A Nation at Risk Twenty-five Years Later
Publication Date: 2008-04-07
from Unbound, Cato Institute
In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good.
The report claimed that a "long-term decline in educational achievement" was somehow connected to "a steady 15-year decline in industrial productivity, as one great American industry after another falls to world competition."
Risk then stimulated a spate of similar reports through the late 1980s and early 1990s, all making similar claims that import penetration could be blamed on poor American education.
For example, in 1990, a group of prominent Democrats and Republicans, calling themselves the National Center on Education and the Economy, followed with another report, AmericaÃ¢s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages. It saw skills development as virtually the only policy lever for shaping the economy. It charged that inadequate skills attained at flawed schools had caused industrial productivity to "slow to a crawl" and would, without radical school reform, lead to permanently low wages for the bottom 70 percent of all Americans.
Leading public intellectuals such as Robert Reich focused attention on human capital solutions in a laissez-faire global system. His book, The Work of Nations, argued that international competition would be won by nations with the most (and best) "symbolic analysts," not "routine" workers. Lester ThurowÃ¢s Head to Head forecast that Western Europe would come to dominate the United States and Japan economically because European schools were superior. Mainstream economists, both liberal and conservative, agreed that rising-wage and income inequality were caused by an acceleration of "skill-biased technological change," meaning that computerization and other advanced technologies were bidding up the relative value of education, leaving the less-skilled worse off.
Yet the response of American manufacturers to this allegedly education-driven import competition was curious. Automakers moved plants to Mexico, where worker education levels are considerably lower than those in the American Midwest. Meanwhile, Japanese manufacturers pressed their advantage by setting up non-union plants in places like Kentucky and Alabama, states not known for having the best-educated workers. High school graduates in those locations apparently had no difficulty working in teams and adapting to Japanese just-in-time manufacturing methods.
The ink was barely dry on the AmericaÃ¢s Choice report when AmericansÃ¢ ability to master technological change generated an extraordinary decade-long acceleration of productivity, beginning in the mid-1990s and exceeding that of other advanced countries. The productivity leap was accomplished by the very same workforce that the experts claimed imperiled our future. No presidential commissions announced that American schools must be superior to those of Western Europe and Japan, as evidenced by our more rapid productivity growth.
Again, the authors of A Nation at Risk cannot entirely be faulted for assuming that poor education had caused a productivity collapse. The big upturn in productivity growth began after Risk was issued. But it did begin, and productivity advances created new wealth with the potential to support a steady increase in the standards of living of all Americans.
And for a brief period, standards of living did indeed increase, because the fruits of productivity growth were broadly shared. As the chart shows, the late 1990s saw increasing wages for both high school and college graduates.
Even wages of high school dropouts climbed. But no presidential commissions praised American schools for producing widely shared prosperity.
The collapse of the stock bubble in 2000, the recession of the early 2000s, and the intensification of policies hostile to labor, brought wage growth to a halt. Living standards again began to decline and inequality zoomed Ã¢" at the same time that workforce productivity continued to climb. White-collar offshoring to India, China, and other low-wage countries signaled that globalization was now taking its toll on computer programmers and other symbolic analysts of the information age.
Today, however, a new cast of doomsayers has resuscitated an old storyline, picking up where A Nation at Risk left off. Forgetting how wrong such analyses were in the 1980s and Ã¢90s, the contemporary clichÃÂ© is that however good schools may once have been, the 21st century makes them obsolete. Global competition requires all students to graduate from high school prepared either for academic college or for technical training requiring equivalent cognitive ability. We can only beat the Asians by being smarter and more creative than they are.
The argument got a boost from New York Times columnist Thomas FriedmanÃ¢s 2005 book, The World is Flat, and has been repeated by the same National Center on Education and the Economy in Tough Choices, a sequel to its 1990 report. The argument has also garnered support from influential foundations (Gates, for example, and its chairman, Bill Gates) and from education advocacy groups (such as the testing organization, ACT).
