School & District Management Opinion

A Report’s Forgotten Message: Mobilize

By David S. Seeley — February 20, 2009 9 min read
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America is once again in crisis mode. We feel the effects of an economy that seems not just in recession, but disintegrating. Settled certainties, assumptions, and expectations are crumbling—causing anxiety, yes, but also opening up opportunities for new directions that were unachievable in more-normal times.

As the situation worsens, our new president has urged that “all of us” get involved in finding solutions. It remains to be seen how well we rise to this challenge, particularly in the fundamentally important area of education.

The last time the nation was in crisis mode about education was in 1983, when the alarm-bell report A Nation at Risk warned us that America was facing a dire emergency that amounted to “unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” We were producing “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people,” the report said.

About This Series

This is the third installment in a yearlong, occasional series examining the impact of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.

The first installment was published on April 23, 2008, as the 25th anniversary of the report was being marked. It explored concerns about global competition and efforts by policymakers and educators to benchmark American performance against that of students in competitor nations.

The second, published Sept. 24, looked at U.S. progress toward finding more time for children’s learning. In the fourth and final installment, Education Week will examine the education system of a high-performing nation as well as the systems in several other countries.

View the complete index of stories in the A Nation at Risk series.

The apocalyptic language of A Nation at Risk created a sense of urgency that helped push through its most talked-about recommendation: the establishment of much tougher educational standards. Since then, we have been implementing a three-pronged system of standards, tests, and “consequences"—with a vengeance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The tragedy of A Nation at Risk is that those who were roused to action by the language of crisis got only half the report’s message: the need for school standards. The other half, what students, parents, and the broader community must do to achieve these standards, was ignored and forgotten.

Many fail to realize that A Nation at Risk was directed not just to educators and policymakers, but “to the American people.” It was a clarion call to “all of us” to create what the report called a “learning society” through a whole new level of commitment to high-quality, lifelong education for all. Knowing that its new standards represented a radical change, from accepting mediocre performance, even outright failure, from millions of students, to aiming for quality learning for all children, the report also saw the need for major changes in our society and culture, not just in the schools. “It is ... the America of all of us that is at risk,” said the report, and “it is to each of us that this imperative is addressed.”

In effect, A Nation at Risk was telling us that the task was not simply to fix the schools, but to fix the education system—the whole complex of schools plus family and community influences and support that actually educates our children, for good or ill. The implication was that this broader system was dysfunctional, almost in default. Looked at from this perspective, the message of the report was not so much, as most people saw it, that our schools had failed our society, but that society had failed the schools—and our children.

A major reason we didn’t hear this message was the long-held assumption that education is a function delegated to a government agency, like policing, firefighting, or defense. So an entity called “the schools” was what needed to be reformed, not the complex, interactive, and people-dependent system we call education. The change we needed then, and still need today, is a major shift in our thinking to redefine education reform as a shared responsibility of the whole community. What we did in the 1980s instead was to redefine A Nation at Risk as a report on “school reform” and go about the normal bureaucratic business of running schools with the addition of the new standards, tests, and consequences—in other words, our usual “schools alone” approach.

This was a tragic missed opportunity, since we have yet to make that crucial shift in thinking and have persisted with a “let’s fix the schools” mind-set that continues to leave us “a nation at risk,” with massive numbers of inadequately educated children.

Now is the time to heed that forgotten message and shift our vision to see education as a shared responsibility. Even with today’s dire economic problems, circumstances are more favorable now than in 1983 for hearing the other part of what A Nation at Risk had to say.

The crisis we face today is even more urgent. It threatens not only our financial institutions, but our way of life. People are aroused. There is widespread desire to respond to President Barack Obama’s call for all of us to get involved.

Education is ripe for a different approach. The futility of relying on traditional “schools alone” reform is more apparent now. We should be ready to recognize that student motivation is a major problem, and this recognition forces us to look to parents and the wider culture. Virtually everyone, even if only through example, can participate in helping children be more motivated and become responsible citizens. The trouble is, we haven’t asked them to get involved.

The tragedy of <i>A Nation at Risk</i> is that those who were roused to action by the language of crisis got only half the report's message: the need for school standards.

Leadership now gets the message. President Obama says: “I want to lead a new era of mutual responsibility in education—one where we all come together for the sake of our children’s success; an era where each of us does our part to make that success a reality—parents and teachers, leaders in Washington, and citizens all across America.”

