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Nation at Risk Update

Thirty Years Later, Little Has Changed

A new report finds three decades of reform has improved little.

President Barack Obama announced plans to provide universal preschool for American children. Public education has made few changes in the 30 years since the “A Nation at Risk” report was released, laying out the dire conditions of U.S. public education, according to a February report from the Equity and Excellence Commission, a Congressional advisory committee.

The result comes despite the changes such as No Child Left Behind and increased taxes for education that numerous politicians, including President George W. Bush and California Gov. Jerry Brown, respectively, have pushed in three decades under education reform. American students still fall behind counterparts in other nations, including Taiwan and Finland, on international assessments, and schools continuously have trouble attracting high-quality teachers. Further, the U.S. education system is more segregated by wealth, income, and race than ever, leaving the poorest students with the lowest-performing teachers, most run-down facilities, and lower academic expectations and opportunities than their middle- and upper-class peers, according to the report, “For Each and Every Child.”

“Our efforts to date to confront the vast gaps in educational outcomes separating different groups of young Americans have yet to include a serious and sustained commitment to ending the appalling inequities—in school funding, in early education, in teacher quality, in resources for teachers and students and in governance—that contribute so mightily to these gaps,” the report states. The nation faces deep, systemic inequities not found in any other developed nation, the authors add.

From 1983 to 2013

This April marks the 30th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” in which the Commission on Excellence in Education called for government reform. When it was published in 1983, under the Reagan administration, U.S. students also lagged behind those in East Asian countries on international assessments, leading the report’s authors to warn that “our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.”

Now, 30 years later, the Equity and Excellence Commission calls on the federal government to take a more active role in public education, and advocates universal preschool—which President Barack Obama championed in his January State of the Union address—desegregating schools, equalizing funding, and improving teacher training.

Government Action Plan

The report presents an action strategy for state and federal governments:

• Restructure school finance systems, focusing on distributing state and federal funds based on student need and evening out disparities

• Prepare and recruit quality teachers and school leaders by re-examining systems for recruiting, retaining, preparing, licensing, and evaluating

• Provide universal, high-quality early education for all children, particularly the poorest students

• Offer support that students in high-poverty communities need, such as encouraging more parent engagement, providing more access to health and social services, and requiring longer school days.

• Make the federal government more accountable to ensuring effective reforms by setting clear expectations for student outcomes, insisting on realistic but aggressive state plans to meet them, allocating resources to level the playing field across states and districts, and requiring that states implement those plans well.

However, some educators believe the educational system has made great strides. “Public education today in America is the best it has ever been,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, citing that the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) math and reading scores for students in grades 4 and 8 are at an all-time high. He also points to the high school graduation rate, which was over 78 percent in 2010, compared to 72 percent in the 1980s, and students going to college, with nearly 20 million enrolled in 2011, up from about 12 million in the 1990s. The United States has never done well on international tests, he adds, though the nation is doing better than ever before, because “our schools, until recently, never focused on teaching to the test.”

Moving Forward

Looking to the future, the Common Core State Standards is expected to help close the achievement gap by holding states accountable for preparing students for college and the workforce. “A world-class education consists not solely of mastery of core subjects, but also of training in critical thinking and problem-solving, as well as in 21st-century concerns like global awareness,” the report states. “Such high levels of education are key to self-reliance and economic security in a world where education matters more than ever for the success of societies as well as individuals.”

To read “For Each and Every Child,” go to