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Twenty years after 'A Nation at Risk'

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 2003



NEW YORK

If it seems no US politician ever makes a speech today without insisting that education is his or her top priority, a quick glance back exactly 20 years may explain why that is.

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On April 26, 1983, a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the Reagan administration released "A Nation at Risk" - a report chock-full of strong language and disturbing findings on the state of education in the United States.

"Our Nation is at risk," the report stated. "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Test scores were falling, schools were asking less and less of their students, and US schools increasingly were failing to stack up against their overseas counterparts, the report asserted.

In many respects, "A Nation at Risk" fired a shot heard across the US. A state of emergency was declared. The federal government couldn't afford to leave education to state and local governments.

In 1989, then-President George Bush convened a governors' conference on education, directly inspired by the report, and 13 years later his son signed the No Child Left Behind legislation into law. Because of "A Nation at Risk," the federal government has an unprecedented and probably irreversible role in education.

But for all the debate, increased spending, and national attention, has anything improved in US schools since the release of "A Nation at Risk"?

"The answer to that question all depends on where you're sitting," says Gary Natriello, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "Plenty of people sitting in plenty of places would say that not much progress has been made."

Simply looking at the numbers is not a heartening experience. The Koret Task Force, educators commissioned by the Hoover Institute of Stanford University in Menlo Park, Calif., recently published a report on the state of US education over the past few decades, concluding: "The tide of mediocrity remains high."

The group examined public schools and found that fewer teachers specialize in their subject areas than in 1983; the school year is still about seven days shorter than it was in the early 1970s; and students do no more homework than their counterparts did in 1982.

In addition, they point out, while SAT scores have improved since 1982, they are still below their 1970 levels. At the same time, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained fairly flat over the years, and in global comparisons US students still fail to score among the top nations.

Since 1983 there has been "a lot of effort and goodwill and activity and money spent on our schools, and yet very little to show for it by way of improvement," says Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and chairman of the Koret Task Force.

The publication of "A Nation at Risk" was a major event for the US, Mr. Finn agrees, but it did more to shock than to correct: "The report made a lasting contribution by changing national conversation about education. It set the stage and brought the audience into the room and even played the overture. But what it didn't do was to deliver the opera."

Yet focusing too much on stagnant test scores is deceptive, say some others.

"Students today are definitely better educated than they were in the 1980s," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. He says students today are taking more challenging courses than ever before and that there is more basic literacy testing.

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