Inside ‘A Nation at Risk': A View from the Cutting-Room Floor

By Lynn Olson — April 27, 1988 16 min read

PROVIDENCE, RI.--Five years ago, A Nation at Risk shattered complacency about the state of American education with its grim message about mediocrity in the schools.

Since then, the report has become virtually synonymous with the state and local “excellence movement’’ that it helped foster. The most widely disseminated education document in American history, it has been printed millions of times and in a host of languages.

But despite the enormous success and familiarity of the report, far less is known about the complex negotiations and changes that occurred as a harried commission struggled for 18 grueling months to meet its April 1983 deadline.

What the printed text does not reveal are the arguments that went into its making, and the perspectives that were left on the cutting-room floor.

Now, however, previously unavailable drafts, staff memoranda, letters, and commissioned papers--donated to Brown University by an alumnus--shed new light on the commission’s work.

In many ways, the ideas that were excised by the 18-member commission are as illuminating about the tensions in American education as what appeared in print.

Left out of the final document, for example, were a separate section on the gifted and talented, strong language on the needs of disadvantaged students, a number of recommendations for improving higher education, and a pointed critique of the federal role in education.

Terrel H. Bell, then U.S. Secretary of Education, appointed the National Commission on Excellence in Education on Aug. 26, 1981.

Its 18 members included two principals, a district superintendent, a “teacher of the year,’' four college and university presidents, a former governor, three individuals connected with state and local school boards, a parent, a retired corporate executive, a former commissioner of education, a Nobel-laureate chemist, a professor of physics, and a publisher of educational literature.

At the time, President Reagan had swept into office with promises to abolish the U.S. Education Department. His first budget augured sharp cuts in federal spending for schools.

“There seemed to be little prospect for a substantial audience for a report on education,’' recalled Gerald Holton, a member of the commission, in an essay in the fall 1984 issue of Daedalus.

“Like some others on the 18-member commission,’' the Harvard physicist wrote, “I thus accepted the appointment reluctantly, with the explicit understanding that there would be few meetings and that a minority report would be allowed if a need for it developed.’'

His qualms, Mr. Holton recalled, were not alleviated during the commission’s first meeting in October 1981.

When a highly placed Administration official was asked during the meeting about the lack of federal funding for science education, he replied, “There is no national mandate for such support.’'

Even Secretary Bell was dubious about the commission’s prospects.

Staff minutes of the October meeting report that the Secretary “stated with cautious optimism that the Commission might prove to be a ‘real winner.’''

Years later, Mr. Bell would write in The Thirteenth Man, his memoir of the Reagan years, that the impact of A Nation at Risk “by far exceeded my highest expectations.’'

Evolving Focus

But interviews with commission members and their staff, and the contents of commission memoranda and drafts, make clear that it did not set out to produce the concise, sharply worded document for which it has since become famous.

“It evolved,’' said Milton Goldberg, executive director of the commission’s staff and now head of the Education Department’s programs-for-the-improvement-of-practice division.

“It was only after the commission began to look at the data, and to have its public hearings, that it began to get a sense of the depth of the problem,’' he said.

“Even then,’' he added, “it was not clear among all of the members that we needed a fairly brief, hard-hitting report.’'

The commission’s staff was also divided about the kind of document that was required, recalled Peter H. Gerber, a former staff member who is now director of the education program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The staff included seven full- and part-time employees, numerous consultants, and the periodic assistance of other researchers at the National Institute of Education.

“In some ways, we had a classic split between the researchers--who wanted to be sure that more data, more refinement, more sides of an issue, more caveats were displayed,’' Mr. Gerber said last week, “and those of us who were involved in the ‘administration’ of the commission.’'

In the fall of 1981, at the request of the commission, staff members produced a series of papers that summarized available information, laid out issues, and suggested directions for further research, based on the commission’s charter.

Some of the commission’s later concerns are already nascent in these early documents, including its focus on the content of the curriculum.

Hearings and Meetings

Those early outlines were followed by an intensive year of meetings, public hearings, commissioned papers, site visits, and discussions with education, corporate, and civic leaders.

Thus, a trip to Chicago in June 1982 included a public hearing on college admissions and the school-to-college transition; a dinner discussion with some 20 corporate and community leaders; a breakfast meeting with 12 high-school seniors and college freshmen; a site visit to two corporate-education programs; lunch with 27 local college presidents and provosts; and a debriefing session.

“We estimated that during the life of the commission, there was some kind of event involving some commission members, and related to commission work, at least once every three weeks,’' Mr. Goldberg said.

Throughout that year, staff members supplied hundreds of pages of information and documentation to the commission, whose members were fleshing out their own views in written statements ranging from short paragraphs to longer letters.

An outline of the final report, approved by the commission in September 1982, included a foreword and executive summary, followed by four chapters, the first of which began with a “relatively brief, positive description of the size and scope of American education.’'

From there, the first chapter went on to include facts and figures about the teaching and student populations; the proportions of students completing various levels of schooling; student achievement; international comparisons; the interactions between American schools, colleges, and universities; an exploration of social forces affecting the schools; and, finally, an outline of major problems.

