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Government & Politics        < Previous        Next >


Is the Nation Still At Risk?


Q. I remember a lot of talk a while ago about how the Japanese and other countries were getting 'way ahead of us in education. Whatever happened to all that concern about how American students stacked up in international comparisons?


There was indeed a lot of concern about whether the traditional American education system could fill the bill for the 21st Century and keep our economy the best in the world.


Twenty-five years ago, it came to a head in a report, "A Nation at Risk." It was issued in April 1983 by a group appointed by President Reagan to review the status of education. It reported a "rising tide of mediocrity" in our schools, with declining test scores, poor time management in schools, and second- and third-rate rankings on international standardized tests compared to students from foreign countries.


The answer might have been to nudge schools back to basics and get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. That is what a lot of parents and taxpayers appeared to want.


However, the politicians and bureaucrats interpreted the report and public reaction to it as a call for increased federal involvement in public education. In 1989, President Bush called the first national conference of state governors to talk about education and came up with the "America 2000" national education goals, later shifted to "Goals 2000," which significantly increased federal influence on what goes on in public schools. Now the younger President Bush has signed the "No Child Left Behind" act, strengthening the federal arm.


Employers have been complaining for years that job applicants are terrible writers and spellers with very poor computational skills, and even though they might have a high school diploma, they are basically unemployable. So there's that side.


Meanwhile, there's an army of people on the other side - chiefly educators - who say that "A Nation at Risk" was full of statistical tricks and deceit. They were led by pro-education activists such as Gerald W. Bracey and the education honorary, Phi Delta Kappa, and its Center for Evaluation, Development and Research,


They say a research project at the Strategic Studies Center of the Sandia National Laboratories actually showed neutral status or slightly improving trends on indicators such as dropout statistics, standardized test scores, educational funding, international comparisons, future workforce requirements and changing demographics. The research was published in The Journal of Educational Research in 1993, but wasn't widely circulated.


The researchers found that the increasing numbers of the bottom half of the high school class taking college admissions tests such as the SAT and ACT, compared to past years, is dragging the average score down more than "A Nation at Risk" acknowledged. Researcher Bracey also has reported that when it comes to international comparisons, other countries "test" only their top students, while in the United States, we test the majority, so it's not fair to compare one nation's "elite" to the entire American student body.


Other factors about school performance: the researchers contended that skyrocketing spending on special education and dropout prevention, plus dealing with more "hard to teach" kids such as non-English speaking immigrants, in the schools, were factors that "A Nation at Risk" failed to address, creating a skewed conclusion.


So is the nation still at risk? Was it ever? Apologists for the educational status quo say "no."


They say "A Nation at Risk" was disinformation. Many more students are college-bound, taking tougher classes, and from foreign lands than in past generations. They say actual achievement is up, and we're not at risk of failure.


But then there are alllllll those people on the other side who say that our schools are doing a worse job than before, and they have a lot of evidence, too.


The controversy is not over. Stay tuned!


Homework: Here's a book that sides with the educators against the "Nation at Risk" crowd: The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools, by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle. On the other hand, here's a report that says the nation is still at risk:


Education Week,, also is running a series of articles on the 25-year anniversary of the report. Writers are revisiting some of the concerns from 1983, and updating others with a look at education around the world.



By Susan Darst Williams Government & Politics 06 2008

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