`A Nation at Risk" + 10 Years = A Nation Still at Risk
IT'S rare for a government report to do more than collect dust and clutter bookshelves.
Yet today is the 10th anniversary of a report often credited with launching the latest education reform movement in the United States.
"A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform" was released on April 26, 1983, by then-Secretary of Education Terrell Bell. Secretary Bell appointed the 18-member National Commission on Excellence in Education that produced the 36-page document.
Written as an "open letter to the American people" and without the dense, jargon-laced language of many reports, "A Nation at Risk" sounded an alarm and focused the nation's attention on its schools. In what some consider hyberbole, it warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" and cautioned that "history is not kind to idlers."
The report clearly outlined the "indicators of risk" and made recommendations for reform. These recommendations included strengthening high school graduation requirements, raising academic standards across the board, lengthening both the school day and school year, and improving salaries for teachers.
Following the release of "A Nation at Risk," many states created their own commissions to guide reform efforts. The governors led state-level reform and began top-down mandates for change. Corporate America renewed its interest in the public schools.
By the end of the 1980s, however, ideas for reforming the public schools began to sputter. President Bush started pushing for "school choice" allowing parents to use public funds at private schools. Only Milwaukee currently has a private-school choice program. Yet during the past five years, 13 states have adopted some form of school choice.
Education experts agree that the past decade has been one of the most intense periods of school reform in American history. Some basic progress has been made in several areas. But frustration with the slow pace of change is causing some to give up on the public schools.
"What's been missing is a unified vision of school renewal," says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
"Time is running out on school reform," he says. "The coming decade may be our last. If we do not find a way to focus our efforts and to give energy and direction to keep our priorities, public confidence will diminish and the structure we call public education will continue to decline." Areas of Strenth
`A Nation at Risk" prompted a groundswell of interest in education that remains strong today. Improving schools continues to be a front-burner domestic issue.
In 1989, President Bush and the nation's governors - including then-Gov. Bill Clinton - drafted six national education goals to be met by the year 2000.
The National Education Goals Panel, which is charged with assessing progress toward these goals, is now developing voluntary national standards in several academic areas.
The notion of national goals or national standards would have been unthinkable a decade ago. "Education during the past 10 years has gone national," says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "For more than 300 years, local school control was an almost sacred priority in this country. Education was grass roots."
Dr. Boyer refers to this shift as "an absolute historic watershed in American education." It is too soon to determine the outcome of these initiatives but the national goals have helped focus attention and coalesce support for reforms.
The introduction of "school-based management" during the 1980s has given teachers and principals more involvement with the day-to-day decisions made in schools.
"We've begun to realize that if we are going to improve education, it's not going to be done out of Washington, D.C.," says Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association. "It's going to happen building by building, classroom by classroom, and teacher by teacher."
One of the nation's greatest strengths is higher education. American universities, colleges, and the community-college system remain the envy of the rest of the world.
"The great need in this country is for systemic reform of the K-12 system," says Education Secretary Richard Riley. "When that's done, you're going to see a whole new kind of student going into the higher education system. It's going to change the job for higher education, because so much of it now is to do things that really should have been done in kindergarten through high school." Satisfactory Progress
Virtually all 50 states made changes in educational policies and mandates following the release of "A Nation at Risk."
As called for in the report, many states increased high school graduation requirements. Forty-two states have raised graduation requirements during the decade, according to a study by the Educational Testing Service, Princeton, N.J.
In 1983, many schools required only one year of math and one year of science for graduation. Now, the national average is two years of both math and science.
Minority students have made the most gains in academic performance during the past decade. Although white students still score better than minorities, improved performance - particularly among blacks - has helped close the gap between minority and white test scores.
Students across the nation are showing modest improvement in mathematics. A recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveals gains for students in half the states.
There is some evidence of improvement on basic-skills tests. Between 1978 and 1988, average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test improved slightly for math. Again, minority groups made considerable progress. Black students showed an increase of 21 points in verbal scores and 30 points in math, according to the Educational Testing Service.
Dropout rates have declined slightly in the past decade for all but Latino youths. Seventy-five percent of high schools report tougher attendance standards. Those students who remain in school are spending a bit more time in class. About 40 percent of all schools have lengthened the school day, and 27 percent now assign more homework. By the end of the '80s, nearly every state had a student-testing program in place.
Since 1983, the number of high schools with "no-pass, no play" policies, putting academics before athletics, has more than doubled to nearly 70 percent.
Teachers have reaped some rewards from the reform decade. Teacher salaries went up from about $20,000 a year to nearly $36,000 in 1992 - a 22 percent increase after inflation.
Although the federal investment in education has declined to a little more than 6 percent, overall expenditures from federal, state, and local sources have increased 40 percent after inflation. Needs Improvement
After 10 years of concerted effort, educators are not yet claiming victory in the battle to improve schools. It's clear that the task is more complex and arduous than many expected.
"We've made limited progress toward genuine reform," says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "I don't think that anyone can conclude that the system overall is adequately positioned to prepare our students for the next century."
Dr. Boyer considers 15 to 20 percent of the nation's schools to be doing "very well." And another 30 to 40 percent to "range from good to mediocre." But at least a third of America's schools are "in desperately bad shape," he says.
"These schools have all too often been bypassed by reformers, and yet it's here that the problem is most acute," Boyer says.
American students continue to perform poorly on math and science tests in comparison with students from other developed countries. The modest gains showing up on recent tests mean that students are starting to catch up to the performance levels of the 1970s.
Although the overall scores on standardized tests have remained fairly constant, fewer students are getting scores in the higher ranges of the exams. The number of students scoring at or above 650 points on the verbal or math sections of the Scholastic Aptitude Test has declined, for example.
Colleges continue to fill gaps for students who graduate from high school with inadequate basic skills. A report by the American College Testing Program shows that 25 percent of high school seniors taking the college-entrance exam need remedial math in college.
"A Nation at Risk" called for the "twin goals" of excellence and equity in education.
Debates about school funding and choice indicate that equity remains a hotly contested issue.
Several of the assessments made in "A Nation at Risk" still apply today. For example, the report states:
* "Many 17-year-olds do not possess the `higher order' intellectual skills we should expect of them." Although basic skills show some improvement since 1983, students still fail to perform well when more complex thinking is required.
* "Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs." Such complaints continue a decade later.