This week marks the 30th anniversary of the release of A Nation at Risk by the National Commission on Excellence in Education formed by U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. The landmark 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.” Pointing to what it said were flagging test scores, diluted curricula, and weak teacher-preparation programs, among other issues, A Nation at Risk argued that an “incoherent, outdated patchwork quilt” of instruction was creating a culture of passive learning in which students could advance with minimum effort.
The commission recommended “five new basics” for students seeking a high school diploma: four courses in English, three in mathematics, three in science, three in social studies, and one-half credit in computer science. Two courses in foreign language were proposed for students planning on attending college. Other recommendations included taking steps to improve teacher quality, allowing for more classroom time devoted to the new basics, increasing academic rigor, and raising standards for college admission.
A catalyst for the academic-standards movement, the report was widely circulated and its findings strongly influenced policymakers and opinion leaders. But it was not without its detractors. Among the criticisms leveled against the authors was a lack of attention to K-8 education, a dearth of sourcing for the cited statistics, and a failure to identify root causes of education problems.
Here is a look at comparative data on selected aspects of American education over the decades since the report, highlighting academic, demographic, and other trends.
Designed by: Vanessa Solis, Sumita Bannerjee, Gina Tomko, and Laura Baker
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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as Where Are We Now?