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An Insider's View of 'A Nation at Risk' and Why It Still Matters

Publication Date: 2014-11-18

This commentary is from Chronicle of Higher Education, April 25, 2003, the 20th anniversary of the publication of A Nation at Risk. It is by a member of the panel that wrote the report and a professor emeritus of physics and of the history of science at Harvard University.

He mentions that the group working on "Nation at Risk" read papers by Alexander Astin, Paul Hurd, and Thorsten Husen. Not recognizing them, I looked them up.

Alexander Astin: Director of research for both the American Council on Education (1965-1973) and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. (1960-1965).

Paul Hurd: Noted science educator. His papers are archived in the Hoover Institution.

Thorsten Husen: Swedish pioneer in the field of military psychology.

I leave it to the reader to draw conclusions about the choices made to advise the panel on the needs of K-12 education.

Also of interest: The head of the Commission had a career that included the presidency of two universities as well as the presidency of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

For an important update on "A Nation at Risk," see Education Accountability as Disaster Bureaucracy by P. L. Thomas.

April 26 is the 20th anniversary of the "A Nation at Risk" report, a document that is still being referred to, while so many other national reports tend to disappear quickly from view. The anniversary comes at a time when the White House claims that it will "leave no child behind," even while the typical school in much of the country is forced to cancel classes, lay off teachers, and cut salaries. The disjunction between rhetoric and reality has an uncanny resemblance to the situation two decades ago. That alone makes it worthwhile to provide an eyewitness view of the genesis and fate of the report, both to correct some of the misconceptions that have surfaced from time to time and to illuminate educational reform today -- including the role that higher-education institutions should play.

In August 1981, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Terrel H. Bell, created the National Commission on Excellence in Education, with the mandate "to present a report on the quality of education in America." In response to "what many consider to be a long and continuing decline in the quality of American education," he charged it with making recommendations that would ameliorate any deficiencies, especially in secondary education. When asked to join 17 other members of the commission -- and told that we were expected to spend a good part of two years attending several dozen meetings, hearings, panel discussions, and symposiums in various parts of the country, and then finally, to issue the report -- I firmly refused.

Why? First, that summer was the high-water mark of Ronald Reagan's triumphant initial year as president. His administration and a subservient Congress appeared intent on dismantling systematically many programs that I found important, especially those in support of education and science. For example, already during the transition period after Reagan's election in 1980, the Department of Education had been targeted for elimination. Some of that hostility was apparently a revenge for the endorsements of Jimmy Carter's candidacy by the National Education Association and many teachers. To that was added the administration's narrow reading of the Constitution and the 10th Amendment as leaving the support of education entirely in the hands of states and localities. I doubted that any report could reverse the tide.

Second, improving education was not on the nation's front burner, despite what people might have said to Gallup pollsters. True, other commissions were working on education -- and, looking back, one can see that a few governors were seeking reforms. But a look at the newspapers of the time, for example, or at the abandonment of teacher training by many schools of education, will assure one that in the summer of 1981, the nation was not preoccupied with educational improvement. When a member of the National Science Board was asked, after his talk at the first meeting of the education commission, why the National Science Foundation had so severely truncated its support of science education that fiscal year, wiping out all but one small education program, he answered simply, "Education is not on the nation's agenda."

Immediately after his presentation, a consultant for the Education Department assured the commission that its work would be easily accomplished if all it proposed were annual prizes to make excellent schools more visible as models. And the whole thing, he assured us, could be done for less than $200,000 a year. Such a plan exhibited the absurd but inexpensive Examplenarian Solution that the administration favored, rather than the systemic reform needed.

I also was puzzled by the makeup of the proposed commission. Although it included many fine people, there was not one prominent national expert on education, persons such as Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Patricia Graham, dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education; Frederick M. Hechinger, education editor of The New York Times; Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers; or Theodore R. Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools. I thought these blatant omissions were intellectually and politically dangerous, and, in fact, they came back to haunt the report on its release.

Yet I soon received a call from an admired friend who argued that I had a duty to serve, not least because I was the only one on the list who, through having initiated and co-directed a national curriculum project on physics, had hands-on experience in seeking to improve secondary education on a national scale. In the end I accepted on one condition: If necessary, I would be allowed to write a minority report.

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education. Or, at least, don't ask to waste more federal money on education -- "we have put in more only to wind up with less." Just discover excellent schools to serve as models for all the others. As we left, I detected no visible dismay in our group. I wondered if we were all equally stunned.

Hard work followed: lengthy meetings, site visits, and hearings in many states. We read and discussed many extensive reports by a large staff from the Department of Education and 40 more studies by a great variety of consultants -- including many distinguished ones, like Alexander Astin, Paul Hurd, and Torsten Husen.

