ERIC Identifier: ED429988
Publication Date: 1999-04-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and
Evaluation College Park MD.
A Nation Still at Risk. ERIC Digest.
This Digest was adapted from "A Nation Still At Risk", an education manifesto
signed by 37 prominent education reformers in April 1998 (See Additional
Readings at the end of this Digest.)
In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared the
United States A Nation at Risk. That citizens' panel admonished the American
people that 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. A decade and a half later, the risk posed by inadequate education
has changed. Our nation today does not face imminent danger of economic decline
or technological inferiority. Yet the state of our children's education is still
very far from where it ought to be. Unfortunately, the economic boom times have
made many Americans indifferent to poor educational achievement. Despite
continuing indicators of inadequacy, and the risk that this poses to our future,
much of the public shrugs and says, "Whatever."
The purpose of this digest is to awaken Americans once again to the fact that
U.S. schools are still failing our youth and demand that changes be made. Since
1983, over 10 million Americans have reached the 12th grade not even having
learned to read at a basic level. In the same period, over 6 million Americans
dropped out of high school altogether. The numbers are even bleaker in minority
communities. In 1996, 13% of all African Americans aged 16-to-24 were not in
school and did not hold a diploma. Seventeen percent of first generation
Hispanics had dropped out of high school, including a tragic 44% of Hispanic
immigrants in this age group. To be sure, there have been gains during this past
15 years, many of them inspired by the Excellence Commission's clarion call.
Dropout rates declined and college attendance rose. More high-school students
are enrolling in more challenging academic courses. With more students taking
more courses and staying in school longer, it is indeed puzzling that student
achievement has remained largely flat and that college remediation rates have
risen to unprecedented levels.
THE RISK TODAY
Internationally, U.S. youngsters hold their
own at the elementary level but falter in the middle years and drop far behind
in high school. We seem to be the only country in the world whose children fall
farther behind the longer they stay in school. That is true of our advanced
students and our so-called good schools, as well as those in the middle.
Remediation is rampant in college, with some 30% of entering freshmen in need of
remedial courses in reading, writing and mathematics. Employers report
difficulty finding people to hire who have the skills, knowledge, habits, and
attitudes they require for technologically sophisticated positions. Though the
pay they offer is excellent, the supply of competent U.S.-educated workers is
too meager to fill the available jobs.
In the midst of our flourishing economy, we are recreating a dual school
system, separate and unequal, almost half a century after it was declared
unconstitutional. We face a widening and unacceptable chasm between good schools
and bad, between those youngsters who get an adequate education and those who
emerge from school barely able to read and write. Poor and minority children
usually go to worse schools, have less expected of them, are taught by less
knowledgeable teachers, and have the least power to alter bad situations.
If we continue to sustain this chasm between the educational haves and
have-nots, our nation will face cultural, moral and civic peril. During the past
30 years, we have witnessed a cheapening and coarsening of many facets of our
lives. We see it, among other places, in the squalid fare on television and in
the movies. Obviously the school is not primarily responsible for this
degradation of culture. But we should be able to rely on our schools to counter
the worst aspects of popular culture, to fortify students with standards,
judgment and character.
DELUSION AND INDIFFERENCE
Regrettably, some educators and
commentators have responded to the persistence of mediocre performance by
engaging in denial, self-delusion, and blame shifting. Instead of acknowledging
that there are real and urgent problems, they deny that there are any problems
at all. Broad hints are dropped that, if there is a problem, it's confined to
other people's children in other communities. Then, of course, there is the
fantasy that America's education crisis is a fraud, something invented by
enemies of public schools. And there is the worrisome conviction of millions of
parents that, whatever may be ailing U.S. education in general, "my kid's school
Now is no time for complacency. Such illusions and denials endanger the
nation's future and the future of today's children. Good education has become
absolutely indispensable for economic success, both for individuals and for
American society. Good education is the great equalizer of American society.
Horace Mann termed it the "balance wheel of the social machinery," and that is
even more valid now. As we become more of a meritocracy the quality of one's
education matters more. That creates both unprecedented opportunities for those
who once would have found the door barred and huge new hurdles for those
burdened by inferior education. America today faces a profound test of its
commitment to equal educational opportunity. This is a test of whether we truly
intend to educate all our children or merely keep everyone in school for a
certain number of years; of whether we will settle for low levels of performance
by most youngsters and excellence from only an elite few.
THE REAL ISSUE IS POWER
The Excellence Commission had the
right diagnosis but was vague as to the cure. The commissioners trusted that
good advice would be followed, that the system would somehow fix itself, and
that top-down reforms would suffice. They spoke of "reforming our educational
system in fundamental ways." But they did not offer a political or
structural-change strategy to turn these reforms into reality. They
underestimated, too, the resilience of the status quo and the strength of the
interests wedded to it. The problem was not that the Excellence Commission had
to content itself with words. In fact, its stirring prose performed an important
service. No, the problem was that the Commission took the old ground rules for
granted. In urging the education system to do more and better, it assumed that
the system had the capacity and the will to change.
