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'A Nation at Risk': How much of 'apocalyptic' education report still applies?

'A Nation at Risk,' released 30 years ago Friday, was one of a series of reports sounding alarms. Some of the same issues in US schools still resonate today, although progress in certain areas has come through various reforms.

By Staff writer / April 26, 2013

In this March 1984 file photo, President Ronald Reagan gets some instructions on computer operations while visiting the Congress Heights Elementary School in Washington. 'A Nation at Risk,' the report issued 30 years ago by Reagan’s Education Department, was one of a series of reports sounding alarms for the country.

Scott Applewhite/AP

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It wasn’t the first report calling into question the quality of American public schools, but 30 years ago Friday, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform” sounded an alarm that continues to resonate.

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Touted by President Reagan, the 1983 report spoke of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Using imagery popular at the time because of the nuclear arms race, it said the United States had been “committing an act of unthinking unilateral educational disarmament.” And it noted that schools must better serve the whole population – “affluent and poor, majority and minority” – lest people become “effectively disenfranchised.”

Many people see the “accountability era” that had emerged by the 1990s – which took shape in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) – as tracing “a direct lineage back to ‘A Nation at Risk,’ ” says Patrick McGuinn, a political science and education professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J.

“The debate about whether there was a crisis at the time ... or whether the system is in crisis today remains a point of tension,” Professor McGuinn says. But “given our somewhat lethargic political system, it’s often hard to get any kind of major policy change without creating a sense of crisis.”

In the 1980s, the report “turbocharged the state reform agenda,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. But a whole series of “apocalyptic reports” emerged in the post-Sputnik era, he notes. Had “A Nation at Risk” not been among them, “it’s not clear that those reform waves would have played out any differently,” he says.

The report was written by a commission created by then-Secretary of Education T.H. Bell. “International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times,” the report noted.

Comparisons of students taking international tests have continued to sow worry about America’s future prosperity.

Taken as a whole, American 15-year-olds in recent years were at best in the middle of the pack in math, reading, and science skills as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

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