In Education, America Remains a Nation at Risk

02/28/2017 02:48 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2017

The state of our education still is not strong.

With the president’s speech before Congress bringing a renewed focus on how to fix our educational deficiencies, it’s worth our time to engage in a little history lesson.

This spring will mark 34 years since the landmark report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, was issued. Yet, today, how many have even heard of the then-earth-shaking report that, while drawing the ire of many in the education establishment, was factual, clear, and well-regarded by a majority of diverse lawmakers—and is still relevant today?

When the report was issued, I was a just-out-of-college junior staffer on Capitol Hill, and it was uncanny how much I could relate to the report’s assessment of education. I’d grown up in a beautiful, middleclass, homogeneous community with brand-spanking-new schools, lots of local control, very involved and mostly well-educated parents, and great teachers. I earned mostly A’s and was led to believe I’d gotten an excellent education.

Then I went to college.

It was a rude awakening. My education wasn’t so great after all. It had been shallow on many levels, lacked rigor, and left me ill prepared for the challenges of higher education. But I worked hard and got my degree, and, in April 1983, was sitting at the seat of political power in the U.S., reading a report about education in America 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% in 1964 to 42% in 1979. This curricular smorgasbord, combined with extensive student choice, explains a great deal about where we find ourselves today.”

That was true. I, too, had stuffed myself at an education smorgasbord in high school, taking “Golden 20s” 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. So I was lucky, and dogged, and succeeded in my college career. But what about other kids? All those who never knew they’d been duped by a subpar high-school education and, as a result, didn’t succeed?

A Nation at Risk was released in April 1983. Despite the clear evidence that something had to change, leaders in the House of Representatives summarily dismissed proposals to address the alarming findings. Then Secretary of Education William J. Bennett led a major effort to address our national-education ills, advocating three critical ingredients to address our problems — the 3 Cs: content, character, and choice.

Content: what we teach our children, how we teach it, who teaches it.

Character: what we expect of ourselves, our schools, our students, our society and the virtues that character, well-defined and taught, represent.

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, and even mocked by opponents who accused him of being out of touch and anti-education. But good ideas withstand the test of time, and although acceptance was slow in coming, Bennett’s ideas, and those of his generation of great thinkers, began to take hold.

They inspired the real odd couples of education reform igniting a movement of choice and accountability to address the findings of the National Commission and the various panels and commissions of the 1980s and 1990s — Tommy Thompson and Polly Williams; Tom Ridge and Dwight Evans; Jeb Bush and T. Willard Fair; Rudy Perpich and Ember Reichgott-Junge — which, state by state, brought together Rs and Ds 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 surmount a 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 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 the Trump administration came to D.C.

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.

Where to begin? Take a look at A Nation at Risk. It may be three decades old but it reads like it was written yesterday and delivers a message that remains sadly — shockingly — relevant today: We are still a nation at risk.

Jeanne Allen is the founder and chief executive of the Center for Education Reform. Follow her on Twitter, at @JeanneAllen.

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