In April, there was quite a lot of attention given to the 20th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk”, the 1983 report of a blue-ribbon task force on the state of education in the U. S. Almost anyone vaguely familiar with the report remembers the oft-quoted finding that “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people…..If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves”.
Over the past few weeks, many have asked what has been done in response to this challenge, and what has been the result. Of all the commentary, the best I have seen came from the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, which published a follow-up report entitled Our Schools and Our Future—Are We Still At Risk? In it, the message is more shocking than the original report: after twenty years of reforms requiring vastly increased expenditures and effort, the performance of the U. S. public education system remains virtually unchanged. Why is this so? The authors primarily identify three powerful forces, underestimated by the commission in 1983, that have converged to thwart true reform: (1) the organized interests of the K-12 system, including teachers’ unions, school administrators, colleges of education, state bureaucracies, and school boards; (2) the tenacity of the “thought world” of the nation’s colleges of education, which see themselves as owners of the nation’s schools and the minds of educators; and (3) the large number of Americans, particularly in middle-class suburbs, who believe that their schools are basically sound. To overcome this resistance, the eleven members of the Task Force unanimously concluded that “…fundamental changes are needed in the incentive structures and power relationships of schooling itself. Those changes are anchored in three core principles—accountability, choice, and transparency”.
Put simply, we have an institutional problem that cries out for massive restructuring, but we are hamstrung by vested interests and powerful constituencies that can effectively veto structural change. There is hope, however, and I see it in the growing anger and protests among parents over so-called “high stakes” testing. Already in Florida and Massachusetts and possibly other states (probably soon to include Texas as the new TAKS test becomes fully effective), there are serious challenges to a system that fails to prepare large numbers of children academically, then denies them high school graduation and access to higher education. Some feel that the testing itself is the problem, but I am encouraged that most will avoid that cop-out and that this may be the beginning of a powerful revolt at the grass roots that will demand systemic reform. If so, it is not a minute too soon, and it deserves the support of our business and opinion leadership so that we don’t condemn another generation to educational mediocrity.