This is something I wrote for a Masters Level Education class.
A Nation at Risk was a 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a panel appointed by the US Department of Education. According to a contemporary New York Times article, Education Secretary T.H. Bell had come to Washington with the belief that he would be able to dismantle the Federal department within the space of a year, although the report—meant to indicate what role the federal government had in education—served to justify the existence of the department and federal involvement in education.
The report determined that standards should be increased as ”the educational foundations Reaof our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.” It ignored the Reagan administration’s priorities: voluntary school prayer, providing funding for vouchers for private schools, and dismantling the department of education. After public response to the report’s findings, President Reagan took greater steps to show concern on the state of education, and to push for national solutions.
When Tamin Ansary wrote about the effects of the report 25 years later, he determined that “every reform initiative I read about — standards, testing, whatever — referred me back to a seminal text entitled “A Nation at Risk.” He saw the report through a political context, as a product of the cold war and a Republican administration trying to get the women’s vote in a bid for a second term. He noted that the later Sandia report suggested that the quality of education was improving, and concluded that much of the decline observed in “A Nation at Risk” came down to sampling bias: All students in the 1980s were compared to the best students of previous generations, with the average grades changing as a result of lower-ranked students taking standardized tests that were previously limited to the most privileged.
A consequence of the report was promises to be tough on education, maintained by the next Republican Presidents, as well as President Bill Clinton, who had been quoted in the Times piece when he was a new Governor of Arkansas praising the report, when he said “’The (Reagan) Administration deserves credit for trying to lift the level of public debate and concern, but there hasn’t been any real leadership.” Ansary was concerned that the tail was wagging the dog, as “testing in the context of today’s school reform is not about finding out what kids know; it’s about who gets the test results.” He views it as part of a current that “sees discipline and structure as the keys to school improvement” and “facilitates the bureaucratization of education and enables politicians, not educators, to control schools more effectively.” He compared it to liberal alternatives of schools based on the needs of learners, and the conservative alternative of providing more vouchers so that parents have greater flexibility.
Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, had a different view. He believes the statistics remain troubling, showing negligible gains even though spending on education had been doubled (when adjusted for inflation.) He saw the problem as a unwillingness on the part of elected officials and education administrators to take the big risks necessary to help students achieve their potential.
Modern controversies over common core can be viewed in the context of these old fights about the role of the federal government in education, and the proper solutions to problems with teaching. One thing that has been reinforced in this class is that the old battles can be quite meaningful. When these are unresolved, the old disputes pop up again and the same philosophical questions are relitigated: Should the federal government have a role in education, or should this be determined at the local level? Do standards cause more harm than good by encouraging educators to shift their focus to meeting the standard, rather than doing what is best for the students? Is the next generation getting an education on par with that of their parents and grandparents? Are too many decisions in education made by outsiders? At this point, I don’t know the answers, but these are necessary discussions, even if I hope that this gets figured out soon enough.
Ansary, T. (2007, March 9). Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report. Retrieved December 12, 2015, from http://www.edutopia.org/landmark-education-report-nation-risk
Fiske, E. (1983, December 27). Top Objectives Elude Reagan As Education Policy Evolves. New York Times.
Klein, J. (2011, June). The Failure of American Schools. The Atlantic.