Issue Papers

Later that fall, Mr. Gardner asked the staff to synthesize the information collected to date in a series of brief, 2- to 5-page issue papers. The resulting documents covered more than 20 topics, ranging from tracking to values education.

(David P. Gardner, chairman of the commission and president of the University of California, was out of the country last week and unavailable for comment.)

In December 1982, staff members began drafting sections of the actual report.

‘Not Emphatic Enough’

It was partially in reaction to those drafts that commission members decided on the kind of report they wanted.

“The drafts were not emphatic enough to match the gravity of the need,’' William O. Baker, a member of the commission, said last week.

“They reflected too much the position that the Education Department itself has adopted,’' added the retired chairman of the board of Bell Telephone Laboratories. “Namely, everything is O.K., just do a little fine-tuning here and there.’'

But former staff members argued last week that the staff drafts--based on earlier conceptions of the report--were a necessary precursor to the steps that followed.

“People very frequently don’t know what they want until they see what they don’t want,’' said Susan Traiman, a former staff member who is now a senior policy analyst for the National Governors’ Association.

Although the staff drafts may have presented “too much of a balanced view,’' she said, “It would be hard to imagine any staff member using the kind of rhetoric that a commission member felt free to use.’'

In January 1983--just two months before the scheduled release date--Glenn T. Seaborg, another commission member and a Nobel laureate in chemistry, wrote his own outline of the report.

‘Clarion Call, Call to Arms’

It included some of the first glimpses of the language that would make its way into the final document:

“1. Clarion call, call to arms, concise, include 4, 5 or 6 top recommendations. Total of 10 pages (no more than 15 pages),’' Mr. Seaborg wrote. “2. Strident opening sentence or two. (1) If foreign country did this to us we would declare war. (2) We have identified the enemy and it is us.’'

“We are indulging,’' Mr. Seaborg wrote further down in the outline, “in ‘Economic Unilateral Disarmament.’''

‘Start From Scratch’

In an interview last week, Mr. Holton said, “I, for one, found that the drafts being prepared by staff were so involuted and complex--and did not really see the whole picture--that at some point, I said, ‘Let us start from scratch and do the writing ourselves.’''

“I still have a tape of that meeting,’' Mr. Holton said, “in which I just spoke my own mind of what such a report should be like.’'

As “punishment for not keeping quiet,’' he said, Mr. Gardner and several other commission members asked the physicist to write his own version of the opening statement.

“They gave me a long weekend to do it,’' he said, “Friday afternoon to Monday morning.’'

Mr. Holton’s Feb. 14 draft would lay the groundwork for much of the final report.

But the Brown University documents reveal that it continued to undergo extensive revision, reorganization, and editing throughout February and March.

A Lot of Issues Fell Out’

Subsequent decisions about what to include or leave out of the report were based on several factors, commission and staff members said last week, including the length of the final document and the struggle to reach consensus.

“When the commission decided, finally, that what they wanted to produce was a fairly brief, hard-hitting report that communicated a central message to the American people, ... then everything else became, if you will, peripheral,’' said Mr. Goldberg.

“A lot of issues very naturally fell out,’' he added, either because they would detract from the report’s central themes, or because they were too complicated to discuss in a short document.

As examples, he mentioned tracking, class size, changes in school organization, and the nature of teacher training.

“Some of the commission members had strong views about what constituted a solid curriculum in one area or another,’' he added. “What we ended up with were very, very brief statements about the curriculum.’'

Early drafts of the report also urged that the nation’s tests and examinations include more writing. “In far too many school systems,’' a Feb. 23 draft stated, “more multiple-choice testing or very short-answer tests have almost entirely crowded out the essay, as written either over a period of days or under test conditions.’'

The ‘Greatest Waste’

Earlier versions of the report also included strong wording about the needs of disadvantaged students.

Although A Nation at Risk asserts that “excellence’’ and “equity’’ are “twin goals’’ that must be pursued simultaneously, it has been repeatedly criticized for paying too little attention to the needs of the disadvantaged.

In fact, a March 11 draft of the report argued that the “greatest waste occurs in those sectors of our population which the schools and society have not served well in the past and continue to serve poorly today--ethnic and racial minorities, the poor and disadvantaged, and the gifted.’'

In order to foster a “Learning Society,’' the draft argued, “it is imperative that the special needs and talents of these very groups receive special attention.’'

Another version of the report advocated that each school “make special provision in terms of guidance, curriculum, and manpower’’ to meet the needs of both disadvantaged and gifted students.

The same draft also urged that both schools and colleges create “special programs’’ to recruit and assist talented “educationally handicapped students who can be brought up to par and are likely then to stay with sound academic curriculum.’'

“Given the huge number of under-achievers now in the system,’' it argued, “this is a program of urgency.’'

But while the final report noted that both educationally disadvantaged students and gifted and talented students might require special curriculum materials and assistance, the earlier, stronger language was missing.

‘Reprise of the 60’s’

Commission and staff members offer several opinions on why the changes occurred.

Mr. Goldberg said the commission’s consensus was that the schools should hold the same, high goals for all youngsters, although some students might need special assistance to meet them.

