Bell Marks Anniversary of ‘Nation at Risk’

By Sheppard Ranbom — May 02, 1984 5 min read

Washington--Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, marking the anniversary last week of the release of National Commission on Excellence in Education’s report, said the report sparked a “cry for educational improvement that has permeated the land” and encouraged officials at all levels to launch reform activities.

But the year’s “unprecedented” gains have been countered, the Secretary said in a press conference here, by “great disappointments,” including the failure of many initiatives to advance the teaching of for-eign languages and the opposition of the National Education Association to merit-pay and career-ladder plans proposed in the states.

‘Decisive Steps’

The enthusiasm with which “A Nation at Risk,” the excellence commission’s report, was greeted, Secretary Bell said, encouraged legislators, governors, and school boards to “take decisive steps to change the way that we determine salaries and roles of teachers, upgrade promotion and graduation requirements for students, demand improved textbooks, and invite private industry to take a more active role in supporting and improving education.”

According to the Secretary, 48 states have approved or are considering upgraded high-school graduation requirements. Some 35 states have enacted new requirements, some of which meet the standards recommended by the excellence panel, he said.

Moreover, six states--California, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Tennessee, and Utah--have incentive-pay and career-ladder programs for teachers. Some 24 other states are still debating the programs in their legislatures, Secretary Bell noted.

(The Education Department plans to release an updated report on states’ efforts to implement reforms, the Secretary said, at a White House ceremony honoring the members of the commission in early May, after President Reagan returns from China.)


Describing the disappointments of the past year, the Secretary noted that with the exception of New York and a few other states, “there has not been enough momentum for foreign-language instruction.” There also has not been “enough attention given to extending the school day and year” and to improving the content of textbooks and bolstering the budgets to purchase them, Mr. Bell said.

The Secretary also said he was “keenly disappointed by the refusal of the National Education Association to support changes in teacher-salary administration.” He charged that the nea has been instrumental in stalling merit-pay and career-ladder plans before a number of state legislatures.

Mr. Bell warned parents and educators not to expect “instant results” from the reforms generated by the commission and other groups that have conducted national studies.

There are likely to be “no dramatic changes” in the results of the American College Testing program examination or in Scholastic Aptitutde Test scores this year because “many of the reforms have not yet been implemented,” he said.

The “biggest challenge” to ensuring that reforms take root will be to “keep the momentum going through the second year,” the Secretary added. He urged the Council of Chief State School Officers, the nation’s governors, and state and local school leaders to keep fueling the momentum for revitalizing the nation’s education system.

State, National Finances

Mr. Bell said that President Reagan has been influential in seeing to it that education is “at the top of the national agenda.” He also cited fiscal 1985 budget proposals for federal education spending as evidence of the Administration’s response to the commission’s report.

But reporters sharply questioned the Administration’s commitment, citing a new National Education Association study indicating that the federal contribution to public-school funding declined to an estimated 6.4 percent of the total outlay for schooling this year, the lowest level since the 1960’s. (See Education Week, April 25, 1984.)

Asked whether the federal government could afford to make cuts in defense spending to provide more money for education, Mr. Bell said, “The first responsibility of the federal government is to take care of the national defense question.” He added that even if more money were cut from defense, it would have to be used to reduce the national deficit.

“If we spend more federal money,” he said, “we make the deficit problem more hopeless or we have to raise taxes.” And even if taxes were increased, Mr. Bell said, the revenue generated “should go to reduce the deficit.”

In spite of the deficit, the Secretary argued, the Reagan Administration’s economic policies, which “cut taxes by 25 percent [and] brought inflation down by 9 percent,” have helped improve state economies to the point that the states can now afford to pay higher salaries to teachers and fund other reform initiatives.

Four Measurable Goals

Secretary Bell reiterated the four major goals for states to achieve by 1989 that he cited at the national forum in Indianapolis last December: cutting student dropout rates to below 10 percent; surpassing the average college-admission test scores of the 1965 graduating seniors; increasing graduation requirements in basic subjects and requiring students to pass an examination in each; and raising teachers’ salaries to make them competitive with the average entry-level salaries of college graduates entering other professions.

The Dropout Question

When questioned about how the dropout rate could be reduced to 10 percent while standards are being upgraded, Secretary Bell countered that “it is lower standards that lead to more dropouts.”

“Take a look at what has happened,” he said. “The decade in which the dropout rate increased is the the one in which standards were low.”

“Students not going on to college need four years of English and three years of mathematics and science more than those going to college,’' Mr. Bell said.

He added that although non-college-bound students ought to study mathematics, “that doesn’t mean they should be pushed into calculus.”

“I don’t believe all [the talk] that an increase in standards causes a decline in holding power,” the Secretary added.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 1984 edition of Education Week as Bell Marks Anniversary of ‘Nation at Risk’