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.
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The teacher element, many experts agree, is one of the most important and also one of the most elusive goals that needs to be at the core of any real effort to improve America's schools. It was also a key recommendation back in the Nation at Risk report, but little about the profession has changed since then, notes Roy Romer, the former governor of Colorado and chairman of Strong American Schools, which just released a report examining those 1983 recommendations and grading them on the degree to which any action has been taken. Attracting better teachers and improving their salary received an "F." Making grades indicators of actual learning and significantly expanding the amount of time students spend in school both earned an "F," too.Skip to next paragraph
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The US has made improvements on a few things recommended in the report, like developing standards and raising graduation requirements, says Mr. Romer, "but we still have 50 different states with 50 different standards."
The report also recommended a longer school day and a longer school year, a suggestion that only Massachusetts has begun to consider. "These three issues" – teaching, time, and standards – "were critical 25 years ago, and they're critical now," says Romer. "If you look at the social costs of failure in education, they're very high."
Still, at least a few analysts think that the situation was exaggerated in 1983, and is exaggerated now.
The Nation at Risk report "totally incorrectly assessed whether our education system was an economic detriment," says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. He notes that the US experienced a surge in productivity about 10 years after the report came out, right when the students it had criticized were reaching their prime.
"Over the last generation we've improved education levels tremendously in this country," says Mr. Mishel. "There's every reason to want to improve education and we should. But the major problems facing American working families and why they're getting squeezed and not earning enough has almost nothing to do with skill deficits."
Others say that the message about the risks of falling behind other countries is an important one, but that the proposed solutions – both back in 1983 and most of the reforms suggested today – won't accomplish much.
The Nation at Risk report "had the wrong problem and the wrong solutions," says Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, who helped author a 2006 report that also called attention to a dire situation in which American students are falling behind their international counterparts and are no longer learning the skills they need for today's economy. But where "A Nation at Risk" argued for strengthening the current system, Mr. Tucker believes what's needed is a drastic overhaul of the entire system, from different funding and governance mechanisms to a new, creativity-emphasizing curriculum and a vastly different teacher pay scale and high school experience.
"They proposed more of these courses, more of those, and we've been doing that for years," he says. "The big difference [between the US and the countries that outperform it] isn't in programs or in money, it's in the design of the system."