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4:07 pm
Fri April 26, 2013

30 Years On, Educators Still Divided On Scathing Schools Report

Originally published on Fri April 26, 2013 4:32 pm

Thirty years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan's administration released "A Nation at Risk," a report warning of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in American public education.

According to the report, only one-third of 17-year-olds in 1983 could solve a math problem requiring two steps or more, and 4 out of 10 teenagers couldn't draw inferences from written material. In an address to the nation, Reagan warned that "about 13 percent of 17-year-olds are functional illiterates and, among minority youth, the rate is closer to 40 percent."

Chester Finn, who would later become an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, says the commission that authored the report was right to denounce what high schools were teaching. Kids had too many options — courses like "bachelor living," for example — while schools failed to emphasize the basics.

"A Nation at Risk" recommended that each high school require four years of English, three years each of math, science and social studies, and at least two years of a foreign language for college-bound students.

And while many educators thought the report was unnecessarily alarmist, governors did not. Bob Wise, a congressman from West Virginia in 1983 who later became governor, says the report came along "at a time when we were facing real global competition," he says. "We were seeing factories being shuttered. People were beginning to wake up to the fact that the world was changing around us. I did not think it was alarmist then. I don't think it's alarmist now."

But Ron Wolk, who had just started the publication Education Week, says the report had a fatal flaw: It pretty much ignored the plight of poor, minority kids. "It kind of viewed the students of America as middle-class white kids who would really do well if they just tried harder and if we raised standards ... There was no recognition that there was a terrible inequity out there," he says.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University, was a researcher with the RAND Corp. in 1983. She says the report, instead of rallying the nation around quality and equity, singled out schools and teachers for blame. "We have overly criticized our schools," she says, "and 'A Nation at Risk' began that pattern."

Not long after, says Wolk, the debate over school reform became increasingly politicized, with "conservative Republicans then pushing for vouchers and things that Democrats considered to be the privatization of public education. That argument is still going on."

Still, very few people dispute that schools today are better overall than they were in 1983. They're just not good enough, says Ted Kolderie, considered by many as the "godfather" of the charter school movement. Kolderie says there's been very little innovation in schools since "A Nation at Risk."

"If we keep on doing what we've been doing," he says, "we are never going to get there."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Thirty years ago today an alarm sounded in Washington over the state of American education. President Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a 65-page report on April 26, 1983. It was titled "A Nation at Risk." The report warned of a rising tide of mediocrity in public schools and launched a wave of education reform. Today, NPR's Claudio Sanchez considers its impact.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The most memorable line in "A Nation at Risk" is ominous and foreboding.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 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.

SANCHEZ: According to the report, only one-third of 17-year-olds in 1983 could solve a math problem requiring two steps or more. Four out of ten teenagers couldn't draw inferences from written material.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: About 13 percent of our 17-year-olds are functional illiterates. And among minority youth, the rate is closer to 40 percent. More than two-thirds of our high schoolers can't write a decent essay.

SANCHEZ: President Ronald Reagan highlighted this litany of failure in an address to the nation two days after the release of "A Nation at Risk." And so it was that the 17-member commission responsible for the report declared war on the status quo with Mr. Reagan's secretary of education, Terrel Bell, leading the charge.

CHESTER FINN: I think the more interesting story is that Bell appointed this commission essentially out of frustration because the White House wouldn't let him do much else.

SANCHEZ: Chester Finn, who would later become an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, was a professor at Vanderbilt University in 1983. He says the commission was right to denounce what high schools were teaching.

FINN: Goofiness had crept into the curriculum, as it always does.

SANCHEZ: Finn says kids had too many options with too many courses like bachelor living. Schools just weren't emphasizing the basics. So here's what "A Nation at Risk" recommended. Every high school should require four years of English, three years each of math, science and social studies, and at least two years of a foreign language for college-bound students. Still, many educators thought the report was unnecessarily alarmist. Governors did not. Bob Wise was a congressman from West Virginia in 1983 and later governor of his state.

GOVERNOR BOB WISE: It was at a time when we were facing, for the first time, real global competition. We were seeing factories being shuttered. People were beginning to wake up to the fact that the world was changing around us. I didn't think it alarmist then. I don't think it alarmist now.

SANCHEZ: "A Nation at Risk," though, had a fatal flaw, says Ron Wolk. Wolk, who had just started the publication Education Week, says the report pretty much ignored the plight of poor minority kids.

RON WOLK: It kind of viewed the students of America as middle-class white kids who would really do well if they just tried harder, and if we raised standards and if we got tougher. But there was no recognition that there was a terrible inequity out there. You know, that was a very dominant fact that was completely ignored by that report.

LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: What happened in the 1980s was that almost all of the policies to reduce inequality were undone.

SANCHEZ: Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University, was a researcher with the RAND Corporation in 1983. She says instead of rallying the nation around quality and equity, the report singled out schools and teachers for blame.

DARLING-HAMMOND: We, I think, have overly criticized our schools and "A Nation at Risk" began that pattern.

SANCHEZ: And not long after its release, the debate over school reform became more and more politicized, says Ron Wolk.

WOLK: Because you had conservative Republicans then pushing for vouchers and things that Democrats considered to be the privatization of public education. That argument is still going on.

SANCHEZ: Still, very few people dispute that schools today are better overall than they were in 1983. They're just not good enough, says Ted Kolderie. He's considered the godfather of the charter school movement. Kolderie says there's been very little innovation in schools since "A Nation at Risk."

TED KOLDERIE: If we keep on doing what we've been doing, we are never going to get there.

SANCHEZ: And that, says Kolderie, is why the nation is still at risk. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.