Twenty years after the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk, student achievement has barely budged, in part because the report’s diagnosis failed to confront “essential issues of power and control” in U.S. schools, asserts a report released here last week.
The new report, by the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, advocates reconstructing America’s schools “based on the principles of accountability, transparency, and choice.”
“A Nation at Risk provided the nation with a much-needed wake-up call, but its recommendations proved too timid to catalyze great leaps in educational performance,” said Paul E. Peterson. The Harvard University political scientist and task force member edited the new volume, Our Schools and Our Future ... Are We Still at Risk?
It is published by the Hoover Institution, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based think tank that convened the group of 11 education scholars to appraise progress since 1983 and chart an agenda for change.
“What ends up happening is reform often gets passed, but in a highly compromised form,” said John E. Chubb, another member of the task force and the chief education officer of the New York City-based Edison Schools Inc.
To remedy the situation, the task force suggests a more fundamental set of strategies for redesigning public schools.
Every school or education provider—at least those that accept public dollars—should be held to rigorous, statewide academic standards; statewide assessments of student and school performance; and statewide systems of incentives and interventions tied to academic results, the task force maintains.
Failing schools should be closed, reconstituted, or taken over by others, including contracting out their management to private providers. Students in those schools should have the right, and full funding, to leave for better schools, including private ones.
The report argues that “parental decisions rather than bureaucratic regulation should drive the education enterprise.” Among other measures, it recommends giving charter schools a “full and fair chance” by providing them with full per-pupil funding, money for facilities costs, and exemptions from teacher-certification and collective-bargaining rules.
The task force also advocates a “proper test” of school vouchers in selected communities. Sponsoring such experiments and evaluations is a key role for the federal government, it says.
In addition, the task force recommends that those who seek “complete information about a school or school system (excluding personal information about individuals) should readily be able to get it.” Task force members disagreed, however, about whether private schools that accept publicly financed vouchers should have to participate in state testing programs, or test only those students who receive the vouchers.
While the report describes standards-based education as “promising,” it argues that it has not achieved its full potential. The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 “may help by mobilizing federal muscle to push states and districts in the right direction,” the task force says.
But it adds: “Washington has scant leverage over states and districts. NCLB has long, slow timelines—and few sanctions when states and districts do not meet those timelines.”
Speaking at a Washington symposium where the report was released, Secretary of Education Rod Paige disagreed. The potential loss of federal dollars provides “considerable opportunities for enforcement,” he said.
“I think the great unknown, at this point, is to what extent the federal government ... will keep the heat on the states to keep the standards high and accountability meaningful,” said Mr. Chubb.
Other panelists generally endorsed the report’s principles but disagreed with its contention that not much has happened to carry out the recommendations in A Nation at Risk.
“During the last 20 years, there was a hurricane of activity in response to or at least after A Nation at Risk,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. He was the governor of Tennessee when the 1983 report was released, and secretary of education during the first Bush administration.
While he agreed that the results have been disappointing, he blamed that outcome, in part, on general upheaval in society and “not enough money in the right places.”
“Maybe 20 years is not long enough,” Sen. Alexander added. “That’s hard to say out loud in public, but maybe it’s possible.”