A brief overview of recent education reform in the U.S.
In 1983, a commission appointed by President Reagan released “A Nation at Risk,” a report announcing that public education in the U.S. had seriously deteriorated. Without improvement, we wouldn’t be able to compete with other countries in the future. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” the report declared, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
In response, many states raised teachers’ salaries and searched for ways to evaluate their schools’ effectiveness. In his 1990 State of the Union address, President Bush announced national education goals, and challenged America to raise its students to number one in the world in science and math by the year 2000.
The Clinton administration pressed states to establish standards in core subjects, and to test students to measure their progress.
This movement toward testing and accountability culminated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, or NCLB, which requires states to test students annually on basic skills in order to qualify for federal funding. The law was proposed by President George W. Bush as a remedy for what he called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and passed with strong bipartisan support in Congress. NCLB includes an escalating series of measures to improve schools that fail to make “Adequate Yearly Progress.” (See below for more detail on NCLB.)
President Obama’s “Race to the Top” shifted the focus to encouraging reform by offering generous funding to states that proposed to implement changes preferred by the administration.
Though spending on public education from kindergarten through high school has doubled since “A Nation at Risk” came out, the gains have been relatively small. The U.S. now spends more on education per pupil than any other country in the world except Switzerland, but our students’ performance on international math, science and reading tests is poor to mediocre as compared with other industrialized countries. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, only a third or fewer of eighth-grade students achieved a grade of “proficient” in reading, math, or science.
The achievement gap
Testing has revealed a persistent gap in academic performance between minorities and white students. Black and Latino students have improved in math and reading, but they still lag behind white students—by about two grade levels on national tests in math and reading for 4th and 8th graders. According to one study, it will take between 28 and 105 years to close the African-American/white achievement gap in reading among 4th graders, if we keep doing what we’re doing now.
For a report on what testing reveals about the achievement gap, see the Christian Science Monitor.
Many teachers and commentators point to the impact of outside factors (including poverty and family dysfunction) on student achievement, and say the difference a teacher can make in the classroom is limited. But there are many examples of schools that successfully teach even the most underprivileged students, proving that “demography is not destiny.”
Teachers’ unions and school reformers often clash on how we should go about improving our schools. Key approaches include:
Improving the teachers. Here are the main strategies that have been proposed:
• Merit pay, to reward and inspire excellence. The current salary system in most school districts links pay mainly to how long a teacher has worked, with no financial reward for excellence. While the idea of merit pay seems sensible, many (including teachers’ unions) argue against it, saying that measuring merit is hard to do objectively, and that merit pay could become a way for principals to reward their favorites and punish those they dislike. Teachers warn that merit pay based on test results would encourage them to focus even more on standardized test preparation, leaving less time for creativity and deeper thinking, and would turn what has been a collegial profession—in which teachers freely share tips and ideas with colleagues—into a more competitive one, with teachers guarding their best methods in order to outperform peers. Finally, researchers have found no significant difference between students’ test results in schools that offer merit pay and those who don’t. For more on this debate, see Debatepedia.
• Higher salaries, especially during the early years of teachers’ careers, to help recruit the best and the brightest. A study by McKinsey and Company found that the world’s top school systems recruit their teachers from the top third of university graduates; a different study found that very few U.S. teachers come from that high-achieving pool. In order to compete with better-paying professions for the most qualified job applicants, schools need to offer higher salaries.
• More observation and evaluation of teachers in the classroom—especially when they are identified as needing improvement—by experienced professionals who can make constructive suggestions and recommend either further training or dismissal.
• Tenure reform, to make it easier to fire the worst teachers. Once teachers have tenure (typically after three years in the classroom), it’s extremely difficult to fire them. In New York City, administrators only succeed in dismissing a handful of teachers for incompetence each year, out of 55,000 tenured teachers, despite strenuous efforts to get rid of the least effective ones. The other side of this argument is that teachers deserve protection from firing for personal or political reasons, such as personal conflict with a principal. And, without tenure, school districts facing budget crises would dismiss experienced teachers and hire rookie teachers to save money. For more on the pros and cons of teacher tenure, see ProCon.org.
