The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

“A Nation at Risk” Was Fake News

on May 14, 2018

No, this is not a new piece from me.  Better than that it is a very important article posted today by Diane Ravitch and written by Marc Tucker.  Although I don’t usually post other people’s writing, I feel that this one is a worthwhile exception.


In his regular column at Education Week, Marc Tucker cites Anya Kamenetz’s incisive reporting on “A Nation at Risk” and agrees that the report was fake news. The commission agreed in advance that American education was in decline and cherrypicked facts to prove its conclusion. His column is behind a paywall.

Tucker says that achievement was not in decline at the time the report was written. The American people, he says, were lied to. He cites a contemporaneous report by Daniel Koretz, now at Harvard, then at the Congressional Budget Office, which “showed that there had indeed been a decline, mainly in high school performance, that had begun in the 1960s.  But he reported that this decline ended with the cohort of students that entered school in the late 1960s.  As that cohort wended its way through the grades, they continued to do better than their predecessors, and those that followed also did better.  Further, Koretz reported, the poor and minority students whose test performance was analyzed showed no dip in performance in the period in which the performance of virtually all other students of all ages was falling.

“Put this picture together and you will see that the American people were lied to.  Their children had not been falling off an educational cliff right up to the day the report was released.  Instead, the performance of American students had been doing better and better beginning with the cohort of students who had entered school in the late 1960s, FIFTEEN OR SO YEARS before the panel sounded its famous false alarm.”

Tucker notes that at least one observer thought that “A Nation at Risk” was beneficial, but he does not agree.

”At the end of her story, Kamenetz quotes Jim Guthrie, now a professor at Lynn University, who has held many prominent positions in the American education establishment.  She asked him what he thought about the lack of evidence presented by the authors of the 1983 report. “My view of it, in retrospect,” he says, “is seldom, maybe never, has a public report been so wrong and done so much good.”

“Let us leave aside the question as to whether the end justifies the means to consider, for a moment, whether Guthrie is right.  Is it true that A Nation at Risk has done the United States a world of good?  What’s the evidence for that?

“Once again, there is none.  For as long as there was a long-term version of NAEP (that is the version in which the items in the assessment did not change over time, permitting valid comparisons over the long haul), the scores of high school students changed only very slightly from the 1970s, when the survey was first administered.  The 1970s, you recall, was the decade before A Nation at Risk was released, so this data shows no change in high school performance since the report’s release.   From the time that PISA, the international comparison of student achievement administered by the OECD, was first given in the year 2000, to the present, the scores of U.S. students have been steady to slightly falling, while students in a growing number of other countries have been doing better.  PISA also surveys high school students.  So there is good reason to believe that there has been no improvement in the academic performance of high school students since the release of the report.  Guthrie might have been referring to the maelstrom of “reforms” instituted in the United States since A Nation at Risk was released in 1983, but reform is not improvement, and there has been precious little improvement.”

He writes that the negative tone of the report “delegitimized the teachers and school administrators in our public schools and ushered in policies based on a profound distrust of the very professionals on whom the improvement of the system would depend.  The subtext of the “reforms” so much admired by Guthrie and his colleagues is the charge that it is the regular public school teachers, their unions and the school administrators who are responsible for the alleged failure of the country’s schools and reform should be about circumventing or at least weakening their control of the system…

“The attitudes toward teachers and teaching, and the actions that flowed from those attitudes, have led to a steep decline in the number of high school students deciding to be teachers, the long slow relative decline in teacher compensation, the early retirement of many capable teachers, the steady decline in the average tenure of school principals and superintendents and the rise in employment of unqualified teachers. William Bennet, President Reagan’s Education Secretary, famously declared school administrators to be “the blob.”  While the United States was busy attacking its education professionals, the countries whose students are now outpacing ours were working hard to raise the status of the profession of teaching by improving compensation, raising standards for entering the profession, creating incentives for the most competent professionals to share their expertise with others and instituting myriad other measures, all of which can be characterized as investing in the profession.  Not one of these countries chose to improve their education system by implicitly attacking the competence and commitment of their education professionals.  A Nation at Risk set the tone and provided the rationale for all of this.”

He adds:”Kamenetz closed her report with another observation I have made in this space.  She wonders whether, rather than painting a picture in which the report produced important gains in American education despite the failures of American educators, it might be more accurate to paint a picture in which we see American educators succeeding despite the attacks on them stimulated by the report.  In this view of the world, one that I think has a lot of merit, we need to see the steady scores of American high school students since the 1970s as a victory.  Why?  Because they held steady in spite of a substantial increase in the proportion of students living in poverty, recent increases in school segregation by socio-economic status and race, a decrease in the equity of school funding within states and an increase in the spread between teacher compensation and the compensation of others with the same amount of education.“

Tucker closes by saying that our education system needs vast improvement to keep up with a changing world, not by looking to the past, but by looking to a different future to meet new challenges, a future in which all must be well educated.


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