Think Tanks Mark Anniversary of ‘A Nation at Risk’ Report

Published June 1, 2008

April marked the 25th anniversary of the release of the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” which highlighted widespread problems in American education.

The report is seen as having been a catalyst for the standards-based and school choice education reform movements. Washington think tanks marked the anniversary by revisiting the report and considering its current relevance.

The Cato Institute hosted a forum comparing the merits of standards and accountability versus market-based reforms. Sol Stern, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, spoke in favor of standards and accountability, pointing to the achievements they have yielded in Massachusetts and Virginia.

“I urge everyone in the school choice movement,” Stern said, “to come in off the sidelines, support school choice, but also support situations in which significant improvement can be achieved by instructional and curriculum reform.”

Debating Mandates

Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, argued market-based reforms are the key to ensuring quality standards.

“Just because standards are a good idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good idea for government to mandate them and require them,” Coulson said. He believes only choice and competition can lead to lasting improvement and innovation in instruction methods and standards.

He pointed to private-sector standards as such innovations.

“There is a plethora of education standards that I have high regard for,” Coulson said, citing International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, and ACT and SAT tests. “And they all have something in common–they were developed by the private sector and pursued voluntarily.”

Considering Reagan

The Heritage Foundation marked the anniversary by hosting a panel to look back at President Ronald Reagan’s opinion of “A Nation at Risk” and his views on education. Longtime Reagan senior advisor and former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese recalled Reagan believed in limiting federal involvement and returning control to states, cities, and parents.

To apply Reagan’s vision for education today, Meese argued, policymakers must “decrease the role of Washington in education, with its burdens, with its requirements, and with its bureaucratic red tape.”

He also suggested following Reagan’s lead in calling attention to the education crisis.

“We do have a national problem of education,” Meese said. But we must “recognize that the solution belongs at the state and local level and with the active involvement of parents to take responsibility for the education of their children.”

Choice Increasing

U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) said American education needs more flexibility and innovation.

“We need our education system to have the flexibility at the community and the individual level to meet the needs of students. We see signs of this happening,” DeMint said, pointing to innovations spurred by charter schools and online learning.

DeMint currently is co-sponsoring the A-PLUS Act, legislation that would allow states greater flexibility within the regulations of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. His bill would allow states to determine how best to use federal funds for education as long as they comply with basic requirements such as maintaining state-level testing.

“We see bubbling up everywhere some flexibility and some choices,” DeMint said. “We need to fan the flames there. One of the ways we can do that is with more flexibility at the state level.”

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.