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Betsy DeVos Belatedly Discovers the 1983 Report, A Nation At Risk, and Gallup

December 1, 2017

On November 30, 2017, US ed sec Betsy DeVos addressed Jeb Bush’s ed reform organization, Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), at its national summit in Nashville, Tennessee.

DeVos was on the FEE board of directors until she was nominated for US secretary of education, and according to the Orlando Sentinel, DeVos, who owns a home in Vero Beach, doles out the political donations in the Sunshine State: “Florida politicians are among the biggest recipients of her largesse.”  DeVos has an established history of donating thousands of dollars to politicians who support school choice, and she and Bush are two ed reform peas in a pod.

Both Bush and DeVos are connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which promotes model legislation in several areas, including education (for quick background on ALEC in general and its education agenda, click here). Jeb Bush holds a lot of sway over ALEC’s education agenda. It was Bush’s FEE that convinced ALEC to pull back on formally opposing Common Core, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s ed reform package serves as the centerpiece for much of ALEC’s model legislation in education– including charter schools, vouchers, and virtual schools.

So, it is no wonder that DeVos spoke at Bush’s FEE, and that she pulled out the stops in such a comfy environment, even recycling one of her unkinder phrases to describe those who do not bow to her school choice wishes, “sycophants of the system.”

What I was surprised to read, however, was her decision to focus on the arguably warmed-over 1983 US Dept. of Ed report, A Nation At Risk:

In April 1983, A Nation At Risk had just been released. Most everyone here has heard of it. Commissioned by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell, it took a hard look at education in America.

The conclusion, as the report’s title hints, was anything but rosy. This is from the summary:

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”

And further:

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

That was nearly 35 years ago. And what has changed?

In 1983, A Nation At Risk found that on international tests, America was, quote, “never first or second.” Today, the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, shows America stuck in the middle of our international peers. We are being outpaced and outperformed by countries like China, Germany, Vietnam and the U.K.

We are a nation still at risk. We are a nation at greater risk.

This is unacceptable.

This is inexcusable.

And this is truly un-American.

We can – we must – do better.

As one might expect, DeVos attempts to leverage A Nation At Risk to promote her pet cause: school choice. Further along in her speech (but obviously the point):

Millions of kids today— right now— are trapped in schools that are failing them. Millions more are stuck in schools that are not meeting their individual needs. And their parents have no options, no choices, no way out.

Now, the interesting truth is that Reagan apparently dismissed the report until he realized the public was interested and that the report– which does not mention his ed agenda, including school choice– and that the popular report was politically useful. In fact, US ed sec Terrell Bell, who was responsible for the report, was omitted from the Rose Garden celebration because of his omission of Reagan’s agenda in the report. As the April 1988 New York Times reports:

”A Nation at Risk,” the report whose fifth anniversary was observed here today in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, already ranks as one of the most significant documents in the history of American public education.

For a variety of reasons – timing, style, content or just luck – that report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education touched enough nerves among Americans to become the most visible symbol of the need to improve primary and high schools since the Russians put Sputnik into space. …

At 35 pages long, the nation’s ”open letter to the American people” was a blatantly political treatise, more legal brief than scholarly analysis. Indeed, the authors, eager to spread the word about the ”rising tide of mediocrity” in American schools, pointedly ignored evidence from their own files that standardized test scores had already been rising for several years.

Their language was full of apocalyptic rhetoric and military analogies. ”If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” the document states on its opening page, ”we might have used it as an act of war.”

As a call to arms, ”A Nation At Risk” was neither original nor unique. Before 1983, pioneering states like Florida and Tennessee had already begun school improvement programs. Other national commissions were also contributing to what one educator at the time termed a ”rising tide of reports about schools.”

It was ”A Nation At Risk,” though, that caught the public’s imagination. Since April 1983 the Government has sold or given away 220,000 copies, and five million to six million more have been distributed through reprints in newspapers and other periodicals. Foreign translations include Japanese, Korean and Chinese. …

There are some ironies in this. Former Secretary of Education T. H. Bell, who appointed the national commission, frankly concedes that he expected a much more bullish report, and President Reagan’s aides threatened to cancel the Rose Garden reception for commission members. The aides were upset that the report did not even mention the White House’s priorities for education: abolishing the Department of Education, tuition tax credits and allowing organized prayer in school.

