In 1983, during the Reagan administration, Secretary of Education Terrell Bell assembled the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which released “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.” Bell’s report was used to raise national awareness of supposed failings in the public education system and sounded yet another government call to action and, therefore, more government control.

One of the report’s 38 findings served to undermine a key Reagan policy position – to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education altogether. Instead, one of the findings sought to cement the federal government’s control of local public education: “We believe the Federal Government’s role includes several functions of national consequence that States and localities alone are unlikely to be able to meet.” The report continues: “The Federal Government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education. It should also help fund and support efforts to protect and promote that interest.”

What started with President Johnson’s dream of a Great Society and evolved further under President Carter was now strengthened by Secretary Bell under Ronald Reagan’s watch.


In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the “Goals 2000: Educate America Act,” a standards-based education policy that outlined eight “national” goals that would be achieved through “voluntary” government intervention (and government money) by the year 2000. Note that in the most creative nation in the world, a nation that had thrived in part due to its variety of educational goals, government set itself up to declare mono-goals and “standards” for the whole country. “Standards” and “accountability” were bywords employed to spread the presumption that government actors are smarter and know better -- than who? -- than you and me and the rest of us, apparently.

Federal legislation over the past three decades has worked effectively to normalize the creeping federal reach into education. Goals 2000 took yet another step forward by creating the National Education Standards and Improvement Council, which was established to “certify and periodically review voluntary national content standards and voluntary national student performance standards that define what all students should know and be able to do.” viii

Looking back on the lofty goals of Goals 2000, dismal performance and outright total failure in achieving most of these goals is all that remains. Goal 2000’s second goal was to increase the national graduation rate to at least 90 percent by 2000. Graduation rates nationally went from 73.7 percent in 1990 to 72.6 percent in 2000, a decrease of 1.1 percent.ix  Once again government’s promises failed.

Early 2000s

On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a reauthorization of ESEA. Along with reauthorizing ESEA, NCLB included a host of new education reforms that focused on measuring accountability using Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). NCLB was even more prescriptive than Goals 2000 in that it required states to establish a set of statewide academic standards and benchmarks to establish above, at or below “proficiency.” Then states were to put in place a statewide standardized test to measure the proficiency level of all students based on those standards.

NCLB coined the newest educational buzzword – “accountability“—and brought with it a slew of federal consequences for local “underperformance.” Failure to meet measurable benchmarks triggered a series of required school-level actions, many of which required more and more administrative and teaching time spent on filling out forms and writing out plans rather than teaching students.

“Financial statements reveal that between 2010 and 2012 both trade associations received more than $28.4 million in federal grant monies for their pet education initiatives, chief among them Common Core.”

After a decade in place, NCLB also has left a legacy of government failure. Test scores have not seen significant improvements while graduation rates continue to remain steadily around 78 percent. One-hundred percent proficiency in math and reading – one of the impossible-to-achieve pipedreams of NCLB – unsurprisingly has not been achieved. x

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