• Changes in pension schedules. Because many school districts allow teachers to collect their full pensions only after they have taught a minimum number of years—25 in New York City—and teachers get much smaller pensions if they retire sooner, many stay in the classroom long after they’ve burned out. If the rules were changed to eliminate that pension-bump at the end of a long career, more teachers would change careers once they lost interest in teaching.
School choice. Before NCLB, there was little incentive for failing schools to improve. If every student had at least one alternative choice of school, reformers say, that would pressure underperforming schools to do better, because they would lose their students if they didn’t.
Charter schools. A charter school is an alternative public school that is freed from certain rules governing other public schools (for example, the rule that teachers must be union members). Charter schools serve as laboratories where promising strategies can be tested. By rigorously evaluating the results, we can choose successful models to replicate. But critics point to studies showing that students at many charter schools perform no better than those who attend traditional schools. Also, most charter schools enroll a smaller percentage of students with disabilities or limited English skills than public schools, which contributes to their impressive test results. Still, some charters have made a tremendous impact on their students. At the Harlem Success Academy in New York, for example, low-income minority students score at levels equal to students at the city’s gifted-and-talented schools, which have admissions requirements. For more on charter schools, see PBS.
Reducing class size. Reformers have long fought for smaller classes, in order to give teachers more time with individual students or small groups. Although average class sizes have fallen somewhat over the past 30 years, recent budget crises have pushed school districts to reverse the trend. Most research confirms that smaller classes lead to higher achievement, especially in the lower grades—but the improvements seem to be most marked when classes are limited to 16 or fewer students, a goal that’s far out of reach for most American schools, which now average 25 students per class.
Offering more online instruction. Excellent interactive courses could be created by teaming the best teachers with software developers. Students could move at their own pace, and classroom teachers could supplement the online learning as needed. Unions oppose this change because it would eventually mean fewer teaching jobs; but reducing staff size would allow schools to offer higher salaries to the teachers that remain. (For an article about “cyber charters” that already offer full-time online instruction to 250,000 American students as an alternative to public schools, see the Wall Street Journal.)
More resources in the classroom. There are huge gaps in per-pupil spending between the richest and the poorest school districts in the U.S. As a result, poorer classrooms lack textbooks, computers, and other supplies, and many teachers have to pay to photocopy teaching materials. More funding for disadvantaged districts would reduce these obstacles.
More time spent in the classroom. Many reformers believe we need a longer school day, or more days in the school year, so teachers can cover the material they’re supposed to teach. (German teens spend 3,500 hours on their core curriculum, as compared with 1,500 in the U.S. Students in China and India also put in far more hours than Americans in the classroom.)
Addressing the effects of poverty outside of school. Skeptics say you can’t educate low-income kids until you address the impact of poverty. Reformers say that argument lets schools off the hook too easily. Bridging the divide are charter schools that try to address poverty’s effects in order to help students learn. The best-known example is the Harlem Children’s Zone, created by Geoffrey Canada, which provides not only high-quality education, but support services too. The program now serves 8,000 kids in a 100-block area. (For an analysis of the results achieved by the Harlem Children’s Zone, go here.)
No Child Left Behind
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires that states test students in math and reading every year from third through eighth grade and once in high school. The law further requires schools to raise the percentage of students achieving proficiency every year, with the goal of reaching 100% proficiency by 2014. That goal was ambitious at the time, but now seems hopelessly unrealistic. Schools that fail to achieve “Adequate Yearly Progress” (or AYP) have faced an escalating series of penalties, eventually including the loss of funding.
While the law has been praised for exposing failing schools and demanding that we do better, it has been criticized for:
• Its focus on standardized test results, to the detriment of in-depth learning, creative thinking, and subjects that aren’t tested, including science, social studies, art, and music.
• Putting so much pressure on schools to improve performance that it led to cheating by teachers and school officials.
• Setting up so many ways for schools to fail: for example, if a school has a high percentage of students who grew up speaking a language other than English, and all of its students reach AYP targets except these English language learners, the school can still be rated as failing.
• Letting states design their own standardized tests. There is no national standard for proficiency, and some states have dumbed down their tests to avoid penalties for failure.
