Twenty Years on, U.S. Education Still at Risk

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WASHINGTON, April 4 (UPI) — Twenty years after the ominously titled “A Nation at Risk” report, a panel of experts agreed that American education still is deficient but disagreed about the nature of the problem.

The consensus at this week’s American Enterprise Institute forum was that standards had declined in the years leading to 1983, that they had not recovered, and the country would do well to restore them. But one panelist challenged this assumption, saying the apparent deterioration was really a function of more students finishing high school and going on to college.


Terrence Bell, President Reagan’s first Secretary of Education, charged the National Commission on Excellence in Education with evaluating the state of America’s high schools. In April 1983, the commission issued a sweeping indictment, citing rising mediocrity and the need for extensive reform.

On Tuesday four experts — Michael Cohen, Lynne V. Cheney, Chester Finn and Marc Tucker — addressed the question of how much has changed in the two decades since the report was issued.

Cohen is president of Achieve, which was founded by governors and corporate executives after the 1996 education summit to help states pursue standards-based education. He was an assistant secretary of Education in the Clinton administration.

Cohen said the report was a powerful document that got a number of things right. For example, it called for higher standards and a more focused and rigorous core curriculum for all students, standardized national (“not federal”) achievement tests, and incentives for new teachers.

States significantly increased funding, and the federal government has become a “senior partner” in high school education.

Despite all this, “We’re still a nation at risk,” Cohen said. The gains hoped for 20 years ago have largely failed to materialize. Why?

First was the assumption that the schools were filled with faculty and students who would make significant progress when freed from the shackles of bad regulation. The difficulty in improving this “capacity” was underestimated.

Reform also was hindered by fragmented state and local governing structures. For example, high school curricula were not geared either to college entrance or workplace requirements.

The federal “No Child Left Behind Act,” which President Bush signed in January 2002, requires states to test students frequently and imposes a 12-year timetable by which every state and every school must bring each student up to proficiency.

Cohen said most of the reform efforts that have been underway during the past 20 years have been at the elementary, not the high school, level.

Cheney is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on education policy and standards. She was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993.

Cheney said that although “A Nation at Risk” resulted in hundreds of reports and education summits, as well as the expenditure of billions of dollars, “there has been very little to show as a result.”

Reading scores are essentially the same, and in math American 12th graders rank 19th out of 21 nations. Only 11 percent of 12 graders achieved a proficient level in a National Association for Primary Education history exam.

Cheney offered the theory that many of the “reforms” engendered by “A Nation at Risk” haven’t been reforms at all. In fact, the “reform” movement has been co-opted to strengthen the status quo.

She made her point with an example. In 1999 it was reported that the Educational Testing Service was revising its “praxis” examinations for new teachers, which test content mastery, “to reflect the standards for teachers written by subject matter associations.” But those associations defined education as a student-directed enterprise. Teachers in this model act as facilitators or guides rather than imparting knowledge.

The standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of English, Cheney said, were vague and free of content. Reading is thought of as “the construction of meaning” rather than decoding.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, she said, places great importance on the idea that students should “create knowledge” for themselves and rely on calculators starting in the primary grades.

The National Council for the Social Studies, Cheney said, “also conceives teachers as facilitators who — rather than teaching subject matter that they command — arrange for students to have ‘experiences’ through which they can learn.” The council’s 178-page set of standards is silent about specific people, events and places students should learn about.

Cheney said that for the Social Studies council: “The best projects for satisfying these abstract aims … are not ones that involve contemplation of the past but those that encourage political activism in the present, such as 8th graders lobbying to change the local school board’s budget priority or high school students examining ‘their complicity as consumers in the exploitation of workers and resources.'”

These are three of the groups that revise the praxis exam.

The exam, she said, asks those tested to identify “risks” for young children associated with a “teacher-centered” approach to education. One answer key states: “Research suggests that an overemphasis on academic skills may undermine the development of children’s disposition to use the skills they have acquired.”

In 2003, “all hope for substantive change is dead,” Cheney said.

She cited the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, made up of 11 leading educational scholars assembled by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The task force noted that one reason why “A Nation at Risk” produced so little improvement is that the authors of the 1983 report underestimated the resistance to change from “the organized adult interests” in the public education system.

Cheney said they also underestimated the ability of those interests to co-opt reform and divert the energies of parents and others interested in changing the schools.

“Real reform will not take place through old organization,” she said. “New structures are required.” Particularly promising is the American Board for the Certification for Teacher Excellence, which will offer tests that measure knowledge of subject matter and teaching methods. “Individuals who wish to be certified through these tests will not be required to complete a particular set of education courses,” Cheney said. “Pennsylvania has adopted the program as a route to full certification, and I hope many other states will follow.”

Also sensible, Cheney said, are valid assessments of students’ academic achievement.

Chester Finn is a noted scholar of education, author, and chairman of the Koret Task Force.

“Twenty years after ‘A Nation at Risk,’ most of the trend lines are flat,” Finn said.

Commission members diagnosed the performance problem in 1983, but “didn’t quite get the causes right” and were “na