This is indeed sad, as it always is when short term interests coupled with an uncritical mind are venerated through myth that lead to inexorable long term failures.

Posted by: USblues2 | February 6, 2011 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Remind ourselves about political promises and election "knowing." As many have seen, the only person that has a close idea about the inner workings in the government are those in the inner workings of the government. Not a single position in the world holds par to the seat, so thinking a new candidate has the right idea doesn't mean the idea is plausible.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 6, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

What's also striking is he mentioned tougher standards, homework, discipline, and parents back in charge. You try any of that in today's failing schools and you will get run out by the admins in a NY second, though none of that requires 1 single dime more.

Posted by: peonteacher | February 6, 2011 3:17 PM | Report abuse

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