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Nation Still At Risk in Education

New report examines why 20 years of education reforms haven't worked

The National Commission on Excellence in Education reported in 1983 in A Nation at Risk that the “intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of our people” were in trouble. The follow-up study, “Our Schools and Our Future: are we still at risk?” examines the changes that have taken place since 1983, and what they mean in present-day American education.

The original findings of the Excellence Commission described American education as beset by a “rising tide of mediocrity.” In the 2003 volume, produced by the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, in conjunction with the Hoover Institution, Paul E. Peterson writes on the “tide” metaphor. “Mediocrity can seep into our educational system in just this same insidious way — imperceptibly, an inch at a time, without definitive scientific proof of its causes or consequences. ”

According to Peterson, a senior fellow at Hoover, Harvard professor, and senior editor of Education Next, mediocrity is still on the rise. In his view, the original recommendations of the Excellence Commission were adopted piecemeal, when at all, with practically no significant effect.

A nation at risk

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” This could have been written in 2003, but in fact came from the original A Nation at Risk report. The findings from the 1983 study commented on school conditions in four categories: content, expectations, time, and teaching/teachers.

The Commission reported that “Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose.” By 1981, when the report was commissioned, students were abandoning rigorous courses in favor of “general track” options. The percentage of American high school students who completed academic courses beyond the bare minimum ranged from a high of 31 percent for intermediate algebra, to a low of 6 percent for calculus. Foreign language and geography were also undersubscribed.

The Excellence Commission couched their findings in terms of abilities and skills, which should follow from rigorous coursework and examinations. Compared to students in other countries, U.S. students took softer courses, and were getting off too easily on exams. In 1983, the commission reported that 20 percent of all public colleges in the United States were obligated to admit all high school graduates from their state. Students had little incentive to perform well, or to try more demanding subjects.

On the issue of competency, they said “Minimum competency examinations… fall short of what is needed, as the ‘minimum’ tends to become the ‘maximum,’ thus lowering educational standards for all.”

Instructional time was inadequate, the report said. U.S. students spent about six hours per day times 180 days per year in school, vs. their British counterparts, spending eight hours per day times 200 to 220 days per year.

A typical school week in U.S. high schools consisted of 17 to 22 hours of academic instruction time per week.
As for teachers, the commissioners found that most came from the bottom 20 percent of their high school and college classes, and spent up to 41 percent of their time in college on classes in “educational methods” rather than academic subjects. The average national salary of $17,000, $34,411 in 2003 dollars, was too low, they said. And the shortfall in key math and science graduates was persistent.

Solution—round one

The commission recommended a focus on basics for high school, measurable standards for tracking progress, more time devoted to academics, and higher standards for teaching staff.

English, math, science, social studies, and computer science were identified as the “five new basics.” Foreign languages and personal-occupational skills rounded out the picture by teaching subjects in the arts and vocational areas. Instead of taking up to 25 percent of high school credits in remedial, physical and health ed, and personal development courses (marriage skills, etc.), the curriculum would refocus on solid content areas.

Students should expect more homework, tougher grading, and more course requirements, the commission said. Schools should teach study skills. Attendance and behavior codes should protect academic time and reduce disruptions. Most importantly, promotion and graduation should be based on mastery, the commission said, “rather than by rigid adherence to age.”

The report followed through with a number of changes the investigators believed would improve the quality of teachers and teaching. The first item they recommended was that teachers “demonstrate competence in an academic discipline.” Other ideas included raising salaries, establishing an 11-month contract, and getting help with administrative tasks and discipline. The commission was not reluctant to recommend going outside the teaching profession per se to obtain scientists, mathematicians, and other experts in hard-to-cover academic areas.

The final recommendations noted the need for leadership and fiscal support to carry through the reforms. State, local, and federal governments each had a role to play, as did parents and educators. The idea was that it would take a coordinated effort to create the kinds of changes they thought were critical. Parents in particular must have, according to them, “an intolerance for the shoddy and second-rate masquerading as good enough.”

Still at risk

Why didn’t the proposals of the Excellence Commission transform American education? After 20 years, we are still trying to accomplish a wholesale revolution in American schools.

The Koret Task Force found that the recommendations from the first report were never really adopted. The 1983 report said, “History is not kind to idlers. The time is long past when America’s destiny was assured simply by an abundance of natural resources and inexhaustible human enthusiasm…We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly-motivated competitors.” It’s still true today.

Education reform failed for three reasons, according to the Koret Task Force. The first is successful resistance to change from the K-12 education establishment. “Organized adult interests of the K-12 public education system,” including the two big teacher unions, have deflected significant change. The commission threatened to reduce the power of these interests, and they rallied to prevent that. The original commission disbanded after it issued its report, yet unions have been very active.

A second failure, according to the 2003 study, was the inability to influence education schools. Education schools “own” the future teacher workforce. They have controlled the ideas, standards, and methodology of education students for decades. As a result, ed school philosophies, not reform policies, dominate the profession. Since 1983, the task force found that these schools have become even “softer” on subject mastery for teachers. Attending conventions and workshops, acquiring credit hours in education courses, and other ‘ed’ activities have a much bigger payoff in today’s profession than scholarly study.

“Our Schools and Our Future” reports that many Americans, particularly suburban and middle-class families, are complacent about the status quo. Minority parents may be less complacent today. And many minority children have already acquired the most expensive education possible — they are among the high school graduates who cannot read, write, or calculate on the most fundamental level.

The task force concludes that the nation is still at risk. Little improvement has occurred since 1970. America’s typically strong economy has masked the full impact of poor education so far. Achievement gaps, however, are “as wide as ever.”

The Koret group endorses standards-based reform. The momentum for the No Child Left Behind Act, as a blueprint for that reform, will no doubt increase as a result of the new findings. A significant part of real reform will depend upon the transparency of information between schools and the public, the group says. Competition in the form of charters, vouchers, or other choices “must be in place” for the other pieces to work.” Accountability, choice, and transparency are the essential trinity of principles by which to reconstruct America’s schools,” the group concludes.

Palasek is a policy analyst with the North Carolina Education Alliance and an assistant editor at Carolina Journal.