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The American psyche is prone to fits of paranoia and hysteria about our collective status in the world. Less than a decade into the massification of the internet, a feat brought about in no small part by American technology and genius, we are being inundated with articles and speeches of the “threat” and “challenge” poised by the rise of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

Don’t get me wrong, this collective paranoia serves the useful function of keeping the United States on its toes. But its also wise to recognize that this is far from the first time that fears of educational backsliding have gripped the American consciousness. The Russian launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957 led to the National Defense Education Act of 1958.

More recently, in August 1981, United States Secretary of Education T.H. Bell created the National Commission on Excellence in Education with a direction to create a report on the quality of education in America. In April 1983, the Commission presented A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

The report’s intro summarized the basic premise of education in the United States:

“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 judgement 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.”

Its a pretty powerful and accurate characterization of the American view of education I think. From there however, A Nation at Risk proceeds to stoke hysteria, fanning fears of fuel efficient Japanese cars, South Korean steel, German machine tools and a rising tide of mediocrity that would leave Americans unable to cope with a future full of lasers and robots (no, I’m not making this up).

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. 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.”

But, I don’t bring this up solely to make fun of Cold Warriors. When assessing the progress of public education in this country, we essentially must compare it to two benchmarks: (i) where we are now compared to where we were then, (ii) and where we are now in comparison to where other countries are right now.

With those questions as our guide, A Nation at Risk is useful. With hindsight we can put older fears into context and guage how far, if at all, we come.

So, I give you what the United States government considered the state of education to be in 1983:

Indicators of Educational Risk

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • A Nation at Risk also came to the following conclusions.

    Because of our concern about the curriculum, the Commission examined patterns of courses high school students took in 1964-69 compared with course patterns in 1976-81. On the basis of these analyses we conclude:

  • Secondary school curricula have been homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose. In effect, we have a cafeteria style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses. Students have migrated from vocational and college preparatory programs to “general track” courses in large numbers. The proportion of students taking a general program of study has increased from 12 percent in 1964 to 42 percent in 1979.
  • This curricular smorgasbord, combined with extensive student choice, explains a great deal about where we find ourselves today. We offer intermediate algebra, but only 31 percent of our recent high school graduates complete it; we offer French I, but only 13 percent complete it; and we offer geography, but only 16 percent complete it. Calculus is available in schools enrolling about 60 percent of all students, but only 6 percent of all students complete it.
  • Twenty-five percent of the credits earned by general track high school students are in physical and health education, work experience outside the school, remedial English and mathematics, and personal service and development courses, such as training for adulthood and marriage.
  • The amount of homework for high school seniors has decreased (two-thirds report less than 1 hour a night) and grades have risen as average student achievement has been declining.
  • In many other industrialized nations, courses in mathematics (other than arithmetic or general mathematics), biology, chemistry, physics, and geography start in grade 6 and are required of all students. The time spent on these subjects, based on class hours, is about three times that spent by even the most science-oriented U.S. students, i.e., those who select 4 years of science and mathematics in secondary school.
  • A 1980 State-by-State survey of high school diploma requirements reveals that only eight States require high schools to offer foreign language instruction, but none requires students to take the courses. Thirty-five States require only 1 year of mathematics, and 36 require only 1 year of science for a diploma.
  • In 13 States, 50 percent or more of the units required for high school graduation may be electives chosen by the student.
  • One-fifth of all 4-year public colleges in the United States must accept every high school graduate within the State regardless of program followed or grades, thereby serving notice to high school students that they can expect to attend college even if they do not follow a demanding course of study in high school or perform well.
  • About 23 percent of our more selective colleges and universities reported that their general level of selectivity declined during the 1970s, and 29 percent reported reducing the number of specific high school courses required for admission (usually by dropping foreign language requirements, which are now specified as a condition for admission by only one-fifth of our institutions of higher education).

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