It wasn't a "code orange" alert from the Department of Homeland Security, but twenty years ago the National Commission on Excellence in Education's landmark report, A Nation at Risk, was a warning as dire as many had heard from Washington, D.C., in years.
The commission's report hit like a bomb when it declared that the weak performance of America's schools placed the nation itself at risk: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.…We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament." More damning was the report's dire warning that the foundations of American education were "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."
The commission expected its good advice to cause school boards, legislators, teachers, parents, and students to change direction. It assumed that the education system possessed both the capacity and the will to improve and that the missing ingredient was clear direction.
On the eve of the twentieth anniversary (April 1983) of the report, enough time has passed to assess its impact. The Hoover Institution's Koret Task Force on K–12 Education has just released such an appraisal, Our Schools and Our Future: ...Are We Still at Risk? The task force finds that the commission, "for all its goodwill, did a better job diagnosing the problem than prescribing an effective remedy."
The task force, having discovered that the tide of educational mediocrity is still rising, unlike the 1983 commission, did not settle for merely diagnosing the problem. Its members call for three major reforms: transparency, accountability, and choice.
To achieve transparency, schools need clear standards and accurate measurement tools. Prodded by the No Child Left Behind Act, the nation is beginning to put these standards and tools in place. Transparency, however, must be connected to accountability.
For accountability to work, parents must be able to choose their schools. Unless children can leave bad schools for better ones, reform will fall short. The school choice movement has recently made significant strides, opening thousands of charter schools, experimenting with school vouchers, and bringing into being an industry devoted to managing public schools for districts and charter school boards.
Choice will be even more effective, the Koret Task Force believes, when schools become transparent and accountable institutions. Accountability systems make school performance clear to the outside world. Parents need such information to make wise choices.
In combination, the three strategies—accountability, choice, and transparency—will transform our education system into one that will, at long last, live up to the principles put forth twenty years ago by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.