Education Chat

Chat Transcript: A Nation at Risk: The Next Generation

Education Week holds its first online chat discussing the 20th anniversary of the release of A Nation at Risk, exploring what's right and what's wrong with our nation's schools today.

A Nation at Risk: The Next Generation

Welcome to Education Week on the Web‘s first online chat, marking the 20th anniversary of the release of A Nation at Risk, the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s influential rallying cry for raising expectations and improving performance in American schools. Intended to supplement Education Week‘s special coverage on the anniversary, the chat will explore what’s wrong and what’s right with the nation’s public high schools today.

About our Guests:

•Theodore Sizer, professor emeritus at Brown University. Sizer has written three books on redesigning high schools, including the acclaimed, Horace’s Compromise. He is also the founder and chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a high school reform movement started in the 1980’s;

Milton Goldberg, distinguished senior fellow at the Education Commission of the States, Goldberg served as executive director of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the authors of A Nation At Risk; and

Michelle Fine, professor of social psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Fine directs the Race, Ethnicity, Class and Opportunity Gap Project. Data from this in-depth study of the school experiences of youth are featured in Education Week‘s special coverage of A Nation at Risk.

Moderator: Lynn Olson

Welcome to Education Week on the Web‘s first online chat. I’m Lynn Olson, a senior editor here, and I’ll be the moderator for today’s discussion.

We’re pleased to have three distinguished guests with us today: Michelle Fine, Milton Goldberg, and Ted Sizer, to talk about the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, and what has and hasn’t changed in American education since 1983.

Let’s get started with the first question.

Question from Ellen deLara, PhD, Faculty Fellow, Cornell University:
Will you please comment on your understanding of the impact of students’ concerns for their safety (re: school violence and general school climate of bullying, harassment, etc.) on their ability to learn and on educational reform? Thank you.

Michelle Fine:
Students and teachers are concerned about safety; as Tony Bryk, John Easton and Matt Gladden and colleagues have demonstrated in Chicago, trust within schools is a MAJOR contributor to academic growth and development; the absence of trust, or presence of fear, is clearly an inhibitor. The best way to reduce fears is to create small schools or units in which students have powerful, engaging and trusting relations with educators.

Question from Mervyn Wighting, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Regent University, Virginia:
The need to measure educational achievement is well understood, but standardized tests may now be getting too much emphasis in our schools at the expense of creative and artistic curricula. Is the nation now at risk of rearing a generation of youngsters who are adept at taking tests but who may be culturally deprived?

Michelle Fine:
They are not even adept at taking tests... and we are dumbing down the curriculum, losing the capacity for expansive and critical thinking, students are writing (and revising and creating original works) far less, and educators are highly dissatisfied with what they can (and can’t) do in their classrooms because of the high stakes nature of testing. Standards and tests are not the same thing; testing a system and high stakes testing in which individual students pay the price are CERTAINLY not the same thing. The massive testing industry -- combined with the high stakes attached to these tests-- is threatening to undermine some of the most exciting public schools in the nation.

Question from Laura Harris, Teacher, Salt Lake School District:
What do you each see as the purpose of school?

Ted Sizer:
There are several purposes for school but the most important common one is to bring each young citizen into contact with the very best of our culture and to gain the skills necessary to not only survive but flourish in that culture.

Question from Barbara Elder Weller, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Franklin Lakes Public Schools:
Twenty years after the publication of A Nation at Risk, we continue to have a significant gap in performance between white and Hispanic and black students. Our eighth grade and high school students are out-performed in math and science by the majority of international students. If some invisible force put you in charge, what is the first thing you would do to address these critical issues?

Michelle Fine:
Quality educators, teaching toward rigor, in small schools -- who is the invisible force you had in mind?

Question from Dr. Charles Maranzano, Assistant to the Superintendent, Williamsburg-James City County Schools.:
America has one of the stongest free and public educational systems in the world, given the challenge of educating a diverse heterogeneous population. The media does our public schools a disservice by focusing on negative incidents. How do you explain the continuing success of our public schools and the record numbers of minorities attending college in 2003 if schools are failing according to A Nation at Risk’s predictions?

Milt Goldberg:
As a matter of fact, I believe that things have improved in American education since A Nation at Risk, and that part of the reason for the improvement is the public’s willingness to expect more from our students and not to limit our expectations based on social or economic differences. We in education need to be much more aggressive about telling the positive stories about success in ways that cause the media to pay greater attention.

Lynn Olson (moderator):
Milt answered one last question before he left. Here it is.

Question from Wes Harris, Education Consultant:
Where is the evidence that privatizing the public schools works better for closing the achievement gap?

Will public schools become the repository of the most difficult students based on economics?

Michelle Fine:
There is NO evidence that privatizing public schools will close the gap. Even the Milwaukee experiment, where vouchers were only available to the lowest income students, did not produce evidence of a closed achievement gap (there are questions about gains/losses for individual students, but no one suggests that the ‘gap’ writ large was reduced. yes, public schools will become the repository for students with least ‘capital’ and there will be only a very small -- and not powerful -- constituency for the public schools. Public schools sit at the base our democracy; without them, democracy, justice and liberty are threatened.

