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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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