The commission wanted to depict the problems in education as “common problems,’' said Mr. Gerber. A special emphasis on the disadvantaged, he argued, would “seem like a reprise of the 60’s’’ or a “plea for federal action,’' and had the potential to fragment the agenda.

In retrospect, Mr. Baker said last week, he wished the commission had emphasized the needs of disadvantaged students more.

“The byproducts of either ignoring--or at least underemphasizing--the problems of the disadvantaged are very much more severe than most people, particularly those active in the establishment, were willing to admit or really felt,’' at the time, he said.

Mr. Baker also drafted a separate chapter on the needs of gifted and talented students which never appeared in the final report.

But Ms. Traiman said criticism of the report for downplaying the “twin goals of equity and high-quality schooling,’' to which it refers, was “unjustified.’'

That criticism was “not an actual response to the text,’' she said last week, “but a response to the Administration, and a perception that the Administration was unsympathetic’’ to the problem.

Higher Education: Little Interest

Although the commission’s charter instructed it to pay special attention to the needs of teen-age youths and to high schools, earlier drafts of A Nation at Risk also included a number of recommendations for higher education.

A March 11 version of the report, for instance, recommended expanding the National Assessment of Educational Progress to include undergraduates and adults.

It also advocated strengthening liberal-education requirements in the nation’s colleges and universities, and restructuring higher education’s criteria for the retention, tenure, and promotion of faculty to lend “greater weight to both effective teaching’’ and to cooperative ventures with schools, cultural, scientific, and medical institutions, and businesses and industry.

But according to Mr. Baker, it soon became clear that the commission could not “satisfactorily’’ tackle the problems of higher education, which were, in his view, far less acute than those of elementary and secondary schools.

“In a way,’' said Mr. Holton, “if I regretted anything about [the focus on junior and senior high schools], it is not that we didn’t go into higher education, but that we perhaps should have gone into the earlier years more, in order to prepare properly for the high schools.’'

The lack of attention to higher education, however, drew criticism from at least one staff member, who wrote that it was a “major missing element’’ in later drafts of the report.

According to Ms. Traiman, “the key promoter of the higher-education issues was a staff person. There wasn’t, as I recall, a champion on the commission.’'

Things Got Watered Down’

“The part of the report that was written most quickly and in some respects, perhaps, had the least time for reflection, were the recommendations,’' Ms. Traiman added.

“I think they got short shrift,’' she said last week.

“There wasn’t a chance to go back and say, ‘Lets look at these recommendations and see if they really correct the problem.’'

In the area of teaching, in particular, she said, the report “could have been seen as much more forward- looking,’' if some of its earlier language had been retained.

“As I recall,’' she added, “we were all in the office toward the end, on a weekend. Things got watered down. Different commission members held out for different things.’'

Several who worked on the report last week praised Mr. Gardner, in particular, for the delicate editing and negotiating skills that were required as the commission strove to meet its deadline.

‘Excellence Costs’

Earlier versions were also more pointed about the lack of federal funding and leadership for education at the time of the commission’s work.

The final version noted: “Excellence costs. But in the long run mediocrity costs far more.’'

But an earlier version added: “This Commission would be irresponsible not to state clearly, explicitly, and firmly the essential importance of the Federal government taking its responsibilities in these matters seriously and not permitting itself to be distracted by symbolic but irrelevant issues such as the debate about whether or not there should be a Federal Department of Education.’'

Although commission members insisted that a report without any mention of the federal government’s responsibilities would be a sham, in the end, they decided not to put a price tag on their recommendations.

Mr. Gerber attributed the decision not to expand upon specific federal policies, in part, to the political context at the time.

“Vouchers were still very hot,’' he noted. “There were people on the commission who were closely attuned to the views of the Administration, who were proponents of vouchers. The basic determination that the commission made was that if at all possible, it would issue a unanimous report, and that it may have to sacrifice attention to some issues in order to gain it.’'

“The parties that wanted a bigger federal role, a bigger federal budget, and the parties that wanted freedom of choice, the diffusion of resources, and the privatization of resources essentially both gave way,’' he said.

“In retrospect,’' Mr. Holton said, “we might have insisted on a minority report with price tags.’' But at the time, he noted, it seemed reasonable to omit, particularly because of other reports in progress that the commission knew would include cost estimates.

‘Self-Inflicted Wound’

Mr. Holton and Mr. Baker offered biting appraisals last week of what has happened to federal funding since the publication of A Nation at Risk.

“The obvious pulling back of the federal government’s role is shocking and will be thought of as a self-inflicted, crippling wound in the future,’' Mr. Holton said.

The nation needs an “Education Restoration Act,’' Mr. Baker contended, that is “federally sponsored and that involves a movement comparable to the space-age movement’’ of the 1950’s and 60’s.

“The mobilization of our population,’' he said, “is going to require a federal effort of unprecedented dimensions, and it could well be that it needs to be based around an independent agency that focuses particularly on science and mathematics, and just brings everything else along with it.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 1988 edition of Education Week as Inside ‘A Nation At Risk’