By EDWARD B. FISKE
April 25, 2008
TOMORROW is the 25th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” a remarkable document that became a milestone in the history of American education — albeit in ways that its creators neither planned, anticipated or even wanted.
In August 1981, Education Secretary T. H. Bell created a National Commission on Excellence in Education to examine, in the report’s words, “the widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.” Secretary Bell’s expectation, he later said, was that the report would paint a rosy picture of American education and correct all those widespread negative perceptions.
Instead, on April 26, 1983, the commission released a sweeping 65-page indictment of the quality of teaching and learning in American primary and secondary schools couched in a style of apocalyptic rhetoric rarely found in blue-ribbon commission reports.
“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 as a people,” it warned. “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.”
To his credit, Secretary Bell, a moderate Republican who had been hoping for some political relief from critics on his right, stood by these unexpected words from his commission — and thereby became the unwitting father of the modern school reform movement.
Secretary Bell’s boss, President Ronald Reagan, was also taken aback by “A Nation at Risk,” although for different reasons. He took office in 1981 with a three-fold agenda for education: abolishing the Department of Education, promoting tuition tax credits and vouchers and restoring voluntary prayer in the schools. Using the bully pulpit and purse of the federal government to promote “excellence” in teaching and learning was not on the list.
When members of the White House staff saw an early copy of “A Nation at Risk,” they were distressed to find no mention of their political agenda and threatened to cancel the ceremony in which the president would receive the first copy. Secretary Bell and commission members replied that such topics were at best tangential to their assigned topic of excellence in teaching and learning.
Eventually a compromise was reached. The president agreed to receive the commission and accept the first copy of “A Nation at Risk” at a White House ceremony, and he used his remarks to reaffirm his political objectives — none of which were mentioned in the report. Several members of the commission later confided that they left Washington that day in a depressed mood, convinced that they had been “used” and were destined to be ignored.
Then came the biggest twist of all. “A Nation at Risk” resonated with Americans, who seemingly agreed that there was indeed something “seriously remiss” in their schools. White House pollsters picked this up. The president began visiting schools all over the country, usually in the company of Secretary Bell, who until then, as head of a department scheduled for elimination, had never seen the inside of Air Force One.
The most important legacy of “A Nation at Risk” was to put the quality of education on the national political agenda — where it has remained ever since. The last 25 years have seen a succession of projects and movements aimed at increasing the quality of American primary and secondary schools: standards-based reform, the 1989 “education summit” that set six “national goals” for education, the push for school choice and, most recently, the No Child Left Behind legislation. Proponents of each have taken pains to portray themselves as the heirs of “A Nation at Risk.”
The apocalyptic rhetoric of the opening section of “A Nation at Risk” isn’t the only element of the report that has had a lasting impact. One of the main ideas enshrined in the document — that quality of schooling is directly linked to economic competitiveness — has also shaped the way Americans think about education. This particular theory, however, hasn’t been borne out by history.
In 1983, the causal connection between education and the economy seemed obvious. Americans were living in awe of the Japanese “economic miracle” and assumed that it was made possible by a school system whose students consistently routed ours on all those comparative international achievement tests. But then the Japanese economy soured — even though it still had the same education system — and we began asking ourselves another question: If American schools are so bad, why is our economy doing so well?
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear that the link between educational excellence and economic security is not as simple as “A Nation at Risk” made it seem. By the mid-1980s, policymakers in Japan, South Korea and Singapore were already beginning to complain that their educational systems focused too much on rote learning and memorization. They continue to envy American schools because they teach creativity and the problem-solving skills critical to prospering in the global economy.
Indeed, a consensus seems to be emerging among educational experts around the world that American schools operate within the context of an enabling environment — an open economy, strong legal and banking systems, an entrepreneurial culture — conducive to economic progress.
To put it bluntly, American students may not know as much as their counterparts around the Pacific Rim, but our society allows them to make better use of what they do know. The question now is whether this historic advantage will suffice at a time when knowledge of math, science and technology is becoming increasingly critical. Maybe we need both the enabling environment and more rigor in these areas.
But while the theory behind “A Nation at Risk” may no longer hold (mediocre education inevitably leads to a weak economy), the report’s desperate language may be more justified than ever, for American education is in turmoil.
Most troubling now are the numbers on educational attainment. One reason that the American economy was so dominant throughout the 20th century is that we provided more education to more citizens than other industrialized countries. “A Nation at Risk” noted with pride that American schools “now graduate 75 percent of our young people from high school.”
That figure has now dropped to less than 70 percent, and the United States, which used to lead the world in sending high school graduates on to higher education, has declined to fifth in the proportion of young adults who participate in higher education and is 16th out of 27 industrialized countries in the proportion who complete college, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
The striking thing about the performance of American students on international comparisons is not that, on average, they are in the middle of the pack — which was also true in 1983 — but that we have a disproportionate share of low-performing students. We are failing to provide nearly one-third of our young people with even the minimal education required to be functioning citizens and workers in a global economy.
This is particularly distressing news at a time when the baby boomers are aging and a growing proportion of the future work force comes from groups — members of ethnic and racial minorities, students from low-income families, recent immigrants — that have been ill served by our education system. The challenge today is to build access as well as excellence. That’s the new definition of “a nation a risk” — and ample reason for a new commission to awaken the nation to the need to educate all our young people.