THE BLOG
02/14/2013 12:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2013

The State of the Union: A Nation at Risk

In light of this week's State of the Union and a renewed focus on how to fix our educational deficiencies, it's time for us all to engage in a little history lesson. This spring will mark 30 years since "A Nation at Risk" was issued.

And yet, how many have even heard of the report these days -- a report which, while drawing the ire of many in the education establishment, was factual, clear, well-regarded by a majority of diverse lawmakers, and is still relevant today?

I was not even a year out of college when the report was issued, an inexperienced, junior staffer on Capitol Hill. It was uncanny how much I could relate to the report's assessment of education. I'd grown up in a beautiful, middle class, homogeneous neighborhood with brand-spanking-new schools, lots of local control, in a community with involved and mostly educated parents and great teachers. I earned mostly A's and had been led to believe I'd gotten an excellent education. Then I went to college and was met by the cold reality that my education wasn't so great after all. It had been shallow on many levels and lacked rigor. I had been ill prepared for higher education.

There I was sitting at the seat of political power in the U.S., reading a report that might as well have been talking about me. Among its many conclusions:

Secondary-school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses. Students have migrated from vocational and college preparatory programs to 'general track' courses in large numbers. The proportion of students taking a general program of study has increased from 12 percent in 1964 to 42 percent in 1979. This curricular smorgasbord, combined with extensive student choice, explains a great deal about where we find ourselves today.

I realized I had been stuffing myself at the education smorgasbord in high school, able to take "Golden Twenties" in place of "U.S. History," photography instead of American Lit.

Had it not been for my own natural competitive drive, I would not have known I had to play catch up during my first two years in college. But I recognized, with a sinking heart, there were probably many who did not even know they'd been duped.

"A Nation at Risk" was released in April '83. Despite the clear evidence that something had to change, leaders in the House of Representatives summarily dismissed proposals to address the alarming findings.

Education Secretary William J. Bennett led a major, renewed effort at addressing our national ills. He advocated three critical ingredients to address our problems that would be coined "The 3 Cs" -- Content, Character and Choice:

  1. Content -- what we teach our children, how we teach it, who teaches it;
  2. Character -- what we expect of ourselves, our schools, our students, our society and the virtues that character, well-defined and taught, represent; and
  3. Choice -- creating opportunities to address content and character, and ensuring that parents, who are a child's first teacher, and educators, have the freedom to direct the education of their children, of their schools.

At first, Bennett was considered radical. There were many who actually mocked his ideas, accusing him of being out of touch and anti-education. It's quaint, looking back on it now, thirty years later. Much has fortunately changed. Progress has been steady (though slower than necessary). They say the best ideas are those that withstand the test of time. Principles are those untenable but lasting things that drive every generation. Bill Bennett's three simple letters now represent the very same issues upon which millions of people across diverse backgrounds have and do, agree.

Acceptance was slow to come back then, but Bennett's ideas, and those of his generation of great thinkers, began to take hold. They were the stuff that inspired the real odd couples of education reform igniting a movement of choice and accountability to address the findings of the National Commission and subsequent panels and commissions throughout the '80s and '90s -- Tommy Thompson and Polly Williams; Tom Ridge and Dwight Evans; Jeb Bush and T. Willard Fair; Rudy Perpich and Ember Reichgott-Junge -- from state to state, Rs and Ds, black and white, came together to create the nation's first school choice programs, charter school laws, and standards!

I met them all, cheered them on, wrote about them, and often helped them solve a problem or challenge. But few knew what they were really doing or the impact they'd have (other than their opponents of course). The media was antagonistic, and Washington was out of touch. And in those days, ideology was everything. You were either conservative or liberal. There was no in between and you were treated only by your labels in the education arena, not your ideas.

There had to be a way to turn that around, cross-pollinate those efforts, spread them farther, faster and make reform mainstream. So we set out to do just that. That was the beginning of The Center for Education Reform (CER) in 1993. Today, there are hundreds of groups advocating for those same principals. And a new generation of technology, people, and groups are deploying the old ideas in dramatically more sophisticated ways.

But is it sticking? The answer is a bit more complex than "yes" or "no." While there is progress, at this rate, it will take another 30 years for scores to increase even a few percentage points, for graduation rates to advance in a meaningful way, for college entrants to be truly prepared, for all those parents who most need it to have choices.

The State of Education still is not strong, and thus the union is not either. As best said in "A Nation at Risk": "In a world of ever-accelerating competition and change in the conditions of the workplace, of ever-greater danger, and of ever-larger opportunities for those prepared to meet them, educational reform should focus on the goal of creating a Learning Society."

That "Learning Society" requires more than a plethora of books, conferences, speeches and isolated pieces of legislation. It must extend to urban and suburban corridors alike. The problems are widespread. Clearly it's time for us all to go back to school, to relearn those imperatives for reform that started before Arne Duncan was Education Secretary, and before Michelle Rhee took on a district and won. We must remind ourselves that a few million new choices for children pale in comparison to the tens of millions more who still need them. It's time to examine history to truly understand what has worked and what hasn't. We should look back and decipher how exactly a generation of activists was able, finally, to accept and embrace notions that seemed radical just 30 years ago.

I know a good place to begin. Let's all reread A Nation at Risk. It is three decades old ("ancient history," my kids would say) but sadly, it reads like it was written yesterday. We still have much to learn from it. We are still at risk.

Adapted from "A Nation at Risk, A Movement Ahead: The Future of CER" online for The Center for Education Reform.