Alas, this was not true. Power over our education system has been
increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few who don't really want things to
change, not substantially, not in ways that would really matter. The education
system's power brokers responded to the commission, but only a little. The
Commission asked for a yard, and the "stakeholders" gave an inch. Hence much of
A Nation At Risk's wise counsel went unheeded, and its sense of urgency has
Today we understand that vast institutions don't change just because they
should--especially when they enjoy monopolies. They change only when they must,
only when their survival demands it. In other parts of American life, stodgy,
self-interested monopolies are not tolerated. They have been busted up and
alternatives created as we have realized that large bureaucratic structures are
inherently inefficient and unproductive. The private sector figured this out
decades ago. The countries of the former Soviet empire are grasping it. Even our
federal government is trying to "reinvent" itself around principles of
competition and choice. President Clinton has declared that "the era of big
government is over." It should now be clear to all that the era of big
government monopoly of public education needs to end as well.
The fortunate among us continue to thrive within and around the existing
education system, having learned how to use it, to bend its rules and to
sidestep its limitations. The well-to-do and powerful know how to coexist with
the system, even to exploit it for the benefit of their children. They
supplement it. They move in search of the best it has to offer. They pay for
alternatives. But millions of Americans--mainly the children of the poor and
minorities--don't enjoy these options. They are stuck with what "the system"
dishes out to them, and all too often they are stuck with the least qualified
teachers, the most rigid bureaucratic structures, the fewest choices and the
shoddiest quality. Those parents who yearn for something better for their
children lack the power to make it happen. They lack the power to shape their
own lives and those of their children.
THE NEXT CIVIL RIGHTS FRONTIER
opportunity is the next great civil rights issue. We refer to the true equality
of opportunity that results from providing every child with a first-rate primary
and secondary education, and to the development of human potential that comes
from meeting intellectual, social, and spiritual challenges. The educational
gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students are huge, handicapping poor
children in their pursuit of higher education, good jobs, and a better life. In
today's schools, far too many disadvantaged and minority students are not being
challenged. Far too many are left to fend for themselves when they need
instruction and direction from highly qualified teachers. Far too many are
passed from grade to grade, left to sink or swim. Far too many are advanced
without ever learning how to read, though proven methods of teaching reading are
now well-known. They are given shoddy imitations of real academic content,
today's equivalent of Jim Crow math and back-of-the-bus science.
We have some excellent schools--we obviously know how to create them--and yet
we offer an excellent education only to some children. And that bleak truth is
joined to another: only some families have the power to shape their children's
education. This reality can only be altered by shifting power away from the
system. That is why education has become a civil-rights issue. If the system
gets to decide whether you will receive it or not, it's not a right. It's only a
right when it belongs to you and you have the power to exercise it as you see
STRATEGIES FOR CHANGE
There should be two main renewal
strategies, working in tandem:
- Standards, assessments and accountability.
student, school and district must be expected to meet high standards of
learning. Parents must be fully informed about the progress of their child and
their child's school. District and state officials must reward success and have
the capacity and the obligation to intervene in cases of failure. - Pluralism,
competition and choice.
must be as open to alternatives in the delivery of education as we are firm
about the knowledge and skills being delivered. Families and communities have
different tastes and priorities, and educators have different strengths and
passions. It is madness to continue acting as if one school model fits every
situation--and it is a sin to make a child attend a bad school if there's a
better one across the street.
HOPE FOR THE NEXT AMERICAN CENTURY
Good things are already
happening here and there. Charter schools are proliferating. Privately managed
public schools have long waiting lists. Choices are spreading. Standards are
being written and rewritten. Changes are being made. However, they are still
exceptions. We must never again assume that the education system will respond to
good advice. It will change only when power relationships change, particularly
when all parents gain the power to decide where their children go to school.
The stakes could not be higher. What is at stake is America's ability to
provide all its daughters and sons with necessary skills and knowledge, with
environments for learning that are safe for children and teachers, with schools
in which every teacher is excellent and learning is central. What is at stake is
parents' confidence that their children's future will be bright thanks to the
excellent education that they are getting; taxpayers' confidence that the money
they are spending on public education is well spent; employers' confidence that
the typical graduate of a typical U.S. high school will be ready for the
workplace; and our citizens' confidence that American education is among the
best in the world.
But even more is at stake than our future prosperity. Despite this country's
mostly admirable utilitarianism when it comes to education, good education is
not just about readiness. Test scores are important, but so are standards and
excellence in our society. The decisions we make about education are really
decisions about the kind of country we want to be; the sort of society in which
we want to raise our children; the future we want them to have; and even--and
perhaps especially--about the content of their character and the architecture of
their souls. In the last decade of this American Century, we must not be content
with anything less than the best for all the children.
Barber, L. W., Ed. (1996). Straight
Talk about America's Public Schools: Dispelling the Myths. Hot Topics Series.
Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa.
Goldberg, M. & Renton, A. M. (1993).Heeding the Call to Arms in a "Nation
at Risk." School Administrator, 50(4), 16-18,20-23.
Hunt, S. L. & Staton, A. Q. (1996). The communication of educational
reform: "A Nation at Risk." Communication Education, 45(4), 271-92.
National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). A Nation at Risk: the
Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of
Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.(1998). A Nation Still at Risk: an Education
Manifesto. Document resulting from the proceedings of Nation Still At Risk
Summit, Washington, D.C. (Also available at the following world wide web
address: http://edexcellence.net/library/manifes.html). Also see