Thirty Years at Risk-Terrel H. Bell


When tracing back the linage of the present day school reform movement, all paths converge to a federal report presented to the public in 1983 entitled, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. For educators or for those who value public education, the impact of the report on public education cannot be overestimated. The report needlessly removed the credibility and influence that professional educators had over their schools and attacked public education by proclaiming academic achievement in our schools was on a downward spiral and threatened our technological, military, and economic standing in the world (Guthrie & Springer, 2004). Fortunately for our country, the report was wrong all accounts. Unfortunately for teachers and students, the media, whose responsibility it is to question the validity of such claims embraced the findings with such enthusiasm that ultimately educational decision-making for children in public schools has since been transferred from teachers in classrooms and to this day remains in the hands of non-educators, profiteers and politicians at both the state and federal levels.

Years after the A Nation at Risk was published, it is still considered one of the most influential policy polemics in the history of our country (Guthrie & Springer, 2004). Its findings and influence on public education are not in question. This article will focus on the members of the NCEE that developed the report that ultimately altered the course of public education and seek the influences on the commissioners that lead to the report.

Before A Nation at Risk

Cuban and Tyack (1995) explain that policy discussions and political action toward education are a product of the period that preceded it. The two decades that preceded the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk were certainly unsettling for the nation. From my own experiences as a public school and college student from 1965-1982, I was not oblivious to the social upheaval of the times that included Vietnam war protests, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the women’s liberation movement, desegregation of public schools through forced busing, the Watergate scandal and future resignation of President Richard Nixon, soaring gasoline prices and the OPEC oil embargo in the early 1970’s, runaway inflation that produced skyrocketing interest rates and the seemingly endless counting of days during the Iran hostage crisis. This period of turmoil followed the omnipresent Cold War and the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and LBJ’s passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965.

School reform mandated by the federal government’s involvement into public schools through the ESEA and busing in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Diane Ravitch describes this period of public education reforms as “freewheeling” in an era that sought to liberate students from academic requirements and to encourage a respect for cultural diversity (Ravitch, 2010, p. 23). My first memory of turmoil in public education occurred while in the seventh grade as a student in the Dallas Independent School District in the district’s first year of forced busing during the 1970-71 school year. Numerous student fights between racial denominations coincided with the Dallas ISD abolishing all requirements of a student dress code in this era of long hair, hot pants, and wired-framed glasses. As a sophomore in a suburban school district adjacent to Dallas in 1974, students were not only allowed to bring cigarettes to school but a fifteen minute period was set aside during the school day so students could smoke on campus. In Washington DC, the final days of the decade witnessed the creation of the U.S. Department of Education as a cabinet level position by the Jimmy Carter Administration and approved by the 96th Congress in 1979 by a narrow 210-206 vote in the House (Vinovskis, 1999).

It was during this backdrop that Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. Reagan had little interest in federal responsibility for public education and had campaigned to abolish the newly created Department of Education, provide vouchers and tax credits for public schools, and restore school prayer (Bracey, 2003 PDK).

The Secretary of Education-Terrel H. Bell

Terrel Howard Bell, a career public educator from Utah accepted the position of Secretary of Education in the Reagan Cabinet with the understanding that he assist in fulfilling Reagan’s campaign promise to abolish the department of education (Bell, 1988). Bell described Ronald Reagan as having an interest in public education but felt the responsibility should be retained at the local and state levels (Bell 1988). Like Reagan, Bell agreed with local and state control of public schools but unlike the former President, felt public education needed influence and leadership at the national level (Bell, Memoir).

The development of A Nation at Risk can be contributed to one person, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, T. H. Bell.

T.H. Bell was a career public educator with experience as a teacher, principal, school superintendent and the Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Prior to accepting the position of Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Bell was the Commissioner and Chief Executive Officer of the Utah System of Higher Education (Bell, 1988).

Bell was not a novice to the inner workings of Washington DC having served as Deputy Commissioner in the in the U.S. Office of Education in 1970 and as U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1974 to 1976. At that time the Office of Education was a part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. David P. Gardner, a good friend of Bell and chair of the National Commission on Excellence in Education described Bell as a humble seasoned educator “sophisticated in the ways of the nation’s capital” whose “detractors often mistook his self-effacing manner for weakness at best and ineptitude at worst” (Gardner, 2005, p. 164).

Bell was raised in southeast Idaho with his siblings in extreme poverty by a single mother. He was forever grateful for the assistance of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program that provided him a part-time job and salary of $17 per month through the National Youth Administration (NYA) that he used to pay $11.50 per term for college tuition and “always felt a special aversion toward any person, group, or idea that obstructs or denies the opportunity to become educated” (Bell, 1988, p. 103). After serving in the South Pacific as a Marine during World War II, Bell again took advantage of federal financial assistance provided by the GI Bill to earn his bachelor degree and with subsequent grants and financial aid through fellowships was able to earn his masters and Ph.D. degrees.

Although Bell had testified before the U.S. Senate to establish the Department of Education in 1979, he initially had reservations for the need of a cabinet level position for education but had an epiphany for its need while dealing with education bashers in the Reagan Administration. After the Reagan administration denied Bell a presidentially appointed commission to report on the state of America’s public education system, Bell appointed his own commission for the study with hopes that President Reagan would accept the report (Bell, 1988). Bell’s intent was to prepare a report for the President that would praise public education and maintain support at the federal level (Guthrie & Springer, 2004). In his position of Secretary of the Department of Education, Bell wanted to rally the American people around their schools and colleges in much the same way Sputnik had shaken the county in 1957 (Bell 1988). Bell wanted a “tough, powerful, persuasive report on the condition of American education” that included “recommendations for change” and improvement (Bell, 1988, p. 115).

On August 26, 1981, without the support of President Reagan or his advisors, Bell created the National Commission on Excellence in Education to study and report on the quality of education in America. Nineteen months later in April of 1983, A Nation at Risk was officially accepted by President Ronald Reagan and changed the direction of public education for thirty years.


Bell, T. H. (1988). The thirteenth man: A Reagan cabinet memoir. New York: The Free  Press.

Bracey, G. W. (2003, April). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of “a nation at risk”. Phi Delta Kappa International, Vol. 84, No. 8, 616-621.

Bracey, G. W. (2007, October). The first time ‘everything changed:’ The 17th Bracey report on th e condition of public education, Phi Delta Kappa, Vol. 89, No. 2, 199-136.

Cuban, L. & Tyack, D. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia: A century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gardner, D. P. (2005). Earning my degree: Memoirs of an American university president. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.

Guthrie, J. W., & Springer, M. G. (2004). A nation at risk: Did “wrong” reasoning result in “right” results? At what cost? Peabody Journal of Education, 79(1), 7-35.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.

Vinovskis, M. A. (1999). The road to Charlottesville: The 1989 education summit. Institute for Social Research and School of Public Policy: University of Michigan.


About ourschoolsblog

Rickey Williams is the author of this blog and began his career in public education in 1982. He has a deep respect for educators and the mission of public education. The author earned his doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in Educational Administration. As an adjunct, he teaches graduate level courses to aspiring campus principals. His public education experience includes teaching math and coaching to secondary students (6-12), leading campuses as the high school principal, and leading districts as the superintendent. Foundational beliefs about public education include: Students and staff must feel safe and valued while in school. Educators and parents who promote and value an education enhance a child’s education. Students must be given the opportunity to reach their academic and social potential through high expectations, sound curriculum, and differentiated instruction. Enthusiastic educators have a passion for teaching and continuous professional growth. All district employees will be examples of professional and ethical conduct and will promote and enhance a positive and collaborative school climate.
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