School & District Management Opinion

A Nation at Risk Was Fake News

By Marc Tucker — May 02, 2018 9 min read
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Anya Kamenetz recently did a story for NPR in which she reported that the authors of A Nation at Risk, the famous 1983 U.S. government report on the nation’s schools, "...never set out to undertake an objective inquiry into the state of the nation’s schools.” "[A]lready alarmed by what they believed was a decline in education, [they] looked for facts to fit that narrative.”

My eyes lit up when I saw this story, because I have been saying much the same thing, with no response from anyone.

Much of the famous claim that this country would have gone to war if a foreign country had inflicted such a decline in student performance on us rested on a long-term decline in performance on the SAT. The data were real enough, but so was the reason. The population taking the test had gone from a small elite to a much larger group that more accurately reflected the average high school student. So the decline in SAT scores was most definitely not proof that the performance of high school students had gone to hell in a handbasket.

Kamenetz pointed to a report, commissioned by the Department of Energy in 1990 from the Sandia National Laboratory, that did a pretty good job of analyzing the data on American high school performance during the period allegedly analyzed by the A Nation at Risk panel. They found no evidence to support the panel’s contention of precipitous broad decline in student performance.

Another important report, by Daniel Koretz, now Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at Harvard, but at that time working at the Congressional Budget Office, showed that there had indeed been a decline, mainly in high school performance, that had begun in the 1960s. But he reported that this decline ended with the cohort of students that entered school in the late 1960s. As that cohort wended its way through the grades, they continued to do better than their predecessors, and those that followed also did better. Further, Koretz reported, the poor and minority students whose test performance was analyzed showed no dip in performance in the period in which the performance of virtually all other students of all ages was falling.

Put this picture together and you will see that the American people were lied to. Their children had not been falling off an educational cliff right up to the day the report was released. Instead, the performance of American students had been doing better and better beginning with the cohort of students who had entered school in the late 1960s, FIFTEEN OR SO YEARS before the panel sounded its famous false alarm.

When Kamenetz called some panel members all these years after the release of their report, and put it to them that they had fudged the data, they might have argued with her. They evidently did not. But there was no apology, either.

Indeed, they—or at least some of them—are defiantly proud of what they did. Gerald Holton, the emeritus professor of physics at Harvard who wrote the most incendiary lines in the report, is quoted in the NPR story acknowledging that they “set out to confirm their existing concerns about the state of American education.” He and his colleagues "...knew there was trouble ahead [for American education]. We knew something had to be done.” Apparently, when you “know something has to be done,” it does not matter whether you have any evidence for that proposition. Nor does it matter if you manipulate the data to mobilize public opinion on behalf of your goals. Nor does it matter if it happens to be the government that is doing this.

Gerald Holton was not just a professor of physics at Harvard. He was also professor of science history. Surely, he knows that Galileo was put under permanent house arrest because the evidence he offered for a heliocentric view of the earth’s place in the cosmos came into conflict with the beliefs of the church. Many historians of science attribute the emergence of modern science to Galileo’s insistence on the primacy of evidence over belief in determining the truth.

Holton seems to be taking the view that there is nothing wrong with fake news, even if presented by the government, if that fake news has been offered in the service of a worthy belief. My response to Holton: If you believe that American education is going to hell in a handbasket, then offer solid evidence to prove it. If you can’t find any such evidence, then don’t fake it. If you do fake it, you have no defense when others do the same thing to justify their beliefs. This is doubly true when the generator of the fake news is the government.

At the end of her story, Kamenetz quotes Jim Guthrie, now a professor at Lynn University, who has held many prominent positions in the American education establishment. She asked him what he thought about the lack of evidence presented by the authors of the 1983 report. “My view of it, in retrospect,” he says, “is seldom, maybe never, has a public report been so wrong and done so much good.”

Let us leave aside the question as to whether the end justifies the means to consider, for a moment, whether Guthrie is right. Is it true that A Nation at Risk has done the United States a world of good? What’s the evidence for that?