• Forcing schools to focus on teaching low-achieving students, and thereby short-changing those who are already proficient, or gifted.
• Addressing school failure with punitive measures. The law was originally supposed to include funding to help fix failing schools, but that part of the bill didn’t survive.
• Burying states in bureaucratic requirements.
For an in-depth look at NCLB and its failings, see this Time magazine article.
Results of NCLB
Studies of the impact of NCLB on student achievement have shown mixed results. One study found improvement in math achievement as a result of the law, but no significant impact on reading.
Race to the Top
President Obama appointed Chicago Public Schools CEO (and school reform advocate) Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education in 2009. Duncan championed a new approach to spreading key school reforms across the country: inviting states to compete for a $4 billion pot of education funding, by proposing to institute reforms such as opening more charter schools, adopting nationwide standards, and evaluating teachers based on student achievement. Twelve states eventually won sums between $75 million and $700 million, based on their school-age population. The awards were announced in 2010; it’s too soon to judge whether the added funding and reforms will make a significant difference in student achievement.
In 2010, the Obama Administration proposed major changes to NCLB. Instead of targeting well-run schools as failing because they haven’t reached near-perfect levels of student proficiency, the changed law would focus on fixing the worst schools. And, instead of requiring that every student reach academic proficiency by 2014, the revised law would mandate that all students be prepared for either college or work by the time they left high school. A draft of the revised law is working its way through Congress as of December, 2011—but reformers have already criticized the draft version for letting states off the hook and endangering the progress students have made since 2001. (To learn more about this bill, see the Huffington Post.)
With 80% of America’s schools on track to be graded as failing by 2014, President Obama said in September 2011 that he would allow states to seek waivers exempting them from provisions of the current law, if these states agree to overhaul their worst-performing schools and adopt systems for evaluating teachers.
Conflict between teachers’ unions and reformers
The battle between unions and reformers has become so acrimonious that it’s hard to say anything about education reform without inviting attack from one side or the other. As the New York Times put it, “false dichotomies seem to have replaced fruitful conversation. If you support the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the students. If you are critical of the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the teachers. If you are in favor of charter schools, you are opposed to public schools. If you believe in increased testing, you are on board with the corruption of our liberal society’s most cherished educational values. If you are against increased testing, you are against accountability.”
Teachers’ unions have steadily gained power since the early 1960s. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) now have a total of 4.7 million members, and they have contributed about $60 million to political campaigns in the last 20 years, most of it to Democrats. Because teachers’ unions are the largest single source of funding for Democratic Party candidates, and will punish those who vote against their perceived interests (by funding challengers in the next election), promoting reforms the unions disagree with has been extremely difficult. For example, when New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein tried to use student test results as one factor in the decision to grant tenure, union opposition persuaded state legislators to forbid the change. Teachers’ unions have also resisted changes in contracts that would make it easier to fire incompetent teachers.
From the unions’ point of view, teachers do a difficult job that doesn’t end when school lets out for the day, for salaries that rarely match their effort and dedication. (The median salary for public school teachers in the U.S. was $52,000 per year in 2007; registered nurses earn an average of $67,000.) And tenure is needed to protect teachers from principals who might fire teachers unfairly if given the chance.
Recently, however, reformers and unions in some districts have managed to work together and compromise. In Washington, D.C., the union worked with then-Superintendent Michelle Rhee (usually viewed as a union enemy) to create a teacher evaluation system, and compromised to accept a merit-pay plan and a loosening of tenure rules.
Training better teachers
NCLB’s standardized testing requirements have generated oceans of data, and some of that data has been used to pinpoint the best and worst teachers, based on individual students’ progress from the beginning to the end of the school year. Among the findings:
• No factor—not class size, not per-pupil funding, not curriculum—affects learning nearly as much as which teacher a student is assigned to.
• Teachers working in the same school, with the same pool of students, achieve markedly different results. This holds true whether the students are rich, poor, or middle-class.
• A student with strong teachers for three years in a row will score 50% higher on average than a student who has weak teachers for three years in a row.
• The best teachers raise their students one and a half grade levels in a single school year. The least effective ones only raise their students by half a grade level in the same time.
