The publication of A Nation at Risk warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity in the nation’s schools.” American students were underperforming relative to other developed nations, the piece warned.
In the 30 years since A Nation at Risk we’ve made extensive changes to education policy. Standards based reform. Pay for performance. No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. More testing. More evaluation.
And yet, it doesn’t seemed to have worked. As the Washington Post explains, “its warnings still reverberate today, with 1 in 4 Americans failing to earn a high school degree on time and the U.S. lagging other countries in the percentage of young people who complete college.” Former education secretary William Bennett puts it bluntly: “If you look at those numbers, you get the story for 30 years. 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.”
Table of Contents - Nation At Risk
The publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history. Among other things, the report contributed to the ever-growing assertion that American schools were failing, and it touched off a wave of local, state, and federal reform efforts.
The report surveys various studies which point to academic underachievement on national and international scales. For example, the report notes that average SAT scores dropped "over 50 points" in the verbal section and "nearly 40 points" in the mathematics section during the period 1963-1980. Nearly forty percent of 17 year olds tested could not successfully "draw inferences from written material," and "only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps." Referencing tests conducted in the 1970s, the study points to unfavourable comparisons with students outside the United States: on "19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times".
In response to these and similar problems, the commission made 38 recommendations, divided across 5 major categories: Content, Standards and Expectations, Time, Teaching, Leadership and Fiscal Support:
Content: "4 years of English; (b) 3 years of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science" for high school students." The commission also recommends that students work toward proficiency in a foreign language starting in the elementary grades.
Standards and Expectations: the commission cautioned against grade inflation and recommends that four-year colleges raise admissions standards and standardized tests of achievement at "major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work."
Time: the commission recommended that "school districts and State legislatures should strongly consider 7-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year."
Teaching: the commission recommended that salaries for teachers be "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based," and that teachers demonstrate "competence in an academic discipline."
Leadership and Fiscal Support: the commission noted that the Federal government plays an essential role in helping "meet the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students, and the handicapped." The commission also noted that the Federal government also must help ensure compliance with "constitutional and civil rights," and "provide student financial assistance and research and graduate training."
Ronald Reagan - radio Address to the Nation on Education - April 30, 1983
My fellow Americans:
I'd like to talk with you today about a subject of paramount concern to every American family -- the education of our children. You may have heard the disturbing report this week by the National Commission on Excellence in Education that I created shortly after taking office. Their study reveals that our education system, once the finest in the world, is in a sorry state of disrepair.
We're a people who believe that each generation will stand upon the shoulders of the one before it, the accomplishments of each ever greater than the last. Our families immigrated here to make a better life not just for themselves, but for their children and their children's children. Education was not simply another part of American society; it was the key that opened the golden door.
Parents who never finished high school scrimp and save so that their children can go to college. Yet today, we're told in a tough report card on our commitment that the educational skills of today's students will not match those of their parents. About 13 percent of our 17-year-olds are functional illiterates and, among minority youth, the rate is closer to 40 percent. More than two-thirds of our high schoolers can't write a decent essay. Our grade is a stark and uncompromising ``U'' for unsatisfactory. We must act now and with energy if we're to avoid failing an entire generation.
Let me hasten to point out that America's children are just as smart today as they ever were. But most of them do less than an hour of homework a night. Many have abandoned vocational and college prep courses for general ones. When they graduate from high school, they're prepared for neither work nor higher education.
The study indicates the quality of learning in our classrooms has been declining for the last two decades -- a fact which won't surprise many parents or the students educated during that period. Those were years when the Federal presence in education grew and grew. Parental control over local schools shrank. Bureaucracy ballooned until accountability seemed lost. Parents were frustrated and didn't know where to turn.
Well, government seemed to forget that education begins in the home, where it's a parental right and responsibility. Both our private and our public schools exist to aid your families in the instruction of your children. For too many years, people here in Washington acted like your families' wishes were only getting in the way. We've seen what that ``Washington knows best'' attitude has wrought.
Our high standards of literacy and educational diversity have been slipping. Well-intentioned but misguided policymakers have stamped a uniform mediocrity on the rich variety and excellence that had been our heritage.
I think most parents agree it's time to change course. We must move education forward again, with common sense as our guide. We must put the basics back in the schools and the parents back in charge.
The National Commission for Excellence in Education recommends requiring 4 years of English in high school and 3 solid years, each, of math and science. It suggests more and longer school days, higher goals, and tougher standards for matriculation. Our teachers should be better trained and better paid. And, we must no longer make excuses for those who are not qualified to teach.
Parents, please demand these and other reforms in your local schools and hold your local officials accountable. Let our parents once again be the rudder that puts American education back on course towards success through excellence.
There are things the Federal Government can and must do to ensure educational excellence, but bigger budgets are not the answer. Federal spending increased seventeenfold during the same 20 years that marked such a dramatic decline in quality. We will continue our firm commitment to support the education efforts of State and local governments, but the focus of our agenda is, as it must be, to restore parental choice and influence and to increase competition between schools.
We've sent to the Congress a tuition tax credit plan and proposed a voucher system to help low- and middle-income families afford the schools of their choice. We've proposed education savings accounts to help families save for college education. We've sent legislation to the Congress that would create block grants for the training of math and science teachers, and another proposal would encourage those teachers to keep abreast of new developments in their fields. We've also begun an effort to honor some of our finest math and science teachers.
For the sake of all our children, our country, and our future, we must join together in a national campaign to restore excellence in American education. At home, in school, in State government, and at the Federal level, we must make sure we have put our children first and that their education is a top priority.
``Train up a child in the way he should go,'' Solomon wrote, ``and when he is old he will not depart from it.'' Well, that's the God-given responsibility of each parent and the trust of every child. It is a compact between generations we must be sure to keep.
I would like to close with a special challenge to America's students who may think I just want to pile on more homework. Your generation is coming of age in one of the most challenging and exciting times in our history. High technology is revolutionizing our industries, renewing our economy, and promising new hope and opportunity in the years ahead. But you must earn the rewards of the future with plain hard work. The harder you work today, the greater your rewards will be tomorrow. Make sure you get the training and the skills you need to take advantage of the new opportunities ahead. Get a good education; that's the key to success. It will open your mind and give wings to your spirit. There's a dazzling new world waiting for you. My generation only discovered it. But you, by summoning all the faith, effort, and discipline you can muster can claim it for America.