Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Reagan Years: Bennett - Funding and Achievement
The (apparent) link between standardized tests and dropout rates did not convince policymakers that schools gave students too many tests; rather, it convinced policymakers that schools needed more resources to help students pass. By 1984, policymakers at both the state and the federal level were beginning to emphasize the need for supplemental aid to help students meet higher academic standards. In his State of the Union message the year before, Reagan even went so far as to propose a new categorical program to improve students' achievement in mathematics, science, and technology, and he proceeded to give more than fifty school-related speeches in the months leading up to the elections of 1984 (which he won with 97.6 percent of the electoral vote). After his re-election, Reagan appointed a new secretary of education, William Bennett, who, in turn, appointed a new assistant secretary for research and improvement, Chester E. Finn, Jr., to help press for greater emphasis on academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.
Bennett and Finn cited countless education evaluation studies to show that twenty years of "dumping money" on public schools had done little to boost academic results. They stated repeatedly that increased funding to schools could not guarantee higher test scores and insisted that excessive federal regulations had bloated state and local school bureaucracies while diverting limited resources from classrooms. Bennett's famous "wall charts" (a tool invented, actually, by one of Bennett's predecessors, Terrel Bell) ranked states in order of per-pupil spending (as well as test scores, poverty rates, teacher salaries, and dropout rates) to show that expenditures had little correlation with academic achievement. Bennett's critics, however, accused him of hiding behind a flurry of statistics that bore no connection to actual reforms in curriculum or instruction. Critics also commented that Bennett's outspoken support for national testing systems epitomized the centralization, bureaucratization, and standardization that he himself had criticized the federal Department of Education for fostering.