During the past couple of weeks, there have been a number of articles and features marking the 25th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk”, the groundbreaking 1983 report on the dismal status of American public education, wherein the most famous line was the one that served as the national wake-up call: “If an unfriendly 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.” Pretty bracing words, indeed.
Of the half dozen or so of these pieces I have read, interestingly enough, the best is a joint statement from a group of center-left organizations that commends the national commission that authored the report for recognizing that “the twin goals of equity and high-quality schooling have profound and practical meaning for our economy and society, and we cannot permit one to yield to the other either in principle or practice”, while lamenting the fact that “in 25 years, our country hasn’t gotten this part right, not even close.”
George Will makes the point that in 1976, for the first time in its 119-year history, the National Education Association, the teachers’ union, endorsed a presidential candidate, Jimmy Carter, who repaid it by creating the Department of Education, and education policy has never been the same. This act has been the bane of most true reformers ever since, which makes it ironic to note that one of the primary planks of the Republican “revolution” of 1994 was to close this department, while the crowning domestic achievement of the administration of George W. Bush has been the No Child Left Behind Act, the most sweeping federal education program since the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965!
In fairness to President Bush and my friends who helped him craft this bold experiment in standards and accountability-based reform from the federal level, it has accomplished much in the way of significantly raising the national consciousness that our expectations for all of our children are much too low and that we are not asking nearly enough from either our children or our educators. It has its flaws in engineering and many more in its implementation, but let’s give credit where it is due, to a bold and warranted effort to shake up the education establishment. It is now highly unlikely that the NCLB Act will be reauthorized prior to the end of this term, and I don’t hear much from the presidential candidates about their education priorities.
I am not a big believer in top-down, compliance-based and prescriptive reform, particularly from the federal level, and I was sympathetic with the revolutionary platform of ’94, but it is unrealistic to assume that we can entirely rid ourselves of deep involvement by the federal government in K-12 education. Let’s just hope that President Bush’s central message of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” has reached the desired audience with enough impact that a new administration can now proceed to re-structure the federal role in the system into one that sets very high standards and accountability with consequences, but with much more flexibility for implementing the standards at the state level. It remains the central civil rights issue of our time.