Federal Explainer

A Nation at Risk

By Jennifer Park — September 10, 2004 4 min read

In April 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education formed by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell released the report A Nation at Risk. The most famous line of the widely publicized report declared that “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” (U.S. Department of Education, 1983).

Characterized by its authors as “an open letter to the American people,” the report called for elected officials, educators, parents, and students to reform a public school system it described as “in urgent need of improvement.” That need for improvement was based on numerous statistics listed in the report that the commission said showed the inadequate quality of American education. The authors ominously cautioned that the data showed the nation was at risk and expressed grave concern that our “once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”

The findings and data presented in the report were organized around four major topics: content, expectations, time, and teaching. Out of those areas, the report made four major recommendations:

Regarding content, the commission recommended that all students seeking a high school diploma have a foundation in the “five new basics.” Such preparation included four courses in English, three in mathematics, three in science, three in social studies, and one-half credit in computer science. Two credits in a foreign language were also recommended for students planning to attend college.

The commission recommended that schools, both K-12 and higher education, adopt more “rigorous and measurable standards,” and have higher expectations for student performance and conduct. The commission also suggested that institutions of higher education raise admissions standards to push students to do their best during their elementary and secondary years.

Another recommendation asked schools to devote more time to teaching the new basics, which could take the form of longer, seven-hour school days, a school year with 200 to 220 days, or a more efficient use of the existing school day.

The report listed seven recommendations for improving teacher quality, including higher standards for teacher-preparation programs, teacher salaries that were professionally competitive and based on performance, 11-month contracts for teachers allowing more time for curriculum and professional development, career ladders that differentiated teachers based on experience and skill, more resources devoted to teacher-shortage areas, incentives for drawing highly qualified applicants into the profession, and mentoring programs for novice teachers that were designed by experienced teachers.

The problems listed in the report that led to its recommendations and the strong language it used caused a stir, both among the general public and in the education policy community. The report, which was widely circulated and was often cited by President Ronald Reagan, provided much of the impetus for a raft of school improvement measures undertaken throughout the United States. But as the report and its implications became more widely visible, A Nation at Risk also drew intense criticism.

The Manufactured Crisis Challenges Report

A book published more than a decade later, The Manufactured Crisis, remains one of the most popular challenges to the report’s conclusions. The authors of the critique, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, question the statistics documenting educational failure, on which the report was based, and decry how politicians used the report as a reason to implement what Berliner and Biddle see as misdirected reforms. The book alleges that the report was just one example of the ways political leaders at the time were misleading the nation about the quality of public schools (1995).

The prominent education scholar John I. Goodlad writes that the report was able to gain a great deal of media attention, but that the attention seldom focused on its recommendations, looking instead at the “bad news” and the problems the report showed existed in schools. Goodlad also argues that the link between student achievement and the national economy was overstated in the report (2003). Other criticisms of the report point to its emphasis on high schools, virtually ignoring K-8 education (Peterson, 2003), and to a lack of citations for the numerous statistics used as evidence of the low quality of American schools (Berliner & Biddle, 1995).

Even though the report had its weaknesses, it still had a strong impact on American education. Most notably, the report led to comprehensive school reform efforts, was the impetus for the academic-standards movement, drew attention to the importance of education policy, and led to a focus on school accountability (Weiss, 2003).

In April 2003, the 20th anniversary of the release of A Nation at Risk triggered numerous analyses of the progress of American education over the past two decades. The attached chart shows areas where progress has been made, especially in the development of more rigorous course requirements and academic-content standards.

Not every recommendation made by the report has taken hold over the past 20 or so years, however. According to the Koret Task Force, a group organized by the Hoover Institution and Stanford University to study the status of education reform, there has been “uneven” implementation and only minor gains in academic achievement during this time. The Koret Task Force argues that A Nation at Risk did a good job of pointing out the problems in American schools, but was not able to identify the fundamental reasons for the problems or address the political influences in the public education system (Peterson, 2003).

