Thirty years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan's administration released "A Nation at Risk," a report warning of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in American public education.
According to the report, only one-third of 17-year-olds in 1983 could solve a math problem requiring two steps or more, and 4 out of 10 teenagers couldn't draw inferences from written material. In an address to the nation, Reagan warned that "about 13 percent of 17-year-olds are functional illiterates and, among minority youth, the rate is closer to 40 percent."
Chester Finn, who would later become an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration, says the commission that authored the report was right to denounce what high schools were teaching. Kids had too many options — courses like "bachelor living," for example — while schools failed to emphasize the basics.
"A Nation at Risk" recommended that each high school require four years of English, three years each of math, science and social studies, and at least two years of a foreign language for college-bound students.
And while many educators thought the report was unnecessarily alarmist, governors did not. Bob Wise, a congressman from West Virginia in 1983 who later became governor, says the report came along "at a time when we were facing real global competition," he says. "We were seeing factories being shuttered. People were beginning to wake up to the fact that the world was changing around us. I did not think it was alarmist then. I don't think it's alarmist now."
But Ron Wolk, who had just started the publication Education Week, says the report had a fatal flaw: It pretty much ignored the plight of poor, minority kids. "It kind of viewed the students of America as middle-class white kids who would really do well if they just tried harder and if we raised standards ... There was no recognition that there was a terrible inequity out there," he says.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University, was a researcher with the RAND Corp. in 1983. She says the report, instead of rallying the nation around quality and equity, singled out schools and teachers for blame. "We have overly criticized our schools," she says, "and 'A Nation at Risk' began that pattern."
Not long after, says Wolk, the debate over school reform became increasingly politicized, with "conservative Republicans then pushing for vouchers and things that Democrats considered to be the privatization of public education. That argument is still going on."
Still, very few people dispute that schools today are better overall than they were in 1983. They're just not good enough, says Ted Kolderie, considered by many as the "godfather" of the charter school movement. Kolderie says there's been very little innovation in schools since "A Nation at Risk."
"If we keep on doing what we've been doing," he says, "we are never going to get there."