The Tough Choices report bemoans the fact that "Indian engineers make $7,500 a year against $45,000 for an American engineer with the same qualifications" and concludes from this that we can compete with the Indian economy only if our engineers are smarter than theirs. This is silly: No matter how good our schools, American engineers wonÃ¢t be six times as smart as those in the rest of the world. Nonetheless, Marc Tucker, author of Tough Choices (and president of the group that produced the 1990 report as well), asserts, "The fact is that education holds the key to personal and national economic well-being, more now than at any time in our history."
Administration officials blame workers' education for middle-class income stagnation. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson contends that "market forces work to provide the greatest rewards to those with the needed skills in the growth areas. This means that those workers with less education and fewer skills will realize fewer rewards and have fewer opportunities to advance." Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan frequently blamed schools for inequality: "We have not been able to keep up the average skill level in our workforce to match the required increases of increasing technologyÃ¢Â¦"
But these 21st century claims are as misguided as those of the last century. Of course, we should work to improve schools for the middle class. And we have an urgent need to help more students from disadvantaged families graduate from good high schools. If those students do so, our society can become more meritocratic, with children from low-income and minority families better able to compete for good jobs with children from more privileged homes. But the biggest threats to the next generationÃ¢s success come from social and economic policy failures, not schools. And enhancing opportunity requires much more than school improvement.
If A Nation at Risk commissioners could not have known that explosive economic growth was just around the corner, todayÃ¢s education scolds have no such excuse. Workforce skills continue to generate rising productivity. In the last five years, wages of both high-school- and college-educated workers have been stagnant, while productivity grew by a quite healthy 10.4 percent.
Rising workforce skills can indeed make American firms more competitive. But better skills, while essential, are not the only source of productivity growth. The honesty of our capital markets, the accountability of our corporations, our fiscal policy and currency management, our national investment in R&D and infrastructure, and the fair-play of the trading system (or its absence), also influence whether the U.S. economy reaps the gains of AmericansÃ¢ diligence and ingenuity. The singular obsession with schools deflects political attention from policy failures in those other realms.
But while adequate skills are an essential component of productivity growth, workforce skills cannot determine how the wealth created by national productivity is distributed. That decision is made by policies over which schools have no influence-tax, regulatory, trade, monetary, technology, and labor market policies that modify the market forces affecting how much workers will be paid. Continually upgrading skills and education is essential for sustaining growth as well as for closing historic race and ethnic gaps. It does not, however, guarantee economic success without policies that also reconnect pay with productivity growth.
American middle-class living standards are threatened, not because workers lack competitive skills but because the richest among us have seized the fruits of productivity growth, denying what were historically considered fair shares to the working- and middle-class Americans, educated in American schools, who have created this new national wealth. Over the last few decades, wages of college graduates overall have increased, but some college graduates-managers, executives, white-collar sales workers-have commandeered disproportionate shares, with little left over for scientists, engineers, teachers, computer programmers, and others with high levels of skill. No amount of school reform can undo policies that redirect wealth generated by skilled workers to profits and executive bonuses.
A Nation at Risk gave renewed currency to the claim, now conventional, that the changing nature of work would require radical changes in education:
Computers and computer-controlled equipment are penetrating every aspect of our lives - homes, factories, and officesÃ¢Â¦ [B]y the turn of the century, millions of jobs will involve laser technology and robotics. Technology is rapidly transforming a host of other occupations. They include health care, medical science, energy production, food processing, construction, and the building, repair and maintenance of sophisticated scientific, educational, military, and industrial equipment.
This description is literally true; indeed, it explains much of the dramatic rise in productivity weÃ¢ve experienced. But the conclusion that these changes would require radical changes in education was flawed. It ignored the obvious reality that technology de-skills many jobs. Retail clerks now routinely use laser technology to scan bar codes; these clerks no longer need basic arithmetic skills.
College graduates are, in fact, not in short supply. Indeed, some college graduates are now forced to take jobs requiring only high-school educations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that, for the next decade, only 22 percent of job vacancies will require a college degree or more. Forty percent will require only one month or less of on-the-job training, and could be filled by high school graduates or, in many cases, by dropouts - retail salespersons, waiters and waitresses, for example.