Question from Pat Lawler, Housemaster, Norwalk High School:
How many years does it take before a school begins to see improvements in student outcomes after implementing a reform initiative?

Ted Sizer:
The question is very difficult to answer. If it is a school of choice for families and if it has a highly focused program, one can expect pretty good results quite quickly, “results” meaning mastery of that particular program. Deeper, more complicated goals take time, and many of those goals can only be met in indirect ways, through the influence of the community that is gathered at the school. Not surprisingly, evidence of this latter sort of learning takes longer to emerge.

Question from Jose Rodriguez, Title 1 / Bilingual Coordinator pk - 8:
What can we do to close the achievement gap of English learners?

Michelle Fine:
The International Schools -- public schools in NYC -- originally directed by Eric Nadelstern, are a stunning example of high quality schools for speakers of languages other than English -- the imposition of high stakes testing on these kids, within a year, is an educational injustice.

Question from Rick Schmidt, teacher 6th grade, Fontana Unified School Distrct:
Can “Character Education” reduce the moral decline our country is facing? Is it, or should it fall to, the responsiblily of our education system?

Ted Sizer:
Schools themselves should be moral places, self-consciously so. Teachers should be aware of and able to explain moral issues among themselves and with their students. The best schools can do is to give students the experience of living and working in a principal and thoughtful place.

Lynn Olson (moderator):
I understand Milt Goldberg has to sign off. Milt, thanks very much for your time and your thoughtful responses.

Question from Bob Mihevc, Board of Education Member, Herkimer Central School District, Herkimer NY:
With the states and the federal government putting so much emphasis on high stakes this good for our children, are we losing site of our goal in education to TEACH the chldren?

Milt Goldberg:
I just met a superintendent who pointed out to me that when he has his annual physical examination, the doctor may take his blood pressure two or three times during the visit. This superintendent said this was an analogue to the need for assessing student performance. Of course, our goal is to teach the children but reliable assessments enable us to indentify progress and the problems that require attention. The information derived from assessments should help us inform the public about our successes and the work that still needs to be done.

Question from kim mertz, Board of Education, Wamego, Kansas:
To what extent do you blame colleges of education and NEA for the present state of education in this country.

Ted Sizer:
I don’t like to point fingers. I have learned that it doesn’t get one very far in life. Having said that, I am embarrassed at the complacency of all sorts of education institutions in failing to vigorously address what are obvious and well-proven problems.

Question from Hilary Pennington, CEO, Jobs for the Future:
A Nation at Risk has led to increased course-taking requirements and high-stakes assessments. However, as reform looks inward at what happens in the high school, an unintended consequence is that too little attention is paid to what happens to young people after high school. Given today’s environment, what would be the best strategies for improving the transition to postsecondary education and ensuring that efforts around high school reform help an increasingly diverse populace succeed in postsecondary education and adult life?

Michelle Fine:
Great question -- indeed, we have begun to study systematically what happens after high school, but much more needs to be done. some schools have begun to pay for a transition teacher -- responsible for the first year post-high-school-graduation. The inequities (by race/ethnicity and class) in terms of college preparation, SAT/PSAT prep, financial aid assistance, family’s knowledge of the world of college... is enormous. If we are serious about access for working class and poor students to higher education, we have to expose them to the context, the process MUCH earlier, and give them supports as they move toward and are in college. There is much research and intervention to be done at the higher ed level in terms of creating environments of academic support and encouragement for persistence. We can start with financial aid offices/politcies that support rather than discourage youth. Students from small high schools seem to be more likely to go to college, and persist, than those from large urban schools in large part because they figure out how to find someone, AN ADULT/EDUCATOR, to help them navigate through. This is typically NOT the experience of college students, and one bump in the road -- if they are from underresourced school, feeling underprepared or family has needs -- if they don’t have someone who says, i’ll help, they exit -- often because they are so responsible to people back home and because the “costs” of higher education are not entirely clear in terms of the economy and the pay-back of a college degree today.

Question from Jim Lehmann, Faculty, Walden University:
Are we truly a nation at risk or...have we simply not become a nation at ease with who we are, our strengths (creativity) and our diveristy?

Ted Sizer:
We are at risk when we are complacent, unwilling to understand what kinds of society and culture we have created. For example, very few in public education policy circles are paying much attention to the enormous influences on children’s learning of the media and what scholars such as Robert Putnam have called social capital. We remain fixated on the schools rather than attending to them and to the other institutions in the culture which are having historically unique influences on children’s learning.

Question from Louise Epstein, President, FCAG:
The top 5% of our students rarely can compete successfully against the top 5% of students in Asian countries. Many of those countries assign students to classes, and even schools, based on test results at a young age. For 20 years, we have tried to educate an increasing percentage of our gifted elementary, middle and even high school kids in mixed ability classes. Do you think we should try something else? If so, what?

