Eduwonkette: A Nation At Risk

 Eduwonkette is the pseudonym for an as-yet unidentified education blogger who “takes a serious, if sometimes irreverent look at some of the most contentious education policy debates”. Eduwonkette posts on her eponymous blog at Education Week.

Over the past month, the education world has wrangled over the legacy of A Nation at Risk.  Some love it. Others hate it. But all have argued that the report itself changed the face of American education.  Writing in USA Today, Greg Toppo bestowed the report with human agency, “Twenty-five years ago this week, Americans awoke to a forceful little report that, depending on your point of view, either ruined public education or saved it.”

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At Cato Unbound, Richard Rothstein also anthropomorphized A Nation at Risk: “The report burned into Americans’ consciousness a conviction that, evidence notwithstanding, our schools are failures.”

Rather than comment on whether ANAR was good or bad, prescient or misguided, I offer  a more basic insight: Government reports accomplish little on their own. They are not sent down from the gods or fashioned from the ether. Men and women with interests of their own craft their recommendations. And perhaps more importantly, political actors and policymakers, hoping to stand on a report’s legitimizing shoulders to seek their own ends, appropriate them. For evidence, look no further than Secretary Spellings’ latest attempt to remix “A Nation at Risk” as a “A Nation Accountable”.

Only Diane Ravitch, in her commentary at the Common Core blog has recognized that people, not reports, make policy:  “The recommendations of “A Nation at Risk” remain unrealized because the American public and American educators missed the point, but also because the message was hijacked by the testing and accountability posse.” In other words, to take stock of the impact of ANAR on education policy, we need to bring actors back into the equation.  ANAR gave existing actors a new weapon to wield, but the arc of education policy history is the result of the struggle between actors. ANAR, without these actors, is just a stack of paper.  In other words, I believe that the education policy landscape, plus or minus some changes around the edges, would be very similar today in the absence of ANAR.

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