After 15 Years, Nation Is Still at Risk

Published October 1, 1998

Fifteen years after the publication of A Nation At Risk, the United States remains engulfed in “a sea of educational mediocrity,” according to an education reform group of prominent business executives, academics, lawmakers, and educators.

Among the group’s far-reaching proposals for reform of American education are school choice, high academic standards, requiring teachers to demonstrate mastery of the subjects they teach, alternative teacher certification, and teacher pay related to performance.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned 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.” After meeting earlier this year to discuss the state of American education and recommend reforms, a number of the nation’s most prominent education reformers, business leaders, and policy-makers issued an education manifesto calling the US “a nation still at risk.”

The indicators of educational inadequacy are manifold. While more high school students today are enrolled in challenging academic courses, overall student achievement is essentially unchanged from 1983 levels. Although college attendance is up, college remediation rates have soared, and 30 percent of incoming college freshmen require remedial courses in reading, writing, and mathematics.

In the recent Third International Math and Science Study, US twelfth-graders ranked 19th out of 21 nations in mathematics and 16th out of 21 in science. America’s “best” students–those taking physics and advanced math courses–fared even worse, with US students scoring last in physics and next to last in advanced math.

Our failure to improve educational achievement over the past 15 years cannot be blamed on a lack of information about what it takes to provide a good education. We know what works. But in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education assumed that the public school monopoly “had the capacity and the will to change.” Today, the authors of A Nation Still at Risk have concluded “this was not true.” Unwilling to reform itself, public education will have to be reformed from the outside, by a shift of power away from the system to parents.

Those reform efforts should be focused on two strategies: first, standards, assessments, and accountability; and, second, pluralism, competition, and choice. The manifesto offers four principles to guide reform efforts:

  • Redefine “public school” to mean any school open to the public, paid for by public funds, and accountable to public authorities for results;
  • Expect excellence for all students and demand high standards for all teachers and all schools;
  • Give every family the opportunity to choose where its children go to school;
  • Provide consumer information about school quality, teacher qualifications, and student performance vis-a-vis high standards of academic achievement.

“We must never again assume that the education system will respond to good advice,” declare the manifesto’s signatories. The ten reforms proposed above will not come from within the system itself; things “will change only when all parents gain the power to decide where their children go to school.”

Among the 39 signatories to the April 1998 manifesto are William J. Bennett, codirector of Empower America; Willard Fair of the Urban League of Greater Miami; Chester E. Finn Jr., president of The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation; author and professor E.D. Hirsch; Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute; and Heartland Institute chairman Herbert J. Walberg.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].