Part I: A Nation At Risk?


For as long as we have had schools, critics of the existing institutions have felt there were better ways to organize and run them.  For as long as we continue to have schools, that will be the case.  The level of concern ebbs and flows and only occasionally reaches a level that translates into meaningful action.  The most recent cycle of widespread reform began twenty years ago.  It endures in large part because the changes implemented thus far have had little impact on the perceived problems within public education.  A broad consensus among educators, business leaders, and politicians, that public education was, and is, in a state of crisis, has resulted in a deluge of legislation at both the state and national level and a steady stream of reforms at schools throughout the country.  The net result, up to this point, has been small pockets of modest, and often temporary, improvement.  We are still searching for effective means of improving student achievement and the quality of education offered by our schools. 

The publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 deserves much of the credit for bringing the present educational crisis to the attention of the political establishment and the media, and through them, to the general public.  A federally funded report published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation At Risk included several memorable lines that were widely quoted at the time of its publication: “…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 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 primary concerns voiced by the authors of A Nation At Risk were related to our ability to compete with other industrialized nations within the global economy: "The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for inter- national standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops." 

The report stated that “…on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with [students from] other industrialized nations, were last seven times.”  While the report also included statements of concern related to our failure to achieve the “…high level of shared education [that] is essential to a free, democratic society…” the emphasis throughout was tilted strongly in favor of economic matters. 

Student achievement (more specifically, the lack thereof) was the primary evidence cited to support the fact that our nation was at risk.  All of the thirteen “Indicators of the Risk” cited by the commission are related, directly or indirectly, to declines in achievement as measured by standardized tests.  The report also echoed and further stimulated the complaints of colleges, business leaders and the military regarding the necessity of providing remedial programs, in reading and other basic skills, for high school graduates who were not adequately prepared for either college or the workplace. 

In the wake of A Nation At Risk additional studies were commissioned, and a seemingly endless stream of books and articles were published further detailing and defining the problems plaguing public education in America and proposing various solutions.  Among the most influential of these was a series of books by E. D. Hirsch, Jr. beginning with Cultural Literacy, which stressed the importance of being literate in a much broader sense of the term than is typically used.  Hirsch maintained that in order to communicate effectively within a particular culture, certain terms, names, and events need to be familiar and understood.  An individual lacking knowledge of these common references will not be capable of meaningful participation in civic affairs. 

While A Nation At Risk marks the onset of the present cycle of reform, Cultural Literacy and subsequent related titles by Hirsch represent the essence of one of the most common responses to the perceived crisis in public education – the development of standardized lists of curricular objectives.  In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch included an appendix entitled “What Literate Americans Know” containing a rather lengthy list of names, events, titles, terms, phrases, and places with which Americans should be familiar in order to be culturally literate.  In response to the interest of many readers regarding the items included in the list, and perhaps reflecting the intellectual laziness of many of those readers, Hirsch and his associates published A Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which offered brief summaries related to each item, A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (for younger students), and a series of books designed to let parents determine the degree of cultural literacy of their elementary school children: What Your 2nd Grader Should Know, What Your 3rd Grader Should Know, etc. 

Although questions regarding what should (and shouldn’t) be included in a student’s course of study have always been, and always will be, a topic of debate among educators and other interested parties, the publication of A Nation At Risk and Cultural Literacy inspired educational organizations, school districts, state legislatures, and commissions formed at both the state and national level, to develop and publish detailed lists of standards and objectives for each subject and grade level setting forth the knowledge that should be acquired and the skills that should be developed by a student at each grade level, or in each course.  Many of these curriculum proposals have been adopted by school districts and/or enacted into law by state legislatures.  Standardized tests have been developed and/or rewritten to measure whether individual students have mastered the required objectives and met the specified standards.  Some states and school districts have begun to hold students accountable if they fail to meet stated expectations.  Approaches such as “outcomes-based education” and “mastery learning,” which make promotion from grade to grade contingent upon demonstrating the accomplishment of stated objectives, have been introduced.  (In some districts these strategies have already come and gone.)  Exit exams are becoming more common – requiring a student to score at a certain level in order to be awarded a high school diploma. 

Improving the quality of instruction offered in our schools has also been the focus of a wide variety of reform initiatives.  Research on effective teaching and learning has been conducted and the results disseminated.  A plethora of alternative teaching strategies, including numerous forms of cooperative learning, have been developed and introduced.  Madeline Hunter rose to prominence as the guru of lesson planning for teachers.  Lee Cantor emerged as the “sage of the stage” regarding classroom discipline with an approach he called “Assertive Discipline.”  To propagate the wisdom of Hunter, Cantor et. al., and to promote the use of “effective” teaching strategies, workshops, seminars, and other professional development activities have been offered to teachers, and in many cases required of teachers.  (Sort of an adult version of compulsory attendance.)  Textbooks and supporting materials have been rewritten to conform more closely to adopted standards, particularly the standards of larger states, theoretically making those teachers who rely on them more effective. Some states have introduced competency tests and replaced lifetime certification for teachers with temporary certification, making continued employment contingent upon additional training.  Colleges and universities have added additional requirements for prospective teachers. 

There has also been a broad range of other responses to the crisis in public education.  Schools and school districts have adopted wonderfully inspiring mission and vision statements.  Countless books and articles detailing the nature of the crisis facing our schools and offering a wide range of relatively moderate solutions have been published.  Although most of the sets of standards that have been put in place seem reasonably demanding, calls continue for expectations to be raised still higher.  State legislatures have mandated improvements in education and have occasionally even increased funding as part of the legislation.  The federal government has now weighed in with its own mandate that “no child [be] left behind.” 

Nearly all of the goals and objectives included in the standards that have been developed and adopted have some merit.  Raising pay for teachers certainly helps to attract a larger pool of qualified applicants to the profession, although compensation for teachers has not been increased to the point that significant numbers of talented individuals are being lured away from other professions.  Some of the opportunities for professional growth have helped the teachers already in our schools improve and refine their skills.  Although many experienced teachers maintain that Hunter and Cantor simply re-packaged and re-introduced time- tested methods, their recommendations are worthwhile.  Alternative teaching strategies have helped to improve the quality of instruction offered in our schools, although in many cases they accomplish little more than making the classroom a somewhat more tolerable place for non-readers.  Now, however, after two decades of earnest, but superficial, attempts to reform public education, we have seen very little improvement.  Average student scores on standardized tests — the primary evidence cited to demonstrate the existence of a state of crisis in public education—have not improved significantly.  The “crisis” continues.