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We're a Nation At Risk (Happy April Fool's Day)

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A Nation at Risk should have been published on April 1, 1983. It was a great April Fools Day joke on America (Given what it did to public education, though, educators can be forgiven if they smile not). Instead, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published it on April 28, meaning we "celebrate" its 25th anniversary later this month. Most commentators thought it raised a great alarm with its stentorian rhetoric about "a rising tide of mediocrity" and cold warrior comment that "if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre performance that exists today, we might well have considered it an act of war." Whew.

New York Times columnist/humorist, Russell Baker, looked at the commissioners' rhetoric, which he said would not pass muster in a 10th grade essay and declared, "I'm giving them an A+ in mediocrity." Baker's quip had no impact as we have faced, and continue to face, a rising tide of reform reports and school bashing.

Interestingly, conservatives criticized the report or rejected it. Joseph Kraft excoriated his fellow conservatives for reacting to the report as they always did to other liberal activities: blasting the liberals without offering anything positive. Bill Buckley chided the commission for offering reforms "that you and I would come up with over the phone." And George Will lamented the lack of emphasis on history.

In fact, ANAR is a golden treasury of selected, spun, and distorted statistics which ANAR said were indicators of the risk--all of which were cast in terms of test scores. (ANAR fixed on this nation the idea that tests are all you need to evaluate schools and the idea as well that high test scores inevitably lead to economic growth). For example, "there was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U. S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments in 1969, 1973 and 1997." This was true. But if one asked why the commission picked on science and 17-year-olds, curious facts emerged to answer the question. That steady decline in science isn't there for 9- and 13-year-olds, the other two ages tested. It's not there for any age in reading. It's not there for any age in math. The commission had 9 trend lines (3 subjects by 3 ages). Only one could be used to support crisis rhetoric. That was the only one to appear in the report.

Or, consider this: "Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched." This is a most curious statement because at the time, only two achievement tests, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (grades 3-8) and the Iowa Tests of Educational Development (grades 9-12) had fixed standards that permitted analysis of trends over time (NAEP did not exist until 1969).

If one looks at the trends for the ITBS or ITED one sees a similar pattern for all grades: a decline for about a decade, roughly 1965 to 1975 (the onset various a bit by grade) and then a rise to record high levels (no media considered this news).

Now consider the events of that decade. It opened with the Watts riots in L.A. and these were followed by urban violence all across the nation. It was the decade of the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Free Speech Movement which led to sit-ins at many universities. It contained the Summer of Love, Woodstock and Altamont. Many people took up the recreational use of mind-altering drugs and Ken Kesey led his LSD-laced Merry Pranksters into many outrageous situations (see Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). The Kent State atrocities and the Chicago Police Riot both occurred in this decade

In those ten years, the literature contained many anti-Establishment tracts such as The Making of a Counter Culture, The Greening of America, and The Pursuit of Loneliness. Books limited to schools included Death at an Early Age, The Way It Spozed to Be, 36 Children, Free Schools, Deschooling Society, and Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated. The nation became obsessed and then depressed over first the Vietnam War and then Watergate.

Little wonder that a saying later emerged: If you remember the Sixties, you weren't there. It would have been an effing MIRACLE if test scores had NOT fallen.

There is a decent set of retrospectives on ANAR in the April Phi Delta Kappan. My take on the report appeared in Kappan's April 2003 issue, "April Foolishness." Better than the look-backs are three articles on education for a democracy, articles which emphasize concepts like cooperation, community, renewal, fulfillment, civic work, tolerance, commitment, and other words I feared had disappeared from the English language in this country. I highly recommend this trio of essays.