America’s Old K-12 Model Keeps Us ‘A Nation At Risk’

Published May 12, 2010

Twenty-seven years have passed since A Nation at Risk, a seminal report on the state of education in America, famously concluded, “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 cautioned the nation’s “once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world” as a result of faltering public schools and the failure to prepare children to compete in an increasingly global economy.

Unlike most studies of this sort, A Nation at Risk was not quickly retired to collect dust on a shelf in the Library of Congress. Policymakers and educators took note and took action.

But it wasn’t enough. Reformers never embraced the structural changes A Nation at Risk urged. Nor did policymakers incorporate an “outcomes-focused” model of evaluation. Instead the report was used as a cudgel by teachers’ unions and complicit politicians to beat more money out of taxpayers while detouring the debate about performance down the dead-end road of an inputs-focused orthodoxy.

Phony ‘Reforms’

The results of all that additional money? A study by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center in 2008 found 18 of America’s 50 most populous cities had high school graduation rates below 50 percent. Detroit was the worst of the worst, with a high school graduation rate below 25 percent.

These troubling results accompany substantial progress in “reforms” advocated by the teachers’ unions, such as reducing class size and increasing spending.

According to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the teacher-student ratio dropped nationally by nearly 12 percent between 1986 and 2006. ALEC also found per pupil expenditures nationally increased by a whopping 90 percent in real terms in the 25 years since A Nation at Risk.

So if the necessary reforms have nothing to do with more money or smaller class sizes, where should we be looking?

Shorter Weeks, Longer Days?

Despite the dramatic increases in resources, school districts across the country are cash-strapped and languishing financially under the weight of pension obligations and unfunded mandates.

A handful of districts spread across 17 different states have perhaps unintentionally sparked a discussion about classroom instruction time by going to a four-day school week to reduce administrative overhead and transportation costs.

Some might argue the shorter school week hurts children’s educations, even if the school day is extended to maintain the same hours of instruction time. But as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “Research gauging the impact of a four-day school week on student learning is scant. Officials in various states claim that comparisons and conclusions are difficult to make.”

But the debate over four days versus five misses a much bigger issue.

Millions More Minutes Needed

A Nation at Risk argued American students were not spending enough time in the classroom. The report recommended extending the length of the school year to as much as 220 days. Today, the average school year in the United States is just 180 days. The school year in India 220 days. In China, it’s 250 days. And the school day is longer in both of those countries, too.

In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, a Harvard-educated venture capitalist named Robert Compton produced a documentary called Two Million Minutes. The film tracks how six students (three boys and three girls) in Indianapolis, Shanghai, and Bangalore spent the “two million minutes” from their 8th grade graduation to their high school graduation.

Although the experiences of these six students are obviously anecdotal, tracking their development highlighted key differences between the three countries.

First, there is less equality of opportunity in India and China, where attention is paid predominantly to the best students and their development. Second, Chinese and Indian students spend more of their “two million minutes” in a classroom than do their American counterparts. Third, despite spending more time in class, Chinese and Indian students are not academic automatons. They participate in extracurricular activities, but those activities tend to be less focused on athletics.

The starkest difference Compton presents in the film is between the relative ease with which the high-achieving American students breezed through their coursework, compared with the struggles the high-achieving Chinese and Indian students had with their curricula.

Quality Counts, Too

Obviously, extending the school year or adding more time to the school day won’t make much difference if the curriculum is feebleminded or the instruction is lax. Currently, less than 40 percent of U.S. students take a science course more challenging than general biology, and only 18 percent take Advanced Placement classes in physics, chemistry, or biology. Only 45 percent of U.S. students take math coursework beyond two years of algebra and one year of geometry.

This helps explain some other significant data: Compared to the United States, China now produces eight times more scientists and engineers, while India puts out up to three times as many as the United States (adjusted for population).

The outputs from these competing countries suggest that the quality of curriculum combined with the time spent in class working to master it might be where more of America’s resources and attention should go. Otherwise, we will remain a nation very much at risk.

Dan Proft ([email protected]) is a host and featured political commentator on WLS radio in Chicago.