In that ceremony five years ago, President Reagan, who reportedly had not read the report, angered members of the commission by praising them in his remarks for their ”call for an end to Federal intrusion.” But within a few weeks, when polls started showing that the report had struck a responsive chord with American voters, Mr. Reagan turned his attention to the real message of the document and began to make effective political use of the issue of education reform. …

Mr. Bell said that the changes in the last five years have helped 70 percent of American students, but ”not the remaining 30 percent who are low-income and minority students.”

Such thinking has led to what some see as a ”third wave” of school reform: One that seeks not to make incremental changes in schools as they now exist but rather to alter some fundamental structures. For example, some school systems have begun to follow the lead of some automobile manufacturers and turn the running of schools over to ”teams” of teachers and principals working together.

One issue that is being revived by the five-year observances of the report is the role of the Federal Government in promoting some of the forces unleashed by ”A Nation at Risk.”

In his report, ”American Education: Making It Work,” Mr. Bennett essentially argues that the nation already knows ”what works” in education and that, with the exception of a bit more money for specialized schools or alternative means of hiring and dismissing teachers, there is no need for increased Federal spending. ”I don’t think the Federal role has to be brought into the conversation,” he said in an interview.

But others argue for a more muscular Federal presence. Mr. Bell has promoted an educational trust fund that would channel Federal aid to states under tight spending guidelines.

”That way you can give the Federal Government a stronger role and responsibility but still leave control up to the states and localities,” he said.

Mr. Bell, who has been critical of the Reagan Administration’s education policies, was not invited to today’s ceremony.

DeVos, who normally does not mention international test scores in her speeches (she has publicly stated, “I’m not a numbers person”), has apparently resorted to them in this speech in order to do what ed reformers do when citing America’s scores on international tests: Incite the public to act on the promoted agenda (in this case, the school choice that Terrell Bell purposely omitted from a report that Reagan tried to leverage politically before he even read it).

DeVos, who also disdains teachers unions (in the FEE speech, she uses the cliched term, “union bosses”), should realize that according to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFT president, Al Shanker, “embraced” the report “at the time of the report’s release”– which puts her on the same side as the union given her decades-late embrace of the same report.

One more issue raised in DeVos’ FEE speech:

In her attempt to move the public toward school choice, DeVos mentions “a recent Gallup poll”:

A recent Gallup poll showed the majority of all Americans are dissatisfied with the overall education system in our country.

Indeed, in 2017, Gallup notes that 52 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with K-12 education nationwide. However, Gallup also reports that in 2017, 79 percent are satisfied with their own child’s education:

Parents of school-aged children are much more satisfied with their own child’s education than Americans are with U.S. K-12 education in general. Seventy-nine percent of parents with children in K-12 say they are completely or somewhat satisfied with their oldest child’s education; 21% say they are dissatisfied.

The large gap between parents’ satisfaction with their child’s education and Americans’ views of education in general has been present as long as Gallup has asked these questions. At least two-thirds of U.S. parents have been satisfied with their own child’s education since Gallup began asking this question in 1999. Satisfaction levels have grown since 2013 — when 67% said they were satisfied with their own child’s school — reaching 79% this year.

Anyone familiar with Gallup polling on ed satisfaction at the national level versus ed satisfaction at the local level knows that local-level satisfaction is always higher.

But DeVos does not mention higher levels of satisfaction at the local level, for it does not serve her school-choice-promoting purposes.

Regarding the disparity in public satisfaction with education nationally versus locally, Gallup offers this interesting “bottom line”:

Bottom Line

Satisfaction with K-12 education in the U.S. has edged up this year after dipping last year, largely because of an improvement in Republicans’ views. The bump in GOP satisfaction is likely related to Donald Trump’s election and to Republicans’ taking control of both houses of Congress, with a Republican appointee at the helm of the Education Department. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is a longtime advocate of charter schools and education vouchers, signaling a shift from some of the priorities of the previous administration.

