The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A Nation at Risk’ demanded education reform 35 years ago. Here’s how it’s been bungled ever since.


In April 1983, a commission convened by then President Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, Terrel H. Bell, released a landmark report about the nation’s public education system, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” It famously warned:

Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world….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.

The authors of the report used statistics to draw a troubled portrait of the country’s public education system. For example, it said:

  • International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.
  • Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.
  • About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.

The report included a long list of recommendations to improve public schools,  including the adoption of rigorous standards, state and local tests to measure achievement, stronger graduation standards, sufficient financial resources, and  curriculum changes to give students a solid grounding in basic subjects as well as art and computer science.

Is there really a link between test scores and America’s economic future?

While some of the statistics used in “A Nation at Risk” (full text below) were flawed and the link between public schools and the health of the U.S. economy is unclear, the report sparked waves of reform at the federal, state and local levels.

So where has all that reform taken us today, 35 years later?

Here’s a post that explains, written by James Harvey and David Berliner. Harvey is executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable, and was a senior staff member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education who contributed to “A Nation at Risk.”  Berliner, an educational psychologist, is Regents’ Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University,  a former president of the American Educational Research Association and co-author of “The Manufactured Crisis.”

By James Harvey and David Berliner

Thirty-five years ago today, April 26, 1983, members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education walked into the White House with a report for President Ronald Reagan, “A Nation at Risk.”  Since then, politicians and business leaders have mishandled what should have been an historic opportunity to leave no child behind.

The bumbling began immediately.  Reagan startled the commission members by hailing their call for prayer in the schools, school vouchers, and the abolition of the Department of Education.  The commission hadn’t said a word about any of these things.

Indeed, the commission had been launched by then Secretary of Education Terrell Bell to fend off the president’s 1980 campaign proposal to abolish the department.  In its report, it laid out a strong argument in favor of a vigorous federal presence in education to support vulnerable students, aid higher education and research, and protect civil rights. These suggestions were quickly relegated to the dust bin of history.

The mishandling continued under Bell’s successor, William Bennett, who proposed what he called the “three C’s” of content, character and choice.  To push the “three C’s,” Bennett promoted tuition tax credits for parents sending children to private schools and he advocated turning existing Federal education programs into vouchers.

The bumbling seemed to reach its nadir in the 1990s, when vicious partisan clashes between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill torpedoed the “America 2000” program of the first President Bush before savaging Bill Clinton over his Goals 2000 legislation. Still to come was the effort to weaponize testing in an assault on public schools. This arrived first in the misguided No Child Left Behind legislation of the second President Bush, to be followed by the equally misguided Race to the Top of President Obama.

Even these efforts did not hit bottom. President Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, seems opposed to the very values and mission of the agency she leads and has once again served up Bennett’s discredited tax credit and voucher programs, while pulling the rug out from under her own department’s civil rights enforcement efforts.

A Shock and Awe Assessment Campaign

Although there is powerful evidence of significant improvement in American schools since 1971, as Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s first secretary of education, recently noted, “A Nation at Risk” itself ignored that evidence in favor of launching what turned into a “shock and awe” campaign that promoted a consistent narrative of school failure.

Part of the shock and awe campaign used the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  With the encouragement of Secretary Bennett and his allies, this excellent assessment was diverted from its original purpose of measuring what students at various grade levels actually know to a new goal: judging what students at various grade levels should know.

Adding to the confusion, NAEP’s governing body, the National Assessment Governing Board, adopted three vague terms to define performance benchmarks: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Almost nobody understands what these terms mean. Analysts, journalists, and state officials use the term “proficient” as the barometer of success despite the fact that the government has consistently maintained that what most people would consider to be proficient performance would not meet NAEP’s definition of proficiency.

So we are told every few years that only about a third of our students are “proficient” in reading or mathematics under NAEP’s benchmarks as though that were information of great value. Yet it is clear from recent research published by the National Superintendents Roundtable and the Horace Mann League (“How High the Bar?”) that the vast majority of students in most nations cannot clear the NAEP bar of “proficiency.”

Indeed, government officials acknowledge that to understand how many students in the United States are performing at grade level, the appropriate benchmark to examine is “basic,” not “proficient.

What to Do?

Nobody should think for a minute that there aren’t very real problems with learning in America.  There’s a lot to be done.  But we’re not going to solve our school problems by exaggerating them or by misleading the public about school quality.

It is simply not true that American schools are failing 60 percent or more of their students, as NAEP’s proficient benchmark suggests. NAEP’s data indicate that nearly 70 percent of fourth graders are performing on grade level in reading, with 80 percent performing on grade level in mathematics. For 8th graders, the rates are 76 and 70 percent, respectively. While it would be gratifying to see higher numbers, these results are a much better guide to action than the deceptive picture of failure painted by the misleading term “proficient.”

“How High the Bar?” recommends that NAEP adopt benchmarks used by international education assessments, such as low, intermediate, high, and advanced. These terms provide a much more neutral and accurate take on student achievement.

It’s time also that we put an end to educational policy-making grounded in testing and tax cuts. As the recent wave of statewide protests across the nation indicates, educators are tired of standing by, their dignity under assault while their incomes stagnate and books and buildings fall apart.

Of course we should build more flexibility into the system, along with more variety and greater responsiveness to student and parent preferences.

Finally, we should go back to some of the advice the excellence commission received during its hearings but tossed aside in developing its report.  Oddly, President George H.W. Bush adopted some of these ideas in his “America 2000” program. Make sure all infants have a decent start in life so that they’re “ready” when school begins.  Worry about the 80 percent of their waking hours that students spend outside the school walls.  Provide adequate health care for children and a living wage for working parents, along with affordable day-care.

We can’t afford these things? Nonsense!  The United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. It can certainly provide its citizens with the basics that other nations provide to theirs.

The point is that learning takes place in a lot of places besides schools – and a genuine reform strategy would worry about them all.

America is the land of second chances. The United States has taken a lot of people who looked like losers in Act I of their lives and turned them into winners by Act III.  In this great drama, schools aren’t just part of the scenery. They’re the essential story line.  We still have time to make sure the American school story has a happy ending.

Here’s the report: