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A Nation at Risk: 30 Years Later

Industry experts gathered to discuss what has changed--and hasn’t--since “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” was published
A Nation at Risk: 30 Years Later
A Nation at Risk: 30 Years Later

The National Commission on Excellence in Education published “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 during the Reagan administration. The report attacked the U.S. education system and called for immediate and extensive reform. Hugely influential, the report inspired much discussion regarding the effectiveness of public schools. Thirty years later, educators from District Administration held an interactive web seminar to debate the influence of the report, as well as what the state of education is today and what the future could hold.

Dan Kinnaman
30 years ago: Dan was in his fourth year of teaching at a consolidated middle school/high school regional district in Connecticut.
Today: President and publisher, District Administration

Odvard Egil Dyrli
30 years ago: Gil was a full professor of education at the University of Connecticut, heavily involved in teacher education.
Today: Executive Editor, District Administration; Professor Emeritus, University of Connecticut School of Education

Randall Collins
30 years ago: Randy was a second year superintendent of schools in Maine.
Today: Executive Director, District Administration Leadership Institute; Retired superintendent, Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools

Moderated by:
JD Solomon

Editorial Director
District Administration

JD Solomon: What was your reaction to the report when it initially came out?

Dan Kinnaman: I was inspired by the report and the challenges it had for us. I was a young teacher and I genuinely thought I could make a difference for every kid that came into my classroom, regardless of his or her background. I still do believe that education can change lives, and that we have to take these reports seriously because we always want to be on the road to continuous improvement.

Randall Collins: I was inspired by the report. However, I was also relatively new to superintendency and relatively naive about what it would take to implement some of the recommendations.

Odvard Egil Dyrli: First, I should put this into context. When Sputnik was launched in 1957, it triggered the “Space Race.” This competitive spirit also unlocked unbelievable amounts of money from the federal government to reform the nation’s schools. A lot of money was provided to develop new science and math curriculum programs and increase professional development, to ensure our citizens could compete globally. By 1983, that money had dried up. When this report came out saying the government needed to improve how it was spending education funds, I was so excited. I thought we were going to have a rebirth of the post-Sputnik era. Unfortunately, as we all know, that never came.

Solomon: The report stated that the risk was "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." Is that anything that is less present today, 30 years later? Where have we come with this risk? Was this an accurate assessment of the risk we faced?

Collins:I think there's a long way to go, particularly with the issue of reaching essential levels of literacy. As far as participating in national life, I actually think there has been a much greater emphasis on citizenship education and participation in community service in recent years.

Dyrli: The risk is still with us, of course. Reform will never end because each new generation brings with it a new risk.

Kinnaman:I think the risk was real. One of the things the report noted was that the standards were being lowered so that more people could achieve them. In 1980, 35 states required only one year of math. 36 required only one year of science for a diploma. Minimum competency tests were in 37 states. The minimum had become the maximum as people taught to the test. The report decried the number of elective classes that could be substituted for core academic classes. The risk was real in terms of academic quality.

We've been talking about reform ever since, but we haven't changed the form or the structure of education in the last 30 years. It's not to say we're not working hard, that we're not doing an adequate job of educating most of our citizens. However, we can certainly do better. There are many opportunities to change the form or structure of our education system.

In this day and age, with the advance of technology, there's really no reason why every student shouldn't have a customized curriculum, for example. Yet, we still persist in a system that is based on teachers and students being in the same time and place for education to occur. It doesn't have to be that way. We can organize differently now. I think the risk will remain until we find the wherewithal to structure our education system with the needs and interests of students in mind, and give everyone the best education they can have.

Collins: I think Dan makes a good point; Nation at Risk did not really change the system of education. It simply made recommendations in different areas within the existing system. I think therein lies the issue of why it didn’t force more progress.

Solomon: Here's a question from the audience: “30 years later we still have not moved the needle on improving scores. Are we focusing too much on testing and too little on teaching?”

Collins: I think we are. There are many issues with high stakes testing, including the large sums of money made by testing companies, the subsequent ranking of school systems within states, and the delay in getting teachers the results. There is simply too much testing, and there has been for the past ten years. What's happening now is that because we are “teaching to the test,” the curriculum has narrowed substantially.

Solomon: Another attendee asks:“Where do you stand on privatizing education?”

Kinnaman: I don't think it's a matter of privatizing or not privatizing. I do think that we need to have a way to stimulate innovation. The idea that the local municipality should be the only franchise holder of a school system in any given community regardless of how well it performs, doesn't sound very sensible to me. However, that's where we are right now. Part of the challenge right now for districts is that the solution to poor performance is always more money. There are a number of districts that have proven that more money doesn't necessarily solve problems. What solves problems in many cases is innovation and new models.

