Leo Casey: A Nation At Risk

Leo Casey is Vice President of Academic High Schools in United Federation of Teachers in New York City. He is a frequent contributor to Edwize, the UFT Blog. 

Criticizing A Nation At Risk is akin to spearing fish in a barrel. A document filled with extravagant hyperbole and vast unsupported generalizations, it is a target rich environment. There is little question that it has not aged well in the twenty-five years since it was published.

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The central thesis of A Nation At Risk – its claim that the woes of the American economy in 1983 were directly attributable to the failings of American education – did not survive the long period of American economic prosperity in the 1990s. If education is responsible for the failings of the economy, would it not also be accountable for its successes? The reality is that the positing of such a simplistic causal relationship between education and the economy is untenable: it was the emergence of the global economy, not that the state of the schools, that was responsible for the decline of the American industrial heartland after 1975; it was the informational technology, stock market and real estate bubbles that created the prosperity of the 1990s; and it is the collapse of those bubbles that is taking us into an economic downturn which looks to be as severe as any since the Great Depression. The relationship between education and the economy is far more complex and far more mediated than claimed by A Nation At Risk.

The rhetoric of A Nation At Risk fares little better than its substantive argument. The use of the language of war to describe the nation’s educational state, with talk of “unfriendly foreign powers,” “acts of war,” and “unilateral educational disarmament,” seems in retrospect to be an alarmist substitution for a careful and dispassionate analysis of its subject. The belligerent discourse of war is especially emotive, and even in the service of just causes, it often appeals to our worst instincts. In many ways, it is the antithesis of the work of education.

There are few defenders of A Nation At Risk today, and they seem to embody the worst tendencies of the report. When Fordham Foundation President [and Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan years] Checker Finn rose to the task, he compared critics of the report to those who deny the existence of the Holocaust, Stalin’s gulag and the AIDS virus. Finn was a member of the Commission that produced A Nation At Risk, and one has to wonder if the extreme rhetoric of that document and his defense of it is entirely coincidental.

But it would be a mistake, I want to argue here, to tarry too long on the obvious shortcomings of A Nation At Risk, or to conclude that American education would be very different today, if not for its rhetoric and misleading argument. A Nation At Risk is more important as an historical signpost than it is as a document of analysis. It is a marker of a very real transition in the American economy and in American education – just not the one it describes. Before 1975, the United States had a thriving industrial economy, and was among the world leaders in basic industries such as steel, auto and manufacturing; after 1975, the global economy undermined American industrial preeminence, and our economic strength shifted to the emerging knowledge economy. By 1983, the first signs of these changes were evident, although not necessarily well understood.

This transformation in the American economy dramatically changed the demands placed on American education. Two generations ago, a young person could drop out of high school, and find a stable unionized job in the factories of basic industry or on the docks. Once the bastion of the American middle class that took shape after World War II, those jobs are now largely gone. In order for a young person to enter the American middle class today, he must have a high school diploma and have completed enough post-secondary education to earn the equivalent of an associate [two year] degree. Today, high school dropouts are condemned to a life of poverty and marginality. Consequently, for the first time in history, American education must educate all students through grade 12 and beyond.

So even if A Nation At Risk had never been written, we would still be facing the same educational challenges we face today. In taking stock of where our schools have been and where they need to go, we should not lose sight of that fundamental insight.

The CEA Blog was created by the Columbus Education Association so that members, public education advocates and others can express opinions regarding or related to public education and labor issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the CEA, Ohio Education Association or the National Education Association.