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Guest Blogger, Jane Remer: The Law of Unintended Consequences: How “Reform” Became the Language of Defeat in 1983


Jane Remer’s CliffNotes:

Recently to my chagrin and discomfort, many scholars and practitioners in favor of improving public education through democratic means refer to current events and efforts in harsh terms. What we used to call “positive school change, development or improvement” has been cast aside as “soft and wimpy” and replaced with a lexicon that uses “reform” in its dictionary definitions as a punishment, laced with accusations of malpractice, misconduct, and even abuse. Perhaps without even realizing it, since 1983 those who want to rescue and/or demolish our current school systems and practice have fallen into the battle metaphor of what I call the language of defeat.

The almost fatal attack on the adequacy of American education in 1983, set off by “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” (August 1983, National Commission on Excellence in Education) and the ensuing sweeping addiction to the word “reform” as both noun and verb, has brought us to a new place in the history of American public education. These days self-appointed people of wealth and power who know little about schools, schooling and the public school system now rejoice in the blame game, piling assaults on schools, administrators, teachers, parents, the poor and other more or less defenseless targets as the cause for every conceivable problem we face. Typically, they irrationally expect the schools to protect, care for, teach and discipline the young and hold them responsible and accountable for failure for graduation, test scores, college readiness, health, safety, citizenship, and social graces that in calmer and more reasonable times, we knew and acknowledged were impossible expectations of schools.

As you read through the following description of the turning point of American education beginning in 1983, you will notice the war-like metaphors and language. If you’re curious, research the panel of experts and the report, itself, to better understand where we are today and what we have to overcome.

In 1983 American education reform entered a new era. It was in that year that the federal government published a report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Commissioned in August 1981 by President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of education, Terrel H. Bell, and chaired by David P. Gardner, then president of the University of Utah, this eighteen-member blue-ribbon panel of educators and elected officials examined the quality of elementary and secondary public education in the United States and found a “rising tide of mediocrity” that threatened the nation’s future. In inflammatory tones, the commissioners reported that the United States had engaged in unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament, asserting that if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance the commissioners found, the nation might well have viewed it as an “act of war.”

(Read more: Education Reform – OVERVIEW, REPORTS OF HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE – School, Schools, Educational, National, Public, and Commission

Ignoring the dictum of unintended consequences, the authors of the report took the wrong fork in the road. They could have chosen more optimistic language and tried to build on the good things (and there were many) that in the last two centuries we had managed to breed such as, for only one example, universal education. But instead the authors were tone-deaf and pitched to the wrong fork. They chose a definition of reform, as a violent, negative, punitive and destructive term that leaves little or no room for community, collaboration, hands joined, heads put together to try to improve things, including arts education for every child, not just the lucky few.

The twenty-eight year period from 1983 to 2011 has given us a witch’s brew of reform mania. While the negative and destructive forces aligned these days are fierce, it is not too late for us to rally, put our state and local heads together and identify those schools, communities, districts and systems that are taking more positive and democratic steps to make useful change. If we study the work of those “pockets of excellence” that are building infrastructures, offering support and professional development, positive thinking and teamwork throughout the process, we may be able to start to rescue ourselves from the trap we are in. I am also providing an article I wrote for Arts Education Policy Review last June that may provide a framework for your endeavors. Its titled “From Lessons Learned to Local Action: Building Your Own Policies for Effective Arts Education.”

Here are a few warm-up questions to start our state, city and local group first meetings. If you don’t like them, please substitute your own.

1. Why is it that in times of economic, social and political stress, our presidents, leaders, captains of industry and all those with money and power pounce on the weakest strands of our society blaming the schools and their failure to cure all the problems we encounter? Is it motivated by fear, shame, convenience, greed…or the knowledge that the schools and the people in them can’t or don’t have the weapons to fight back?

2. Why have we landed like wasps on the word “reform” that sting with the language of deficits and failures, rather than “positive change” or “improvement”? Aren’t we usually the land of “can do” Americans who meet a challenge like this with good old American Paul Bunyan know-how?

3. Why has the White House and the Presidency seemed to become a bully pulpit for the business model of schooling, supporting or lending credence to the corporate invaders with their billions funding dubious experiments, many of which have been tried and then failed, before?

4. Do schools, districts, systems actually manage to change and sustain their structure and content, and how long do these changes last, with what effect on teaching and learning as well as policy and the economy? I challenge you to see how many research articles and historical references you can find that bellow the praise of reform versus those that have bloomed and then quickly shrunk away unable to avoid the sandpit of implementation, capacity building and scaling up?

5. If every student in every school in the country had a 4.0 grade point average, today, how would that affect unemployment, our wars in the mid-east, the inequity of wealth and distribution in the country, better lives and support for the poor and the aging, the Wall Street moguls who remain unscathed by the economic collapse a few years ago, and on and on? Are GPA’s and test scores the definition of our educational excellence?

6. And finally, if every booster of the arts as education created the perfect advocacy campaign and sustained it over a year or so, would the arts have gained a foothold in every school, for every child in all our cities and towns? How do we create a clear statement that distills and demonstrates the importance of the arts for every child in both the process and the product of school change and development?

Let’s acknowledge that change is hard to achieve and harder to sustain, especially in our schools that still work tethered to the industrial model. Then let’s see if we can figure out a truly democratic way, incrementally, to change and sustain some basic strategies and practice, one school, district, city, town, and state at a time.

Jane Remer, May 12, 2011
We are at another rocky precipice in our history that threatens the survival of the arts in our social fabric and our school systems. The timing and magnitude of the challenges have prompted me to speak out about some of the most persistent issues in the arts education field during the last forty-plus years. My credo is simple: The arts are a moral imperative. They are fundamental to the cognitive, affective, physical, and intellectual development of all our children and youth. They belong on a par with the 3 R’s, science, and social studies in all of our elementary and secondary schools. These schools will grow to treasure good quality instruction that develops curious, informed, resilient young citizens to participate fully in a democratic society that is in constant flux. I have chosen the title Cliff Notes for this forum. It serves as metaphor and double entendre: first, as short takes on long-standing and complicated issues, and second, as a verbal image of the perpetually perilous state of the arts as an essential part of general public education. I plan to focus on possible solutions and hope to stimulate thoughtful dialogue on-line or locally.
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Jane Remer has worked nationally for over forty years as an author, educator, researcher, foundation director and consultant. She was an Associate Director of the John D. Rockefeller 3rd Fund’s Arts in Education Program and has taught at Teachers College, Columbia University and New York University. Ms. Remer works directly in and with the public schools and cultural organizations, spending significant time on curriculum, instruction and collaborative action research with administrators, teachers , students and artists. She directs the Capezio/Ballet Makers Dance Foundation, and her publications include Changing Schools Through the Arts and Beyond Enrichment: Building Arts Partnerships with Schools and Your Community. She is currently writing Beyond Survival: Reflections On The Challenge to the Arts As General Education. A graduate of Oberlin College, she attended Yale Law School and earned a masters in education from Yale Graduate School.


  1. Well said Jane. One of the most intense article I have read for sometime.As you say that If we want to change current industrial model on our art schools than one at a time is the way to go.

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