Why are tycoons, politicians pushing 'rigor' for preschoolers?

By Caroline Grannan, San Francisco

Parents Across America founding member

An author with whom I collaborate as editor asked me to write her a brief summary explaining who’s behind the current brand of education reform. Her topic – and concern – is the increasing academic “rigor” being imposed on young children.

 Here’s the question behind this: Teachers overwhelmingly – and parents generally – know that mandating academic rigor for young children is developmentally inappropriate. So if teachers and parents know that it’s wrongheaded and harmful to impose academic rigor on kindergartners and preschoolers, who is making it happen?

 I suggested defining the forces as “politicians and policymakers.” The author asked me to give some history, as she doesn’t follow the politics of education, so she could decide whether that was the accurate characterization. I wrote her my own brief, highly opinionated history, which I’m sharing as a blog post.

During the Reagan administration, the U.S. Dept. of Education commissioned the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.” It claimed that the U.S. educational system was sliding toward failure and jeopardizing our national security. This fueled the notion that we desperately needed to raise standards and increase rigor in all our schools.

People behind this:

  • (Then) U.S. Education Secretary T.H. Bell – he appointed the commission.
  • David P. Gardner, then president of the University of Utah, later president of UC – he chaired the commission
  • President Reagan – the buck stops with him since it all happened as part of his administration

By the way, the government commissioned Sandia Laboratories to do a report backing up the claimed decline in our educational system with hard data. But surprise! The actual data turned out to disprove the claimed findings in “A Nation at Risk.” The Sandia report was downplayed and is little known, while “A Nation at Risk” got enormous attention. Reportedly, the Sandia report’s authors were told, “You bury this or we’ll bury you,” though this quote has been disputed.

Person who reportedly told Sandia to bury the report:

  • David Kearns, then-assistant U.S. Secretary of Education

The drive toward “increased rigor” continued its momentum. In 1990, a report by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) won attention: “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages.” According to author and researcher Richard Rothstein, the report “charged that inadequate skills attained at flawed schools had caused industrial productivity to ‘slow to a crawl’…”

Person most responsible for this report and its promotion:

  •  Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the NCEE. He appears to have made his entire career creating and heading organizations that do research on education. His own educational background is in theater arts and telecommunications.


Rothstein points out that at the time, U.S. manufacturers were busily moving their operations to Mexico, where the workforce is far less educated and far cheaper – so they didn’t care what the report said about the need for a more educated workforce; they pursued the opposite course.

The report won support from Big Mainstream Media and other powerful forces who kept the doomsaying going.

Some people involved in promoting the report and its recommendations:

  • NY Times Big Media Superstar Thomas Friedman
  • Bill Gates

All this culminated in No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the bipartisan 2002 legislation proposed by George W. Bush, “demanding that school accountability alone for raising test scores should raise achievement to never-before-attained levels, and equalize outcomes by race and social class as well” (Richard Rothstein). NCLB firmly established the notion of demanding increased rigor and, as a collateral effect, pushed those demands down into the lower grades (and thus effectively into preschool).

People responsible for NCLB:

  • Pres. George W. Bush
  • The four authors of the bill:
    • Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio)
    • Rep. George Miller (D-East Bay)*
    • The late Sen. Ted Kennedy
    • Then-Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire)
  • All U.S. senators and members of Congress who voted for it
  • The U.S. Department of Education under George W. Bush

*Miller admits now that the legislation itself was flawed, but still insists on defending the “reform” concepts of demanding high-stakes testing, punishment and rewards for schools and teachers based on test scores, and other policies that directly lead to shoving “academic rigor” down the throats of young children and early childhood educators.

NCLB and the notions contained in it now have the nation’s leaders in their grip, and thus the nation’s educational system. This also incorporates the view that schools should be run like businesses, emphasizing dog-eat-dog competition rather than cooperation, and allowing the least successful to fail (be shut down) rather than supporting those most in need.

A grassroots movement is trying to fight back. A leading spokesperson for our side is Diane Ravitch, the education historian who was Asst. Secretary of Education in the George Bush I administration and was an architect of NCLB. She looked at the results, saw that these policies were harming schools and students rather than succeeding, and changed her views. Her 2010 book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” is the definitive explanation of her change of heart. Ravitch has been the most effective critic of this wrongheaded set of policies, because (as my poli-sci-major son puts it) she “already had a seat at the table,” which couldn’t be taken away from her.

Critics of this set of policies point out that the actual cause of the struggles of our nation’s educational system is the very high U.S. child poverty rate, coupled with the fact that we underfund and disrespect our schools and teachers, and that we underfund social services that could help families overcome poverty. The education “reformers” deride their critics as “defenders of the failed status quo,” although their “reforms” have been in effect for so long that they are the actual “failed status quo.”

Funding and promoting this brand of education “reform” is a fad among the wealthy elite right now, including hedge-funders and Silicon Valley moguls, who claim to view it as a philanthropic effort. Critics view it as an effort to privatize our public education system.

Some other individuals/forces promoting these concepts and policies:

  • The Obama administration
  • U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
  • Many elected officials in both parties – governors around the nation, members of Congress, urban mayors, etc.
  • Major funders whose donations establish these policies more firmly
    • Bill Gates
    • Eli Broad (ultra-wealthy real estate & insurance mogul)
    • The Walton (Walmart) family
    • Reed Hastings (founder/CEO of Netflix)
      • Many other Silicon Valley titans
  • The Fisher (The Gap) family
  • So-called “think tanks” (actually propaganda mills but almost universally given credibility as though they were impartial researchers)
    • The Hoover Institution (at Stanford)
    • The American Enterprise Institute
    • The Cato Institute
    • Many more like them
  • Much of the mainstream press, especially the superstar elite commentators and editorial writers.

An important note is that political insiders tell me that supporting for this brand of education “reform” is a litmus test for major political donors, which explains why so many elected officials in both parties embrace it.

“American education has a long history of infatuation with fads and ill-considered ideas. The current obsession with making our schools work like a business may be the worst of them, for it threatens to destroy public education. Who will stand up to the tycoons and politicians and tell them so?”

— Diane Ravitch

A belief in decline has led to irresponsibility in school reform. Policymakers who believed they could do no harm because American schools were already in a state of collapse have imposed radical reforms without careful consideration of possible unintended adverse consequences. Not thinking that President Reagan’s rule (‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’) applied to what conservatives and liberals alike assumed was an already broken school system, this irresponsibility reached its zenith in the bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law of 2002.

“I do not suggest that American schools are adequate, that American students’ level of achievement in math and reading is where it should be, that American schools are improving as rapidly as they should, or that the achievement gap is narrowing to the extent needed to give us any satisfaction. I only suggest that we should approach fixing a system differently if we believe its outcomes are slowly improving than if we believe it is collapsing. And we owe the latter, flawed assumption to ‘A Nation at Risk.'”

— Richard Rothstein





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