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A Nation at Risk: 25 Years On (page 2)

A Nation at Risk: 25 Years On

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Updated on May 12, 2008

But is it really all that bad? Not according to the Department of Education, who also released a report marking the 25th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk." Its essential message is that while we still have a long way to go, at least No Child Left Behind has launched an accountability movement.

Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute, says that people shouldn't be surprised by the sluggish pace of school reform: the public education system in the U.S. is responsible for 5 million children every single day. “It's an enormous system. Large scale changes are very difficult.”

But perhaps the log jam is in part due to the unrealistic nature of the Commission's recommendations. "A Nation at Risk" suggests that curriculum be synchronized across all states—a huge feat considering that local control of education is written into the U.S. Constitution. According to Swail, a national curriculum is a lofty idea, at best. “We don't have the political climate at all to suggest that's a possibility,” he says.

Similarly, while performance-pay is a good concept, Swail says it won't work in practice. “You tell me who gets the merit and who doesn't? The teacher who has the high-performing students, or the one struggling away with low-performing students? Education is different than a regular industry, and trying to apply industry standards like performance-pay is naive,” he says.

There's a concern that "A Nation at Risk" has actually done more harm than good over the last 25 years. Some critics say it sparked the trend towards narrowing the curriculum in order to boost math and reading scores, while sacrificing other subjects like science, language, art and music.

“NCLB has set a dangerous precedent in terms of the role of test taking. Tests are an indicator, but they're only one, and you have to balance these things,” Swail says.

In fact, Swail says staving off pressure to teach to the test is one of the few things that public education has managed to do in the past 25 years. “We've continued to develop curriculum to create thinkers, instead of rote memorizers, and that's really important,” he says.

But, while "A Nation at Risk" triggered a lot of talk, and some action, it's hardly the first time someone tried to put the jumper cables to the education system. Swail points out the reforms in science curriculum following the launch of Sputnik in 1958, and the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. What will happen in 2028? That'll be up to your child's generation.

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