American Education: 35 Years of Mediocrity Since A Nation at Risk

Our school systems fail to prepare children to succeed as adults and are ineffective for the goal of deep and rich learning. It’s time to change that.

It’s been 35 years. With the passage of that much time, and the human promise that it carried, the problems and deficiencies identified in 1983’s clarion call for action should have been corrected.

The call came from the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) in its report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. That report and its findings demonstrated the inextricable link between education and America’s economic competitiveness and national security. We were losing our edge, and our shirt, to other countries. In a growing global economy we were losing to such friends as Japan and Germany; and in the midst of the lingering Cold War we were losing as well to our fiercest competitors, namely Russia and China, which had made education, particularly in math and the sciences, national priorities.

At home, it was a different story. There was no special focus on education. We thought our schools were great. But the NCEE, a broad, bipartisan commission, had contracted with researchers, held hundreds of meetings and dozens of hearings, and assembled data about the progress of other countries relative to the U.S. And the data revealed otherwise.

There was “a rising tide of mediocrity,” A Nation at Risk told us, with educational content that “was a mile wide and an inch deep.” The report revealed, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an education system plagued by “low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources, and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the boundaries of individual ability.”

The report sparked a national outcry. President Reagan made more than 50 trips around the country to get Americans’ attention. Never had a president devoted so much time, energy, and political capital to education — which, it has become clear, is an issue on which all else rests.

The most recent scores on reading, math, and writing are dismal.

Since then the nation has devoted a great deal of attention to getting education right. To little avail.

The time to change that is now. The results of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) give us ample reason to refocus our attention and redouble efforts to make education work for all learners at all levels. NAEP, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” is the gold standard of assessments. It measures students on all the core subjects — not in comparison with other students, like many tests, but in comparison with what students should know and be able to do.

The most recent scores on reading, math, and writing, released this month, are dismal. Fewer than half of students are rated “proficient” in each of these subjects. The only significant change since 2015 is a one-point increase in eighth-grade reading. Otherwise we look a lot like we did in 2011.


Back in 1983, the National Commission found that our teachers were lacking the necessary qualifications to ensure expert teaching, particularly in math and science, and that across all subjects rigor was lacking. The commission recommended that districts institute eleven-month contracts to give teachers more time to prepare for each new year and to allow time for more professional development. They recognized that this would require an increase in teacher salaries. They also suggested recruiting from other fields — non-educators with degrees in science and math, especially those who had been in the workplace and knew what students’ future needs would be. And they believed that providing a ladder for success would attract and motivate more people to go into teaching.

Some of these recommendations would be taken up over time, and some, like the eleven-month contract, would not. But the ideas debated in that era spurred the creation of new and diverse educational opportunities for the students most in need, and spawned the modern-day charter-school movement.

Some cities and states with robust reform efforts have shown remarkable increases in achievement among the disadvantaged and students of color. Researchers studying state NAEP data have reported substantial improvements in student performance in states that provide more opportunities for students to find the schools that best meet their needs, have high academic standards, and work hard to attract diverse professionals to the teaching ranks across all school sectors.

So it was no surprise that the winner in the Report Card this year was Florida. While most states had no significant results, the state of Florida and two of its biggest districts — Miami and Duval — had unprecedented gains. Significant gains were made across the board, by low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities.

We must demand education opportunities for all students and access to new innovations in teaching and learning for all educators.

That’s because, starting in 1999 and consistently since, Florida adopted measures that held schools, students, and communities accountable for results. Schools improved, threatened by the prospect of losing funds. Over time, the Sunshine State adopted an expansive array of opportunities for students, including public charter schools, private scholarships and tax credits, innovations in online learning, early-college programs, and more.

Last year, Florida led all states on the Parent Power Index — compiled by my organization, the Center for Education Reform — which measures how much power states give to parents to make significant decisions in the educational futures of their kids.

Florida is not the only state that has improved education for kids by adopting bold innovations. Places like Massachusetts, Indiana, Arizona, and Washington, D.C., have made impressive gains in recent years on a myriad of measures including past NAEP assessments.

In these states the economic landscape is also improving, attracting more families and sending school-enrollment trends upward — another indication of how much economic prosperity and education go hand in hand. But small victories are not enough. We must do more. We must demand education opportunities for all students and access to new innovations in teaching and learning for all educators.


There is a larger picture here that we shouldn’t lose sight of: Education defines us as a nation, past, present, and future.

“Broad educational opportunity not only secured our role as the pathbreaker to progress. It also protected and strengthened our freedom. We were wise enough to heed Thomas Jefferson’s warning that ‘any nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be.’” Those are Ronald Reagan’s words from 35 years ago when he also challenged America’s students, saying:

Your generation is coming of age in one of the most challenging and exciting times in our history. High technology is revolutionizing our industries, renewing our economy, and promising new hope and opportunity in the years ahead. Make sure you get the training and skills you need to take advantage of [these] new opportunities. . . . Get a good education. That’s the key to success. It will open your mind and give wings to your spirit.

The students he spoke to then are now middle-aged. Those who had access to a quality education were able to heed that advice. But far too many didn’t have that access and have been left to struggle economically.

We saddle teens with a school system that still looks like it did not just 35 years ago, but 135 years ago.

NAEP shows us the necessity of “giving wings to the spirit” of learning from kindergarten through all manner of higher learning. Our economy, society, and polity are increasingly at risk from an educational system that does not consistently prepare all children to succeed as adults and is least effective for the goal of deep and rich learning.

The schools available to most students today were designed in a different era and structured for a different society. Teens understand time, technology, and how to get what they want and need. But we saddle them with a school system that still looks like it did not just 35 years ago, but 135 years ago. The NAEP results show us what happens when schools measure students’ progress by the time they’ve logged in a classroom and not by the mastery they have achieved.

The first Reagan Institute Summit on Education convenes this Thursday to commemorate the work of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Dozens of current and former elected officials from all levels of government will convene to discuss a new path forward. Will they be bold and unyielding in their demand for change? Today’s sobering results should compel them to.


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