Michelle Fine:
I do not think we have actually been educating students in ‘mixed’ achievement classes. The extent to which we segregate students within and across classes is very high. How do we begin to see giftedness in varied kinds of students? How do we create classrooms that breed giftedness from all sorts of students?

Question from Peter Samulski, Education Associate SC Dept. Ed:
In the politically charged, high stakes accountability era (no child left behind) how do educators promote the courageous change from a educational system based on chronological age to a system where 95%of the students who enter public education can function in the twenty first century? Currently less than 60% of students that enter high school graduate four years later with a high school diploma.

Ted Sizer:
We must challenge the notion of age grading and replace it with a system of promotion by performance. My experience with this reminds me painfully that we need a variety of ways of assessing a student’s real understanding of important things and forces us to invent a variety of ways of teaching as to assure a student’s mastery however he/she best learns.

Question from Bill Harshbarger, high school history teacher, Mattoon High School, Mattoon, Illinois:
During the last 20 years, has it not been a mistake for nearly all of the school reformers to ignore the ideas and insights of the classroom teachers?

Ted Sizer:
The question assumes that some of us haven’t been classroom teachers and haven’t listened very carefully to all kinds of voices. Indeed we have. Some of us so-called “reformers” have gone back to become school principals!

Question from Fred Millar, activist with minority parent groups, D.C.-area public schools:
(1) Given that many parents of poor and minority students are convinced that grouping and tracking practices beginning in first grade are likely causal factors in the large and pesistent achievement gaps, how can we use the accountability and parent right-to-know thrust of NCLB also to get information on such key educational “inputs”, beyond the “outputs” (test scores) data that the law mandates?

(2) Followup": If school districts have large and valuable student data warehouses for program decisions, (e.g., Fairfax County Va calls theirs the “Educational Decision Support Library”), would not NCLB’s thrust for bringing more actors into such decision-making imply that we should demand that the data (with appropriate disguising of personal info) be available on the schools’ websites?

Michelle Fine:
Totally agreed; we need evidence that holds school practices accountable, such as finance inequity, who has access to qualified teachers, race/ethnic access to rigor/AP classes, tracking, special education, and this information should be available school by school -- including graduate student follow ups -- where do youth go after our high schools, and are students within the same building getting access to the same level of rigorous education?

Question from Margaret Ritsch, freelance education editor:
A question for Ted Sizer:

What kind of impact do you think the Gates’ small school initiative will have on high school reform nationwide over the next few years?

Ted Sizer:
I believe it will have a substantial impact in at least two ways. One is that there will be a large number of small, autonomous schools doing a better job than the same teachers did when they were part of a large, monolithic bureaucracy. The second is that the Gates’ initiative and others aligned with it have redirected policy makers’ attention in important and constructive ways.

Question from Sharon Clark, Visiting Professor, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Princess Anne, MD:
How has the education of youngsters in rural schools been affected, for better or for worse, by “Nation at Risk?”

Milt Goldberg:
Rural schools face unique challenges. In many ways, A Nation at Risk surfaced some of these challenges, including the need for high quality teachers in the disciplines and the availability of other resources. I believe that many of those challenges still exist, but the availablity of new technology and the positive changes that have occurred in some rural communities offer the promise of high quality education for students who attend rural schools. I hope that researchers pay particular attention to spreading the word about successes in rural education, and how they can be applied elsewhere.

Question from jenny yemm, algebra teacher, Antioch Middle School, Shawnee Mission School Dist., KS.:
As a teacher of 7th and 8th graders, I feel it is very hard to make up for all that is not being taught at home (responsibility, respect of self and others, manners, etc.) How can we adjust our methods of reaching children so that we can still teach our subject matter while constantly working on these basic rules of living in a society?

Michelle Fine:
There is strong evidence that in small schools, in which youth are engaged with rigor and treated with respect, these questions of ‘civility’ are far less likely to erupt. I would argue that there are key features of school organization that will exacerbate or diminish the likelihood of lack of respect, irresponsibility etc. I have seen youth who are considered disrespectful rise to the occasion when placed inside settings of rigor and respect.

Question from klaudia Fisher, Principal, Community Learning Center, Union City, MI:
As principal of an Alternative High School I have concerns that our image is one of a “dumping ground”. What suggestions do you have to help convince the public, as well as other educators, that non-traditional does NOT mean punitive or less rigorous?

Ted Sizer:
The first thing we need to do is abolish the word alternative. The second thing we need to do is give families choices among a rich variety of good public schools. There is no one best school model that will serve all students and teachers well.

Question from Audrey C. Vaughan, Ed.D., Grant Writer, School District of Hillsborough County:
How will students excel academically and socially when state legislatures are mandating drastic reductions in school district budgets with school districts also recommending further budget reductions for necessary programs and personnel?

Michelle Fine:
Indeed the budget crises, and the absence of federal support -- (in light of the language of “No child left behind”) -- do violence to our notion of public education for all. We all need to be fighting these drastic budget cuts, tax cuts for the rich, and everyone in the nation needs to understand that the future of democracy sits within the public education budgets.

