A Nation at Risk: 30 years later it remains relevant to the state of education

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” just had its 30th birthday, so it seems appropriate to pay our respects. After all, this report, issued by the Reagan Administration’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, continues to inform current educational debates and is just as relevant now as it was a generation ago.

To give you a taste of the document, here’s a line from the introduction: “If an unfriendly 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.”

Not much nuance there, but a lot of clout. Over the last 30 years Americans have gradually accepted the premise of “A Nation at Risk” and many agree that our system of public education needs to be reformed. That’s a huge change in perception, especially for a system so resistant to change: remember, schools in America still follow an agrarian calendar and most classrooms look no different than school houses in the 19th century, 25 kids or so with a teacher in the front, modeled after schools that Horace Mann saw in Prussia in 1843.

But how much change is too much? When does the urgency of reform undermine the principles of sound educational practice? Is this brave new system becoming too focused on student test data at the expense of critical thinking skills?

First, let’s look at some of the offspring of “A Nation at Risk,” a fecund progenitor of education reform principles and initiatives:

1) No Child Left Behind: the Bush Administration’s 2001 legislation that imposed sharp accountability measures on all American schools and, in particular, spotlighted underperforming groups of kids. Failure to improve test scores was punished by inclusion in the dreaded “School In Need of Improvement” list, with escalating sanctions. But count this descendent as short-lived, a victim of two fatal diseases: one, the U.S. Congress’s dysfunctional paralysis expressed by its inability to reauthorize the original legislation and, two, a certain quixotic quality to the law, which mandates that every single child in America will be proficient in language arts and math by 2014.

In response to Congress’s inaction, the U.S. Department of Education has offered waivers to states that agree to comply with basic educational reform tenets like tenure and teacher evaluation reform, expansion of school choice, and restructuring failing schools. The only renegades that haven’t applied for waivers are Montana, Nebraska, and Vermont. Delaware and NJ have secured theirs already and Pennsylvania is waiting to hear.

2) Race To The Top: the Obama Administration’s education reform competition that divvied up $4.35 billion among states that proffered winning proposals to improve student achievement. . Delaware was a champion, winning $100 million in the first round. Pennsylvania and New Jersey were dawdlers, limping over the line in Round Three with $41 million and $38 million respectively.

3) The Common Core: an initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers which intends to entwine “the highest, most effective models from states across the country and countries around the world, and provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Standards will provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live.” Forty-five states have adopted the standards (a prerequisite, by the way, for Race To The Top awards). Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia are still sitting on their hands.Not too shabby for a document birthed in 1983.

But there’s no shortage of blowback. While everyone (or almost everyone) is a fan of more rigorous academic standards, some worry that that low test scores will penalize the schools.

State boards of education are under the gun to oversee new teacher evaluations methods. Teacher unions remain concerned that failing students could jeopardize their job security.

Some parents, opposed to the trend towards standardize tests, are protesting by keeping their kids home on testing days.

Mere blips. We haven’t found the right balance, but we will. Accountability is here to stay. So are higher standards for teachers and students, increases in public school choice, and a national curriculum. (We’ll see about national standardized tests; that initiative is a bit weak-kneed at the moment.) We may still be a nation at risk, but we’re charging towards more secure territory.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.


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