When Gerald Holton, a member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, was charged with drafting the 1983 report A Nation at Risk, he never anticipated how loudly and how long his words would echo through the corridors of education. Two decades later, Mr. Holton, a professor emeritus of physics and of the history of science at Harvard University, discussed the report with Senior Editor Lynn Olson.
Q: At the time the commission was appointed, the Reagan administration was proposing to slash spending on education and dismantle the federal Education Department. Do you see a similar disconnect between rhetoric and reality now?
A: Oh yes, of course. It’s unfortunate, but the voices of the children are just not being heard. When you ask parents, as in Gallup polls, they usually put education at the top of the list or very near it, and often higher than military preparedness and health services. That unfortunately does not seem to have political traction.
Q: What was your first reaction when asked to join the commission?
A: I was very skeptical that the commission could come up with something the administration would accept. Mr. Reagan, in his election speeches and since the election, had diminished education, had vowed to abolish the Department of Education, [and] was also underfunding science. And Congress did not know how to stand up on its hind legs. I was persuaded by a longtime friend, who made the argument that I was the only one on the commission who had hands-on experience in seeking to improve secondary education on a national scale, through Project Physics [a curriculum project financed by the National Science Foundation, which he helped lead].
Q: You’ve noted that the commission did not include one prominent national expert on education, such as Theodore R. Sizer, Ernest L. Boyer, or John I. Goodlad. In retrospect, was that a mistake?
A: It was a political mistake because it disaffected the very ones that should have taken the ball and supported the report, which most of them did not do afterwards. So I felt that this would be politically hazardous, and it turned out to be true.
Q: What were the president’s marching orders to the commission at its first meeting?
A: He told us what he had already said in his many speeches before. That we should bring prayer back into the schoolroom. We should attend to the need for vouchers and for [tuition] tax credits, which I thought was not healthy for public education, and to abolish the Department of Education.
Q: When you drafted the report’s opening statement, who was your target audience?
A: The opening statement I drafted to catch the attention of the most influential reader that I thought we would have: namely, our commander-in- chief. Education was not on the minds of most policymakers, or indeed newspapers and other media, at the time. I thought it might be read by Mr. Reagan and make him read the rest of the report. It was, as it were, the “call to arms” that would then allow him to go to the end of the few pages—only 36 in big print—which included our five important recommendations. It even said things like Americans should vote out of office those politicians who do not care sufficiently for education.
Q: People still remember the report’s call to arms, but how controversial were its major recommendations at the time?
A: One of them was, namely, merit pay [for teachers]. And one absent one was, which I very reluctantly gave upnamely, it did not tell how many millions and billions of dollars would be needed to fix things. We were simply forbidden to mention money. We did say funding is necessary, but we did not give the dollar figures.
Q: In retrospect, would you have changed or modified any of the report’s recommendations?
A: In retrospect, it’s clear that we should also have been speaking about the horrid problem of the intersect between [education] and the fact that much of our American population is at the very edge of poverty and despair. Children who come to school from a home that may not be functioning at all, and with little backup from the family to become interested in schooling, therefore turn to their peers, turn to entertainment, and eventually to despondency. That is why I say the next report ought to be very much more societally aware, one analogous to the Flexner Report that helped define what medical schools should be like.
Q: Is there a “basic flaw” in the U.S. education system? If so, how should it be addressed?
A: America doesn’t have a ministry of education, but rather a completely chaotic and dispersed system, which is run in the way that [Alexis] de Tocqueville would have predicted in the 1830s. Thomas Jefferson proposed a constitutional amendment in aid of public education. Jefferson realized that public education would prepare a democracy properly by instructing its citizenry. He came back to that over and over again. So when any reference to it was lacking, in both the 10th Amendment later, but certainly in the Constitution, he was afraid of what might happen and, indeed, under Reagan and the sons of Reagan, is happening. Namely, they believe they can leave it all in local hands.
Q: How might the report best be used now?
A: I think the report might be best used as a quarry from which you can hew the pieces for a new and more comprehensive, more carefully thought-through report on the subjects where we had to go lightly, such as elementary and higher education, and also in terms of the finances needed.