Federal Opinion

A Nation in Wait

By John I. Goodlad — April 23, 2003 10 min read
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National commissions have become a common way of addressing problems or setting agendas pertaining to major issues of our time. The National Commission on Excellence in Education was one of these, classified as agenda- setting in a recent study conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Presumably, an agenda-setting commission sets a clear purpose, proposes necessary new conditions to be put in place or present ones to be strengthened (preferably in specific recommendations), and suggests strategies for effecting constructive changes that include identifying problems needing to be overcome.

These expectations were laid out in the six-point charge from then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. It is short on requesting strategies, but does call for defining “problems which must be faced and overcome if we are successfully to pursue the course of excellence in education.” Secretary Bell assumed there to be a “widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.” Apparently, the commission thought it necessary to heat up this perception, as evidenced by the oft- quoted sentence in the second paragraph of its report: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The opening sentence is crisp: “Our nation is at risk.” Of what? Of “our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation ... being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” The frenzy of media attention to the report removed for many people a feeling of a need to read it. Matters of substance quickly lost out to an insatiable media appetite for horror stories of school practices to confirm our state of crisis.

<i>A Nation at Risk</i> roiled the waters of concern for our schools but did not draw nationwide attention to its recommendations for navigating them.

Two professional colleagues—good friends—and I were inescapably caught up in the hurricane of hyped-up attention. The press and nearly every report of the commissions appointed by the new “education” governors cited whatever negative they could find in our respective comprehensive studies published in 1983 and 1984: Ernest L. Boyer’s High School appearing just before A Nation at Risk and Theodore R. Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise and my A Place Called School appearing several months afterward. Callers were little interested in the long- standing problems we had identified or in our recommendations. They sought more bad news.

Five years later, colleagues and I traversed the country in a study of the education of educators, probing into the various involvements of colleges of education, the arts and sciences, and participating schools. We found changes of the kind recommended by the national commission and in assorted earlier reports. Few of the future teachers we interviewed knew of A Nation at Risk or, for that matter, that a substantial school reform movement was still being sustained in the policy arena. Most were intensely focused on being prepared to manage a classroom some months later. They were little interested in the larger context of the necessary schooling of the nation’s young.

I had some lively discussions with university faculty members, most of whom were familiar with A Nation at Risk. The dean of biological sciences in a major university said, passionately, that it had not gone far enough in scaring the people. As a result, the nation’s leaders had not risen sufficiently to the commission’s call for the necessary crusade to upgrade the quality of our schools.

My take on the impact of the report is different. First, as I have stated above, media overkill turned attention away from its substance. Second, the widespread perception that the commission viewed our schools to be a major factor, if not the major factor, in the rise and fall of the economy opened up an avenue of criticism that was much traveled in subsequent years. Third, the militaristic language was, indeed, widely viewed as stimulating a crusade.


This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Regarding my second point, skepticism about the close connection between schooling and the economy came from many sources, including some economists. Critics have cited a poll taken soon after the report’s release and again six or seven years later—a lapse of time not sufficient for graduates of revamped schools to have entered the workforce. In the first, Japan’s economy received first-place ranking in the world, a condition that those polled said would last for years. In the second, Japan was replaced by the United States. Neither the media nor policymakers praised the schools for this remarkable turnaround.

Regarding the third point, no massive commitment of resources followed the commission’s report. President Reagan had come into office with the expectation that the federal Department of Education would be eliminated. Advised that the American people were profoundly interested in education and deeply concerned about schooling, he endorsed the report. It was politically wise to do so.

I turn now to my first point about A Nation at Risk roiling the waters of concern for our schools but not managing to draw nationwide attention to its recommendations for navigating them. Some of the reasons arose, I believe, out of the national context at the time and the report’s intersection—or lack of intersection—with it.

Given its brevity, the report is surprisingly comprehensive. There is something in it for a wide range of potential actors, and many of the recommendations are directed to specific groups. The recommendations were sensible, relevant, doable, and unlikely to provoke controversy. Nearly all had appeared in earlier reports on needed school improvement. Those of the much-respected James B. Conant in particular come to mind: The American High School Today (1959) that provided direction nationwide to school boards, and his The Education of American Teachers (1963) that made recommendations for teacher education. Surely it is useful to repeat much- needed but little-implemented recommendations of the past. An implicit message of A Nation at Risk is that some important school business had been seriously neglected over the years, and those responsible needed to work harder and be held accountable.

There is nothing wrong with such a message. It just did not respond to the report’s self-imposed challenge of rectifying educational conditions of such mediocrity that they might well have been regarded as something imposed upon us by an unfriendly foreign power. The scary message simply added to the belief that had been festering for some years—that America’s once-vaunted system of public schooling was failing us.