Once again, there is none. For as long as there was a long-term version of NAEP (that is the version in which the items in the assessment did not change over time, permitting valid comparisons over the long haul), the scores of high school students changed only very slightly from the 1970s, when the survey was first administered. The 1970s, you recall, was the decade before A Nation at Risk was released, so this data shows no change in high school performance since the report’s release. From the time that PISA, the international comparison of student achievement administered by the OECD, was first given in the year 2000, to the present, the scores of U.S. students have been steady to slightly falling, while students in a growing number of other countries have been doing better. PISA also surveys high school students. So there is good reason to believe that there has been no improvement in the academic performance of high school students since the release of the report. Guthrie might have been referring to the maelstrom of “reforms” instituted in the United States since A Nation at Risk was released in 1983, but reform is not improvement, and there has been precious little improvement.

The data would suggest that A Nation at Risk had little or no effect on American education. But I do not think that is true. I think the report had a profoundly malign effect on American education.

No one can doubt that the report got the attention of the American public and policymakers. The authors persuaded the American public and policymakers that there had been a broad and precipitous decline in student performance. The obvious question was who was to blame? The obvious answer was the people who had been in charge: the professional educators. The release of the report marked the hinge point of a sea change in the politics of American education. It delegitimized the teachers and school administrators in our public schools and ushered in policies based on a profound distrust of the very professionals on whom the improvement of the system would depend. The subtext of the “reforms” so much admired by Guthrie and his colleagues is the charge that it is the regular public school teachers, their unions and the school administrators who are responsible for the alleged failure of the country’s schools and reform should be about circumventing or at least weakening their control of the system. I find it hard to believe that this line of reasoning would have had very much traction at all were it not for the language I quoted above from A Nation at Risk.

The attitudes toward teachers and teaching, and the actions that flowed from those attitudes, have led to a steep decline in the number of high school students deciding to be teachers, the long slow relative decline in teacher compensation, the early retirement of many capable teachers, the steady decline in the average tenure of school principals and superintendents and the rise in employment of unqualified teachers. William Bennet, President Reagan’s Education Secretary, famously declared school administrators to be “the blob.” While the United States was busy attacking its education professionals, the countries whose students are now outpacing ours were working hard to raise the status of the profession of teaching by improving compensation, raising standards for entering the profession, creating incentives for the most competent professionals to share their expertise with others and instituting myriad other measures, all of which can be characterized as investing in the profession. Not one of these countries chose to improve their education system by implicitly attacking the competence and commitment of their education professionals. A Nation at Risk set the tone and provided the rationale for all of this.

Kamenetz closed her report with another observation I have made in this space. She wonders whether, rather than painting a picture in which the report produced important gains in American education despite the failures of American educators, it might be more accurate to paint a picture in which we see American educators succeeding despite the attacks on them stimulated by the report. In this view of the world, one that I think has a lot of merit, we need to see the steady scores of American high school students since the 1970s as a victory. Why? Because they held steady in spite of a substantial increase in the proportion of students living in poverty, recent increases in school segregation by socio-economic status and race, a decrease in the equity of school funding within states and an increase in the spread between teacher compensation and the compensation of others with the same amount of education.

I agree that our education professionals are to be congratulated on what they have managed to accomplish despite these obstacles. But it not good enough. One nation after another is doing better, many of them much better.

Maybe the way to make that happen is for the next government to issue another report, a follow-up to A Nation at Risk, one that tells the truth this time: that the problem is not a trumped-up story about a massive decline in student performance that never took place, but rather massive changes in the dynamics of the global economy and in technology that now require a far better educated workforce and citizenry.

Perhaps the most insidious result of A Nation at Risk was the idea that the problem was a fall from some height of former national education excellence. If that was true, then the obvious response would be to restore polices once in place and since abandoned. That is not the situation we actually faced at all. Our crime was failing to change our education system in the face of new challenges. A Nation at Risk asked us to face backward, when we should have been facing forward. Other nations did exactly that.

It’s time to stop celebrating fake news.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.