Reformers have advocated different ways to improve teaching: pinpointing the worst teachers and firing them; raising the status and salary of teachers to attract high achievers to the profession; and giving principals and superintendents the right to evaluate teachers based on their students’ performance.
A different approach involves widely disseminating the techniques that master teachers use. Doug Lemov, a former teacher, has studied the country’s highest-performing teachers and distilled his observations into a list of the methods that make them effective. He believes that underperforming teachers can improve by learning to use these methods—and that this is our best hope for improving educational outcomes, because there aren’t enough star teachers to fill all the classrooms in the country.
For an in-depth report on Lemov’s work, see the New York Times Magazine. Or, to read his book on teaching techniques, Teach Like a Champion, click the link near the bottom of this page.
“Look at Finland!” “Don’t tell me about Finland!”
Articles about school reform often mention Finland as the nation with the world’s most consistently effective public schools, and ask why we don’t learn from their example.
What do Finnish schools do differently?
• Early childhood day care for all students, to prepare them for school.
• Three times as much recess in elementary school as American schools provide.
• Smaller classes.
• Higher pay for teachers, and more rigorous standards for teacher certification. (All teachers are required to have a Master’s degree.) Teaching is seen as a desirable profession with high status; only 10% of applicants to Master’s programs in teaching are accepted.
• School autonomy. Each can plan its own curriculum. Researchers observe and evaluate experimental programs.
• More learning by doing, including classes in art, music, cooking, carpentry and other classes that let students work with their hands.
• After primary school, students choose either a vocational or academic track.
• Less standardized testing. High school seniors who want to go to college have to take a standardized test; other than that, standardized testing is only done with small samples of students, to make sure they’re learning as they should.
• No repeating of grades for underachievers. The Finns believe that the stigma of being held back outweighs the need for remedial learning. They offer tutoring to help these students catch up.
• No grouping of students by ability (also known as tracking) until 10th grade.
What results do they get?
• On a test given every three years to 15-year-olds around the world (the PISA exam, or Program for International Student Assessment), Finnish students have scored at or near the top four times in a row, while U.S. students rank in the middle of the pack.
The rebuttal: why Finland’s schools aren’t necessarily better than ours.
• Finland is a small, homogeneous nation. Its total population is 5.3 million—less than New York City’s. Only 4% of Finns were born elsewhere. Finally, there is far less poverty in Finland. In other words, everything that makes education a challenge in the U.S. is absent in Finland. (But critics answer that Norway, which resembles Finland demographically, uses an education model much like ours, with similarly mediocre results. In other words, simply having fewer people and less poverty doesn’t automatically produce better educational outcomes.)
• If you only count the scores of middle- and upper-class American students—i.e., those whose background resembles the Finns’—then the difference in performance disappears. What’s wrong with some American schools is poverty, not the quality of teaching.
For more on how Finnish schools work, see this article from The New Republic.
Names, organizations, etc. in the news
Randi Weingarten: current president of the American Federation of Teachers. Until 2009, she headed the United Federation of Teachers, the union of New York City public school teachers. A strong union leader who has tenaciously protected teachers’ interests, Weingarten has been criticized by school reformers for resisting changes to union contracts—but she has compromised on some issues, and now supports merit pay.
Michelle Rhee: chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools from 2007-2010. She drew national attention for her radical school reform efforts, including bonuses for teachers whose students performed well and a temporary end to tenure protection, during which she fired 241 teachers who had been evaluated as ineffective.
Joel Klein: New York City schools chancellor from 2002 to 2010. Klein attempted to make many school reforms—especially, holding teachers accountable for student achievement, as measured by standardized tests—and clashed repeatedly with teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten.
AFT (American Federation of Teachers): a national union for teachers and other school personnel, with 1.5 million members.
NEA (National Education Association): the other national union for teachers and other school personnel. With 3.2 million members, the NEA is the biggest labor union in the U.S.
Teach for America (Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO): a nonprofit organization that enlists high-achieving college graduates to teach in low-income school districts around the U.S. Founded in 1990, Teach for America has recruited and trained more than 20,000 teachers so far.