Generally, though, satisfaction with U.S. education is at the same level it has been for the past decade. A similarly stable trend is seen in U.S. parents’ overall satisfaction. Americans have been mostly satisfied with their own family’s schooling for the nearly 20 years Gallup has asked this question, underscoring the general tendency for Americans to rate things close to home more positively than they rate the same things on a national level — including local representatives as opposed to Congress more generally, crime levels, the economy and healthcare.

The disparity in this situation also may reflect media attention paid to national education developments, such as the debate over charter schools, education vouchers and public tax dollars used to pay for education expenses. Those headlines may contribute to a more negative view of the U.S. education landscape, while parents tend to see their own school’s influence at home and view its effects more approvingly.

By reviving the crisis rhetoric of A Nation At Risk, DeVos is promoting a more negative view of the national education scene. However, based upon the 20-year history of Gallup polling on education, she must contend with the close-to-home reality of majority satisfaction with American education.

Nevertheless, as she has done in the past, DeVos could simply publicly dismiss these numbers by stating that she is “not a numbers person.” Or she could just fail to mention them, just like she chose to do on November 30, 2017, at bosom-ALEC-buddy Jeb Bush’s FEE.

betsy devos 13

Betsy DeVos speaks at Bush’s FEE in TN


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.


  1. Lori Kirkpatrick permalink

    I’m perplexed about the resurrection of A Nation at Risk. Wasn’t this report debunked the following decade by the Sandia report? The Sandia report pointed out Bell’s commission had misinterpreted the statistics, known as Simpson’s paradox, regarding SAT scores and others.

  2. pauleck47 permalink

    The Nation At Risk was pretty much debunked by the Sandia Lab Report that was shelved by the Feds and never formally released. Nation At Risk is an example of FAKE NEWS!

  3. Lisa M permalink

    I live in MD. PARCC, Common Core, AP for all, dual enrollment, increasing numbers of standardized tests, and massive data collection rules. My son will be attending a private, religious all boys school next year for the start of HS. At the open house, every boy that I spoke to came from the public school system. When I asked them why, they gave reasons from above^^. The private schools are rolling in dough right now because they are catering to the fleeing masses from public school. I’ve heard parents complaining that their once uncrowded hallways (in private school) are now overcrowded and the kids are having to share lockers. I believe in the idea of public education, but I am not happy with what public education has become. I tried to hold out for better times, but my son’s happiness and education it too important to leave him in public school. The teachers in this state need to rise up and start singing from the rafters or risk losing their careers.

  4. Douglas Mann permalink

    A Nation at Risk advocated more curriculum tracking with coded language, eg abandonment of policies adopted in response to the sputnik challenge (bringing tracking down to elementary grade), going too far to equalize outcomes at the expense of the best and the brightest, “a rising tide of mediocrity.” plus such gems as assigning more home work, and so forth. A nation at risk served a reactionary agenda, notwithstanding endorsement by Albert Shanker. There is a grain of truth to claims by De Vos and Ed reformer about millions of kids stuck in terrible public schools. But the Ed reformers remedy is to privatize. A big issue sometimes raised by Ed deformers is racial disparities in exposure of students to inexperienced, newly hired and provisionally licensed teachers. It is common for school district with sizable populations of low-income and nonwhite students to maintain a large pool of probationary teachers. Money is saved on teacher salaries in this way, but it has overhead costs, such as increased spending on recruitment and training of new teachers plus higher spending on special Ed because of kids who fail to thrive in dysfunctional schools getting dumped into special Ed. In Minnesota’s big cities, black students are almost exclusively assigned to segregated classrooms and detention facilities for kids labeled as having Emotional Behavioral Disorders. The Minneapolis MN school district sets up black kids for failure with policies that marginalize, pathologize, and criminalize black students. There is policy driven racial discrimination which the district leadership does not want to acknowledge, which the Ed reformers do not want to denounce. The victims of discrimination are further victimized and blamed for their own victimization. -Doug Mann, Minneapolis School Board candidate

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A Report on Reports – Live Long and Prosper
  2. Betsy DeVos’ Tough Spot: Trump Cabinet Member | deutsch29
  3. Mercedes Schneider: Betsy DeVos Discovers “A Nation at Risk” and Claims That Choice is The Answer | Diane Ravitch's blog

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