A Nation at Risk, pt 2

Note: This should answer some of the questions posed in the comment to the last post. I will add more information to suggest that education in the US is not declining compared to international assessments.

A Nation at Risk was convened and its members chosen by Terrell Bell, then President Reagan’s secretary of education. It had a decidedly conservative and political agenda. The document used the provocative language of war in such statements as

 Our Nation is at risk . . . . 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 . . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

 This kind of threatening rhetoric has been common in statements and policies that call for educational reform since then.

Though the documents get-tough, back-to-basics message suggested that education had lost its way and standards were collapsing under liberal approaches, no evidence was given to support these claims. It was but one more of the many ideologically driven reports created by conservative policy makers to tell and sell their story. The story line is familiar—“they” have failed and our policies are going to fix it. In fact, the evidence told a different story altogether. Instead of the failed system dramatically portrayed in the document, actual data told a different story.

The Sandia report of 1990, Perspectives on Education in America, commissioned by the US secretary of energy, reported steady to slightly improving trends on nearly every performance measure of educational achievement. The findings did not support the government’s reform agenda and the government never publically released report, but researchers did eventually publish the findings (Carson, Huelskamp & Woodall, 1993). The statements in earlier drafts that suggested the government reforms were misguided and did not focus on the real problems were dropped. “The analysts were supposedly told that the report ‘would never see the light of day’ and that ‘they had better be quiet’ about it” (Stedman, 1994, p. 133).

As we look back now, we find those unprepared children in those failed schools in A Nation at Risk went on to make a mockery of that report as the United States’ economy became the most productive in the world in the next sixteen years, long before any of their proposed reforms could be imposed. Interestingly, while America was in this time of unprecedented prosperity and growth, no statement was made in praise of the schools and their contribution to building up the nation and its economy.

Though the statements in A Nation at Risk were not supported by evidence and later evidence contradicted its claims, its rhetoric did not lose its power over the people or politicians. It lives on in today’s mythology of failed schools failing our nation (Covaleskie, 2011). I am employing a similar metaphor and language when I talk about education being under attack; however, unlike the authors of A Nation at Risk, I will provide the evidence to support my views. However, the evidence can be interpreted and analyzed several ways, as has been done with the data in the 1990 Sandia report (Stedman, 1994).

This pattern of reformers blaming the educators is being played out again. It has become a political mainstay. Reforms are implemented, but when they fail to bring the promised results, educators are blamed and excuses made. Critics do not offer clearly better or more viable alternatives. We need to build the capacity of all children to be able to be of service to society and create systems that allow that to happen.

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About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is recently retired as a head and professor of the School of Education at Northern Michigan University.
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