The Audacious Ambition of “A Nation at Risk”

It has been 35 years since a federally funded commission charted a bold new course for public education in an explosive report aptly titled “A Nation at Risk.”

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” its authors warned, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Established by then-Secretary of Education Terrel Bell during Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, the National Commission on Excellence in Education laid bare the troubled state of a public school system racked by property-tax revolts, the upheavals of desegregation, and myriad other challenges. The commission’s defining insight was that the United States needed to recalibrate the mission of its public schools, with a centerpiece recommendation for a core high school curriculum for every student. The commission called it the New Basics.

The emerging post-industrial economy elevated brains over brawn. The civil rights movement demanded an increased national commitment to equal educational opportunity. Public education’s practice of preparing most students for work in factories or on assembly lines was no longer good enough. “Thinking skills” were “the new raw materials of international commerce” that all students need, the commission declared.

Governors and state legislators, eager to ready their workforces for the emerging knowledge economy, embraced the proposal. Dozens of states demanded that students take more—and more demanding—courses in English, math, science, and history as part of a wide-ranging reform agenda that put education on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers for the first time since the Russians put Sputnik in space in the late 1950s.

It was a shock to the public education system. The nation’s high schools were staffed to teach a lot more woodworking and pre-algebra than chemistry and calculus. Many local educators simply didn’t believe that a majority of students could study rigorous subjects. “Instead of more math and English, what we really need for many kids are more courses in how to plant trees and such,” a Florida high school principal told me, a perspective I heard often in the 1980s while researching a book on the era.

Many educators disparaged public education’s new academic focus as elitist and subverted the New Basics by enrolling students in watered-down courses like general science and informal geometry. In many school districts, students could complete a four-year sequence in the fundamentals of math without studying anything but arithmetic. In others, commercial food preparation and auto body repair counted toward science requirements.

It’s fashionable in education circles today, on both the right and the left, to disparage the national education initiatives since “A Nation at Risk” as federal overreach. Before the Trump administration took over, Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and the principal author of the Every Student Succeeds Act, complained about the federal government being a “national school board.”

But it was the jaded response to the New Basics decades ago that led national and state leaders of both political parties to take increasingly direct steps to get local educators to aim higher.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors set national education goals. As Bush’s second education secretary, Alexander advocated voluntary national standards and tests. Both became a reality in the form of the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests.

Unfortunately, many of our nation’s current political leaders, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seem to have lost sight of “A Nation at Risk’s”  central tenet. They insist that local educators who know students best should set the standards, and they argue that teaching students to use their hands rather than their heads isn’t a bad thing. But they don’t acknowledge that in the past, vocational education was often a dumping ground for the students public education didn’t want to educate, rather than an alternative path to postsecondary success.

Despite a recent tweet hailing “A Nation at Risk” as a landmark document and an admonishment that “35 years later, we are at nation still at risk,” Secretary DeVos has ignored local school districts’ troubled history of low expectations. She has disparaged the work of her predecessors to address the problem, attacked the common core, and demanded that local educators be left in charge of educational expectations.

Not surprisingly, her predecessors pushed back at a symposium earlier this month on the landmark education report. “The pressure to relent [on high standards for all students] at the local level is fierce,” said Margaret Spellings, former secretary of education under the George W. Bush administration.

DeVos’ agenda closely mirrors that of the Reagan administration before “A Nation at Risk,” with sharp cuts in federal education funding, private school vouchers, and diminished federal protections for vulnerable students. In fact, Reagan had first used the release of the report to promote vouchers and the administration’s conservative agenda. Only when Reagan’s aide Michael Deaver and pollster Richard Wirthlin seized on the report’s workforce themes as a way to win favor in the 1984 presidential race did Reagan turn the commission’s call to arms into a national crusade.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, it’s hardly a surprise that we haven’t fully achieved the Reagan era’s audacious aspirations for public education. But the anniversary of “A Nation at Risk” should remind us of the report’s important charge to the nation’s educators—and the reluctance of many educators to embrace it. The wage gap between the educated and the undereducated continues to expand, and students of color are increasingly the nation’s future. If Secretary DeVos truly wants to pursue educational equity, she should follow her predecessors in pushing local educators to pursue the report’s groundbreaking goal.

Thomas is the director of FutureEd and the author of In the Name of Excellence. This piece was originally published in Education Week on April 22, 2018.