‘A Nation at Risk’ Turns 30: Where Did It Take Us?

NORTH BRUNSWICK HSOn April 26, 1983, President Ronald Reagan stood before the press and television cameras in the State Dining Room at the White House and held up a report titled A Nation at Risk. Eighteen months in the making and written by the blue-ribbon members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education at the behest of Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, the report examined the quality of education in the United States—and the findings were anything but stellar.

“Our nation is at risk,” the report boldly declared in its first sentence.

Over its next 36 pages, A Nation at Risk lambasted the state of America’s schools and called for a host of much-needed reforms to right the alarming direction that public education was seen to be headed.

“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,” the report said. “As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

The commission found few signs of encouragement about the American education system. Test scores were rapidly declining, low teaching salaries and poor teacher training programs were leading to a high turnover rate among educators, and other industrialized countries were threatening to outpace America’s technological superiority. The report provided mounds of statistical evidence —23 million American adults were functionally illiterate; the average achievement for high school students on standardized tests was lower than before the launch of Sputnik in 1957; and only one-fifth of 17-year old students had the ability to write a persuasive essay. Almost immediately, A Nation at Risk garnered massive media attention.

“When the report came out, it catapulted the issue of education onto the national agenda,” says Mary Hatwood Futrell, professor and Dean of The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development in Washington, DC, and president of the National Education Association from 1983-1989. “As I was saying to my students not long ago, I can remember when it came out and it didn’t matter if you were looking at the morning news, the afternoon news, magazines, newspapers, it was everywhere. And no one anticipated that it was going to have that kind of impact.”

A Nation at Risk found that an “incoherent, outdated patchwork quilt” of classroom learning led to an increasing number of students who were subjected to a “cafeteria-style curriculum” that diluted the course material and allowed them to advance through their schooling with minimal effort.

In the 30 years since this scathing indictment, most schools have taken drastic steps to meet the report’s challenge to adopt “more rigorous and measurable standards” for learning. All states have adopted academic standards, and forty-five states including the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Agency have all embraced the Common Core State Standards to ensure that students have the necessary knowledge and skills for success in college and careers.

Overall, however, despite the initial fervor around A Nation at Risk, the report didn’t lead to many far-reaching changes. Many of the problems identified in 1983 remain unaddressed, and stagnant student achievement continues to challenge educators and administrators.

According to the US Department of Education (DOE),  the average teacher, in today’s dollars, earned $46,700 in 1983 and $54,900 in 2010. While A Nation at Risk recommended “professionally competitive” salaries for teachers, this has not become a finite reality—indeed, almost 20% of new public school teachers leave after the first year, and almost half leave after five years.

The DOE also found in a study that, of 20 children born in 1983, six did not graduate from high school on time in 2001. Of the remaining 14 who did, 10 started college that fall, but only five had earned a bachelor’s degree after five years.

Even some problems that A Nation at Risk raised three decades ago have been made worse in the face of budget cuts and other reforms.

As the Cold War entered its waning years in the 1980s, education support programs that reached their zenith in response to the “Sputnik challenge” were being scaled back—much to the chagrin of the blue-ribbon panel’s members, who saw this as a clear precursor to an ever more pronounced slide in academic achievement.

“Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible,” the report read. “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

But if there was a growing concern in 1983 about the declining number of educational programs in schools, then education officials should be sounding the alarm bells with an even greater sense of urgency today. Budget cuts and the obsession with standardized testing have narrowed the curriculum, and handcuffed educators’ ability to utilize creative supplemental  programs to support and engage their students. After-school programs that once provided safe extended-learning environments for students and specialized programs to help struggling students are losing the funding and district support that they need to continue operating.

Educators like Ned Eisenhuth, a high school history teacher who retired in 2010 after a 35-year career at Minersville Area High School in Eastern Pennsylvania, saw firsthand the slow but steady disappearance of these types of programs over the past thirty years. Like many other teachers, Eisenhuth believes that over-testing severely hampers the ability of students to express their passions through alternative means.

“With the onset of testing to measure student achievement, many times at the expense of other disciplines, it is amazing what students can achieve when given half a chance,” Eisenhuth says. “We feel that the students learned just as much, if not more, from the hands-on approach as compared to straight book learning and test taking.”

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel credits A Nation At Risk with moving public education to the top of the national agenda, but adds that the report also became a catalyst for today’s so-called “reform” movement.

“In some ways, A Nation at Risk was helpful, but what we’ve seen in the past 30 years are too many misguided efforts – most notably No Child Left Behind – that have only compounded the problems the report identified,” Van Roekel said. “Educators across the country work hard to give their students the great education they deserve, but lawmakers cannot keep pulling the rug out from under them with bad ideas. We need to do what we know works. We need to fully fund our schools, invest in early childhood education, increase parental involvement and keep our class sizes small, especially in high-poverty schools at the lower grades. This is how we’ll make our schools work for every student.”