The event that galvanized the nation's attention and began a widespread call for fundamental reforms that would improve student achievement—the outcomes of education—was the April 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. This study declared America to be a "nation at risk ... [whose] educational foundations ... are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." The report's basic criticism was that America's young people were not learning enough, and it made clear that the input focus and resource-based strategies of the mid-1960s and the Great Society had failed to improve the nation's education results significantly. Weak academic achievement, therefore, was the key education problem.
This conclusion was repeated in dozens of other reports that soon followed. These reports helped place exceptional pressure on politicians and policymakers to improve educational performance. This led to a development unprecedented in the history of U.S. education: the nation's states became hotbeds of education reform. Elected officials (such as governors, legislators, and mayors) and lay people (such as business leaders and newspaper editors) set out to wrest control of education from the education experts (school superintendents, school boards, and other members of the education establishment). These 4 1 civilians" began to demand that the "education experts" make themselves accountable to the public.
Coleman's early work was of immense importance to the push for a focus on outcomes, as were the later efforts of elected policymakers and other civilians seeking to make educators accountable for results. Even some educators hinted at the need to focus on results and deregulate the "means" of education (what happens in the classroom). For example, in the 1970s the move to establish minimum competency tests for students reflected a focus on results. In the 1980s, this competency focus spread to other areas such as preparation of teachers and administrators. Other educators and policymakers supported efforts to rid schools of tracking-the policy by which schools separate students into vocational or academic programs or classes according to ability-an example of controlling the means of education.
Also part of this movement was "mastery learning," an educational method popularized by Benjamin Bloom in the late 1960s, which became widespread—some would say an education fad—beginning in the early 1980s. In Bloom's words, "Given sufficient time (and appropriate types of help), 95 percent of students (the top 5 percent and the next 90 percent) can learn a subject up to high levels of mastery. In other words, outcomes are primary, and instruction, especially the time used to master outcomes, should vary. This approach reversed the usual practice of allowing for little or no day-to-day variation in time used for teaching different subjects. These and other such efforts set the stage for the watershed events that soon followed.