In many high-school hallways nowadays, you can find a chart displaying the growing Ã¢returns to educationÃ¢ Ã¢" the ratio of college to high-school graduatesÃ¢ wages.
The idea is to impress on youths the urgency of going to college and the calamity that will befall those who donÃ¢t. The data are real Ã¢" college graduates do earn more than high-school graduates, and the gap is substantially greater than it was a few decades ago.
But it is too facile to conclude that this ratio proves a shortage of college graduates.
The denominatorÃ¢" the falling real wages of high-school graduates Ã¢" has played a bigger part in boosting the college-to-high-school wage ratio than has the numerator - an unmet demand for college graduates. Important causes of this decline of high school graduatesÃ¢ wages have been the weakening of labor market institutions, such as the minimum wage and unions, which once boosted the pay of high-school-educated workers.
For the first time in a decade, the minimum wage was recently increased. The curious result will be a statistical decline in Ã¢returns to education.Ã¢ But we should not conclude from a minimum-wage increase that we need fewer college graduates, any more than we should have concluded from falling wages for high-school graduates that college graduates are scarce and schools are failing.
Another too glib canard is that our education system used to be acceptable because students could graduate from high school (or even drop out) and still support families with good manufacturing jobs. Today, those jobs are vanishing, and with them the chance of middle-class incomes for those without good educations.
ItÃ¢s true that many manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Replacements have mostly been equally unskilled or semiskilled jobs in service and retail sectors. There was never anything more inherently valuable about working in a factory assembly line than about changing bed linens in a hotel. What once made semiskilled manufacturing jobs once desirable was that many (though not most) were protected by unions, provided pensions and health insurance, and compensated with decent wages. That todayÃ¢s working class doesnÃ¢t get similar protections has nothing to do with the adequacy of its education, but everything to do with policy decisions stemming from the value we place on equality. Hotel jobs that pay $20 an hour, with health and pension benefits (rather than $10 an hour without benefits) typically do so because of union organization, not because maids earned bachelorÃ¢s degrees.
It is cynical to tell millions of Americans who work (and who will continue to be needed to work) in low-level administrative jobs and in janitorial, food-service, hospitality, transportation, and retail industries that their wages have stagnated because their educations are inadequate for international competition. The quality of our civic, cultural, community, and family lives demands school improvement, but barriers to unionization are a more important cause of low wages than the quality of workersÃ¢ education.
Fortunately, the elite consensus on education as a cure-all seems now to be collapsing. Offshoring of high-tech jobs has deeply undercut the Clinton-era metaphor of an education-fueled transition to the information age, since it is all too apparent that college educations and computer skills do not insulate Americans from globalizationÃ¢s downsides. Former Clinton economic advisor (and Federal Reserve vice chairman) Alan Blinder has emerged as an establishment voice calling attention to the potentially large-scale impact of continued offshoring. Blinder stresses that the distinction between American jobs likely to be destroyed by international competition and those likely to survive, is not one of workersÃ¢ skills or education. Ã¢It is unlikely that the services of either taxi drivers or airline pilots will ever be delivered electronically over long distances Ã¢Â¦ Janitors and crane operators are probably immune to foreign competition; accountants and computer programmers are not.Ã¢
These are not problems that can be solved by vouchers, charter schools, teacher accountability, or any other school intervention. A balanced human capital policy would involve schools, but would require tax, regulatory, and labor market reforms as well.
As to the relative responsibility of schools: A Nation at Risk was issued in 1983, a decade after the nationÃ¢s post-war narrowing of social and economic inequality had ended. By the time of the report, income was becoming less evenly distributed. The real value of the minimum wage was falling and the share of the workforce with union protection was declining. Progress towards integration had halted and, as William Julius Wilson noted in The Truly Disadvantaged, published only half a dozen years later, the poorest black children were becoming isolated in dysfunctional inner-city communities to an extent not previously seen in American social history.
