Richard Rothstein bats first in a lineup of essays at Cato Unbound commemorating the 25th anniversary of “A Nation At Risk,” and asserts that the report has done more harm than good.
Why? First, Rothstein argues, the report wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. The report mistook the changing composition of SAT test takers for a half a standard deviation decline in SAT scores since the 1960s. Second, Risk placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. While education surely plays a part in economic growth, he shows that our economic vicissitudes are driven by factors much larger and more complex. Third, he writes, Risk ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning. Rothstein concludes:
A Nation at Risk was well-intentioned, but based on flawed analyses, at least some of which should have been known to the Commission that authored it. The report burned into Americans’ consciousness a conviction that, evidence notwithstanding, our schools are failures, and a warped view of the relationship between schools and economic well-being. It distracted education policymakers from insisting that our political, economic, and social institutions also have a responsibility to prepare children to be ready to learn when they attend school.
I’m looking forward to this exchange, as I’ve never squared away in my mind whether A Nation At Risk was a report that spurred a movement, or a movement that engineered a legitimizing report. Michael Strong, Sol Stern, and Rick Hess will also weigh in this week.
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