Excerpts from the text of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's open letter to the American people, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform."
Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.
This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that, while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, 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.
What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.
This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the nation's commitment to schools and colleges of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land . . . . 'Inadequacies'
We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted:
Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses. Students have migrated from vocational and college preparatory programs to "general track" courses in large numbers . . . .
Twenty-five percent of the credits earned by general track high school students are in physical and health education, work experience outside the school, remedial English and mathematics, and personal service and development courses, such as training for adulthood and marriage . . . .
The amount of homework for high school seniors has decreased (two-thirds report less than one hour a night) and grades have risen as average student achievement has been declining.
In many other industrialized nations, courses in mathematics (other than arithmetic or general mathematics), biology, chemistry, physics and geography start in grade 6 and are required of all students. The time spent on these subjects, based on class hours, is about three times that spent by even the most science-oriented U.S. students . . . .
A 1980 survey reveals that only eight states require high schools to offer foreign language instruction; none requires students to take the courses. Thirty-five states require only one year of mathematics, and 36 require only one year of science for a diploma . . . .
Expenditures for textbooks and other instructional materials have declined by 50 percent over the past 17 years.
In England and other industrialized countries, it is not unusual for academic high school students to spend eight hours a day at school, 220 days per year. In the United States, by contrast, the typical school day lasts six hours and the school year is 180 days.
Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students. The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in "educational methods" at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught . . . .
The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment . . . .
Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority and handicapped students.
Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U.S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers . . . . Recommendations
We recommend that state and local high school graduation requirements be strengthened and that, at a minimum, all students seeking a diploma be required to lay the foundations in the five new basics by taking the following curriculum during their four years of high school: (a) four years of English; (b) three years of mathematics; (c) three years of science; (d) three years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science. For the college bound, two years of foreign language in high school are strongly recommended in addition to those taken earlier . . . .
We recommend that schools, colleges and universities adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct, and that four-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission . . . .
Standardized tests of achievement (not to be confused with aptitude tests) should be administered at major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college to work. The purpose of these tests would be to: (a) certify the student's credentials; (b) identify the need for remedial intervention; and (c) identify the opportunity for advanced or accelerated work. The tests should be administered as part of a nationwide (but not federal) system of state and local standardized tests.
We recommend that significantly more time be devoted to learning the new basics. This will require more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year . . . . School districts and state legislatures should strongly consider 7-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year . . . .
Students in high schools should be assigned far more homework that is now the case . . . . Instruction in effective study and work skills should be introduced in the early grades and continued throughout the student's schooling . . . .
Persons preparing to teach should be required to meet high educational standards, to demonstrate an aptitude for teaching and to demonstrate competence in an academic discipline . . . .
Salaries for the teaching profession should be increased and should be professionally competitive, market-sentitive and performance-based. Salary, promotion, tenure and retention decisions should be tied to an effective evaluation system that includes peer review so that superior teachers can be rewarded, average ones encouraged and poor ones either improved or terminated.
School boards should adopt an 11-month contract for teachers. This would ensure time for curriculum and professional development, programs for students with special needs and a more adequate level of teacher compensation.
School boards, administrators and teachers should cooperate to develop career ladders for teachers that distinguish among the beginning instructor, the experienced teacher and the master teacher.
Substantial nonschool personnel resources should be employed to help solve the immediate problem of the shortage of mathematics and science teachers. Qualified individuals, including recent graduates with mathematics and science degrees, graduate students and industrial and retired scientists, could, with appropriate preparation, immediately begin teaching in these fields . . . .
Incentives, such as grants and loans, should be made available to attract outstanding students to the teaching profession, particularly in those areas of critical shortage . . . .
The federal government, in cooperation with states and localities, should help meet the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socio-economically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students and the handicapped . . . .
The federal government's role includes several functions of national consequence that states and localities alone are unlikely to be able to meet: protecting constitutional and civil rights for students and school personnel; collecting data, statistics, and information about education generally; supporting curriculum improvement and research on teaching, learning and the management of schools; supporting teacher training in areas of critical shortage or key national needs, and providing student financial assistance and research and graduate training.
The federal government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education. It should also help fund and support efforts to protect and promote that interest. It must provide the national leadership to ensure that the nation's public and private resources are marshaled to address the issues discussed in this report.
This commission calls upon educators, parents and public officials at all levels to assist in bringing about the educational reform proposed in this report. We also call upon citizens to provide the financial support necessary to accomplish these purposes. Excellence costs. But in the long run mediocrity costs far more . . . .