Twenty years after 'A Nation at Risk'
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In addition, those who worry about test scores fail to take into account that one of the largest waves of immigration in US history took place in the 1990s, filling US schools with large numbers of nonnative English speakers.Skip to next paragraph
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Apart from questions of academic achievement, says Mr. Jennings, is the fact that today education is regarded as a national concern, and a very vital one.
In the 1980s, education in the US "was decentralized and localized," he says. " 'A Nation at Risk' helped to energize us and pull us together. Much of what has happened has flowed from the sense of urgency that it created."
Making schools a vital part of the national conversation has had the benefit of sparking new ideas about how to improve them. Of course there are some who protest that, if anything, there are too many thinkers focused on education - many running in separate directions with disparate ideas about what the schools most need.
Ronald Reagan, still president during the initial appearance of "A Nation at Risk," immediately responded by saying school vouchers, school prayer, and the abolition of the Department of Education would fix education.
Many conservative thinkers in the years since have continued to focus on vouchers and school choice as the answer to what ails US schools. Thinkers on the left have instead tended to argue for more attention to questions of funding and equity in school financing.
The Bush administration has made its contribution by building on the accountability system for schools tied to a set of national standards - perhaps the most direct link to the set of recommendations laid out in "A Nation at Risk."
But when it comes to asking whether a heightened national discussion of education has made schools better or worse, those who work on the front line say no.
"Things have gotten better over the past 20 years because of advances in research and technology, but when it comes to more politics in education, things have gotten worse," says Jay Simser, a veteran sixth-grade teacher at Edwards Elementary School in Ames, Iowa, who has taught for 37 years.
The tighter focus on standards and testing championed by politicians has actually hurt the quality of teaching, Mr. Simser says. "Schools aren't businesses," he says, worrying that thinking too much about test scores takes the artistry out of the profession.
Sheldon Benardo, principal of PS 86 in the Bronx and a 25-year veteran of the New York City public school system, has a different view: "Things are absolutely better than they were 20 years ago."
As the principal of a school with many immigrants, he has rejoiced to see more attention paid to teaching basic reading skills and various means of supporting non-English speakers as they learn.
The caliber of those applying for teaching jobs has improved significantly in recent years, he adds - a development he credits in part to the increased national dialogue about education. "It's the nudge that's reawakened a certain thirst for this line of work."
It will require more than such a nudge to spur widespread improvement in US schools. "This is a difficult and long-term kind of problem to be worked on, and solutions will not be quick or easy or inexpensive," Professor Natriello says.
There remains, Natriello adds, plenty of room for disagreement as to whether or not the reforms currently being focused on are the ones that will actually prove to be the most effective.
"But what you can't quibble about," he says, "is that 20 years after [the release of "A Nation at Risk"], the interest is still there and the issues have remained front and center in the policy world."