‘A Nation At Risk’ Sounded Alarms About Public Education Over 40 Years Ago, but We Keep Hitting the Snooze Button

Published February 6, 2024
Student at school

In April 1983, U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell Bell created the National Commission on Excellence in Education, directing it to “examine the quality of education in the United States.” The panel found that “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.”

The report famously asserted, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war.” It also insists that “…academic excellence [is] the primary goal of schooling [and it] seems to be fading across…American education.”

Edward B. Fiske, education editor of the New York Times at the time, described the report as “35 pages that “shook the U.S. education world [becoming] one of the most significant documents in the history of American public education.”

Sadly, however, a 1998 Hoover Institution report revealed that “little has changed” and that the nation was still very much at risk.

Here we are in 2024, over 40 years after the alarm bells sounded, and what have we done about the “act of war?”

Not much at all. What follows is a very brief overview of our current condition.

Learning deficiencies persist

The 2022 NAEP, or “Nation’s Report Card,” discloses that nationwide, 29% of the nation’s 8th-graders are proficient in reading, while just 26% are proficient in math.

The average scores on the American College Testing (ACT) exams, which are used for college admission, have fallen the last six years in a row and are the worst since 1991. The average scores for reading, math, and science all fell below benchmark levels that are necessary for students to have a chance at succeeding in their first year of college.

Too many Americans are not smart enough to join the Army

In 2022, the U.S. Army missed its recruiting goal by about 15,000 soldiers — or 25%.

While there are many reasons for this, a 2010 analysis from The Education Trust reports that too many of the nation’s high school graduates have not been adequately prepared to serve in the U.S. Army. “Shut Out of the Military,” the first-ever public analysis of the Army’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, reveals that more than one in five young people interested in enlisting don’t meet the minimum eligibility standard required for the Army because they don’t have “the reading, mathematics, science and problem-solving abilities that it takes to pass the enlistment exam, which is designed specifically to identify the skills and knowledge needed to be a good soldier.”

The study puts the blame on America’s educational system.

Covid and missing students

Our education establishment badly damaged children by forcing schools across the country to shut down when COVID hit. That action caused massive learning loss, and it subsequently led to an alarming uptick in student absenteeism.