A common take on “A Nation at Risk,” the government report on education issued 35 years ago, is that it had its flaws but at least it provided much-needed attention to America’s schools. But it sure didn’t look that way from the trenches, said Ray Golarz, a long-time Indiana school administrator.
“The end result of ‘A Nation at Risk’ was that teachers, administrators and schools were seen as the enemy,” he said. “Now tell me that was a good result. I don’t think so.”
The 1983 report, by a commission created by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, claimed the United States was falling behind foreign economic competitors for the first time since World War II and laid the blame on the nation’s substandard educational system.
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” read one of its best-known lines, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”
The report called for higher academic standards; more time on task for students; higher pay and better preparation for teachers; and a more rigorous curriculum focused on the “new basics” of math, English, science, social studies and computer science. States responded. Indiana adopted its A-Plus education program – a longer school year, increased funding and the introduction of test-based school accountability – four years later. And the narrative of America’s “failing” schools has become a staple of policy debates, used to justify all sorts of reforms.
Golarz was an assistant superintendent in the Hammond, Indiana, schools when “A Nation at Risk” came out and later served as superintendent in Richmond, Indiana. He said the most significant change made by the report was to frame education as an issue of American economic competitiveness. At the time, he said, U.S. manufacturers were losing out to the Japanese and Germans. Rather than take responsibility for bad business decisions, they made schools a scapegoat.
“It wasn’t ‘A Nation at Risk’ that was the problem,” Golarz said. “It was moving public schools away from their original goal of preparing citizens for a democracy to preparing the workforce for the business and industrial community.”
President Ronald Reagan had vowed to eliminate the Department of Education and get the federal government out of the education business. “A Nation at Risk,” by creating a sense that education was a national security crisis, made that impossible.
But the report wasn’t an objective evaluation of America’s schools. As Anya Kamenetz of NPR reported recently, its authors were sure the education system needed change and set out to create a report that justified what they thought. Remarkably, they cited falling SAT scores as evidence of decline – at a time when many more college-bound students were taking the test, leading to lower average scores.
The authors “were hell-bent on proving that schools were bad,” Lynn University professor James Guthrie told Kamenetz. “They cooked the books to get what they wanted.”
A 1990 report produced by the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratories broke down the flaws in the “A Nation at Risk” analysis but got little attention.
“It was great stuff,” Golarz said. “I remember, when it came out, thinking, ‘Finally, somebody’s unraveled this damn thing and showed all the flaws.’ But nobody read it.”
Instead the storyline created by “A Nation at Risk” prevailed and lived on. You can draw a straight line from the report to the standards-based accountability of the 1990s, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the Common Core State Standards and the mania for charter schools and private-school vouchers.
And the idea that the education system exists to churn out skilled employees for business and industry – that schools are to blame for a “skills gap” that makes it hard for employers to find qualified workers — has become almost an article of faith for many politicians.
“The war goes on,” Golarz said.