On 26 April 1983, in a White House ceremony, Ronald Reagan took possession of A Nation At Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform. The product of nearly two years’ work by a blue-ribbon commission, it reported poor academic performance at nearly every level and warned that the education system was “being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.”
A true Cold War document written in the hyperbole of the time, the opening paragraph begins:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that under girds American prosperity, security, and civility. . . the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur — others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.
A Nation At Risk inaugurated a series of attacks on public schools. “That was the ‘rising tide’ we got engulfed with — the rising tide of negative reports,” said Paul Houston recently, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “It was an overstatement of the problem, and it led to sort of hysterical responses,” he says. For one, it took liberties with the link between economic development and overall education rates. Yes, the connection makes intuitive sense, he says — but when the dot-com boom made millionaires of ordinary Americans in the 1990s, “no one came to my office and thanked me.” A Nation at Risk also led to “a cottage industry of national reports by people saying how bad things are.”
In 1990, Admiral James Watkins, the Secretary of Energy, commissioned the Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico to document the decline in A Nation at Risk with actual data. When the systems scientists broke down the SAT test scores into subgroups they discovered contradictory data. While the overall average scores had declined between , the subgroups of students had increased due to a statistical anomaly known as “Simpson’s paradox“! The results of the so-called Sandia Report discredited much of A Nation At Risk.
Nevertheless, the Republican administration of Bush the First, finding it politically unacceptable, suppressed the report, which was never officially released. Education Week published an article on the Sandia report in 1991, but unlike A Nation at Risk, the Sandia Report critique received almost no attention. The report was finally published as “Perspectives on Education in America” in 1993 in the Journal of Educational Research, but was ignored by the mass media. This was no doubt due, in part, to the statistical illiteracy of most Americans.
The mindset among the American public that “public schools are broken” can trace its roots back to A Nation at Risk.
The mass hysteria sparked by A Nation At Risk has continued unabated for nearly three decades, fueled by politicians and Wall Street. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education released a report in 2008 entitled, A Nation Accountable: Twenty-five Years After A Nation at Risk, stating:
If we were “at risk” in 1983, we are at even greater risk now. The rising demands of our global economy, together with demographic shifts, require that we educate more students to higher levels than ever before. Yet, our education system is not keeping pace with these growing demands [emphasis added].
It is more than a little ironic that the over-the-top rhetoric of A Nation at Risk has now spawned a testing craze that, in fact, puts the nation’s children, and thus our future, truly at risk. The public school system in the United States is under assault today as never before, but not by foreign powers — it is being destroyed by our own politicians and business tycoons.
- David C. Berliner and Sharon L. Nichols. Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’’s Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2007).
- Kenneth J. Bernstein. So you want to write/opine about education? Daily Kos, 20 Aug 2011. Accessed on 26 April 2013 at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/08/20/1008980/-So-you-want-to-write-opine-about-education.
- Cari Tuna. When Combined Data Reveal the Flaw of Averages: In a Statistical Anomaly Dubbed Simpson’s Paradox, Aggregated Numbers Obscure Trends in Job Market, Medicine and Baseball. The Wall Street Journal, 2 Dec 2009. Accessed on 26 April 2013 at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125970744553071829.html.