A Nation at Risk: 25 Years On

A Nation at Risk: 25 Years On

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Updated on May 12, 2008

This spring marks the 25th anniversary of what many call a turning point in American public education: the release of “A Nation At Risk.”

The education reform document, written by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, came out in 1982 to a wave of publicity. The report determined that the system of education in the United States was failing to meet the needs of the competitive workforce, citing tanking SAT results, poor test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (considered the nation's report card) and sliding graduation rates. It most famously said that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was threatening our nation, and the report offered 38 recommendations to turn things around.

So, what has changed since 1983? Have those recommendations been realized? Everyone in the world of education seems to have an opinion on this issue—some say test scores show us slipping farther behind other nations while others say the test scores don't show the whole picture. However, most in the world of education reform would agree that not much has changed since a “A Nation at Risk” first came out.

ED in '08, a campaign launched by the nonpartisan organization Strong American Schools, recently released a report called “A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk,” berating politicians for allowing schools to linger in mediocrity. Ed in '08's report grades the progress made for the Commission's main recommendations. Here's what they had to say:

  • Content: The Commission recommended the curriculum requirements change to 4 years of English, 3 years of mathematics, 3 years of science, 3 years of social studies, and one-half year of computer science for high school students. Ed in '08 gave this area an A, stating that most states have raised graduation standards.
  • Standards and Expectations: The Commission stated that grades should be indicators of academic achievement. This got an F, because, according to Ed in '08, while average high school grades have risen, 12th grade achievement has declined. Their other recommendation, that standardized tests be given at major transition points from one level of schooling to another, got a C thanks to No Child Left Behind.
  • Time: “A Nation at Risk” suggested that children start going to school for 7 hours a day, 200- to 220-days out of the year. Ed in '08 marked this one an F. The reason this recommendation failed? Policymakers balked at the expense, and industries who employ teenagers during the summer opposed it, according to Ed in '08.
  • Teaching: The Commission recommended that salaries for teachers be "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based.” This also gets an F. According to Ed in '08, only 8 percent of public school districts offer pay incentives.

"A Stagnant Nation" concludes that America needs strong leadership to lessen the sway that special interest groups have over public education and to “strike a better balance between local control and national action.”

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