You are here

Thirty Years Later: A Nation Still at Risk?

This April marks the 30th anniversary of the controversial Reagan-era report “A Nation at Risk”—and little has changed since.

This April marks the 30th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” the controversial Reagan-era report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, that laid out the dire conditions of the U.S. public education system and called for government reform. When it was published in 1983, U.S. students 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.”

Little has changed today, according to a February 2013 report, “For Each and Every Child” from the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission. And this is despite the changes that numerous politicians have pushed in three decades under the name of education reform. American students still fall behind nations including Taiwan, Finland and Singapore on international assessments, and schools continuously have trouble attracting high-quality teachers. Further, the report states, 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.

“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 United States faces deep, systemic inequities not found in any other developed nation, and is the only such nation that has “...thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children.”

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 recent State of the Union address—desegregating schools, equalizing funding, and improving teacher training.

The report presents a five-step action strategy for the nation:

-Restructure school finance systems, focusing on equitable resources and their cost-effective use

-Prepare and recruit quality teachers and school leaders and identify the support they need to be effective

-Provide universal, high-quality early education for all children, focusing on those in the poorest communities

-Offer critical support—including increased parental engagement, access to health and social services, extended instructional time and assistance for at-risk groups—that students in high-poverty communities need to stay on track

-Make changes in accountability and governance to ensure the effectiveness of these reforms.

Some progress has been made: elementary-level reading and math performance improved in recent years, as has performance in middle-school math. However, in most states, these small improvements pale in comparison to the large leaps of other nations to strengthen their education systems. For example, as was true in 1983, other industrialized nations require all students to take courses in advanced mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics and geography beginning in grade 6, while U.S. students are often given a choice. And even when American students choose four years of math and science, the students in these other nations spend about three times more class hours on the subjects.

Looking to the future, the implementation of Common Core State Standards in 45 states and the District of Columbia 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.”

“For Each and Every Child”:

“A Nation at Risk”: