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Think. Discuss. Act. Education Reform

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Review: A Nation At Risk

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983, April).  A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.  United States Department of Education.  


Over thirty years after its beginnings, this Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education is still referred to in most studies on educational reform; it is considered a landmark in our educational history and a catalyst for educational reform. It was, in 1983, a response to Secretary of Education T.H. Bell’s conclusion that our educational system was failing to provide technically skilled workers. Using the authority of his own office, Bell established the Commission on Excellence in Education over President Reagan’s objections.

The Introduction to this important Study and Report describes the six specific charges given to the Commission. It then goes on to explain the main five sources of information used: commissioned papers; testimonies and discussions of a wide range of individuals representing public and private, educational and business, schools and families; existing education analyses; voluntary letters commenting on problems and possibilities; and notable programs and promising approaches in education.

The beginning of the Report is worthy of quotation:

All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself.

It continues describing the educational crisis of the country.

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. . . . We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed . . . the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

The report claims that if an “unfriendly foreign power” imposed such educational mediocrity, Americans would consider it an “act of war.”  As it stands, however, the nation has done this to itself, “committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” American society, they argue, has lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling and what is necessary to maintain high standards—including essential support systems.

The report also argues that part of our compromise in commitment has been an overload of conflicting demands places on our schools and colleges, as we call on them for solutions to problems other sectors of society either will not or cannot resolve.

This report is as much an open letter to the American people as it is a report to the Secretary of Education. We are confident that the American people, properly informed, will do what is right for their children and for the generations to come.

From the evidence gathered, the Report provides Indicators of the Risk, as provided by “amply documented testimony”:

  • International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.
  • Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.
  • About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.
  • Over half the population of gifted students do not match their tested ability with comparable achievement in school.
  • The College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980, including decline in specific subject tests. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.
  • Both the number and proportion of students demonstrating superior achievement on the SATs (i.e., those with scores of 650 or higher) have also dramatically declined.
  • Many 17-year-olds do not possess “higher order” intellectual skills. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.
  • There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973, and 1977.
  • Between 1975 and 1980, remedial mathematics courses in public 4-year colleges increased by 72 percent and now constitute one-quarter of all mathematics courses taught in those institutions.
  • Average tested achievement of college graduates is lower.
  • Business and military leaders claim millions of dollars of expense on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation. The Department of the Navy, for example, reported to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written safety instructions. Without remedial work they cannot even begin, much less complete, the sophisticated training essential in much of the modern military.

In a digital age of computers and computerized technology such deficiencies might seem catastrophic. “Educational researcher Paul Hurd concluded, at the end of a thorough national survey of student achievement: ‘We are raising a new generation of Americans that is scientifically and technologically illiterate.’”

Some worry that schools may emphasize such rudiments as reading and computation at the expense of other essential skills such as comprehension, analysis, solving problems, and drawing conclusions. Still others are concerned that an over-emphasis on technical and occupational skills will leave little time for studying the arts and humanities that so enrich daily life, help maintain civility, and develop a sense of community. Another analyst, Paul Copperman, has drawn a sobering conclusion. Until now, he has noted: “Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”

The Commission heard hope for education in America from the commitment of so many to quality education. But beyond that there was a “sense of frustration that threatened to overwhelm … hope.”

More and more young people emerge from high school ready neither for college nor for work. This predicament becomes more acute as the knowledge base continues its rapid expansion, the number of traditional jobs shrinks, and new jobs demand greater sophistication and preparation.

On a broader scale, we sense that this undertone of frustration has significant political implications, for it cuts across ages, generations, races, and political and economic groups. We have come to understand that the public will demand that educational and political leaders act forcefully and effectively on these issues. Indeed, such demands have already appeared and could well become a unifying national preoccupation. This unity, however, can be achieved only if we avoid the unproductive tendency of some to search for scapegoats among the victims, such as the beleaguered teachers.

In response to evident frustration and deficiencies, the Commission made thirty-eight recommendations across five major categories.

  1. Content: 4 years of English, 3 years of mathematics and science, and a half year of computer science in high school, as well as foreign language proficiency beginning in the early grades.
  2. Standards and Expectations: caution against grade inflation and rising of admission tests.
  3. Time: strongly recommends 7-hour school day and 200-to 220-day school year.
  4. Teaching: recommends salaries for teachers be professionally competitive, market sensitive, and performance based.
  5. Leadership and Fiscal Support: Federal government plays an essential role in meeting “the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students and the handicapped.”

Evaluation of the Commission’s Report and its Results

The Report of this Commission was at odds with some of President Reagan’s principles and policies: tax credits for tuition payments, voluntary prayer under school auspices, and abolition of the Department of Education.

On the 25th anniversary of this Report, Strong American Schools released a report card showing progress made:

. . . stunningly few of the Commission’s recommendations actually have been enacted. Now is not the time for more educational research or reports or commissions. . . . The missing ingredient isn’t even educational at all. It’s political. Too often, state and local leaders have tried to enact reforms of the kind recommended in A Nation at Risk only to be stymied by organized special interests and political inertia. Without vigorous national leadership to improve education, states and local school systems simply cannot overcome the obstacles . . . to significantly improve our nation’s K-12 schools (cited by Wikipedia,, accessed 9July2014).

Julie A. Miller reported on three researchers of the Sandia Center, commissioned by Secretary of Energy James T. Watkins, who dispute the crisis mentality of A Nation at Risk. “Unfortunately,” one version of their research says, “much of the current reform agenda, though well intentioned is misguided. Based on a ‘crisis’ mentality, many proposed reforms do not properly focus on actual problems.” Both sides of the issue have been charged with using data that is selective and misleading (, accessed 9July2014).

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1.  Do you believe A Nation at Risk describes a false crisis? How do you assess the level of American education in the late 20th and early 21st century?

2.  Do you believe the American educational system in in any need of reform? If not, on what do you base your conclusions? If so, what reforms do you desire to see, and what suggestions do you have for making such changes?


1.  There is general agreement that education is a key to the global and national amelioration of poverty and its attending problems.

2. There is not agreement as to the role of federal vs. local initiative and controls.  Disagreement also continues over the key factors in education: whether stronger families and more school resources or better teachers and teaching are the key. These are issue that educational reform must face.

Dean Borgman

© 2018 CYS

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