And we began to sense the poor state of America's secondary education, our main focus. There were, of course, some bright spots, but among the findings presented to us were these: as many as 23 million Americans were illiterate, only a fifth of 17-year-olds could write a persuasive essay, and only a few more could do a simple, two-step math problem. About two-thirds of high-school seniors spent less than one hour on homework. A lower proportion of students attended science courses than in other industrial countries. Textbooks had become unchallenging and repetitious; in some courses, most academic-track students had already encountered 80 percent of the subject matter. At last count, 42 percent of students had taken "general track" courses that led nowhere. As one of the school superintendents said, in 1981 schools on the whole were run as social-welfare institutions, not academic ones. We also heard that "too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high-school and college students" -- with low levels of preparation, little retraining in the subject matter, and low pay.

The somber facts were slowly driving most of us toward a consensus. But the first drafts of the report that the hard-working staff members of the Education Department prepared were mostly tedious, uninspired, lengthy, and bureaucratic. As one commissioner remarked, "This is no clarion call, it is a sparrow's chirp." Another agreed: "This is milk toast."

I argued for a short report in clear, compelling language and big print, with the rest in appendices -- even if these were unlikely to be read by many. Given the widespread lack of interest in educational improvement, I hoped that we might at best have one influential reader: President Reagan himself. The language used in the title and the first pages should be calculated to induce our commander in chief to read the rest of the report, including the all-important recommendations at the end -- most of which would take real courage to write in the political climate of the day. And we should not even mention any of the five cardinal points of Reagan's initial marching orders.

The staff members went back to the drawing board, but the result was still regarded as pallid and bureaucratic. It was now March 1983, and we had only a few weeks left before we had to hand in our report. I quietly decided to write my minority report.

But then, two commissioners I most admired took me aside and asked me to write a draft. It was a Thursday, so I would have a long weekend to do it at home. Despite a sense of utter futility, I felt it my duty to try it. I went to work, incorporating whatever seemed useful from the previous efforts. A copy of my handwritten first draft starts with: "America is at risk. If a hostile and wily foreign power had somehow imposed on America the pervasively mediocre educational performance that exists today, we would have declared war on it." I hoped that our commander in chief would feel forced to read on.

Many of the later commentators seem not to have read much beyond those first wake-up pages, and so missed the five main recommendations at the end, practically all of them quite contrary to the then-current views, certainly to those in the White House. We asked for five "new basics" during the four years of high school: four years of English; three years each of math, science, and social studies; and a semester of computer science. We recommended two years of foreign language for the college-bound. We also suggested other courses and how to carry out all of our recommendations. We called for more-rigorous, measurable standards; higher expectations for academic performance and conduct; more time to learn the basics; heightened admissions requirements at four-year colleges and universities; and the recognition of, and rewards for, teaching as a profession (a recommendation consisting of seven explicit separate ones). Finally, in italics, we urged citizens to "hold educators and elected officials responsible for providing the leadership necessary to achieve these reforms," and to "provide the fiscal support and stability." We added that the federal government has "the primary responsibility to identify the national interest in education. It should also help fund and support efforts to protect and promote that interest ... and provide the national leadership."

The head of our commission, David P. Gardner, took over the draft and, in masterly negotiation, mostly by telephone, brought us to an agreement on a final report. Ted Bell was delighted with it, writing later in his book, The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan Cabinet Memoir (Free Press, 1988), "I had never seen so much substance in so brief a span."

On the day of the report's public release, April 26, 1983, Reagan invited the commission back to the White House. We sat in several front rows in the State Dining Room, with distinguished invited guests, as well as many reporters and TV cameras, behind us. As we waited a long time for the president, one of the commissioners, familiar with how the White House operated, remarked that Reagan was still deciding which of two speeches to give: one by Jim Baker, his chief of staff, and Mike Deaver, deputy chief of staff, who basically supported the report, or the other by Ed Meese, counselor to the president, who was virulently against it.

At last, Reagan bounded into the room. He thanked us for our work and lifted a copy of the newly printed, blue-covered report up high. He said that he was glad to have received it; indeed, he went on, the report was fully in accord with his own ideas on retrieving excellence in education: by bringing God back into the classroom, by tuition tax credits, by vouchers, and -- he pointed at Secretary Bell -- by abolishing the Department of Education. Ted Bell recorded later in his unfortunately much-unread book that he saw Ed Meese standing in the wings, a big smile on his face.

Two thoughts flashed through my mind. The one important reader of the report had apparently not read it after all (although Bell claimed later that he had, which would make what eventually occurred even worse). And, given Reagan's implied description of our work, the reporters who had heard the same views from him for several years didn't even have any news to write about. It was all over.

But then something happened to change everything. The commissioners were looking at one another in dismay and astonishment, and in a stage whisper loud enough to be heard by reporters in back, one commissioner said simply, "We have been had."