The New Teacher Project: a nonprofit organization, founded by Michelle Rhee, that trains new teachers for low-income school districts, with the goal of closing the achievement gap. Since its founding in 1997, the New Teacher Project has trained or hired about 43,000 teachers.
Harlem Children’s Zone (Geoffrey Canada, founder): a nonprofit that provides both charter schools and support services to low-income children and families in upper Manhattan. Its goal is to break the cycle of poverty by addressing the needs of children from birth through college graduation. About 97% of its 3rd-graders scored at or above grade level on a 2008 statewide math test—higher than the average for all NYC black and white students.
Harlem Success Academy: a network of nine charter schools serving low-income children in upper Manhattan, the South Bronx and Brooklyn. Eva Moskowitz, a prominent NYC school reformer, is the CEO.
KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program): a network of charter schools in low-income communities across the U.S., founded in 1994 by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. KIPP schools, which feature rigorous curricula and a long school day (9.5 hours a day, Monday-Friday), are among the most effective charter schools in the country.
Diane Ravitch: an important commentator on education reform. Ravitch at first supported NCLB and charter schools, but changed her opinion. She now believes that poverty, not bad teachers, is the main cause of poor academic performance, and that the emphasis on standardized testing is destroying schools.
Rubber Rooms: Officially called Temporary Reassignment Centers, the rubber rooms were seven facilities in New York City where teachers accused of incompetence, physical abuse or other charges reported daily, with full pay (at a cost of about $35 million per year), until their cases were arbitrated. The rooms were created to get the teachers out of the classroom, because their contracts made it nearly impossible to fire tenured teachers. The rubber rooms were closed in 2010; teachers were reassigned to non-classroom duties at their schools.
Montgomery County, Maryland: site of an ambitious Pre-K-to-12th grade school reform initiative that made significant progress in shrinking the achievement gap. Montgomery County is often cited as a successful model of district-wide reform, as opposed to smaller-scale reforms limited to charter schools.
Should schools be overhauled entirely?
Ken Robinson, a British author and advisor on arts education, says the current model of education was designed to produce workers for an economy that no longer exists. He argues that most schools kill creative thinking, and that the needs of the 21st century economy demand that we restructure education so that schools help students discover what they love to do, and then cultivate their creativity. To watch an animated video of his lecture on re-making education, visit YouTube. For a video of his talk on the need for an education revolution, visit TED.com.
July, 2009: One result of NCLB’s high-stakes testing is an epidemic of cheating on standardized tests. For an article about Atlanta’s cheating scandal, see the Christian Science Monitor.
November, 2011: What happened when Tennessee tried to implement the evaluations required by Race to the Top? Much frustration. See the New York Times for more.
12/13/11: A New York Times investigation reveals poor academic performance among students at a cyber charter school, and a questionable business model.
1/6/12: A 20-year study, reported in the New York Times, outlines the lasting, wide-ranging benefits effective teachers have on their students.
2/21/12: When trying to create fair ways to evaluate teachers, states have encountered problems. For an overview, see this article from the New York Times.
Thomas Friedman, “My Little (Global) School,” New York Times, 4/3/13: A report on the results of the 2009 PISA exams contains some bad news for American schools: “…U.S. middle-class students are badly lagging their peers globally. ‘Many assume that poverty in America is pulling down the overall U.S. scores,’ the report said, ‘but when you divide each nation into socioeconomic quarters, you can see that even America’s middle-class students are falling behind not only students of comparable advantage, but also more disadvantaged students in several other countries.’”
Chester E. Finn, Jr., “Young, Gifted and Neglected,” New York Times, 9/19/12: “…the majority of very smart kids… depend on public education to prepare them for life. Yet that system is failing… Mostly, the system ignores them, with policies… that concentrate on raising the floor under low-achieving students… [This] doesn’t just deny individuals opportunities they deserve. It also imperils the country’s future supply of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs.”
Joe Nocera, “Gates Puts the Focus on Teaching,” New York Times, 5/22/12: “Teaching has never really had the kind of sensible evaluation system that business takes for granted. Seniority used to be all that mattered. Now, test scores have become dominant. Neither system has had as its goal getting teachers to improve what they do in the classroom. That is what Gates is trying to change.”
