Problems in Education Persist Nearly Three Decades After A Nation at Risk Report
Twenty-nine years ago, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform alerted the U.S. about the grim outlook of the public education system.
President Reagan’s commission that authored the report included the following statement in a letter sent to then-Secretary of Education Terrel Bell:
“Our purpose has been to help define the problems afflicting American education and to provide solutions, not search for scapegoats.”
That sentiment still holds true. No one is trying to blame one group over another, but the data that we are now able to collect continue to show that not much has changed in almost 30 years. Recently, a Council on Foreign Relations report stated that our failure to educate students threatens the United States’ national security, the ability to thrive in a global economy, and maintain our leadership role in the world.
Looking back at the recommendations made 29 years ago, it is staggering how much progress we have made in some areas, and how little—if at all—we have made in others. Here are the recommendations made in the report and where we are today:
The commission recommended that state and local high school graduation requirements be strengthened and that, at a minimum, all students seeking a diploma be required to lay the foundations in the "Five New Basics" by taking the following curriculum during their four years of high school:
- Four years of English
- Three years of mathematics
- Three years of science
- Three years of social studies; and
- One-half year of computer science
- For the college bound, 2 years of foreign language is strongly recommended.
Today, we graduate roughly 75% of high school students and approximately one-third are required to take remedial courses in college. Many consider the high number of students needing remedial courses is a clear indication that high school graduation requirements do not adequately prepare students for college or a career.
The commission recommended that schools, colleges, and universities adopt more rigorous and measurable standards and higher expectations for academic performance and student conduct, and that 4-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission.
Today, nearly all 50 states have either adopted the Common Core Standards or have state standards that they consider rigorous. Up until the rapid adoption of Common Core Standards in 2010, many state standards were not considered demanding or competitive.
The commission recommended that significantly more time be devoted to learning the "Five New Basics." This will require more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.
Today, these same arguments are being made in state capitals and school board meetings across the country. However, in most places the school day and the school year have remained the same for decades.
Here are three implementation requirements of this recommendation:
- Students in high schools should be assigned far more homework than is now the case.
- Instruction in effective study and work skills, which are essential if school and independent time is to be used efficiently, should be introduced in the early grades and continue throughout the student’s schooling.
- School districts and state legislatures should strongly consider 7-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year.
The commission's recommendation around improving the preparation of teachers and making teaching a more rewarding and respected profession has seven parts. Each of the seven stands on its own and should not be considered solely as an implementing recommendation.
- Persons preparing to teach should be required to meet high educational standards, demonstrate an aptitude for teaching, and show competence in an academic discipline. Colleges and universities offering teacher preparation programs should be judged by how well their graduates meet these criteria.
- Salaries for the teaching profession should be increased and should be professionally competitive, market sensitive, and performance based. Salary, promotion, tenure, and retention decisions should be tied to an effective evaluation system that includes peer review so that superior teachers can be rewarded, average ones encouraged, and poor ones either improved or terminated.
- School boards should adopt an 11-month contract for teachers. This would ensure time for curriculum and professional development, programs for students with special needs, and a more adequate level of teacher compensation.
- School boards, administrators, and teachers should cooperate to develop career ladders for teachers that distinguish among the beginning instructor, the experienced teacher, and the master teacher.
- Substantial nonschool personnel resources should be employed to help solve the problem of the shortage of mathematics and science teachers. Qualified individuals, including recent graduates with mathematics and science degrees, graduate students, and industrial and retired scientists could, with appropriate preparation, begin teaching in these fields right away. A number of our leading science centers have the capacity to begin educating and retraining teachers immediately. Other areas of critical teacher need, such as English, must also be addressed.
- Incentives, such as grants and loans, should be made available to attract outstanding students to the teaching profession, particularly in areas of critical shortage.
- Master teachers should be involved in designing teacher preparation programs and in supervising teachers during their probationary years.
Today, these exact arguments are being made throughout the country and in the nation’s capital. Nearly all seven of these components are constantly being discussed as possible ways to improve the teaching profession and today are seen as some of the most controversial reforms to the education system. Research continues to affirm that the most important in-school factor for student learning is the quality of the teacher.
The commission recommended that citizens across the nation hold educators and elected officials responsible for providing the leadership necessary to achieve these reforms, and that citizens provide the fiscal support and stability required to bring about the reforms we propose.
Today, citizens are increasingly more aware of the issues our public schools are facing. The arguments about fiscal support are highly debated on both sides of the aisle. But one thing is clear—the United States invests a significant amount of money in public education. In fact, the Council on Foreign Relations report noted that while the U.S. invests more in K–12 public education than many other developed countries, its students are ill-prepared to compete with their global peers.
Included at the end of the A Nation at Risk report is a statement when refined slightly, still holds true today.
“Children born today can expect to graduate from high school in the year 2029. … We firmly believe that a movement of America’s schools in the direction called for by our recommendations will prepare these children for far more effective lives in a far stronger America.”