Chester Finn, Jr.: Twenty-Five Years Later, A Nation Still at Risk





[Mr. Finn, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is the author of "Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik," published in February by the Princeton University Press.]

Today marks the 25th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk," the influential Reagan-era report by a blue-ribbon panel that alerted Americans to the weak performance of our education system. The report warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people." That dire forecast set off a quarter century of education reform that's yielded worthy changes – yet still not the achievement gains we need to turn back the tide of mediocrity.

After decades of furthering educational "equality," the 1983 commission admonished the country, it was time to attend to academic excellence and school results. Educators didn't want to hear this and a generation later many still don't. Our ponderous public-school system resists change. Teachers don't like criticism and are loath to be judged by pupil performance. In educator circles, one still encounters grumbling that "A Nation at Risk" lodged a bum rap.

Others heeded the alarm, though, and that report launched an era of forceful innovation and accountability guided by noneducators – elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists.

Such "civilian" leadership has brought about two profound shifts that the professionals, left to their own devices, would never have allowed. Today, instead of judging schools by their services, resources or fairness, we track their progress against preset academic standards – and hold them to account for those results.

We're also far more open to charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools, home schooling. And we no longer suppose kids must attend the campus nearest home. A majority of U.S. students now study either in bona fide "schools of choice," or in neighborhood schools their parents chose with a realtor's help.

Those are historic changes indeed – most of today's education debates deal with the complexities of carrying them out. Yet our school results haven't appreciably improved, whether one looks at test scores or graduation rates. Sure, there are up and down blips in the data, but no big and lasting changes in performance, even though we're also spending tons more money. (In constant dollars, per-pupil spending in 1983 was 56% of today's.)

And just as "A Nation at Risk" warned, other countries are beginning to eat our education lunch. While our outcomes remain flat, theirs rise. Half a dozen nations now surpass our high-school and college graduation rates. International tests find young Americans scoring in the middle of the pack.

What to do now? It's no time to ease the push for a major K-12 education make-over – or to settle (as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton apparently would) for reviving yesterday's faith in still more spending and greater trust in educators. But we can distill four key lessons:...



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