Question from Cynthia Harvell, senior research associate, RMC Research Corporation:
European and Asian school systems are very different from the US. Few students in those countries have the opportunity to go to college. Many students go into “trade” or vocational training and earn a very good living. When US and other nations’ schools are compared, is it “apples and oranges” or a fair sample? And are U.S schools doing better?

Milt Goldberg:
The international comparison issue is often confounded by the apples-oranges question. I would recommend that the questioner take a close look at Bill Schmidt’s work at Michigan State regarding international comparisons—particularly, the recent puplication “Why Schools Matter.” Regarding the issue of post-high school goals, including vocational opportunities, I believe that a solid set of experiences in a core curriculum is the best way to open doors to a variety of options. Such a core curriculum does not preclude the integration of other experiences, including career exploration.

Question from Brian Chinni, President, The Madison Institute:
The Fall 2002 edition of Scholastic Administrator highlights an interview with Intel CEO Craig Barrett. In it Barrett states, “Fundamentally, we have to change the system. We sit around and debate vouchers: ‘Are vouchers good or bad?’ Well, the system is broken, and you probably have to do something pretty dramatic to fix it. Competition is usually a good way to fix things that are broken.”

Do you believe that our public education system is broken? Why/why not? What are the improvements that you believe will best serve to prepare students for a global, digital age?

Ted Sizer:
To say that the system is broken may be too harsh. The system that we have is out of date, ineffectual, and discriminatory. It needs an “overhaul” which is less Draconian than being “blown up.” There is competition within the existing system on a large scale, competition in which rich families will win. Giving equivalent choices to less-than-rich families seems to me to be a good place to start.

Question from Jose Rodriguez, Title 1 / Bilingual Coordinator pk - 8:
How can resources be better allocated to meet the needs of inner city schools?

Michelle Fine:
We need to struggle for finance equity, quality educators and, actually the evidence is that small schools are more effective and cheaper (if you divide by number of graduates) than large schools. But this is an ongoing political struggle in which we all must engage.

Question from Anne Hanson, Teacher, Ingleside Middle School:
Are we not now a “nation at risk” anew, failing our students because of the bi-partisan “No Child Left Behind” legislation which has forced mandates on our schools without concern for the precious dollars ripped out of classrooms to pay for its implementation?

Milt Goldberg:
The money issue has been traditional in American education. We have argued for generations about how much is enough. While we continue to debate the resource question, we still must focus on providing every youngster with high quality education experiences aimed at meeting high standards.

Question from Bill Lord, Asst. Principal, Lynwood Middle School (California):
My school has been labled “Under Performing”, and is in need of “Immediate Intervention” according to the state of California. Our biggest problem is that we have horrible teachers with tenure, some on Life Credentials, who are impossible to get rid of. We also have terrific, young, bright new teachers, most still working on their credential and we are at risk of losing them.

My question is, Do you believe we should have credentialing guidelines that would eliminate life-long tenure, and make it easier for good teachers to be retained? Do you think the federal government should be involved in this process? (I do).

Michelle Fine:
One of the most important components of quality education is the quality of the educator; admittedly ltenure does not insure quality, but long term subs (a huge issue in california) in abundance is also problematic. I think there should be accountability systems within schools, organized with and by educators, so that teaching can be assessed and quality of engagement with youth can be assessed within a school building, and if people aren’t educating students well, they should be supported/provided the professional supports they need to improve. and if that doesn’t work, people should not be teaching. What happens now is that educators who are not performing well are NOT given supports they need, and if they continue to perform badly are typically sent to the poorest schools, with the poorest students. That’s a nasty strategy in which poor youth pay an enormous price.

Question from john e. norwood, assistant superintendent for school performance and athletics, saginaw public schools:
if statewide achievement test are important, why are the results of these test not included in the admissions criteria of major universities in the respective states? Or are they given any credibility? there seems to be a serious disconnect around this issue.

Milt Goldberg:
I think the questioner is absolutely right. We need much stronger linkages between high schools and postsecondary institutions. It was no surprise to us in 1983 when we found that few students were studying foreign languages because we had also learned at the same time that colleges were no longer requiring foreign language courses for admission. We need to begin thinking much more seriously about a P-16 system that requires strong relations and communications among all levels of the system.

Question from Al Babich, Northland Career Center, Platte City , MO:
We have attempted the “More is Better” philosophy to educational reform by increasing graduation standards and “high stakes” testing. What qualitative initiatives are being encouraged that involve good teaching learning practices? Also, where do cultural, environmental and economic factors enter into student outcomes?

Ted Sizer:
I have long believed that in schooling, as in so many other areas, less is more. Most schools think they are stronger by adding new options when, in fact, they weaken their core mission. It is for this, among other reasons, that the project in which I and others are connected calls for essential schools.

Question from lynn olson:
Michelle, A Nation At Risk exhorted students to work harder and exert more effort. What do we know about student motivation and how to get it that we didn’t know in 1983?

