An Epoch-Making Report, But What About the Early Grades?
In American educational history, A Nation at Risk is significant as a very dramatic official recognition in the 1980s that our schools were declining in effectiveness not only in relation to schools of other nations, but also in relation to our own results in earlier decades. In the 25 years since the report was issued, energetic reform efforts have been put forth, to small overall effect. The best single gauge of overall national school effectiveness—the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test of 12th graders—has remained flat, and has even declined slightly. This persistent lack of significant improvement is owing to the unwavering persistence of the very ideas that caused the decline in the first place—the repudiation of a definite academic curriculum in the early grades by the child-centered movement of the early 20th century. Given the continued content vagueness of state standards in early grades, especially in language arts, that underlying condition has not much changed. There is still no definite, coherent academic curriculum in the early grades. That is the principal source of the low academic achievement of our high school students.
The elementary grades are much more important than is apparently credited by philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has recently been giving many millions to high school reform—with negligible results per dollar. For many years, the philanthropic and policy worlds have placed a lot of emphasis on the two ends of precollegiate education—high school and preschool. They are right about preschool—but not about high school. The general knowledge and vocabulary required for effective learning at the high school level are the fruits of a long process. The way to reform high school is to prepare students effectively in the elementary years to thrive there. If, in recent decades, high school has become a place where students are offered a smorgasbord of watered-down subjects, that is because watered-down subjects are all that our ill-educated students are now prepared to understand.
Philanthropies cannot be altogether blamed. In their emphasis on high school, they have followed the lead of A Nation at Risk , which was overwhelmingly concerned with high school. Its assumption was that the elementary years are foundational, and should be spent on the enabling skills of reading, writing, and reckoning. The authors therefore conceived the truly decisive arena for educational improvement to be grades 9-12, where there had been a severe decline in verbal and math scores. Indeed, for most of its length, A Nation at Risk ignored the first eight grades of schooling. Then, in its last pages, the report finally alluded to the...
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