The Politics of Education Reform

By Elmore, Richard F. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Education Reform

Elmore, Richard F., Issues in Science and Technology

Respect existing power bases and make administrators accountable if you want to see better schools.

The recently released Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which made international comparisons of math and science performance among fourth- and eighth-grade students, strengthened the case of those who are calling for ambitious reform of U.S. education. U.S. fourth graders did relatively well in science and about average in math; eighth graders did slightly better than average in science and slightly below average in math. These findings are consistent with other assessments of U.S. student performance.

The TIMSS study also provided new and valuable information about the relationship between instructional practice and student performance. The message to U.S. educators was clear: science and math education needs to be better focused and more rigorous. Although one can still hear arguments that international comparisons are not fair, that the diversity of the U.S. population or the pluralistic nature of its political culture makes it impossible to replicate the coherence found in other countries' schools, or that U.S. schools are already improving at an acceptable pace, the reality is that the majority of the public, of elected officials, and of educators believe that change is needed. The task is to determine what changes are necessary to make a real difference to students and how reform can be achieved in the U.S. political culture.

The evolution of U.S. education reform

U.S. elementary and secondary education is a vast and extraordinarily complex enterprise that seems to defy simple generalizations. However, the two central imperatives of U.S. educational governance are dispersed control and political pluralism. I have chosen my words carefully here. I use "dispersed" control rather than the more conventional "decentralized" control because I do not think that control of education is actually decentralized in the United States. The notion of local control of schools is, I think. largely inaccurate and outmoded, especially in light of the direction education reform has taken in the past decade. The idea of political pluralism is more straightforward. It captures a fundamental principle of U.S. politics-that political decisions and actions are the result of competing groups with different resources and capacities vying for influence in a constitutional system that encourages conflict as an antidote to the concentration of power.

The story of U.S. education reform since the early 1980s is worthy of either a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or the theater of the absurd, depending on your tastes. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education releases A Nation at Risk, focusing public attention on a "crisis" of low expectations, mediocre instructional practice, and menacing foreign competition-thereby legitimating a nascent education reform movement that has already begun in a handful of states. From the beginning, it is fairly clear that there is little the federal government can actually do to fix this crisis, because the ideological climate is running against a strong federal role. By the mid-1980s, with many states gearing up to take on the issue, the National Governors Association, under the leadership of a politically ambitious Governor Clinton of Arkansas, promotes the idea of a "horse trade" - greater flexibility and less regulation for schools and school systems in return for more tangible evidence of results, reckoned mostly in terms of student achievement. This is followed by another spate of state and local reforms aimed at deregulation, government restructuring, and fighter state monitoring of student achievement.

In 1989, an extraordinary event occurs: President Bush and 50 governors meet in Charlottesville, Virginia, to draft national goals for education. This Education Summit inaugurates an all-too-brief period in which there appears to be broad bipartisan support for some sort of national movement to support explicit state and local goals and standards. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

The Politics of Education Reform


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.