Michelle Fine:
We now know much about the possibilities and the importance of student motivation. We know that quality educators, access to rigor and small schools are among the best predictors of student engagement. And that engagement is essential for low income students to achieve; there is evidence that middle and high income students can achieve without much engagement, but with poor and working class youth we don’t get achievement without engagement.

We also know that motivation is not enough -- without hte resources to support students’ intellectual engagement, or in the presence of high stakes testing -- motivation for many will diminish.

Question from Dr. Charles Maranzano, Assistant to the Superintendent, Williamsburg-James City County Schools, VA:
A Nation at Risk did more harm to the media perception that America’s School’s were failing institutions. How then do you explain America’s technological, societal, and educational gains in the past 15 years in light of these predictions of gloom and doom?

Milt Goldberg:
A Nation at Risk put education on the front burner for the American Public. Many of my colleagues prior to the early 1980s bemoaned the fact that the public and the media paid precious little attention to education. My own experiences as a teacher and school administrator affirm that perception. A Nation at Risk said that many children were not getting the education they deserved. That was a true statement. A Nation at Risk also said there were some marvelous examples of good education, but they were too few. And what we needed to do was to learn more from these successes. Today we still need to do a better job of utilizing the successes in American education for improving conditions more widely. I should point out that, according to some business leaders, the high tech revolution in our country was fueled by flexible immigration laws.

Question from L.B. Crochet, Consultant:
Has the increased emphasis on improving test scores at any cost, helped or hindered our high-risk children? Have we not created an underclass of students whose achievement does not move along the same continum as the much researched test standards?

Michelle Fine:
ABSOLUTELY... we have systematically undermined already fragile educations. Students are dropping out at higher rates, in the year just prior to when the high stakes kick in; and in those schools with an EXCELLENT record of educating low income students (e.g. small, detracked, performance based schools), the insistence on high stakes testing dramatically threatens their academic philosophy, pedagogical and assessment commitments and their stunning track record.

My work in prisons convinces me that poor education and dropping out -- a direct consequence of high stakes exams in NYC -- bodes very poorly for individual students, for educators (polls of educators suggest that large majorities feel that high stakes testing does NOT help and hinders education), and for society as a whole. 60 - 80% of men and women in jail/prison are without high school diploma OR GED.

Question from Lincoln Bergman, Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) Program, Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley, Lawrence Hall of Science:
A Nation at Risk was conceived in the competitive shadow of the Cold War. The world has changed dramatically since then. At the same time, studies such as the Sandia Report and others do not paint as bleak a picture as A Nation at Risk did. As the 21st century dawns, what do you see as the highest priorities for the US educational system? For example, do they lie in the direction of strict standards, testing, and “coverage” of lots of content? Or an emphasis on character, multicultural understanding, ethics, and cooperation? A focus on environmental issues? What would be your three highest priorities in education?

Ted Sizer:
A grasp of the essential intellectual skills, a deep understanding of the constraints, obligations, and virtue of democracy, and a sense of wonderment about the world and the habit of following what that wonderment suggests.

Question from Beth Berger, Doctoral Candidate, University of Central Florida:
1. Biddle and Berliner in “The Manufacatured Crisis” have sharply refuted many of the findings of “A Nation at Risk”. What is your response to their findings (specifically concerning recentering the SAT,different social demographics which include many more single parent families and the inability of many schools to meet their fiscal demands, given the limited funds that are in the education budget)?

2) With respect to high school reform, what are the most effective models?

3) What are your findings on small schools or schools-within-schools?

Milt Goldberg:
The commission’s conclusions were based primarily on a range of visits members made to schools and school districts, and considerable testimony from practitioners and researchers all over the country. This was not a commission that met a few times in Washington. They travelled widely, interviewed students, teachers, administrators, and parents, and observed in classrooms and schools. It was this range of experience that moved them to conclude that many children in American schools were not experiencing the education they deserved. As far as demographics are concerned, the commission recognized the serious problems confronting many of our children and families, but believed that these problems should not be used to limit our aspirations for every student. The larger society has to help address the demographic challenges, and schools have to focus on what they do best.

Question from adrianne washington:
Why is it taking so long to change the curriculum in schools? Also, who decides what students need to learn? Even the Core courses in CUNY colleges are boring and are taught by professors who can’t teach.

Ted Sizer:
Our students learn what they want to learn, not necessarily what we want them to learn. If we don’t engage them and persuade them that what we want for them is important, we are not going to hold their attention. A separable issue is who should decide. My preference is for the greatest number of decisions to be made by the people closest to the kids, the parents and teachers. There is a fundamental academic freedom involved here and we must respect that.

Question from Ginny Birky, Asst. Professor, George Fox University:
What can teacher education programs do to prepare future high school teachers? (I teach a 1-credit course called “Rethinking HS” and expose my students to this kind of thinking, but then they student teach in traditional high schools and I think lose the element of and desire for “change” that I want them to have.

