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Despite 25 years of reform, U.S. schools still fall short

New studies echo a key call from landmark 1983 report: boost teacher training and pay.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2008


The report that launched an education-reform movement – released 25 years ago Thursday – is causing some reform advocates to issue the same sort of dire warnings today.

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The original report warned that "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." Now, despite the push toward standards-based reform that culminated in No Child Left Behind, the United States has made relatively small strides in student achievement. And it has fallen further behind other industrialized nations. Without major changes, including better teacher training and compensation, the US risks not only stagnating achievement but also serious harm to the economy, reformers say.

"The countries pulling ahead have made intense, purposeful investments [in education] over 20 years, and we haven't," says Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University and a lead author of a new report from the Forum for Education and Democracy that calls for a revised federal role in US schools. "We're treading water, and they're swimming really fast." In fact, the US has implemented a number of major reforms in the past decades, arguably spurred on by the Reagan-era Nation at Risk report. States began developing standards, and the idea of accountability gained traction. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton took significant actions. In 2001, President George W. Bush pushed through No Child Left Behind.

"I don't think you would have had No Child Left Behind without 'A Nation at Risk,' " says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, noting that it served as a "clarion call" for policymakers from the district level to the federal level. And he says some of that has borne fruit.

"I don't think there's much doubt that public schools today are better than they were 20 or 30 years ago," Mr. Jennings says. "The problem is that the demands are increasing, not just in the US but internationally, so we're measuring ourselves against higher standards than we've ever measured ourselves."

Some experts say that those concerns expressed in the Nation at Risk report are even more sharply defined today. The US, which once led the world in terms of higher-education participation and the education of its workforce, is now at the middle or bottom of the pack of industrialized nations on most education measures.

Two of the biggest issues, says Professor Darling-Hammond, are funding inequities and teaching quality.

"If you look at those countries at the top, [better teachers] is the way they've done it," she says, noting that countries as diverse as Finland, South Korea, and Singapore all tend to have programs where teachers are educated for free and sometimes even paid a salary during their studies, get on-the-job mentoring and significant professional development opportunities, and earn an excellent salary.