One of the things we have the benefit of with technology is the possibility of many more schools. Why do we only have 100,000 schools? Why not 500,000 smaller schools? Why not more neighborhood-based schools, schools run by different organizations? Don't stop at charters. Is the government providing a public education if it provides accreditation for schools whether they're public or private? People say public schools would get stuck with the students none of the other schools want. That's not how it would work in practice, however, because there would be all different types of schools created on people's interests and desires and needs. We've shown in this free society that competition works and we need to find a competitive opportunity in schools.

There needs to be a shift that switches the funding mechanism in education from giving it to the provider of the service directly from the state or local government to giving it to the receiver of the service and letting them have some kind of choice. I didn’t use the “v” word, voucher, because I'm not concerned with the mechanism as much as I am with the notion of all students having better opportunities. Right now, the only ones that have choice are the ones that have money. It seems to be an equity issue to me. The report did mention that people in this country greatly value education. I don't think that's changed. Because we greatly value education, we should have open discussion and open debate about the best ways to implement it.

Solomon: From the audience, we have the following question: “Do Boards of Education hinder our ability to move forward because the reforms have become so specific to educators that board members just don't understand?”

Collins: I was a superintendent for 30 years, so I have worked with many boards, from large to small, not too partisan to very much so. The issue these days is that the boards have lost more and more control. When you factor in negotiating with unions and other mandates from the federal government, the board can control very little in terms of the budget. I would speculate that as little as 15 percent of a budget typically falls under control of the board. I don't think it's that boards are unable to deal with progress, I think it's about constraints on their control.

Solomon: Another audience member says: "Today's principals have weak backgrounds in technology, SPED and curriculum to make the basic decisions of the school."

Dyrli: A weak background is a relative term. I have seen principals that were truly outstanding leaders that had so called "weaker backgrounds." It's analogous to teachers. People ask how elementary teachers can teach all subjects. They can't be experts in it all. Well, I say they're not supposed to be experts. What they are are guides to help kids learn. Similarly, principals that are the best leaders are not necessarily the ones with the strong academic records. You can also look at the notion of assessing teachers by examining test scores. Test scores are a factor, but they are not the only factor. I say the same when assessing the success of a principal or superintendent based on academic background.

Solomon: Increasing rigor was clearly a concern of Nation at Risk, but just this month, Texas reduced graduation standards in recognition that a college preparatory curriculum is not right for all students. Have we gone too far in rigor or not far enough?

Kinnaman: I don't think that there should be an across the board requirement for every student. Every student should achieve their own highest and fullest potential. Many students now are required to take courses in which they could pass the final before taking the course. Maybe we could look at ways students can test out of courses and go on to learn more. Kids are natural born learners. Seymour Papert said schools should not be a place where students stop learning and start getting taught. I think part of the appropriate level of rigour is an IEP for every student that pushes them to achieve at the highest level possible for them.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to

Comments from the audience:
Teaching to the test was mandated by weak principals instead of finding creative ways to teaching and PD fulfillment.

We should get government out of the education business.

Value Added teacher evaluation is not supported by substantive research. Is this trend driven by the corporations profiting from evaluation instruments and peripheral programs? "Risk" was not a valid document, the research was bogus. Its very purpose was to privatize and corporatize, it has not, and will not work. Competition? Really?

Privatizing education is simply replacing the government as the controller with corporate control. Additionally, private education models have not solved the issue of salaries for better teachers because the market for teachers salary wise is already established.

School length of day/year should be decided by local districts based on needs and resources.

Many districts are spending funds to offer extended summer programs and interventions during the school year and after the school day.  Having an extended school year/day will diminish this need, as well as decrease the learning lost over the summer.

I believe teachers will support a longer day and year.

Polls in many cities and districts demonstrate that parents are not in favor of longer school days or more days in schools.

Why do we allow ourselves to be restricted by master schedules?  Why not open up the hours in the day and evening to instruction? It would allow more flexibility in working hours for teachers, delivery of lessons, as well as provide a mechanism to help with the concept of the IEP for every student.

The self-esteem movement seemed to promote a social club sort of atmosphere in schools. Many leaders in schools do not have strong academic backgrounds. In my experience, few have had much experience teaching. They fail to understand the craft of teaching. How can we move the existing system forward to support academic rigor and academic excellence when we have so many leaders that do not appreciate the need for academic rigor?

I believe teacher preparation programs at the university level is the first start for preparing teachers to teach.