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
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, www.edweek.org, 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