For the reporters, that was like blood before sharks. A conflict between Reagan's words and what the commission's report might contain seemed the stuff of scandal, the favorite subject of most journalists. As the meeting broke up, reporters cornered many of us, asking for interviews. And now they pounced on the blue booklets, too.

The next days and weeks saw an unbelievable flood of publicity about the report. The front page of virtually every major newspaper in the country featured it; The Chronicle of Higher Education and Sunday editions reprinted it in full. The final distribution of the report, according to the Education Department, was more than six million. Chiefly because of the sentence "We have been had," we had not been.

Or had we, after all? We soon found out.

Reagan, seeing the favorable national response, skillfully associated himself with the report in broadcast-media appearances -- although he often snuck in his hope for prayer in the classroom. As part of what he called "a long campaign to disseminate" the report, "A Nation at Risk," Ted Bell quickly organized 12 regional conferences before large crowds, often with Reagan and governors present. The administration, now gearing up for the 1984 election, found that polls showed that the public was pleased with it all, so Reagan gave a total of 51 speeches on the need for educational reform -- wanting, in Bell's words, "to get the greatest possible mileage from the commission report." Bell added that the "high political payoff ... stole the issue from Walter Mondale -- and it cost us nothing" and "obscured concerns about cuts in welfare, aid to dependent children, Medicaid, and other social programs."

In short, Reagan used "A Nation at Risk" as a Trojan horse to help win the election. We had been used. Soon after he was re-elected, in 1984, the Education Department's budget was again sharply cut, and educational improvement disappeared from the administration's agenda.

Some governors eventually adopted some of our recommendations, at least in spirit. After the release of the report -- and of some others that followed, especially the May 1984 National Academy of Sciences report by business and education leaders -- 35 states increased the number of academic courses required for high-school graduation.

But another group reacted against the report, sometimes violently. As I had feared, some professional educators (with the striking exception of Al Shanker) and journalists who had been left out of membership on the commission were now outraged. For example, Fred Hechinger devoted his weekly education column in The New York Times for nearly a year to attacks on the report; his main complaint was that it was intended to make schools tough rather than better. Ernie Boyer campaigned similarly. Others claimed the crisis was a right-wing fabrication, that test scores had not declined, and that American students stacked up very well in international assessments.

Educators also repeatedly charged that "A Nation at Risk" presented the main danger to the nation as only economic competition from abroad. But, in fact, such considerations were minor and limited in the report. Doubters should reread passages like, "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. ... A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society."

Looking back 20 years later, what did we accomplish? Within the limits put on the commission and in the context of its time, the report was arguably far more daring than most could have expected. And if compassionate federal, state, and local governments had carried out the recommendations, and more school systems had put the recommendations into operation, much greater educational reforms could have been achieved.

In hindsight, and particularly if we had known about the large (although accidentally produced) national interest, we might have made more observations and recommendations. Even though it wasn't part of our charter, we might also have dealt with an extremely difficult and important point: the interdependence among home, school, and society at large in affecting the performance of individual students, especially underprivileged ones. We also needed, and still need, more-detailed and eloquent discussion about the danger to a cohesive, healthy American society if the public-school system is undermined. But back then it was thought wiser, in a short report, to zero in on the points that had been presented to us most frequently.

In fact, a review of the report now only reinforces the persistent need for education reforms to this day -- we should give better attention to the pre-high-school years, help school teaching to become a true profession, conduct more-careful reviews of the course content, tie tests more closely to the curriculum, and repair the often disgraceful physical condition of schools. Perhaps the report might now best be used as material from which to select parts that are still useful, shaping other parts to current conditions, and adding yet others -- so we can fashion an updated report to the nation, as the ancient builders took pieces of earlier monuments to erect their own new ones.

Higher-education institutions, in particular, should recognize their duty to reach out to schoolteachers as well as to dedicate themselves seriously to the preparation of future ones. To cite only one example: In a few colleges -- far too few -- academic departments team up with schools of education and turn out graduates with teaching certificates as well as degrees that show mastery of specific subjects.

Ultimately, I hope that any new commission would have the courage to point to what is clearly the basic flaw in the structure on which the educational system in this country is built: that apart from their own parents' sympathy and politicians' sentimental pronouncements, the children of America are the most disenfranchised members of society. They do not vote, they do not contribute to election funds, they have no ownership in the media, they do not count when budget wars are waged against their schools.

In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson asked for what would be a good part of the remedy even today: "An amendment to our Constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people." That did not happen. But without our society's and state governors' commitment to something like the moral equivalent of a national "right to proper education," progress will be slow and sporadic at best.

The nation could indeed use a new report. For it is still at risk.

Gerald Holton is a professor of physics and a professor of the history of science emeritus at Harvard University.

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