At the end of April, 2018, National Public Radio education reporter Anya Kamenetz did a story on the 35th anniversary of the highly influential government report “A Nation at Risk.” Issued by the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan, the report had a huge impact and shaped the language of education policy to this day. Here are some of the explosive sentences from the opening two paragraphs. You will recognize them, or you will have heard echoes of them:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.
[T]he 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.
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. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.
We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
The diction is urgent, even fevered. Our schools are mediocre and getting worse, and their sorry state is resulting in an erosion of our economic and technological preeminence. The opening sentences build momentum toward an existential threat, the equivalent of a military attack—brought on by ourselves, by our educational failures. It comes as no surprise that these passages were quoted and quoted again in countless political speeches, opinion pieces, and institutional position papers.
Support for this catastrophic assessment comes a few pages later in the form of a list of thirteen “Indicators of the Risk.” These indicators included the numbers of college students or military personnel needing remedial instruction in mathematics or English, percentages of Americans who are functionally illiterate, and the like. Over half of the thirteen indicators concern declines in international or national standardized test scores, such as those for the SAT. The emphasis on decline is important here, for it supports a central claim of “A Nation at Risk” which is that we were once dominant but have lost our way. This notion of loss, of a fall from a golden age is a powerful trope in our nation’s social policy, beautifully articulated some time ago by David K. Cohen in the Harvard Educational Review
So there it is. 1983 and we are doomed if we don’t do something fast and decisively. Erosion. Decline. Loss of Power. Assault. An act of war—against ourselves. Interestingly, throughout the rest of the report, there is little of this apocalyptic language. While the authors continue to make some questionable claims and offer some debatable solutions, there are also calls to boost the teaching profession, to increase school funding, to promote “life-long learning,” and to assure “a solid high-school education” for all. But few people read the full report. What was picked up was the dire language of the opening and—this is hugely important—that language not only took on a life of its own, it also distorted the way many reform-minded folk implemented the recommendations of the report that had promise.
From the beginning there was trenchant criticism of “A Nation at Risk,” analyzing the report’s hyperbolic language and gaps in the logic of its claims and, of key interest, the problems with the report’s evidence. One simple and obvious example: A decline in SAT test scores results from increasing numbers of people taking the test, people who, a generation earlier, would not have considered college. So, yes, the average score might dip a few points, but because a wider percentage of the population was aspiring toward higher education. (For an excellent early compilation of the criticism see the 1985 collection, The Great School Debate
, edited by Beatrice and Ronald Gross.) It is noteworthy that there were several other government reports written after “A Nation at Risk” that offered a different assessment of American education, but they received much less attention and, in fact, one was initially suppressed. Maybe we weren’t teetering on the brink after all.
OK back now to Anya Kamenetz’s story on the 35th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk.” Either for this story or for an earlier project, Kamentz interviewed several of the authors of “A Nation at Risk” and found that they did not set out to conduct an objective investigation of the state of American education, but came to the task convinced that schools were in serious decline as global competition was heating up, and therefore their job was to sound the alarm and, as one author put it, get education “on the front page.” They succeeded, big time.
Kamenetz quotes James Guthrie, a well-known educational researcher who more recently reanalyzed “A Nation at Risk” and concludes that the report’s authors “cooked the books,” presenting only data that supported their bleak vision of America’s schools. But Guthie adds that “seldom, maybe never, has a public report been so wrong and done so much good,” for the alarm bells focused the nation’s attention on education. Guthrie is alluding to the sad fact that it is very hard to get the attention of policy makers and the public—there are so many issues competing for airtime, and a host of factors, from bias to saturation, can keep a particular issue from registering. One tactic activists have is to frame their issue as a crisis—which is exactly what the authors of “A Nation at Risk” did. Educational researchers like David Berliner and Bruce Biddle have forcefully argued that the crisis was “manufactured
,” but the authors of the report would argue in return—and James Guthrie agrees—that drastic measures were needed to put education on policy makers’ radar. Education analyst Marc Tucker
picks up from Kamenetz’s NPR story to take issue with Guthrie’s end-justifies-the-means logic and to further argue that the reforms sparked by “A Nation at Risk” have had “a profoundly malign effect on American education,” not the positive effects Guthrie claims. (Tucker’s blog is behind a pay wall, but you can get a good summary of it in Diane Ravitch’s May 12, 2018 post
I agree with Tucker and the other critics of “A Nation at Risk” and the policies it spawned. But isn’t it also true that there are big problems with American education. It is terribly unjust that so many poor children, children of color, and immigrant children receive a sub-par education. It is a serious personal liability for an adult to not be able to read and write beyond a rudimentary level, and if tens of millions of us have a good deal of trouble reading and writing, that has significant civic and economic ramifications. These and other problems with education in the United States should cause outrage and lead to action. But one hard lesson learned from “A Nation at Risk” is that the way problems are represented has major consequences. This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms, but I think it is centrally important. It was one of the concerns that drove Possible Lives, published twelve years downstream from “A Nation at Risk”:
Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination... We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries, and that, as a result, our position in the global economy is in danger. We are told, by politicians, by pundits, that our cultural values, indeed our very way of life is threatened…
We seem beguiled by a rhetoric of decline, this ready store of commonplaces about how awful our schools have become. “America’s schools are the least successful in the Western world,” declare the authors of a book on the global economy. “Face it, the public schools have failed,” a bureau chief for a national news magazine tells me, offhandedly. “The kids in the Los Angeles Unified School District are garbage,” a talk-radio host exclaims.
There are many dangers in the use of such language. It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization. What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction. So, increasing numbers of people who can afford to don’t even consider public schools as an option for their children, and increasingly we speak, all of us, about the schools as being in decline. This is what is happening to our public discussion of education, to our collective vision of the schools…
If we try to organize schools and create curriculum based on an assumption of failure and decay, then we make school life a punitive experience. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we lose sight of the fact that school has to be about more than economy. If we determine success primarily in terms of test scores, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning—and, as well, we’ll miss those considerable intellectual achievements which aren’t easily quantifiable. If we judge one school according to the success of another, we could well diminish the particular ways the first school serves its community. In fact, a despairing vision will keep us from fully understanding the tragedies in our schools, will reduce their complexity, their human intricacy. We will miss the courage that sometimes accompanies failure, the new directions that can emerge from burn-out, the desire that pulses in even the most depressed schools and communities.
One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise. How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy. A legacy of “A Nation at Risk” is a way of seeing that obscures the careful vision we need when working to improve our schools.