nation_at_risk.htm

DECLINE OF
AMERICAN
EDUCATION

 

 

Excerpts from
A NATION AT RISK:
The Imperative for Educational Reform

A Report to the Nation and
the Secretary of Education United States Department of Education by

The National Commission on Excellence in Education


April 1983     (for Full Text click here)

 

 

 
 

Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. ...... the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

..... we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. ....
 

.....This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the Nation's commitment to schools and colleges of high quality ......

 

The Risk    

 

History is not kind to idlers. ..... 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. America's position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer.
The risk is not only that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently than Americans and have government subsidies for development and export. It is not just that the South Koreans recently built the world's most efficient steel mill, or that American machine tools, once the pride of the world, are being displaced by German products. It is also that these developments signify a redistribution of trained capability throughout the globe. Knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence are the new raw materials of international commerce and are today spreading throughout the world as vigorously as miracle drugs, synthetic fertilizers, and blue jeans did earlier. ..... we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all--old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority. Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the "information age" we are entering.

 

 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 and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom. .....
Part of what is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself.

 

 

 

Indicators of the  Risk   

 

 

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. The Department of the Navy, for example, reported to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written safety instructions. Without remedial work they cannot even begin, much less complete, the sophisticated training essential in much of the modern military.

 

These deficiencies come at a time when the demand for highly skilled workers in new fields is accelerating rapidly. ......
Analysts examining these indicators of student performance and the demands for new skills have made some chilling observations. Educational researcher Paul Hurd concluded at the end of a thorough national survey of student achievement that within the context of the modern scientific revolution, "We are raising a new generation of Americans that is scientifically and technologically illiterate." In a similar vein, John Slaughter, a former Director of the National Science Foundation, warned of "a growing chasm between a small scientific and technological elite and a citizenry ill-informed, indeed uninformed, on issues with a science component."

 

... Another analyst, Paul Copperman, has drawn a sobering conclusion. Until now, he has noted:

Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.

It is important, of course, to recognize that the average citizen today is better educated and more knowledgeable than the average citizen of a generation ago--more literate, and exposed to more mathematics, literature, and science. ... Nevertheless, the average graduate of our schools and colleges today is not as well-educated as the average graduate of 25 or 35 years ago, when a much smaller proportion of our population completed high school and college. .

 

   Hope and Frustration      

 

What lies behind ... emerging national sense of frustration can be described as both a dimming of personal expectations and the fear of losing a shared vision for America.

... More and more young people emerge from high school ready neither for college nor for work. ...

 

Excellence in Education     

 

We do not believe that a public commitment to excellence and educational reform must be made at the expense of a strong public commitment to the equitable treatment of our diverse population. The twin goals of equity and high-quality schooling have profound and practical meaning for our economy and society, and we cannot permit one to yield to the other either in principle or in practice. ....
Our goal must be to develop the talents of all to their fullest. Attaining that goal requires that we expect and assist all students to work to the limits of their capabilities. We should expect schools to have genuinely high standards rather than minimum ones, and parents to support and encourage their children to make the most of their talents and abilities.
The search for solutions to our educational problems must also include a commitment to life-long learning. The task of rebuilding our system of learning is enormous and must be properly understood and taken seriously: Although a million and a half new workers enter the economy each year from our schools and colleges, the adults working today will still make up about 75 percent of the workforce in the year 2000. These workers, and new entrants into the workforce, will need further education and retraining if they--and we as a Nation--are to thrive and prosper.

 

 

The Tools at Hand

 

 

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

 

  • the natural abilities of the young that cry out to be develope d and the undiminished concern of parents for the well-being of their children;
  • the commitment of the Nation to high retention rates in schools and colleges and to full access to education for all;
  • the persistent and authentic American dream that superior performance can raise one's state in life and shape one's own future;
  • the dedication, against all odds, that keeps teachers serving in schools and colleges, even as the rewards diminish;
  • our better understanding of learning and teaching and the implications of this knowledge for school practice, and the numerous examples of local success as a result of superior effort and effective dissemination;  
  • he ingenuity of our policymakers, scientists, State and local educators, and scholars in formulating solutions once problems are better understood;
  • the traditional belief that paying for education is an investment in ever-renewable human resources that are more durable and flexible than capital plant and equipment, and the availability in this country of sufficient financial means to invest in education;  
  • the equally sound tradition, from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 until today, that the Federal Government should supplement State, local, and other resources to foster key national educational goals; and
  • the voluntary efforts of individuals, businesses, and parent and civic groups to cooperate in strengthening educational programs.

 

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.

 

 

The Public's Commitment

 

 

The most recent (1982) Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools strongly supported a theme heard during our hearings: People are steadfast in their belief that education is the major foundation for the future strength of this country. They even considered education more important than developing the best industrial system or the strongest military force, perhaps because they understood education as the cornerstone of both. They also held that education is "extremely important" to one's future success, and that public education should be the top priority for additional Federal funds. Education occupied first place among 12 funding categories considered in the survey--above health care, welfare, and military defense, with 55 percent selecting public education as one of their first three choices. ...

 

At the same time, the public has no patience with undemanding and superfluous high school offerings. In another survey, more than 75 percent of all those questioned believed every student planning to go to college should take 4 years of mathematics, English, history/U.S. government, and science, with more than 50 percent adding 2 years each of a foreign language and economics or business. The public even supports requiring much of this curriculum for students who do not plan to go to college. These standards far exceed the strictest high school graduation requirements of any State today, and they also exceed the admission standards of all but a handful of our most selective colleges and universities.
Another dimension of the public's support offers the prospect of constructive reform. .... Citizens know intuitively what some of the best economists have shown in their research, that education is one of the chief engines of a society's material well-being. They know, too, that education is the common bond of a pluralistic society and helps tie us to other cultures around the globe.....
.... 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. ...

 

 

Members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education

David P. Gardner (Chair)
President University of Utah and President-Elect, University of California

Yvonne W. Larsen (Vice-Chair)
Immediate Past-President San Diego City School Board

William 0. Baker
Chairman of the Board (Retired) Bell Telephone Laboratories

Anne Campbell
Former Commissioner of Education State of Nebraska

Emeral A. Crosby
Principal Northern High School

Charles A. Foster, Jr.
Irnmediate Past-President Foundation for Teaching economics

Norman C. Francis
President Xavier University of Louisiana

A. Bartlett Giamatti
President Yale University

Shirley Gordon
President Highline Community College

Robert V. Haderlein
Irnmediate Past-President National School Boards Association

Gerald Holton
Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science Harvard University

Annette Y. Kirk
Kirk Associates Mecosta, Michigan

Margaret S. Marston
Member Virginia State Board of Education

Albert H. Quie
Former Governor State of Minnesota

Francisco D. Sanchez, Jr.
Superintendent of Schools Albuquerque Public Schools
 

Glenn T. Seaborg
University Professor of Chemistry and Nobel Laureate University of California Berkeley

Jay Sommer
National Teacher of the Year, 1981-82 Foreign Language Department New Rochelle High School

Richard Wallace
Principal Lutheran High School East

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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