Two Reports

By Theodore R. Sizer — April 23, 2003 7 min read

A Nation at Risk, received by the public and politicians with surprised fascination in 1983, has provoked spirited comment from that day to this— justification enough for a celebration of its 20th birthday by Education Week. Its stark brevity, clear recommendations, particular focus on teenage youth, and, above all, its warlike rhetoric have lived well.

Our federal and state governments still struggle with its mandates. Lamentably, many governments appear still unable to comprehend what it insisted was necessary for reform worthy of the name.

The story of Risk‘s crafting is a lively tale of political skullduggery with early, politically “safe” drafts replaced at the 11th hour with briefer, bolder, more stirring words. Many believe that some members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education deliberately hijacked the effort in the belief that tough language was essential, whatever the political risk for the Reagan administration and particularly for U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. That the report struck a nerve with the public is a measure of these hijackers’ wisdom, whatever embarrassment it placed on a new national administration that had been deemed largely uninterested in public education. Risk‘s drafters were heard.

Web Chat: Nation at Risk Read the transcript from Education Week‘s online, interactive discussion of “A Nation at Risk” and the newspaper’s coverage of high school life. Guests included Michelle M. Fine, Milton Goldberg, and Theodore R. Sizer.

Risk was, however, not the only federal study about young people and their schools issued during Republican years following the election of 1968. It was preceded in 1974, quietly, by an equally provocative (if stodgily written) report, Youth: Transition to Adulthood, a document prepared by a panel of President Nixon’s Science Advisory Committee. Its focus was not so much on schools as it was on those who were to benefit from them, America’s adolescents. The inquiry was surely the brainchild of the Nixon White House’s adviser on domestic affairs, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who likely was the one to persuade an old friend, the University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman, to chair it. A panel of experts was formed, research studies were commissioned, and a 175-page scholarly volume was ultimately issued in the mid-1970s, published by the University of Chicago Press.

Risk was a report of 36 pages, issued in quantity by the U.S. Superintendent of Documents. Its message had immediate effect, particularly on policy discourse. It had power.

Youth, by contrast, barely saw the light of day in halls of state. However, what it lacked in power it gained in prescience.

Reform efforts must move beyond today's narrow habit of conceiving education as only something that adults formally "deliver" to children in classrooms.

Coleman’s preface to Youth explained: “As the labor of children has become unnecessary to society, school has been extended for them. With every decade, the length of schooling has increased, until a thoughtful person must ask whether society can conceive of no other way for youth to come into adulthood. If schooling were a complete environment, the answer would properly be that no amount of school is too much, and increased schooling for the young is the best way for the young to spend their increased leisure, and society its increased wealth.”

Coleman went on, arguing that the schools were not at all “a complete environment” and, at least as they functioned at that time, were incapable of meeting the needs of young people. “In our view,” he asserted, “the institutional framework for maturation in the United States is now in need of serious examination.” The elaborate caution and lumbering language of the social scientist were present here, but the message was clear. School was not enough. The Youth panel rested its argument on existing research and commissioned, largely from its own roster, several special papers. Its members sampled widely among experts—as did the Risk commission nine years later. Where the two groups were at variance was in their point of departure. Youth: Transition to Adulthood began with adolescents. A Nation at Risk started with institutions currently serving those adolescents. This was a crucial difference.

The earlier panel found a poor fit between the legitimate interests and strivings of young people and the institutions designed for them by adults. Youth “are subordinate and powerless in relation to adults, and outsiders to the dominant social institutions. Yet they have money, they have a wide range of communications media, and have control of some. ... The school is not the world, and is not perceived by students as ‘real.’” The panel’s varied recommendations had in common a narrowing and focusing of the duties of a high school and the creation of additional sites for learning, ones which tested the ability of young people to develop understandings and skills necessary for responsible adult life. Curiously, the issue of economic and social class which had engaged Coleman less than a decade earlier was muted.

The Youth panel recognized the complexity of all this, both administratively and as a matter for assessment. “The task of developing [appropriate] measures is not a simple one, but its importance is great. Without such measures the criterion of success of an activity reverts to its effect on cognitive skills, since standardized measures exist there. Yet these criteria are precisely the ones that are not relevant to most of the changes [the panel] proposed. ...”

The 1983 A Nation at Risk commission assumed a narrower mandate, that of a “society and its educational institutions [which] seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.” Its recommendations were clearer, more focused and assured than those of the Youth panel, and they were tied to the familiar apparatuses of America’s system of schools: high school graduation requirements, clear standards of achievement, and more time spent on what the commission termed the “New Basics"—English, mathematics, science, social studies, and computer science. The recommendations added that “other curriculum matters” must be addressed, among them foreign language. The report spoke bluntly about the need for investments in good teaching and in leadership. Behind this was a palpable intensity for focus and high standards.

Much followed from the Risk report, generally termed “the standards movement.” Smart and devoted people have worked hard to get the focus right for all children and to demand much of them. However, most thoughtful people agree that the results so far have been disappointing. The reason is likely to be found less in the schools and to be largely due to the manner and settings (real and virtual) in which contemporary youths grow up, to the absence of influential adults regularly in their lives, and to the insistent and often engaging pressure of commerce-driven messages that surround them. Context counts.

The reason for disappointing results is likely to be found less in the schools and to be largely due to the manner and settings in which contemporary youths grow up. ... Context counts.

A Nation at Risk assumed an earlier day, where school, especially high school, profoundly mattered in many kids’ eyes. It still matters, especially to academically and athletically inclined children; but it matters far less than we adults like to think. The insistent surround of 21st-century adolescence, its freedoms, its enticements, its opportunities, its loneliness, is a powerful competitor to the traditional fare of secondary schools. James Coleman would marvel at the contemporary media’s implacable presence on society, now not only with newspapers, radio, the “movies,” and small-screen black-and-white televisions, but by all that and more—CDs, PalmPilots, cellphones, and above all the Internet. The images of adulthood—or what the commerce-driven media want those images to appear— swirl around the heads of every American adolescent. Coleman saw this coming. Teenagers watch television, movie, and computer screens more hours per year than even the most dutiful of them spend at school. As contemporary research by scholars such as Laurence Steinberg, Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi, Todd Gitlin, Lisbeth Schorr, and Robert Putnam demonstrates, the surround, and especially the engagement with serious and principled adult culture (what Putnam calls “social capital”), matters enormously.

As Coleman wrote, “Schools are not a complete environment.” They are a convenient mechanism for impatient policymakers, however, as they are a “system” that can be “reformed.” Yet our nation will continue to be at risk unless patient, clever people fashion policies that include but transcend that which we have come to call “school,” thereby pushing into adolescent lives engaged activity, both abstract and practical, that goes well beyond today’s embarrassingly narrow habit of conceiving education as only something that adults formally “deliver” to children in classrooms and cheapening serious learning by reducing it to the scores on necessarily simplistic standardized tests.

Risk needed Youth. Perhaps a future federal commission, one which starts with youth as well as with schools, will take the wisdom of these two forays into a search for fresh policies that reflect the hard facts of what it is to be an adolescent in 21st-century America—inside and outside of “school.”

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