40 years later: Why K12 leaders must revisit “A Nation at Risk”

We cannot let the pressures of maintaining the status quo continue to prevail.

“Our Nation is at risk… Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purpose of schooling… All, regardless of race or class of economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual mind and spirit to the utmost… Individuals in our society who do not possess the level of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will effectively be disenfranchised, not… from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but… from the chance to participate fully in our national life.”

These words could have been written today, but in fact they were written 40 years ago by members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The commission was created in 1981 in response to the concerns raised by Secretary of Education Terrence Bell that there existed, “widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.”

While some of the issues identified in the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report have been addressed, many have not, and several new challenges have presented themselves. Forty years after the publication, there continues to be a public perception that “something is seriously remiss in our educational system.”

Why is it important to revisit this report? Today, the average age of public school superintendents in the United States is 48. Many of today’s school leaders were approximately eight years old, or in 2nd or 3rd grade, when “A Nation at Risk” was published. It is appropriate—indeed, urgent—to revisit the report and subsequent analysis of it so that those charged with leading our nation’s schools do not repeat the errors and missteps of the past 40 years.

‘A Nation at Risk’ (1983)

In 1983, after two years of research and study, the commission found that “the educational foundations of our country are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

It determined that the declines in educational performance could be traced to “disturbing inadequacies” in “four important aspects of the educational process: content, expectations, time, and teaching.” They concluded that there was a “dilution” of content, a relaxation of requirements to earn a diploma, and a deficiency in the amount of time students spend in classes—in terms of both hours and days—when compared to other countries. The teaching profession was not attracting the most academically able students, and a serious shortage of teachers existed in key fields. They offered several recommendations.

They recommended that minimum standards in each of the five core academic areas (which included computer science) be identified and required. The commission called for “more rigorous and measurable standards for academic performance and student conduct” and said instructional materials “should reflect the most current applications of technology.” They noted that “significantly more time be devoted to the Core Basics,” and recommended minimizing the administrative tasks required of teachers. Finally, they suggested that “promotion and graduation policies should be guided by the academic progress of students rather than by rigid adherence to age.”

Today we are continuing to debate and discuss many of these same challenges. While there has been progress in some areas, most of the recommendations made in 1983 have not yet been operationalized.

‘A Nation Still at Risk’ (1998)

In 1998, a group of highly regarded educators and researchers wrote a progress report titled “A Nation Still at Risk.” They found that many challenges identified in 1983 had yet to be addressed. They suggested that the economic boom of the late 1990’s had made the American people “indifferent” to poor educational achievement.

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They pointed to the large number of high school seniors who had yet to master reading or math. They found educational gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students at every level. They observed that many marginalized students were promoted without even learning how to read.

The writers proposed that, “…we are recreating a dual school system, separate and unequal….” and suggested that, “If we continue to sustain this chasm between the educational haves and have-nots, our nation will face cultural, moral and civic peril.”

They identified, “the resilience of the status quo and the strength of the interests wedded to it,” and pointed out that historically, “vast institutions… change only when they must, only when their survival depends on it.”

In 1998, the writers ended their report as follows: “The decisions we make about education are really decisions about what kind of country we want to be; the sort of society in which we want to raise our children; the future we want them to have; and even—and perhaps especially—about the content of their character and the architecture of their souls.”

A nation continues at risk (2023)

Today, our system of education continues to be at risk. Concerns identified in both reports are present in today’s educational systems and new challenges have been added. Today we see significant disparities in academic achievement between sub-groups of students. Those gaps have grown wider. Recent attention has been focused on the literacy gap and the fact that many low-income and minority students fail to demonstrate proficiency in reading.

Schools continue to struggle to attract and retain high-quality teachers. There are concerns about teacher shortages and the quality of teacher preparation programs. Veteran teachers are retiring, and many districts are being forced to staff classrooms with underqualified teachers.

Technology plays an increasingly important role in education. Disparities exist in access to technology between urban, suburban, and rural areas of the nation. Questions are being raised about the quality of online learning, the proper role of artificial intelligence in education, and the impact of technology on student learning and development.

An effective, sound, and thorough system of education, in which pedagogy is driven by scientific research and professional expertise about what works in producing desired student outcomes will move us towards meeting the challenges we face today and in the next 40 years. This will only be possible if we counter the pressure of those who seek to preserve the status quo. Educational change is not a zero-sum game. Leaders with vision, knowledge, passion, and energy, can prevail.

In conclusion, the authors of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 wrote:

“History is not kind to idlers… The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops. America’s position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer… we must not be content with anything less than the best for our children.”

For the sake of all children, we cannot afford to continue to be idlers. Our position in a shrinking and interdependent world is no longer guaranteed. We cannot let the pressures of maintaining the status quo continue to prevail. Sound and solid education for all children should be the target that we all aim for.

Charles V. Khoury
Charles V. Khouryhttps://www.ulsterboces.org/
Charles V. Khoury is the former district superintendent of Ulster BOCES. In addition to his role as chief executive officer, he was the New York State Education Commissioner’s representative in the field, the major liaison between local districts and the state education department, as well as the spokesperson for regional education issues. He can be reached at [email protected].

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