30 Years On, Educators Still Divided On Scathing Schools Report

Play associated audio

Thirty years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan's administration released "A Nation at Risk," a report warning of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in American public education.

According to the report, only one-third of 17-year-olds in 1983 could solve a math problem requiring two steps or more, and 4 out of 10 teenagers couldn't draw inferences from written material. In an address to the nation, Reagan warned that "about 13 percent of 17-year-olds are functional illiterates and, among minority youth, the rate is closer to 40 percent."

Chester Finn, who would later become an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, says the commission that authored the report was right to denounce what high schools were teaching. Kids had too many options — courses like "bachelor living," for example — while schools failed to emphasize the basics.

"A Nation at Risk" recommended that each high school require four years of English, three years each of math, science and social studies, and at least two years of a foreign language for college-bound students.

And while many educators thought the report was unnecessarily alarmist, governors did not. Bob Wise, a congressman from West Virginia in 1983 who later became governor, says the report came along "at a time when we were facing real global competition," he says. "We were seeing factories being shuttered. People were beginning to wake up to the fact that the world was changing around us. I did not think it was alarmist then. I don't think it's alarmist now."

But Ron Wolk, who had just started the publication Education Week, says the report had a fatal flaw: It pretty much ignored the plight of poor, minority kids. "It kind of viewed the students of America as middle-class white kids who would really do well if they just tried harder and if we raised standards ... There was no recognition that there was a terrible inequity out there," he says.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University, was a researcher with the RAND Corp. in 1983. She says the report, instead of rallying the nation around quality and equity, singled out schools and teachers for blame. "We have overly criticized our schools," she says, "and 'A Nation at Risk' began that pattern."

Not long after, says Wolk, the debate over school reform became increasingly politicized, with "conservative Republicans then pushing for vouchers and things that Democrats considered to be the privatization of public education. That argument is still going on."

Still, very few people dispute that schools today are better overall than they were in 1983. They're just not good enough, says Ted Kolderie, considered by many as the "godfather" of the charter school movement. Kolderie says there's been very little innovation in schools since "A Nation at Risk."

"If we keep on doing what we've been doing," he says, "we are never going to get there."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Christopher Marlowe Credited As Shakespeare's Co-Author On Henry VI Plays

True authorship of Shakespeare has been debated for centuries. Now, the New Oxford Shakespeare edition will list Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe as co-author on the three Henry VI plays, part one, two and three. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Florida State University professor Gary Taylor, one of the general editors of the new volume.

2,500 Years Ago, This Brew Was Buried With The Dead; A Brewery Has Revived It

In an ancient burial plot in what is now Germany, scientists uncovered a cauldron with remnants of an alcoholic beverage. They teamed up with a Milwaukee brewery to re-create the recipe.
WAMU 88.5

Do Hyper-Local Term Limits Work?

Montgomery County residents are voting this fall on term limits for their local council representatives. Are they picking up on lessons learned from Prince George's County?

WAMU 88.5

AT&T’s Proposed Acquisition Of Time Warner

AT&T’s bid to acquire Time Warner: Join us to talk about what the proposed merger of the country’s second-largest wireless carrier and a major content company could mean for consumers and the future of U-S media and telecommunications.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.