Educational System Placing Nation ‘At Risk’

By Eileen White — April 27, 1983 5 min read
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The nation’s educational system has slipped into mediocrity at a time when the pace of international competition demands stronger schools and colleges than ever before, says the report of the 18-member panel appointed by the Secretary of Education to study American education.

The report, which was to be released during a ceremony at the White House yesterday, is the result of 18 months of hearings, study, and debate. Its findings reflect a widely held negative view of the current status of American education.

Full text of the commission’s report begins on page 12.

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Read the full text of A Nation at Risk, from the Department of Education’s Web site.

“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people,” it warns. “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

The report takes the form of “an open letter to the American people.” It maintains that an inferior educational system places the nation “at risk” of being “overtaken by competitors throughout the world.

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

In the report, the commission members emphasize that their “concern goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce.” The document, which is approximately 60 pages long, cautions that “individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life.” They ask for a renewed commitment to the “intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people, which knit together the very fabric of our society.”

Although the commission was chartered to address educational issues at the elementary, secondary, and college levels, it also was mandated to “pay particular attention” to high-school-age youth. Thus, its efforts were focused primarily on issues related to secondary education.

The report’s principal criticism of high schools centers on the decline of the academic curriculum, a phenomenon that was the subject of a major study by a commission staff member. (See Education Week, April 20, 1983.)

“The secondary-school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose,” the report says.

The document includes five major recommendations for reform, including: strengthening high-school graduation requirements with renewed emphasis on a core curriculum that includes computer science; increasing expectations for student performance through better curricula and higher college-entrance requirements; lengthening the school day and the school year; improving the teaching profession; and providing leadership and financial support for renewing the educational system.

The recommendation for “making teaching a more rewarding and respected profession” receives special emphasis. The seven-part recommendation asks for:

Higher achievement standards for those who would be teachers and improvements in teacher-preparation programs;

Higher teacher salaries that are “professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based";

An 11-month teacher contract to ensure higher salaries and time for curriculum and professional development;

A three-part “career ladder” for the teaching profession, which would include “the beginning teacher, the experienced teacher, and the master teacher";

Use of “master teachers” to design teacher-preparation programs and to supervise beginning teachers;

Immediate attention to the shortage of mathematics and science teachers, through the employment of mathematicians and scientists, graduate students, and retired scientists in the schools; and

Financial incentives, such as grants and loans, to attract outstanding students to teaching.

The commission report also addresses the controversial issue of the federal role in education. The members were appointed by the Reagan Administration, which has opposed a strong federal role and has sought to sharply reduce the Education Department’s $15-billion budget. Nevertheless, the document asserts that “the federal government has the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education.”

Acknowledging that state and local officials “have the primary responsibility for financing and governing the schools,” the report lists “functions of national consequence” that require federal involvement “with a minimum of administrative burden and intrusiveness.”

They are: “protecting constitutional and civil rights for students and school personnel; collecting data, statistics, and information about education generally; supporting curriculum improvement and research on teaching, learning, and the management of schools; supporting teacher training in areas of critical shortage or key national needs; and providing student financial assistance and research and graduate training.”

The federal government, according to the report, “must provide the national leadership to ensure that the nation’s public and private resources are marshaled to address [essential] issues.”

The members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education are:

David Pierpoint Gardner (chairman), president of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and president-elect of the University of California;
Yvonne W. Larsen (vice chairman), past president of the San Diego City School Board;
William O. Baker, retired chairman of the board of Bell Telephone Laboratories, Murray Hill, N.J.;
Anne Campbell, former Nebraska commissioner of education, Lincoln, Neb.;
Emeral A. Crosby, principal of Northern High School, Detroit;
Charles A. Foster Jr., past president of the Foundation for Teaching Economics, San Francisco;
Norman C. Francis, president of Xavier University, New Orleans;
A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale University, New Haven;
Shirley Gordon, president of Highline Community College, Midway, Wash.;
Robert V. Haderlein, past president of the National School Boards Association, Girard, Kan.;
Gerald Holton, professor of physics and the history of science at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.;
Annette Y. Kirk of Kirk Associates, Mecosta, Mich.;
Margaret S. Marston, member of the Virginia State Board of Education, Arlington, Va.;
Albert H. Quie, former governor of Minnesota, St. Paul;
Francisco D. Sanchez Jr., superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools;
Glenn T. Seaborg, professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley;
Jay Sommer, foreign-language teacher at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School;
and Richard Wallace, principal of Lutheran High School East, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 1983 edition of Education Week as Educational System Placing Nation ‘At Risk’


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