Ted Sizer:
Teacher education institutions should make alliances with nearby high schools to restructure those high schools in ways that make the most sense on the basis of the most credible existing research. To train new teachers, schools which however well intentioned, that continue with bad institutional habits are difficult to defend.

Question from Karen Stroup, Principal Sharpsburg Elementary, Maryland:
No Child Left Behind is impacting public education dramatically in many ways. A Nation At Risk did so, also. Do you feel that NCLB could be correlated to A Nation...? In what ways?

Milt Goldberg:
A lot has happened since A Nation at Risk was published. The nation’s governors together with then-President Bush in 1989-90 agreed on national goals in education. This was a first and a landmark. Since then, we have had strong movements in the states to establish standards for all students and appropriate assessments. No Child Left Behind coalesces the issues of standards, assessments, accountability and choice into a single piece of legislation. It, too, is a landmark.

Question from Michael Klonsky, Director Small Schools Workshop:
NAR never mentioned school size nor issues related to size. Are the three of you agreed that smaller is better when it comes to schooling? And if so, what policy recommendations would you add if NAR was to be re-issued today?

Ted Sizer:
Yes, smaller is better; not a panacea but a necessary condition. As you and I both know, Mike, there are some horrifically bad small schools out there! Happily, many other terrifically good ones too!.... But especially at the high school level -- where ANAR focused -- human scale is critical. That kind of concern never found a place in the 1983 work. Those times tacitly assumed that the basic apparatus of schooling was OK. We know better now, from hard, informing experience (much of which is yours in Chicago!) -- but we have somehow to get government to act decisively on what that research and hard lessons have taught us over the last 20 years. That’s a big job. However, I sense today more Federal interest in ideology than in the hard workings of schools. It is depressing.

Question from David Lussier, Manager, Education Reform Initiatives, The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards:
High schools are often large, complex institutions where teachers can fall through the cracks as easily as students. Given this reality, how should high schools be led? In particular, what role(s) should teachers have in setting school policy and advocating for children?

Ted Sizer:
Really good high schools are small units, either free-standing small schools or small autonomous units within a big building. Research has supported this conviction for the last 10 or 20 years. It starts as a matter of scale. Decentralization leads to variety and those who want to have a standardized solution to education problems won’t like this remedy.

Question from Joe Luft, Teacher, The Brooklyn International High School, NYC Public Schools:
Largely resulting from calls for greater accountability, major urban school systems are currently under the leadership of leaders from the corporate world. Haven’t we tried this before in America in the 20th century? Do you see this development as a cause for concern or a reason for optimism?

Milt Goldberg:
I am not opposed to considering different ways of managing and organizing the schools. I am opposed to the view that there is some magic formula that will solve all of our problems. Whatever innovations we try, it is vital that we sustain our focus on access to first-rate curricula and high standards for all American students. And we must do regular evaluations of innovations to determine whether they deserve continued support.

Question from Howie Schaffer, Media Director, Public Education Network:
Community involvement seems to be a key ingredient in building strong public schools. Subsequent to “A Nation at Risk”, the Ford Foundation provided funding for local education funds -- nonprofit, independent community based organizations committed to improving the quality of education for disadvantaged youth. Today, LEFs are a nation-wide movement supporting improvement of public education. Given, in particular, the challenge of No Child Left Behind implementation and state budget woes, what do you see as the role and potential of communities and organizations like LEFs in achieving quality public education?

Michelle Fine:
Community and parental involvement are key to quality schooling; our research in Chicago revealed that local “partners” were essential for access to resources, political power, local/community trust and sustainability. But there is no replacement for inadequate funding, lack of quality educators, and high stakes testing for youth who do not enjoy access to a rigorous curriculum and qualified educators. Perhaps the LEFs can join together to educate the public, and the government, about what schools need in order to reach high standards. At present there are high standards without the resources to meet those standards, and the ones who pay are the children (and society).

Question from Diane Augsburger, student, University of South Carolina:
With the current shortage of federal and state funds for education, what will happen to the improvements that have been made over the last twenty years?

Ted Sizer:
Well, we have to do two things. On one hand, we have to persuade our elective leaders that most public schools are seriously under-financed. At the same time, we have got to decide what in our existing schools is most important and properly finance them, even if it means dropping some wonderful but now unsupportable programs.

Question from lynn olson:
We got a couple of questions about the potential role of technology in education. What do think is the role of technology in addressing some of the issues in A Nation at Risk? E.g., access to a core curriculum, teacher quality, educational standards etc.

Milt Goldberg:
We have hardly exploited the possiblities of technology for improving teaching and learning in American schools. I have seen some marvelous examples of creative utilization of technology, but like a lot innovations in education these examples are merely islands of excellence. We should focus on figuring out ways to get much wider utilization of things that are working. Technology should play a key role in helping students learn, in helping teachers teach, and in addressing key education problems like the shortage of teachers in areas like physics and mathematics.

