Risky Business

Thirty years ago this past April, a group of individuals appointed by President Reagan came out with a report that, like a tree falling into a river, has bent the flow of America’s perception of its public education system ever since. Entitled “A Nation At Risk,” this subtle little pamphlet sets the stage for what is to come with the eponymous statement of its title:

“Out Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world...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...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.

While this language sounds melodramatic by today’s standards, the sentiments are contemporary and familiar.  If this was the call to arms for America’s public education system to help the country fight the national competition of the Cold War, today’s competition circles around the related pressures of a booming China and a generally flattening global economy.  Read through the 1983 report and you will find many further echoes:

“• International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times…
• Between 1975 and 1980, remedial mathematics courses in public 4-year colleges increased by 72 percent and now constitute one-quarter of all mathematics courses taught in those institutions…
• Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation. The Department of the Navy, for example, reported to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written safety instructions.”

In other words, our schools are failing us and our country is failing as a result. That sounds familiar, too.

A Nation At Risk is a must-read for people who want to understand where some of the tone is coming from in today’s national education reform debate. What’s nice to discover in looking back at A Nation At Risk is that our current, urgent discussion about the desperate need for school reform has been taking place for at least the last thirty years. We may feel that we’re in an extraordinary national emergency, with no time for cautious experiments or thoughtful exploration, but this is the same case that has been made for several decades now. Since at least the 1970s, according to this report, the United States has not been a leader in international education assessments. Yet the US has not fallen to pieces.

So enough with the fear-mongering. Would we like a better education system, that does a better job of improving student outcomes? Yes! Can we spend some time working out a good way of making that happen, without feeling the hot breath of imminent national destruction on the back of our necks? Well, I’d say that’s up to us. Instead of identifying individual villains – Teachers’ unions! Lazy parents! Technology! – we could instead choose to carefully explore the complex nature of the problems we face. We could try to figure out what it exactly is that we want most out of our education system and support interventions which help us achieve those goals. We could come to the common-sense conclusion that standardized testing is a tool but not the ultimate and inerrant measure of everything that is good and bad about our educational system. 

While somewhat less exciting than valiantly fighting against the “rising tide of mediocrity,” this more multidimensional approach resonates better with me. In a future post, I’ll look at the PISA and see how this international assessment – the source of so much international stress and invidious comparison – actually demonstrates some interesting features that we might consider adopting for a less test-focused and more well-rounded picture of helpful school practices.

With that in mind, I return to A Nation At Risk and find that it demonstrates how we have considerable continuity not only in our fears, but also in our hope and vision for American education. The report announces that we must stand by our twin commitments to both excellence and equity in education. We do this because:

Our goal must be to develop the talents of all to their fullest. Attaining that goal requires that we expect and assist all students to work to the limits of their capabilities. We should expect schools to have genuinely high standards rather than minimum ones, and parents to support and encourage their children to make the most of their talents and abilities.

Happily, that sounds familiar too, and like a goal we can all continue to work towards. What tools do we have in our toolbox to help us get closer to it?

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