The Lesson of 20 Wasted Years

Published April 1, 2003

When the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk in 1983, millions of Americans were shocked to discover they were in the grips of a national crisis because of the poor performance of their public education system.

Now, in 2003, the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education has produced a follow-up report with a more shocking message than the first: After 20 years of reforms requiring vastly increased expenditures and effort, the performance of the U.S. public education system remains virtually unchanged.

“In the years since A Nation at Risk, the incremental changes that passed for reform have not improved school performance or student achievement,” concludes the Task Force in a new book edited by Paul E. Peterson, Our Schools and Our Future … Are We Still at Risk? (Hoover Institution Press, 2003, 378 pages, $15.00 paperback, $25.00 cloth).

The human toll of 20 wasted years is staggering. According to the Task Force, about 80 million first graders “have walked into schools where they have scant chance of learning much more than the youngsters whose plight troubled the Excellence Commission in 1983.”

Since 1983, reform efforts have concentrated on adding more resources, more services, and more regulations to schools. But adding resources and trusting the system to change itself “doesn’t work,” the Task Force reports, because “powerful forces of inertia” underlie the public education establishment. These include the two major teacher unions, school administrators, colleges of education, state education bureaucracies, and school boards.

In a unanimous set of recommendations, the 11 members of the Task Force conclude the lesson of the past 20 years is that “fundamental changes are needed in the incentive structures and power relationships of schooling itself. Those changes are anchored to three core principles: accountability, choice, and transparency.”

Accountability means everyone in the education system knows what they must produce in terms of results and how they will be measured, and what will be the consequences of producing or not producing those results.

Choice means “parental decisions rather than bureaucratic regulation should drive the education enterprise.” Parents should be free to select from a wide range of educational options for their children.

Transparency means those who seek complete information on how a school or school system is performing relative to other schools should be able to get it easily.

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