Social and economic disadvantage contributes in important ways to poor student achievement. Children in poor health attend quality schools less regularly. Those with inadequate housing change schools frequently, disrupting not only their own educations but those of their classmates. Children whose parents are less literate and whose homes have less rich intellectual environments enter school already so far behind that they rarely can catch up. Parents under severe economic stress cannot provide the support children need to excel. And, as Wilson described, children in neighborhoods without academically successful role models are less likely to develop academic ambitions themselves.
These non-school influences on academic achievement were not unknown to the Commissioners who authored A Nation at Risk. The Coleman Report of 1966, still a major document of recent research history, had concluded that family background factors were more important influences on student achievement variation than school quality. In 1972 and 1979, Christopher Jencks and his colleagues had published two widely-noticed re-assessments of Coleman, Inequality, and Who Gets Ahead?, both of which confirmed the Coleman ReportÃ¢s central finding. Yet the National Commission on Excellence in Education, in preparation for its Nation at Risk report, commissioned 40 research studies from the leading academic researchers in the nation, and not one of these was primarily devoted to the social and economic factors that affect learning.
Most remarkably, A Nation at Risk concluded with a brief Ã¢Word to Parents and Students,Ã¢ acknowledging that schools alone could not reverse the alleged decline in academic performance. It urged parents to be a "living example of what you expect your children to honor and emulateÃ¢Â¦ You should encourage more diligent study and discourage satisfaction with mediocrityÃ¢Â¦" This was the reportÃ¢s only reference to non-school factors that influence learning.
A Nation at Risk, therefore, changed the national conversation about education, from the Coleman-Jencks focus on social and economic influences, to an assumption that schools alone could raise and equalize student achievement. The distorted focus culminated in the No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002, demanding that school accountability alone for raising test scores should raise achievement to never-before-attained levels, and equalize outcomes by race and social class as well.
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 AmericansÃ¢ 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.
There are many reasons to improve American schools, but declining achievement and international competition are not good arguments for doing so. Asking schools to improve dramatically without support from other social and economic institutions is bound to fail, as a quarter-century of experience since A Nation at Risk has demonstrated.
 Willard Wirtz, et. al. 1977. On Further Examination: Report of the Advisory Panel on the Scholastic Aptitude Test Score Decline. Princeton, N.J.: College Board Publications; Albert E. Beaton, Albert E., Thomas L. Hilton, and William B. Shrader, 1977. Changes in the Verbal Abilities of High School Seniors, College Entrants, and SAT Candidates Between 1960 and 1972. See my more extensive discussion in Richard Rothstein. 1998. The Way We Were? The Myths and Realities of AmericaÃ¢s Student Achievement. New York: The Century Foundation.
 For further discussion of goal distortion in American education, see Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen. 2006. Ã¢The Goals of Education.Ã¢ Phi Delta Kappan 88 (4), December.
 National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A Nation at Risk. The Imperative for Education Reform. U.S. Government Printing Office (http://www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html). (hereinafter, Ã¢RiskÃ¢) p. 10, p. 7.
 This section was co-authored by Lawrence Mishel, and adapted in part from Ã¢Schools as ScapegoatsÃ¢ by Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein in The American Prospect, October 2007.
 Risk, p. 5.
 Risk, p. 17-18.
 Ã¢The Productivity-Pay GapÃ¢ calculated and illustrated by Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute. Risk, p. 10.
 Arlene Dohm and Lynn Schniper, 2007. Ã¢Occupational Employment Projections to 2016,Ã¢ Monthly Labor Review, November.
 Ã¢Returns to EducationÃ¢ from Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein and Sylvia Allegretto, 2007. The State of Working America 2006/2007. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
 Alan S.Blinder. 2006. Ã¢Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution?Ã¢ Foreign Affairs 85 (2): March/April
 I have discussed these issues in Class and Schools (Teachers College Press, 2004).
 Coleman, James S., and Ernest Q. Campbell, Carol J. Hobson, James McPartland, Alexander M. Mood, Frederic D. Weinfeld and Rober L. York, 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington,D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Government Printing Office
 Risk, p. 35.
Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute.
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