Twenty years after 'A Nation at Risk'

If it seems no US politician ever makes a speech today without insisting that education is his or her top priority, a quick glance back exactly 20 years may explain why that is.

On April 26, 1983, a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the Reagan administration released "A Nation at Risk" - a report chock-full of strong language and disturbing findings on the state of education in the United States.

"Our Nation is at risk," the report stated. "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."

Test scores were falling, schools were asking less and less of their students, and US schools increasingly were failing to stack up against their overseas counterparts, the report asserted.

In many respects, "A Nation at Risk" fired a shot heard across the US. A state of emergency was declared. The federal government couldn't afford to leave education to state and local governments.

In 1989, then-President George Bush convened a governors' conference on education, directly inspired by the report, and 13 years later his son signed the No Child Left Behind legislation into law. Because of "A Nation at Risk," the federal government has an unprecedented and probably irreversible role in education.

But for all the debate, increased spending, and national attention, has anything improved in US schools since the release of "A Nation at Risk"?

"The answer to that question all depends on where you're sitting," says Gary Natriello, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "Plenty of people sitting in plenty of places would say that not much progress has been made."

Simply looking at the numbers is not a heartening experience. The Koret Task Force, educators commissioned by the Hoover Institute of Stanford University in Menlo Park, Calif., recently published a report on the state of US education over the past few decades, concluding: "The tide of mediocrity remains high."

The group examined public schools and found that fewer teachers specialize in their subject areas than in 1983; the school year is still about seven days shorter than it was in the early 1970s; and students do no more homework than their counterparts did in 1982.

In addition, they point out, while SAT scores have improved since 1982, they are still below their 1970 levels. At the same time, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained fairly flat over the years, and in global comparisons US students still fail to score among the top nations.

Since 1983 there has been "a lot of effort and goodwill and activity and money spent on our schools, and yet very little to show for it by way of improvement," says Chester Finn, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and chairman of the Koret Task Force.

The publication of "A Nation at Risk" was a major event for the US, Mr. Finn agrees, but it did more to shock than to correct: "The report made a lasting contribution by changing national conversation about education. It set the stage and brought the audience into the room and even played the overture. But what it didn't do was to deliver the opera."

Yet focusing too much on stagnant test scores is deceptive, say some others.

"Students today are definitely better educated than they were in the 1980s," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. He says students today are taking more challenging courses than ever before and that there is more basic literacy testing.

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.

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."

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