Ronald Reagan's impact on education today
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.
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.
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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| 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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