Joe Nocera, “Teaching with the Enemy,” New York Times, 11/8/11: “[C]harters can only absorb a tiny fraction of the nation’s 50 million public schoolchildren. Real reform has to go beyond charters — and it has to include the unions… The reform movement has long demonized Weingarten and her union — sometimes with good reason… But… Randi Weingarten can’t be the enemy anymore. She could be the reformers’ best friend, if only they’d let her.”
Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, “The High Cost of Low Teacher Salaries,” New York Times, 4/30/11: “[T]he average teacher’s pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender… The average starting salary is $39,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is $67,000. This prices teachers out of home ownership in 32 metropolitan areas… [E]very spring, we see many of the best teachers leave the profession. They’re mowed down by the long hours, low pay, the lack of support and respect… For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense… Nationwide, 46 percent of teachers quit before their fifth year.”
Richard Rothstein, “NCLB bill: The problem with ‘continuous improvement’,” Washington Post, 10/12/11: a critique of the bill that would revise NCLB. Rothstein writes: “Unlike present policy, a well-designed accountability system could judge how far each school can and should go, and whether it is on the right track to get there for the several populations it may serve… NCLB’s attempt to require all students to be proficient at a challenging level led to the absurd result that nearly every school in the nation was on a path to be deemed failing by the 2014 deadline. The demand ignored an obvious reality of human nature – there is a distribution of ability among children regardless of background, and no single standard can be challenging for children at all points in that distribution. ¶ Expecting all children to be college-ready suffers from the same problem, and more… So why not “continuous improvement” instead? … [N]o company has ever continuously improved, overall, indefinitely… Many high-performing students and schools should be praised for maintaining high levels of performance, not condemned for not improving further.”
Dana Goldstein, “Grading ‘Waiting for Superman,’” The Nation, 9/23/10: Goldstein points out flaws and omissions in this documentary film (which presents charter schools as the answer to America’s educational problems), and shows how unions are actually working with reformers to improve schools.
Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske, “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?” New York Times, 12/12/11: Since poverty is more responsible for poor educational achievement than any other factor, and we aren’t about to eliminate poverty, the authors argue that “we should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students get”—and they go on to list successful programs that have done just that.
Nancy Flanagan, “Best of Times, Worst of Times, and so on…,” from her blog, Teacher in a Strange Land: a veteran teacher’s perspective on four decades of education policy.
Daphne Koller, “Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education,” New York Times, 12/5/11: By using computers to tailor learning to the individual, we can solve many of our education problems, according to Knoller.
An alternative perspective: solve the problem before it starts
Studies suggest that no amount of education reform can make up for the effects of poverty in early childhood—especially, the lack of stimulation infants and toddlers in poor families receive—and that enriching their environment in these crucial early years yields far more benefits than struggling to repair the damage in school later on. For more on this, see James J. Heckman’s op-ed, “Catch ‘em Young,” in the Wall Street Journal.
To learn more
About the current state of school reform: the New York Times
About No Child Left Behind: the New York Times
Former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein on “The Failure of American Schools,” from The Atlantic
Findings from a study of school systems that showed the most improvement: how they achieved change, and what other school systems can learn from them. (The number one intervention is “building the instructional skills of teachers.”)
On the thorny subject of how to evaluate teachers, see the Christian Science Monitor: “Most everyone agrees: There’s no single foolproof measure of a teacher. Standardized tests give one indication of what students are learning. Observations – when the observer is trained well and looking for specific details – can offer more nuance.”
For a report on a study of student test scores that showed how some teachers get excellent results even in low-income neighborhoods, see the Los Angeles Times.
Stacey Teicher Khadaroo, “Back to school: Are we leaving gifted students behind?” Christian Science Monitor, 8/31/11: NCLB’s focus on closing the achievement gap has made a long-standing problem worse: most schools do too little to challenge and cultivate the brightest students. As a result, we’re handicapping our nation’s economic future. This article reports on the problem and possible solutions.
Last updated 4/3/13
Even More Information
From “A Nation at Risk,” 1983:
Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world… We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, 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.
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, 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. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. 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 throughout the length and breadth of our land…
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. If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, 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. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. 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.