A Nation at Risk

It has been 25 years since the landmark study A Nation at Risk. The students described in the study would be in their 30’s and 40’s now — in fact, I am a member of that “at-risk” generation of students. My own take on this study 25 years later is that it’s somewhat alarmist. As a member of that generation, I believe we have held our own in the world fairly well. However, when my local newspaper’s education blog asked whether schools are better or worse than they were 25 years ago, I admit I feel that schools are just about the same. Not substantially better or worse. That’s not really progress.

A Nation at Risk made various recommendations (quoted below). Which recommendations have your schools implemented?

  1. Content: State and local high school graduation requirements [should] be strengthened and that, at a minimum, all students seeking a diploma [should] be required to lay the foundations in the Five New Basics by taking the following curriculum during their 4 years of high school: (a) 4 years of English; (b) 3 years of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science. For the college-bound, 2 years of foreign language in high school are strongly recommended in addition to those taken earlier.
  2. Standards and Expectations: Schools, colleges, and universities [should] adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct, and that 4-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission. This will help students do their best educationally with challenging materials in an environment that supports learning and authentic accomplishment.
  3. Time: Significantly more time [should] 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.
  4. Teaching: (paraphrased, but read it all!) Teachers’ salaries should be “professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based.” Teachers must be “required to meet high educational standards, to demonstrate an aptitude for teaching, and to demonstrate competence in an academic discipline.”
  5. Leadership and Fiscal Support: Citizens across the Nation [should] hold educators and elected officials responsible for providing the leadership necessary to achieve these reforms, and … citizens provide the fiscal support and stability required to bring about the reforms we propose.

Georgia met the recommendations in content with the exception of computer science back when I graduated in 1990. Now Georgia’s requirements exceed the recommendations: students entering ninth grade next year will be required to take more math and science. In fact, I would imagine one half of a year of any type of computer course with no practice or reinforcement at all in any other course would be inadequate today. Interestingly, Georgia is now moving toward college preparatory requirements for all students. For example, all students will be required to meet the same content requirements.

Among recommended steps for implementing higher standards and expectations, standardized tests are mentioned—along with other “other diagnostic procedures that assist teachers and students to evaluate student progress.” Wow, standardized testing totally took care of all of our concerns about student achievement didn’t it? Sarcasm aside, while I see the need for teachers and students to be accountable for learning, we have created an environment in which teachers teach to the test, and students focus on grades instead of learning. I can remember the beginning of standardized testing. It seemed that the further I went in school, the more often we did it until today we test our students constantly, but don’t assess them often enough in any real-word application way. And clearly the report recommends going beyond standardized tests to gauge student understanding. So, why didn’t we do (and why aren’t we doing) more of that?

The school day is seven hours or longer everywhere I’ve worked, but I have yet to encounter a school year longer than about 180 days. I believe Georgia public school teachers are contracted for 190 days—180 teaching days and 10 professional development/planning days.

Teachers’ salaries remain fairly low when compared to those of other professionals. For the most part, they are not based on performance, but on years of experience, so there is little incentive to develop professionally. In addition, teachers are still teaching out of field too much of the time, particularly in the critical middle grades. To attain initial certification in Georgia, I had to take a test—the Teacher Candidate Test (TCT), which has since been replaced twice by other tests—the Praxis and the Georgia Assessments for the Certification of Educators (GACE). In addition to the test, I had to take a certain number and type of education courses. To be honest, I can’t remember anymore which were required in general and which were just required because of my major in English Education. Every five years, as my certificate comes up for renewal, I must provide evidence I have taken coursework amounting to 10 professional learning units or staff development units. This coursework doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with my subject area, and may have little to no relevance to professional growth at all. I suppose educational systems should get points for trying with professional development, but they’re not doing much to attract, keep, and train effective teachers. In fact, we have done very little to implement the seven recommendations made in the study—could it be that the group of people most shortchanged in the wake of A Nation of Risk are the teachers themselves?

As to the last, perhaps with NCLB, we have gone overboard. I do think the government should help fund schools because I don’t think they could fund themselves alone, and I agree with the report that the needs of certain student populations (and their civil rights) could not be met by local school boards alone . Also, I think more is done today to protect students with special needs or lower socioeconomic status and help ensure them a better shot at a good education. My two younger children are in special needs classes (one self-contained, one resource), and special education has come a very long way in the last 25 years, mostly through better education of both the teachers and the public and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Where do you think we need to go from here? What do you think would improve schools? How do you feel about our progress since A Nation at Risk?

Update, 4/23: Education Week plans to do a year-long series on the study—A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later.

One thought on “A Nation at Risk”

  1. "improve schools?"

    If our medical schools were run by voodoo witch doctors, what kind of medical care do you think you'd be receiving? Do you think you'd get better care by pining for "better" doctors if they've all been educated by the same voodoo practitioners?

    This is the state of our education schools. People off the street have more common sense about education than the educational philosophers in our educational schools. Case in point: I grew up in an era when calculators were just beginning to appear on the market, and they were very expensive and did next to nothing. My parents and their friends — people with no college degrees — began to worry that if calculators were to appear in elementary schools the kids would grow up with lousy math skills. They were absolutely right. I see these mathematical cripples every day. Many of them are honor students. So who was, and still is, in favor calculator usage from kindergarten on up? "Experts in education", of course.

    When you go for a job interview all they're primarily interested in is your baby-sitting skills.

    If you're working, and you do a "lesson" that is little more than arts and crafts appropriate for first graders, you'll get a thumbs up for "engaging" everyone. (Of course they're engaged, it's easy, mindless, work)

    If you teach something serious and challenging, and some kids aren't interested (of course, it's not easy, mindless, work), then you'll be severely criticized.

    Then you get the blame for dumbed-down teaching.

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