U.S. students are falling behind their international rivals. Young people aren’t adept at new technology. America’s economy will suffer if schools don’t step up their game.
“A Nation at Risk,” the report issued 30 years ago by President Ronald Reagan’s Education Department, was meant as a wake-up call for the country. It spelled out where the United States was coming up short in education and what steps could be taken to avert a crisis.
But its warnings still reverberate today, with 1 in 4 Americans failing to earn a high school degree on time and the United States lagging other countries in the percentage of young people who complete college.
“A Nation at Risk” spooked the public, urged an overhaul of how and what children are taught, and sparked the school reform movement in the country. Current reform advocates such as Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush can trace their work back to the report.
“We opened the genie from the bottle and said, `You aren’t doing so well,’” said Xavier University of Louisiana President Norman C. Francis, a member of the commission that produced the dire warning. “For us, we felt good about the fact that we wrote something that needed to be said. We had the research. And we hoped we would have a greater measure of return.”
At times, President Barack Obama has seemed to take his cues from the report.
“What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream,” he said in 2009, calling for education overhaul to keep pace with other countries.
“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” he said.
Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and a former senior Education Department official, calls the report prescient. “The themes that it stressed — the increasing role of technology, globalization — is now the everyday stuff of education. But it wasn’t at the time.”
“I can’t think of anything that painted with quite as broad a stroke as `A Nation at Risk,’” he added.
Its impact, however, was not as broad.
The commissioners urged extending the school year from 180 days to up to 220 days. The report also suggested an 11-month contract for teachers so they could spend their summers preparing for the next year. Neither recommendation has been put into widespread use.
The commissioners also said teacher salaries should be increased to be “professionally competitive.” Again, there hasn’t been near the movement commissioners sought. In today’s dollars, the average teacher earned $46,700 in 1983 and $54,900 in 2010, according to the Education Department.
But some of the commission’s other recommendations were put into practice, including a more rigorous curriculum. For instance, students graduating in 1982 had an average of 2.2 science credits on their transcripts. In 2009, that average number rose to 3.5 credits.
And the class of 1982 left high school with 2.6 math credits, compared with the 2009 graduates’ 3.9 credits, according to Education Department data.
“The results are mixed,” said William Bennett, who served as Reagan’s second-term education secretary. “We have progress being paid to the right things: content, accountability. … It was right about how we needed to beef up courses and how we needed to be stronger.”
But when Bennett compares U.S. results with those of other nations, there’s no reason to celebrate.
“If you look at those numbers, you get the story for 30 years,” he said. “If there’s a bottom line, it’s that we’re spending twice as much money on education as we did in ’83 and the results haven’t changed all that much.”
American fourth-graders are 11th in the world in math in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the measure of nations against each other. U.S. eighth-graders ranked ninth in math, according to those 2011 results.
The Program for International Student Assessment measurement found the United States ranked 31st in math literacy among 15-year-old students and below the international average. The same 2009 tests found the United States ranked 23rd in science among the same students, but posting an average score.
It’s impossible to compare the rankings before 1995, when these international math and science tests were first given. The first international math literacy and science tests were given in 2001.
Yet domestic tests show there have not been major changes in students’ scores.
Between 1980 and 2008, 13-year-old students posted only a 2-point gain in reading scores and 17-year-old students saw just a 1-point gain during that time. The tests were scored on a scale of 0 to 500, meaning the change was statistically insignificant.
Similarly, 13-year-olds saw a 12-point gain in math scores between 1982 and 2008. Seventeen-year-old students saw an 8-point gain during the same time on math scores. Again, the tests followed a scale of 0 to 500.
“We haven’t yet gotten near the payoff that we want and need in terms of achievement in 30 years,” said Chester Finn, a former senior Education Department official who now heads the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank.
“The fact that 30 years later, despite all of the reforming, the gains are so modest, they ought to serve to energize and even panic today’s policymakers,” he said.
Of course, stagnant scores don’t automatically mean stagnant learning; higher standards could yield lower scores.
Domestic measurements comparing U.S. students to one another are relatively new and tests aren’t given every year. Also, tracing changes isn’t as simple as looking at the United States’ standing compared with other countries today.
What is clear is that “A Nation at Risk” cast the United States as on the precipice of collapse, not unlike the warnings that followed the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite, which caught Americans by surprise.
While other education studies urged action, none was as intentionally alarming as this one.
“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,” the commissioners wrote. “As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. … We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
In a brisk 36 pages, the authors warned that schools were not preparing students for their future and cautioned that the country would suffer. In some ways, the same warnings have appeared in most reports on education in the last decades.
The report continued, “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 a people.”
Last year, another commission borrowed that indictment of mediocrity in similar language.
“The sad fact is that the rising tide of mediocrity is not something that belongs in history books,” concluded a Council on Foreign Relations panel led by former New York City schools chief Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
When the Reagan-era commission began its work, no one expected the report to be so critical. In fact, Reagan campaigned for president on a pledge to dismantle the same Education Department that convened these leaders.
Instead, the commissioners brought together experts and original research to make the case for an expanded role for education. They wrote a document that Reagan eventually would wrap himself in, travel the country to promote, and use as a rhetorical prop during the final decade of the Cold War.
“This was much more a political document. … A lot of this was just bombastic, plug-and-play rhetoric,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Where it excelled at language, it came up short on specifics, he said.
The data the commissioners used to reach their conclusions and recommendations 30 years ago pale in comparison to what researchers today have. The report sparked volumes of tests and rankings now common to measure students.
“Gosh, I think they got the message right, but the facts weren’t strong enough to back them up,” said Whitehurst, the Brookings scholar who was the first chief of the Education Department’s current research arm. “A report trying to draw the same conclusions today would have more research.”
Even so, the report has its place in history.
“It’s been the most influential report on education in my lifetime. It was so blunt,” said Michael Rebell, a professor of law and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It gave us the whole standards movement.”
Francis, a member of the original commission, said the report should have scared Americans into much more sweeping action.
“We were saying in 1983, `This is a global society emerging and you need to worry about this now,’” he said.
Despite the urgency, the report yielded no significant legislation and many of the problems it identified have not been solved.
“I still think we made a contribution,” Francis said. “But maybe it could have been much more. But you never look back.”