Federal Explainer

A Nation at Risk

By Jennifer Park — September 10, 2004 | Updated: October 04, 2022 4 min read
President Ronald Reagan addresses a meeting of teachers and administrators in Washington from outstanding secondary schools across the nation on Aug. 27, 1984.
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Updated: A previous version of this page included a link to a chart, which has since been removed.

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.

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

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