The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

We Are “A Nation at Risk” Again; This Time From a Different Threat

on February 10, 2017

As many of you well know, two days ago I made the mistake of publishing the rough beginning of an essay I never finished. Today, I finally finished that essay, edited it, and now post it here.


Right after hearing that Vice President Mike Pence had broken the tie in the voting for Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education I went to my bookshelves and took out two books that I hadn’t looked at in years. One was “A Nation at Risk” (ANAR), by a committee appointed by the Department of education in 1983; the other was “The Manufactured Crisis” (TMC)  a book by college professors, David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, published in 1995.  Because both books are old stuff, many of us have forgotten their importance and the rest of us are too young to know anything about them. Today I will summarize and comment on ANAR, but keep my report on TMC for another day.

“A Nation at Risk,” published in 1983, is in the form of a letter meant to arouse the public to the terrible conditions of America’s public schools at that time and the negative consequences lying ahead. Rather than describe all the claims and remedies suggested in it, I will quote the major allegations in the order in which they appear. I decided to do things that way because my own words cannot  convey the strong negative tone of the original presentation. Here goes.

“We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops.”

“If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all.”

“Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life.”

“The educational dimensions of the risk before us have been amply documented in testimony received by the Commission. For example:

International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.

Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.

About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.

Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched.

Over half the population of gifted students do not match their tested ability with comparable achievement in school.

The College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.

College Board achievement tests also reveal consistent declines in recent years in such subjects as physics and English.

Both the number and proportion of students demonstrating superior achievement on the SATs (i.e., those with scores of 650 or higher) have also dramatically declined.

Many 17-year-olds do not possess the “higher order” intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.

There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973, and 1977.

Between 1975 and 1980, remedial mathematics courses in public 4-year colleges increased by 72 percent and now constitute one-quarter of all mathematics courses taught in those institutions.

Average tested achievement of students graduating from college is also lower.

Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation.

These deficiencies come at a time when the demand for highly skilled workers in new fields is accelerating rapidly.”

“We are confident that America can address this risk. If the tasks we set forth are initiated now and our recommendations are fully realized over the next several years, we can expect reform of our Nation’s schools, colleges, and universities.”

“It is our conviction that the essential raw materials needed to reform our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective leadership.”

“These raw materials, combined with the unparalleled array of educational organizations in America, offer us the possibility to create a Learning Society, in which public, private, and parochial schools; colleges and universities; vocational and technical schools and institutes; libraries; science centers, museums, and other cultural institutions; and corporate training and retraining programs offer opportunities and choices for all to learn throughout life.”

“And perhaps most important, citizens know and believe that the meaning of America to the rest of the world must be something better than it seems to many today. Americans like to think of this Nation as the preeminent country for generating the great ideas and material benefits for all mankind. The citizen is dismayed at a steady 15-year decline in industrial productivity, as one great American industry after another falls to world competition. The citizen wants the country to act on the belief, expressed in our hearings and by the large majority in the Gallup Poll, that education should be at the top of the Nation’s agenda. “

Although it took some time for the demands of ANAR to provoke federal action, it is clear that No Child Left Behind and its control over the nation’s schools, the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, and the rise of charter schools, student access to school vouchers, and the term “our failing schools” are all results of “A Nation at Risk.” Even though the new law “Every Student Succeeds Act” returns much authority over schools to the states, rewards and punishments still exist for schools that do not improve their test scores or graduation rates.

The Irony in all of these actions is that ANAR did not provide any evidence that its accusations were true; nor did the politicians who continued to accept its judgments about the failures of our schools. In contrast, a study done by the highly reputable Sandia Laboratories in 1990 determined that SAT test scores had not declined as ANAR alleged, but instead steadily improved over time. Yet its report drew little attention—actually none from the Department of Education, which has continued to this day to allege that we are still “A Nation at Risk.

I, too, believe that we are at risk.  But this time the risk comes from a Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in public education and a congressional party that doesn’t care about our nation’s wellbeing.

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