'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.

Scott Applewhite/AP
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.

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.

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).

But researchers taking a closer look have been pushing back on how such data are interpreted.

“We’re actually doing better than we think,” says Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, who has helped develop some of the PISA indicators. People often look at how students do on average, but forget to take into account factors such as income level, he says. But if you compare how countries are doing educating students who are not poor, the US ranks very well.

Other countries also struggle to educate children who are poor, but the US has a higher share of them.

“We have a crisis in education today, but it’s in educating children of poverty,” Professor Miron says. Some great school reforms are happening, but in many places beset by poverty, he says, children are chronically absent from school to baby-sit siblings or help supplement the family income – and lifting poverty “is more than the schools can do by themselves.”

Finland, one of the top performers on international tests, underwent a period of 30 years of systematic reform to reach that status – largely based on American research about what works well in education and teacher development, Miron notes. But in the US, reforms tend to be ideologically driven rather than research-based, he says.

“The next party will come in and probably reverse things,” he says. “That’s not a good way to do school reform.”

Miron was a young teacher when “A Nation at Risk” came out, and from his perch, it seemed that a period of teacher bashing followed.

Today, he says, the media are better able to find sources to offer counterpoints to similar reports, such as the recent one calling education problems a national-security threat, by a commission chaired by former New York City schools chief Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That report called for more emphasis on science, technology, and foreign-language instruction, but also promoted conservative staples such as charter schools and vouchers. Critics noted that if there really were an imminent threat to national security, the authors should be willing to recommend greater resources for public schools.

“A Nation at Risk” focused mostly on high schools. Far too many, it said, offered “a cafeteria style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses.”

In 1979, 4 out of 10 high school students took “general track” courses rather than a college-preparatory or vocational curriculum, it noted. By contrast, many industrialized nations required science and math for all students, and they spent about three times as many hours on those subjects as even the American students who took them all four years of high school.

The report also said American students should spend more time in school, to better compete with international peers.

Both of those indicators have improved over time. Between 1990 and 2009, for instance, the average amount of instructional time that students received in high school increased by 400 hours, and high school graduates increased their average number of credits from 23.6 to 27.2, Education Week reports.

As for curriculum, 45 states and the District of Columbia have now adopted the voluntary Common Core State Standards in math and English – internationally benchmarked standards designed to foster deeper learning. And many states are considering adopting the recently released Next Generation Science Standards.

“A lot of people never got past the inflammatory introduction” to “A Nation at Risk,” says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a union with more than 3 million members. He thinks it would be healthy for the nation “to have a full and robust discussion about the recommendations.”

The report points to a need for a broad, rich curriculum, and it calls for improved salaries and career-development opportunities for teachers, for instance. But the country has been going in the opposite direction, Mr. Van Roekel says, because of NCLB’s narrow focus on high-stakes math and reading tests.

Nevertheless, improving teaching has been a main focal point in recent years, with education reformers pushing for changed policies on hiring, firing, and evaluation, as well as changes to teacher-education programs in colleges.

On Thursday, the US Department of Education released a blueprint for improving the teaching profession – including pushing for salaries competitive with professions like medicine and law, more support for novice teachers, and more career opportunities for accomplished teachers. President Obama has requested $5 billion from Congress to support this grant program, titled RESPECT.

Public opinion about how American schools are faring has been fairly evenly split for years. In 2012, 53 percent of adults polled by Gallup said they were dissatisfied with public K-12 schools, while 44 percent were satisfied. But among parents, 75 percent were satisfied with their child’s school.

When asked about public schools today versus when they were in school, 48 percent of parents said the schools today were worse, but 27 percent said they were better, and 22 percent said they were about the same.

Many of the issues raised by “A Nation at Risk” are “perennial questions,” and every improvement in education is met by people pointing out a need to still do better, says Mr. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

“We actually have made huge strides, but huge strides take us from the 35 yard line to the 45 yard line. And people are saying, ‘Holy cow, 30 years of hard work and we’re not even at midfield,’” Hess says. “All I can say is, ‘Yeah. Welcome to the world of trying to educate 50 million children better, day in and day out.’ ”

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