In 2021, amid a grim pandemic that had already brought American education to a standstill, the nation’s schools were again assaulted, this time by fierce arguments about critical race theory (CRT) — a term that few outside of academia had previously encountered. According to some pundits, the brouhaha was just another instance of the right-wing media complex manufacturing controversy. But the CRT fight is more accurately seen as a product of decades of tensions lurking within the school-reform enterprise itself, coupled with dramatic shifts in progressive dogma. It sounded the death knell for a reform coalition that traced its roots back to A Nation at Risk — the famed Reagan-era blue-ribbon commission report on America’s looming education catastrophe.
The report declared the country to be imperiled by a “rising tide of mediocrity” driven by low standards, poor teaching, and lousy schools. In their most quoted line, the commissioners who issued the report claimed that 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 1983 clarion call would go on to launch an education-reform movement that would bestride both sides of the political aisle for most of the ensuing 40 years, only to come unglued in the face of polarization and populist backlash. A look at the history of that saga can clarify how today’s great school-reform crack-up was likely inevitable, help explain why it matters, and perhaps signal what lies ahead.