Thirty years ago, a Reagan administration report warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people." The report, "A Nation at Risk," tied that mediocrity to the alleged failure of America's schools.
Fast forward to 2012, and the story hasn't changed, former New York City schools chief Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in a report provided to The Huffington Post slated to be released Tuesday. "The sad fact is that the rising tide of mediocrity is not something that belongs in history books," said the report produced by a Council on Foreign Relations task force they co-chaired.
The report, called the U.S. Education Reform and National Security report, argues for treating education as a national-security issue, noting that deficiencies in areas like foreign languages hold back America's capacity to produce soldiers, diplomats and spies. It calls for increased standards, accountability and school choice -- charter schools and vouchers -- to increase America's international educational standing.
The report comes during a presidential primary season notably devoid of any specifics on education policy, a state of affairs Klein hopes to influence.
"Everyone should read this and say, why aren’t we talking about these issues in 2012?" Klein, now a News Corporation executive, said in an interview.
The report's language echoes that of "A Nation At Risk," making dramatic statements about the dire state of America's schools. "We took on this project because we believe that the crucial question for our generation is whether the American Dream becomes the American memory on our watch," Klein and Rice wrote in their introduction.
The report notes that 40 percent of African American and Latino students don't graduate high school on time, and points to the country's mediocre standing on international benchmarks and dismal performance on civics exams. The report also refers to the ACT's finding that only 22 percent of students graduated high school ready for college.
Jack Jennings, former director of the Center on Education Policy, saw the Reagan report's effect on public discourse and policy. "It, too, was alarmist," he said. "It was meant to stir people up and it ignored good facts, positive things about the schools. They're trying to find the worst things they can, and overstate the failure of American schools."
The report offers three solutions: expanding the Common Core, a uniform set of curricular standards, to include science, foreign languages and technology; an expansion of school choice that allows more students to enroll in voucher programs and charter schools; and a "national security readiness audit" that governors assemble as a uniform school performance benchmark.
As Jennings notes, the report's recommendations are already in play: The Common Core standards are being implemented in most states, charter schools are proliferating and the federal audit expands on the data collected under No Child Left Behind.
"But it's not happening at the level we're needing to happen," Klein said. "We've made some progress, but we need to do it in a much more accelerated way."
Jennings sees the focus as reductive. "They're blowing a real chance to address the problems in American education," Jennings said. While the report discusses funding inequity as a potential problem, for example, it doesn’t include any solutions.
According to Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University's College of Education, the report is selective in its use of data to bolster charter schools. "The selection of researchers they cite is misleading," he said. "They only select papers that show choice is working, when most reports say it's not."
Jennings also accused the commission of "cherry-picking data" to make its points. For example, when the report describes the success of the Washington, D.C. voucher program, Jennings said, it ignores research disparaging the program's effects. "It's Joel Klein beating the same old drums in a different forum."
The commission met a few times over the last year in New York and Washington, D.C., with experts such as Common Core author David Coleman and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
It included people with a variety of views including reformers who generally follow Klein's school of thought -- such as Teach For America's Wendy Kopp, the American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess and Stand for Children's Jonah Edelman -- and experts with a broader view such as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond.
Weingarten and Darling-Hammond both offered dissenting statements along with their endorsements. Weingarten wrote that "some elements of the report actually undermine" public schools, saying the report casts "public schools in the worst possible light while ignoring facts to the contrary." Weingarten also criticized the report for advancing policies that promote "current top-down, standardized test-driven accountability that has narrowed the curriculum."
In an interview, Weingarten noted that countries that are out-performing the U.S. didn't get there by following the commission's school-choice recommendations. "An opt-out structure didn't happen in the other places since Nation at Risk came out that have moved beyond us," she said.
Weingarten added that the commission only met for three sessions. "A lot of what's in the report was not discussed in sessions."
UPDATE 3/19 5:45 p.m.: This piece was updated to reflect an interview with Weingarten.