Question from Mark Hendrix, Project Connect Coordinator, Black Hawk Middle School, Eagan MN:
Isn’t it possible that the students who take high-level classes have other factors already in their favor so that making statements like, “Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra 2 “more than doubles the odds that a student who enters postsecondary education will complete a bachelor’s degree” are really misleading. I think the courses choices are descriptive about what types of families, values and communities they come from as opposed to being being prescriptive about what every kid who hopes to make more than $40,000 a year should take.

Michelle Fine:
Agreed that there are a constellation of co-varying characteristics at play here; but there is also evidence that the same student who does (or does not) take high level courses has a very different trajectory in terms of higher education and post secondary outcomes. Our data suggest that demographically equivalent youth in detracked schools (where all students have access to rigor) are FAR more engaged, less likely to drop out, and more likely to go to college, than their peers in low level classes in tracked schools. So, yes, of course, there are other characteristics that go with who has access to rigor, but we know that NOT having access to rigor is an educational and economic problem.

Question from Frances Spielhagen, Ph.D., Instructor, Mount Saint Mary College:
What is your considered judgment of the role that the study of algebra plays in mathematics literacy? Do you feel that all students should study algebra? What do you think of ALL students studying algebra earlier than the traditional ninth grade, i.e. in eighth grade?

Ted Sizer:
Algebra is essential for any further studies of mathematics. It is a necessary stepping stone. Algebraic ideas can be introduced early, in the elementary grades. You don’t have to wait for some moment when arithematic appears to stop and algebra appears to start.

Question from lynn olson:
Ted, we’ve had a couple of questions about testing. How should we be measuring the performance of high school students today?

Ted Sizer:
We must always assess how kids are doing. You can’t teach well unless you know what the youngsters have learned. We must use a variety of assessments and there is no one best test that will allow us to know what we need to know.

Question from daniel pryzbyla, retired teacher:
Was Nation at Risk a valid education assessment, or was its purpose to promote a hidden political agenda of privatization?

Milt Goldberg:
The answer to the latter part of your question is absolutely no. In fact, one of the criticism by insiders in the Reagan administration at that time was that we did not recommend tuition tax credits, which were a goal of the administration. In the main, the commission members represented the education establishment, including teachers, principals, superintendents, and school board members. They were recommended to be commissioners by their respective organizations. There was no political litmus test. Their conclusions were based on a host of experiences they had all over the country as part of the commission’s work.

Question from Wolfgang W. Halbig Executive Director of The National Institute for school and workplace Safety:
In just one school year across our country over 10,000,000 discipline referrals were written, with lack of respect from students and now parents being shown to school teachers and school administrators, please provide directions that school district need to address before it’s too late to maintain discipline and order?

Michelle Fine:
Questions of discipline and suspension are critical to academic achievement. Given the highly discrepant rates of suspensions by race/ethnicity, it is very important to understand under what conditions teacher-student interactions come to be so troublesome. We know, for instance, that in small schools there are FAR fewer discipline problems, much lower rates of suspension. There are places where trust is high and students feel known. I would recommend that we involve students and faculty, together, in school based studies of discipline problems to investigate is it a small group of kids, a small group of educators, particular settings/times of the day/types of interactions that provoke difficult interactions?

Question from Bruce Post, Director, Federal Affairs, Vermont Student Assistance Corporation:
When A Nation At Risk was released, I was responsible for elementary and secondary education law for the U.S. Senate Education Subcommittee under Sen. Stafford. Now, twenty years later, troubling reports about our schools continue to be released: last year, the report about the senior year in high school; and just the other day, the report on writing. My question: Is there something fundamentally wrong with American society that “infects” our schools in such a way that, despite our efforts, their problems persist? Are we, in essence, not naming the right problems?

Ted Sizer:
That is a wonderful question. No, we are not naming the right problems. The big problem is local concern, local energy to do right thing for all students. The more we try to solve problems far away from the communities, the more we let the local community off the hook. We are compounding our error by trying to solve the problem long-range. Local democracy is weak at the moment and only local democracy will lead to really good schools. Responsibility at the local level will only take hold if the local leadership has the authority to make the crucial decisions. Having local authorities be the carriers-out of centralized directives won’t work.

Question from Jessica Gale, Student, Pomona College:
What do you see has the greatest challenges inherent in the No Child Left Behind Act, both as it is written into law and as it has or has not been implemented?

Ted Sizer:
The greatest challenge is to uncouple the legitimate need for more funds behind students from low income families -- the intent of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of which NCLB is a reauthorization -- and the desire of today’s Feds to micromanage schools. The Federal intent is laudable, but the means -- tight prescriptions on many sides and all assessment turning on but a standardized test or two, for example -- are the problem. The challenge then is to reassert fair and substantial local and family authority over public schools. So... the challenge is political -- and philosophical... An aside: it is ironic that the push for Big Government in public education is led by Republicans. Dwight Eisenhower must be rolling in his grave!

Question from Tom Shade, Teacher, DuBois High School:
Many of my colleagues strongly feel that “A Nation at Risk” was politically motivated, and that no real “crisis” in education ever existed. How do you respond to this ??

