A Nation Still at Risk

Sunday, October 12, 2008

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of A Nation at Risk, the report on the condition of American education that is controversial to this day. Its friends call it a landmark, a clarion call for the improvement of American education; its critics describe it as the foul sire of No Child Left Behind and the current era of testing, accountability, and choice.

The report (www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/index.html) was issued in April 1983 by a group called the National Commission on Excellence in Education, convened by Terrel H. Bell, President Reagan’s secretary of education. Bell was somewhat of a subversive in the Reagan cabinet—what some then and now would call a member of the education establishment who had come up through the profession. It cannot have pleased the president that the report did not even mention his own favorite education issues: school prayer and abolishing the U.S. Department of Education.

Critics of the report say that it blamed U.S. schools for the woes of the American economy in the early 1980s. They produce statistics to show that the schools have nothing to do with the economy. And when the economy improved, they persist, why didn’t the schools get credit for the upturn? They miss the point. Of course schools create human capital. Of course they are not the immediate cause of good times or bad times. Schools did not cause the Great Depression. But any economist worth his or her salt knows that good schools are important for a nation’s future economic, civic, social, and cultural development.

“Part of what is at risk,” read the report, “is the promise first made on this continent: all, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.”

I believe that A Nation at Risk was a great report and that it has often been mischaracterized. It is not the parent or even the grandparent of NCLB. I realized that one day when I was reading an article by Paul E. Barton of the Education Policy Center at the Educational Testing Service. Barton, one of our wise education thinkers, said A Nation at Risk had been hijacked by NCLB. I suddenly realized that he was right.

The proof of the hijacking is the language of the report itself. A Nation at Risk has only one paragraph recommending standardized achievement tests “at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work.” It recommends that testing “should include other diagnostic procedures that assist teachers and students to evaluate student progress.” That is all it says about testing—nothing at all about accountability and not a word about choice.

Although you would not know it by reading the critics, the main focus of A Nation at Risk was the weakness of the curriculum and low expectations for students. The report documented many worrisome trends of the previous decade, in which the largest number of students in high school were enrolled in the general track, which was neither academic nor vocational. It documented the decline of college admission requirements and high school graduation requirements. It documented the prevalence of low expectations and low student performance.

A Nation at Risk called for

1. A solid core curriculum for all, called “the New Basics,” including four years of English and three years each of science, mathematics, and social studies, as well as two years of foreign language for the college bound and also “fine and performing arts and vocational education”;

2. Higher expectations and more time devoted to schooling;

3. Better-educated teachers who receive higher pay.

Everyone knows the famous lines about “a rising tide of mediocrity” and “unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Less well known but perhaps more important are these lines (which also answer the critics): “Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not posses the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.”

Schools did not cause the Great Depression. But any competent economist knows that good schools are important for a nation’s future economic, civic, social, and cultural development.

And even better is the next paragraph, which to my way of thinking, makes this the most important education reform document of the twentieth century:

Part of what is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: all, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself.

The recommendations of A Nation at Risk remain unrealized not only because the American public and educators missed the point but also because the message was taken over by the testing and accountability posse. The point was to improve the curriculum, to make sure that every student has access to a rich diet of studies, and to ensure that every young American receives a good education. That message remains relevant to this day. It still needs to be said, again and again.