What the president wants is exactly the agenda we need. But it is not self-executing. It’s going to take a huge change in attitudes, assumptions, habits, and relationships. Here is one idea of how that could happen, through a national mobilization.

A Nation at Risk said that “the essential raw materials needed to reform our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective leadership.” But most leaders at the time were not thinking outside the “schools alone” box. Today, however, a high-profile national mobilization of the broader community to help students succeed could create, under the leadership of a president calling on us to participate, a different, almost patriotic, vision of educational improvement, one that people would respond to and join.

Community mobilizations would pull together students, parents, and volunteers, as well as all relevant agencies—those concerned with families, health, mental health, counseling, apprenticeships, religious groups, youth development, and more. Schools would identify children needing help, and then a “whatever it takes” approach would be employed to provide it.

Some programs are already demonstrating the power of this kind of mobilization, notably Ohio’s “Support Student Success” program, Nebraska’s Community Learning Centers, and various innovative individual schools. But a strategy that says “let’s mobilize to help our children succeed” is so different from the normal approach of “let’s fix the schools” that it is hard to initiate and sustain. It’s swimming against strong mainstream currents and fixed mind-sets.

The other half [of the report’s message], what students, parents, and the broader community must do to achieve these standards, was ignored and forgotten.

An immediate priority of a national mobilization of this kind would be to rescue the millions of children facing academic and social failure in schools today. These young people cannot afford to wait for current reform policies to plod ahead. Every year of failure pushes them further away from the possibility of success, and further toward the possibility of continued school failure, unemployment, drugs, and crime. Most people would not hesitate to help a drowning child. Would they be any less likely to help millions of children drowning in our schools if they could see them clearly and understood what they could do? An organized community-wide and nationwide campaign must provide this information and ask everyone to pitch in.

An example comes to mind of what can happen when a school’s call for community support is answered: One elderly woman who wanted to help out but felt she wasn’t up to tutoring or mentoring decided that she would volunteer to be “the listening lady” in the school, someone who would be available for children who wanted a caring adult to listen to their troubles. Her quiet work not only helped the children, but also changed the culture of the school.

This is immediate change. The longer-term mission of the mobilization would be to redesign our institutions to reflect this conceptual shift toward seeing public education as a responsibility shared by home, school, and community. The new vision would encompass not simply school systems, but consortiums of collaborating institutions helping students grow into smart, responsible, and respectful citizens.

President Obama could launch such an effort with the appointment of a high-profile, nonpartisan commission whose purpose would be twofold: to create a national consciousness of this new approach to education, and to mobilize broad-based local commissions across the country charged with implementing it.

The national-consciousness part of the agenda would require widespread and high-visibility dialogue—to explore the many facets of this new vision and to disseminate information about effective community mobilization (tips on training, facilitation, leadership selection, funding, political and public relations, and so forth). The dialogue might be initiated through a national conference that called together the nation’s top educators and leaders in civic affairs, civil rights, business, and labor. They would discuss what is known and unknown about this approach to education—how it is working where it is being tried, how it could increase the human energy being devoted to learning, and what obstacles stand in the way. This launching event would be followed up by regional and local conferences, as well as by online activities such as the creation of Web sites for the exchange of information and ideas.

The crucial shift in thinking we need is neither Republican nor Democratic. It is nonpartisan and based on common sense.

The crucial shift in thinking we need is neither Republican nor Democratic. It is nonpartisan and based on common sense. It reflects the kind of consensus-building that President Obama says we should all be engaged in to escape paralyzing conflicts and build coalitions whose hard work and unity of purpose can help us improve America.

The spirit of the mobilization I envision could also help the nation deal with issues that divide us. Where emotion-laden debates over values and character education have virtually eliminated these crucial purposes of education in many schools, local mobilizations could find agreement on common values that can be reinforced in home, school, and community. Likewise, the deep divide between those who place the blame for low achievement on teachers and schools and those who blame students and parents might be resolved by the common realization that, since education is a shared responsibility, it makes much more sense to work together for success than to blame one another for failure.

Wouldn’t this kind of dialogue, and the involvement of millions of Americans and thousands of organizations currently uninvolved in education, make a tremendous difference? And couldn’t it produce greater increases in learning for the money spent than most of the reforms we’ve been trying?

This would truly be Mr. Obama’s “change we can believe in.” And it would finally fulfill the challenge A Nation at Risk threw down to us more than 25 years ago.

Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2009 edition of Education Week as A Report’s Forgotten Message: Mobilize


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