Knocking our schools has often been in fashion. But the targets usually have been specific: the curriculum, progressive methods of teaching, administrators, teachers’ unions, schools of education, and so on. This is not the place to go into the history of schooling’s fall from grace that became sharply apparent in the late 1960s—not local schools, but our system of public schooling. What Robert M. Hutchins, the former president of the University of Chicago, wrote in 1972 presaged the context into which came A Nation at Risk in 1983: “But nobody has a kind word for the institution that was only the other day the foundation of our freedom, the guarantee of our future, the cause of our prosperity and power, the bastion of our security, the bright and shining beacon that was the source of our enlightenment, the public school.” What the people wanted, at a minimum, was a rekindling of that beacon.

It is incorrect to say that A Nation at Risk made no positive impact. We need not look for it in the stream of state reports and politically driven school reform proposals it spawned, even though the report was cited as the justifying icon for most of them. What it did do was to stimulate a surge of support from private philanthropy for innovative school improvement initiatives. The need for such was in the air, catching up the interest of school personnel and an impressive array of leaders with ideas. There was not then as there is now a federal mandate siphoning off educators’ time and energy and whatever in teaching and the curriculum appears not to contribute directly to higher test scores.

In 1999, the Institute for Educational Inquiry hosted some 1,600 delegates from 21 of these initiatives that were breaking new ground in school renewal. The commitment, energy, and excitement engendered was palpable. Nearly all had received both start-up and subsequent funding from a wide array of foundations. Some of these initiatives have since disappeared, others are suffering from a lack of adequate financial support, and all are in danger of losing out to preparing students for test-taking in the time commitments of participants.

The commission named by Secretary Bell is to be commended for addressing shortcomings in the major factors contributing to academic performance, not just outcomes measured by tests. What the commission appears not to have reckoned on, however, was the continuing public expectation for educational attention to all four of the traditional purposes of schooling in our democracy: the personal, social, and vocational as well as the academic. Two of the comprehensive studies mentioned earlier delved deeply into this issue, concluding independently in chapters so titled that “We Want It All.”

One of those studies, sampling 8,624 parents, 1,350 teachers, and 17,163 students, reported the first two of those groups to perceive attention to the academic in their schools to be about right. Students wanted it halved! Parents and students would double attention to the personal. Teachers would triple it! Those and other supporting data were shared with the commission in one of its scheduled public hearings.

We should have assembled 20 years ago a task force with a charge and resources at least comparable to those that launched our exploration of outer space.

There is plenty of evidence to support the observation that public expectations for attention to these four educational goals are as high or higher today. But have we been beguiled into assuming that the academic, assessed by tests, begets understanding and desired behaviors in these other domains? If so, tomorrow’s adults and the nation will pay dearly for today’s egregious mistake.

While we have been narrowing the scope of academic learning, cognitive psychologists have been telling us that the transfer of learning across contexts is quite limited. To assume that high test scores on school subjects predict such desirable personal and social attributes as civility, decency, civicness, honesty, dependability, compassion, creativity, and even good work habits is folly. For corporate employers to count on test scores’ predicting the qualities they want in their employees is an exercise in futility.

People who believe that academic learning is the sole purpose of schooling should be aware that even students who do well on tests in school subjects commonly fail to connect what they appear to have mastered to contexts outside of school for which it is relevant. Researchers Stephen Ceci and Antonio Roazzi concluded from available research “that even those students at good universities who take ample science, statistics, and math courses do not transfer the principles they learn ... to novel contexts.” Nationwide implementation of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 will not give us the schools we need.

The National Commission on Excellence in Education did what it was asked to do. The lesson jumping out at us is that not another commission, not a series of education summits, and not another spate of school reform mandates will set the stage for the renaissance in educating the young that so urgently beckons. We should have assembled 20 years ago a task force with a charge and resources at least comparable to those that launched our exploration of outer space. With a nucleus of full- time members, it would consist of a diverse array of practitioners with track records of school innovation and renewal; researchers distinguished for their work in such fields as cognition, pedagogy, economics, sociology, human development, comparative education, schooling, and more; and creative others who have connected their fields of inquiry to education, particularly the relationship between education and democracy.

The charge to such a task force can be encompassed in one long sentence: Plan the design and development of an educational system aligned with the nation’s expectations for it, the relevant knowledge we have now that we did not have when the present system hardened into place a century ago, and the 21st-century realities of our transforming world.

It is not too late. But continuing delay places this nation at risk far beyond that feared by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. For how much longer must we wait?

The writer wishes to thank Janice Nittoli of the Human Services Workforce Initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation for her report, especially for the criteria an agenda-setting commission should meet.

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