Milt Goldberg:
I’ve heard that criticism over the years, and it usually comes from people who have failed to examine who the commission members were. Most of them were recommended by the major mainline education organizations, and so we had on the commission the national teacher of the year, the president of the National School Boards Association, two high school principals, and school board members. There was no political litmus test, and the commission operated with total independence. A number of these commission members came to their work on the commission generally positive about the state of American education, but changed their minds as a result of their many commission experiences throughout the country.

At its release, many supporters in the Reagan administration privately criticized the report because it did not recommend the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, which was a major goal of the administration. As a matter of fact, the very existence of the report made the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education moot.

Question from Johnnie Driessner, CIO, Concordia University, Portland, OR:
There seems to be a long cyclic history of federal K-12 education reform. Are there any examples of major federal reform initiatives that have shown significant, positive, lasting impact on learning in American schools? If yes, what distinguished those efforts from others?

Milt Goldberg:
I believe A Nation at Risk has had lasting effects. The very existence of this conversation 20 years after the report’s release suggests that serious people are still taking it seriously. I also believe that we have reached consensus as a nation that all students should have access to a solid curriculum and that the public needs to have regular information about how their children and their schools are doing. This was not typically the case before 1983. While we’re not talking about higher education here, we should also remember that the GI bill, which opened up the American university to the larger population, was a federal initiative.

Question from Regina Gilchrist Ash, Regional Director, Project EXTREME high school afterschool program:
I would never dispute that the intent of the No Child Left Behind legislation is good (who doesn’t want ALL children succeeding?) but is it at all realistic and “doable” in the 12 year time frame and with the limited resources allocated and dwlindling rapidly?

Milt Goldberg:
When we issued A Nation at Risk, similar questions were raised about our recommendations that all students should take what we called the New Basics. Critics said we were unrealistic in expecting all students to aim for success in such a curriculum. It turned out that more youngsters began to take and succeed in the courses we recommmended, although we still have a way to go. I believe that as Browning said, “Our reach should exceed our grasp,” and so I applaud the goals of No Child Left Behind.

Question from Laura:
How would you describe the tone and language of Nation at Risk? How is that different or the same with NCLB?

Ted Sizer:
The tone of A Nation at Risk was martial. It was a “call to arms.” No Child Left Behind is a piece of legislation which has a very different purpose than A Nation at Risk had. A Nation at Risk was 37 pages long and I understand that NCLB legislation is over 1,000 pages long and a lot smaller type!

Question from Martha C. Brown, former public high school teacher, author of SCHOOLWISE, Tarcher/St. Martin’s Press (1985):
A Nation at Risk concentrated on high school curriculum and tests, almost completely ignoring elementary grades. Teaching and curriculum in K-3 lay the foundation for all future learning. For example, this is where children are taught, or not taught, to read well. Would A Nation at Risk have had some success in reforming education if it had paid due attention to the crucial early school years?

Milt Goldberg:
Let me affirm the centrality of early and elementary education. Those years provide the foundation for all future learning. For better or worse, the charter which framed the work of our commission required us to focus on the American high school. While in the report we mentioned elmentary education, we were not able to give it the attention it surely deserves.

Question from Robert Beeching, Curriculum Designer, Ahwahnee, CA:
Why, in an age of high visual and aural production, are the visual and performing arts not included in the “core” curriculum?

Milt Goldberg:
The Commission seriously considered and believed that the arts were crucial, but some of the members were so concerned about the paucity students who were actually taking math and science coursese that the arts were left out. I personally I followed up the report by working closely with the major arts organizations after the report came out to affirm the importance of the arts in American schools (including writing articles for the arts organizations). And I have maintained that connection to this day.

Question from Regina Gilchrist Ash, Regional Director, Project EXTREME high school afterschool program:
In my opinion, high schools have not changed a great deal in the past century (much less the 20 years since A Nation at Risk was released)and we are not meeting the needs of our students at present and for their futures. Do you agree that we are not offering enough variety for our students to choose from to encourage them to stay in school and succeed? (We should offer more and different pathways - some students will NEVER succeed with traditional school, but have remarkable talents that will serve them well once they are out of school, but which we do not recognize or reward while they are in school.)

Ted Sizer:
Yes and yes... Yes, there has been little change, save at the edges, in the basic routines of high school, the seven period day, separated “subjects,” lots of teacher talk, even though research and experience cries out for it. Yes, conventional schools serve some kids (but hardly all kids) well, as you say. And so, yes, we need variety -- albeit with ultimate high expectations of performance, “measured” in a variety of legitimate ways -- and we need families’ (and teachers’) choice among those varied paths to a solid education. We need to think hard too about the impact on kids of the media and of “the street.” To leave this to “someone else” is no solution. Government leaders have so far made little connection between learning -- and motivation to learn -- by kids and the entire panoply of influences upon their lives. All focuses still on stiffening and standardizing school-as-we-know-it, the conditions of work for students and teachers alike be damned. That must change. What is being pressed today will not work, or work well, for most kids.

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