Ed Muir: A Nation At Risk

Ed Muir is Assistant Director of Research for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and a frequent contributor to Let’s Get It Right, the AFT’s blog.

Fewer Talking Points, Less Accountability Run Amok, but Fewer Standards Too

What if a nation at Risk hadn’t happened?  My first thought is that there would be hundreds fewer education reports and analyses and that the quality of much of the remaining writing would increase dramatically. That’s simply because A Nation at Risk, with its sweeping critique, has served as a crutch to education writers everywhere who need a good launch-point for their argument about schools, whatever that argument may be.  And, sadly, in recent years, that’s what the report has become: simply a talking point rather than a call to meaningful or sustained action. 

Click on the jump below to continue reading.

And ANAR did have a major effect early on, including much to the good. The standards movement has, in my opinion, been a real success. Governors like Bill Clinton were able to make real changes to their school system in the wake of ANAR. Graduation requirements increased; more rigorous standards for teachers and some moves towards increased instructional time were all made at least partially in response to the report.  The federal government expanded its education data collection.  Many of those good things remain in place, helping children today, and without the report we might not have gotten them.

In fact, we should lament some things that we haven’t followed up on from the report. For me that includes giving students better access to foreign language training and making teacher pay more competitive. An alternative world with better fealty to the recommendations and less to the rhetoric might produce a better outcome for kids. Note that the one of the calls we haven’t done enough with outside of Ohio is to replace the current evaluation system with peer review.

No report can be expected to drive a policy agenda for 25 years.  Even so, would be successors like Tough Choices or Tough Times haven’t had anywhere near the policy or rhetorical affect of the original.  I’ll argue that this is in part because some of the sillier things we’re doing in education can also be traced back to ANAR. That includes the Rube Goldbergesque accountability system of NCLB and the current drive to pay and evaluate teachers for test scores. Without ANAR, would we have none of these things? No. But we might have had less.  And we’d have less of some other things that we need as well. 

It may be that work like Richard Rothstein’s class in schools is actually the logical successor to A Nation at Risk. In 1983 we were ready to have a conversation about school standards, but we weren’t ready to have one about poverty and education. I’m hopeful we can soon have a conversation about both that leads to a better day.

On a personal note, without a Nation at Risk’s misinterpretation of the decline in SAT scores, which actually were rising for different subgroups, I might not ever have learned about Simpson’s paradox.

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.