Sources
American Federation of Teachers, “Survey and Analysis of Teacher Salary Trends 2002,” 2003.
Berliner, D.C., and Biddle, B.J., The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, Reading, Mass., Addison-Wesley Pub-lishing Co., 1995.
Education Week, Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards, Jan. 7, 2004.
Goodlad, J.I., “A Nation in Wait,” Education Week, April 23, 2003.
Peterson, P.E.,"Our Schools & Our Future ... Are We Still at Risk?,” Stanford, Calif., Hoover Institution Press, 2003.
U.S. Department of Education, The National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, April 1983.
Weiss, S., “Highlights From the 2003 National Forum on Education Policy: Nation at Risk Continues to Affect Education System,” Education Commission of the States, Dec. 15, 2003.

How to Cite This Article
Park, Jennifer. (2004, September 10). A Nation at Risk. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/a-nation-at-risk/2004/09

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Building Leadership Excellence Through Instructional Coaching
Join this webinar for a discussion on instructional coaching and ways you can link your implement or build on your program.
Content provided by Whetstone Education/SchoolMint
Teaching Webinar Tips for Better Hybrid Learning: Ask the Experts What Works
Register and ask your questions about hybrid learning to our expert panel.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
Family Engagement for Student Success With Dr. Karen Mapp
Register for this free webinar to learn how to empower and engage families for student success featuring Karen L. Mapp.
Content provided by Panorama Education & PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Senior Business Analyst - 12 Month Contract
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
User Experience Analyst
Portland, OR, US
Northwest Evaluation Association
Coordinator of Strategic Partnerships
Camden, New Jersey, United States
Camelot Education
Senior Director Marketing
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Camelot Education

Read Next

Federal Explainer Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education: Background and Achievements
Background and highlights of Miguel Cardona's tenure as the twelfth U.S. Secretary of Education.
Education Week Library
2 min read
Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 23, 2020.
Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, speaks after being put forward for the position by then-President-elect Joe Biden in December 2020.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Federal Senate Confirms Miguel Cardona as Education Secretary
The former Connecticut education commissioner got his start as an elementary school teacher and was a principal and school administrator.
2 min read
Miguel Cardona, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of Education, speaks after being introduced at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
Miguel Cardona was confirmed by the Senate to serve as U.S. Secretary of Education. The former Connecticut education commissioner has worked as a teacher, principal, and district administrator.
Carolyn Kaster/AP
Federal Biden Legal Team Steps Back From Trump Stance on Transgender Female Sports Participation
The Education Department's office for civil rights pulls a letter that said Connecticut's transgender-inclusive policy violates Title IX.
4 min read
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins the final of the 55-meter dash over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in the Connecticut girls Class S indoor track meet at Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn on Feb. 7, 2019. Transgender athletes are getting an ally in the White House next week as they seek to participate as their identified gender in high school and college sports. Attorneys on both sides say they expect President-elect Joe Biden’s Department of Education will switch sides in legal battles that could go a long way in determining whether transgender athletes are treated by the sex on their birth certificates or by how they identify.
Bloomfield High School transgender athlete Terry Miller, second from left, wins over transgender athlete Andraya Yearwood, far left, and other runners in an event in New Haven, Conn. The two transgender athletes are at the center of a legal fight in Connecticut over the participation of transgender female athletes in girls' or women's sports.
Pat Eaton-Robb/AP
Federal Congress Again Tries to Pass Eagles Act, Focused on School Shootings After Parkland
A group of bipartisan Congressional lawmakers is once again trying to get a law passed aimed at preventing school violence.
Devoun Cetoute & Carli Teproff, Miami Herald
2 min read
Suzanne Devine Clark, an art teacher at Deerfield Beach Elementary School, places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2019 during the first anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Suzanne Devine Clark, an art teacher at Deerfield Beach Elementary School, places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2019 during the first anniversary of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP