Twenty years ago this spring, the National Commission on Excellence in Education served a wake-up call to the nation in the form of a report called A Nation at Risk, warning that American education faced a "rising tide of mediocrity" unless actions were taken to raise expectations and achievement. Although the history of American education is littered with reports by distinguished commissions that quickly disappear from public consciousness, A Nation at Risk was different. It not only captured national attention, it also set the terms of debate about schooling for a generation after its publication.
The response to the report was truly amazing. Task forces, committees, and study groups were convened across the nation to discuss its implications. Most states raised graduation requirements, increased teachers' salaries, and began to look for ways to measure their schools' effectiveness. With its emphasis on improving student achievement, the report led to other reforms, including national goals set by the president and governors in 1990, the standards movement, increased course taking, and market-based approaches.
A product of its time, A Nation at Risk proved to be an antidote to many of the pedagogical fads of the 1960s such as classrooms without walls, fluffy electives, and watered-down curricula that generated public skepticism. When it became clear in the mid-1970s that SAT scores had been plummeting for nearly a decade, the public was positively alarmed. Hungry for a diagnosis that made sense, it embraced A Nation at Risk. Not only was the report written in plain English, but its emphasis on commonsense reforms such as raising expectations, strengthening the curriculum, improving the teaching force, and lengthening the school year clearly struck a chord.
Two decades later, A Nation at Risk remains significant in terms of setting the debate and ushering in an era of reform in education, but its goals have not yet been realized. The changes wrought by twenty years of task forces, committees, and study groups have not produced the hoped-for improvement in student achievement. Few of the commission's recommendations were properly implemented, and many of those that were proved too timid to bring about effective educational reform.
A report from the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education at the Hoover Institution concludes that it is time to go beyond the recommendations of A Nation at Risk. Created to study the nation's response to A Nation at Risk twenty years later, the Koret report lays out a reinvigorated reform agenda for our schools based on the principles of choice, transparency, and accountability: Choice to bring flexibility and innovation to how education is provided; transparency to reveal information about how the education system is working; and accountability to demonstrate that our children are learning.
The challenge before us today, as in the past, is to secure equal educational opportunity. Every American child should have the same opportunities for an excellent education. The real issue today is whether the schools are good enough to prepare students for the challenges of the twenty-first century. We cannot rest until they are.