A Nation at Risk: 30 Years Later

Posted by Kristen Engebretsen, May 01, 2013 0 comments

Kristen Engebretsen Kristen Engebretsen

“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...We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” ~ from A Nation at Risk

Last Friday I attended an event at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute looking at the impact of the report released back in 1983, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform. According to the Fordham Institute’s website:

“Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk was released to a surprised country. Suddenly, Americans woke up to learn that SAT scores were plummeting and children were learning a lot less than before. This report became a turning point in modern U.S. education history and marked the beginning of a new focus on excellence, achievement, and results.”

The report language itself called for many sensible reforms, including more instructional time, higher standards for courses and content, stringent high school graduation requirements, and demanding college entrance requirements.

But the sound bite that came out of the report was that we have a “desperate need for increased support for the teaching of mathematics and science.” And, "We are raising a new generation of Americans that is scientifically and technologically illiterate."

Many arts education advocates look at this report (building on the fervor for math and science after the Russian’s launch of Sputnik) as a turning point in education, where a focus on testing in reading and math began to dominate education, and the curriculum began to narrow to these tested subjects. In fact, many current education reforms have roots that can be traced back to this report:

1 - The Common Core State Standards Initiative—with its focus on English Language Arts and Math. (One of our recent Blog Salons was all about the implications for the arts with Common Core.)

2 - Race to the Top—with its focus on teacher evaluation and data-driven decision making.

3 - No Child Left Behind—with its focus on high-stakes testing.

Several recent reports cite one of the major unintended consequences of current education reform is a narrowing curriculum.

Two-thirds of teachers believe that subjects like art and music are receiving less instructional time. Two-thirds of teachers believe that subjects like art and music are receiving less instructional time. (Click this graphic for more from our "Facts & Figures" e-book.)

However, when you read the full text of A Nation at Risk, you see that it was decidedly NOT the authors’ intent to narrow the curriculum.

In fact, having excellent content taught in high schools is one of the major recommendations of the report. Take a look at this gem of a quote:

"Some worry that schools may emphasize such rudiments as reading and computation at the expense of other essential skills such as comprehension, analysis, solving problems, and drawing conclusions. Still others are concerned that an over-emphasis on technical and occupational skills will leave little time for studying the arts and humanities that so enrich daily life, help maintain civility, and develop a sense of community. Knowledge of the humanities, they maintain, must be harnessed to science and technology if the latter are to remain creative and humane, just as the humanities need to be informed by science and technology if they are to remain relevant to the human condition."

The report also calls for lifelong learning, and what it calls the Learning Society, where “educational opportunities extend far beyond the traditional institutions of learning, our schools and colleges. They extend into homes and workplaces; into libraries, art galleries, museums, and science centers.”

Speaking at the Fordham Institute was William Bennett, the former U.S. Secretary of Education. He is also the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. During his speech, he heavily quoted E.D. Hirsch and continued to stand by the recommendation of the report to focus on quality content, including civics, humanities, and the arts.

So how do we mitigate the unintended consequences of education reform, which include a narrowing curriculum? Are current education reforms not compatible with a well-rounded education? How do we live up to the dual standards of both excellence and equity in education?

I, of course, think that the arts and humanities can be a solution for our schools. A way to transmit cultural literacy, tap into student passion and potential, and keep our kids on track to graduate college and career ready.

However, if our educational leaders do not make it a priority to require a well-rounded curriculum for all students (particularly in grades K–8, where teachers are primarily, as David Coleman calls it, “guides to the world”), then are we still on the path to “unilateral educational disarmament?”

I invite you too to reflect on the impact of this landmark report by perusing a roundup of resources about A Nation at Risk’s 30th anniversary.

And as you read, you decide: Are we still a nation at risk???

1 - The full text of the report (an oldie but a goodie).

2 - Five views by different bloggers on Education Week’s new blog “OpEducation.”

3 – An article with a cool infographic on Education Week's website comparing test scores now and 30 year ago.

4 - An excellent 20-minute video by the Fordham Institute interviewing several Secretaries of Education, Diane Ravitch, and other education policy gurus.

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