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Perhaps Another Commission?

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We have failed to learn that academic performance in schools is strongly influenced by conditions in children's lives outside school.

Back in 1981, a distinguished group of 18 Americans got together for a two-year study of the country's schools. Among them were four college presidents, several scientists, some school principals, other educationists, a card-carrying economist, a former governor and congressman, and one schoolteacher. They had been invited by Terrel H. Bell, the U.S. secretary of education in President Reagan's Cabinet, to report to him on the quality of education in the United States.

By far the dominant theme of their report, entitled A Nation at Risk and published on April 26, 1983, was a diatribe on the dangerous decline in American school quality, one that was already destroying the prospects of our economy as it competed with other economic systems around the world.

Here are some statements from the first few pages of the document:

  • The educational foundations of our society are presently eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people. ...
  • The risk is not only that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently than Americans ... It is not just that the South Koreans recently built the world's most efficient steel mill ...
  • If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still attain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system.
  • If a friendly 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.
  • We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Here we are now, 15 years later, with a healthier economy than Japan or South Korea, in spite of their supposedly superior schools. If one believed the torrid prose that characterized A Nation at Risk, he might be tempted to say that America had fixed its schools and was, therefore, moving into the next century well served in the broad realm of education--an assumption that is as far from the truth as the rantings of 1983.

A few simple propositions might define what our main educational shortcomings are as we approach the next century:

  • We have vastly overemphasized the significance of the connection between the health of our economy and the health of our schools. No one has put this point more effectively than the late education historian Lawrence A. Cremin. He argued perceptively in Popular Education and its Discontents (1990) that "to contend that the problems of international competitiveness can be solved by education reform ... is at best foolish and at worst a crass effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden instead on the schools."
  • We maintain a school finance system that ensures more effective public schools for youngsters from fortunate families and less effective schools for those from poor families. The same can be said of health services, recreation opportunities, and other aspects of everyday life.
  • We have failed to learn that academic performance in schools is strongly influenced by conditions in children's lives outside of school in families and communities. Unless their experiences in all three of these settings add up to a decent life, the success of new standards is questionable.
  • Bringing useful change to the learning processes of school classrooms is a long, hard task which depends upon helping teachers rethink their activities to serve a rapidly changing world. Imposing standards and tests as the levers to make them change will be self-defeating; "legislated learning" is an oxymoron.

None of these strategies gets adequate attention in A Nation at Risk. Perhaps we need another national commission.

Go directly to the third of three Commentaries revisiting A Nation at Risk, "First, Do No Harm," by Chester E. Finn Jr.


Harold Howe II, who was the U.S. commissioner of education in the Johnson administration, retired last year as a senior fellow at Harvard University's graduate school of education. He lives in Concord, Mass.

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