Twenty-five years after “A Nation At Risk”

What does the report card look like for Republican members of Congress and Republican state legislators when it comes to the issue of school reform in the nation and here in Illinois?

George Will’s column this morning notes the sad anniversary of “A Nation At Risk,” which was “America’s vow to do better” concerning its public schools. Today, Will writes, “the nation still ignores what had been learned years before 1983.”

Will says that “shopworn panaceas” became the norm beginning in the 1960s: “larger teacher salaries, smaller class sizes — were pursued as colleges were reduced to offering remediation to freshmen.”

Hiring more, rather than more competent, teachers meant more dues-paying union members. For decades, schools have been treated as laboratories for various equity experiments. Fads incubated in education schools gave us ‘open’ classrooms, teachers as ‘facilitators of learning’ rather than transmitters of knowledge, abandonment of a literary canon in the name of ‘multiculturalism,’ and so on, producing a majority of high school juniors who could not locate the Civil War in the proper half-century.

School reformer Chester Finn has said this about the most recent attempt at improving the nation’s schools, No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001:

The law should have set uniform standards and measures for the nation, then freed states, districts and schools to produce those results as they think best.

George Will points out that instead, NCLB “left standards up to the states, which have an incentive to dumb them down to make compliance easier.” He concludes: “A nation at risk? Now more than ever.”

Five years ago the Heartland Institute’s School Reform News published an excellent summary of where we were in 1983 and the lack of progress made in the intervening years. The author of the summary is David Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow for education with the U.S. Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C. In it, he noted several facts:

*  The report included two of the most famous statements ever made about the nation’s public schools, that we were facing “a rising tide of mediocrity,” and “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.

*  The commissioners did not merely sit around a table and draw their own conclusions. To the contrary, they funded some 40 studies on different aspects of education, held public hearings, conducted panel discussions, and solicited opinions on reform.

*  But, as Education Policy Institute Chairman Myron Lieberman has pointed out, the commissioners ignored the role of teacher unions and collective bargaining, a major–and some might say fatal–omission. And, as the distinguished educator Mario Fantini wrote shortly thereafter, their recommendations largely consisted of doing “more of what we already have-more of what has already caused the problem in the first place.

Kirkpatrick also noted the failures of “Goals 2000,” the predecessor to NCLB passed in 1994.

None of the eight education goals for the year 2000 was achieved and Congress shut down the national goals panel two years later. There was little or nothing to show for almost 20 years of increased effort and expenditures following A Nation at Risk.

George Clowes, former managing editor of School Reform News, had had this to say in 2003:

After 20 years of reforms requiring vastly increased expenditures and effort, the performance of the U.S. public education system remains virtually unchanged…The human toll of 20 wasted years is staggering…

Since 1983, reform efforts have concentrated on adding more resources, more services, and more regulations to schools. But adding resources and trusting the system to change itself ‘doesn’t work,’ [according to the Koret Task Force], because ‘powerful forces of inertia’ underlie the public education establishment. These include the two major teacher unions, school administrators, colleges of education, state education bureaucracies, and school boards.

In a unanimous set of recommendations, the 11 members of the Task Force conclude the lesson of the past 20 years is that ‘fundamental changes are needed in the incentive structures and power relationships of schooling itself. Those changes are anchored to three core principles: accountability, choice, and transparency.’

Accountability means everyone in the education system knows what they must produce in terms of results and how they will be measured, and what will be the consequences of producing or not producing those results.

Choice means ‘parental decisions rather than bureaucratic regulation should drive the education enterprise.’ Parents should be free to select from a wide range of educational options for their children.

Transparency means those who seek complete information on how a school or school system is performing relative to other schools should be able to get it easily.

According to Chester Finn, a big reason for the poor record of the public schools following the issuance of “A Nation at Risk” was that the panel that wrote it disbanded after their work was done. At a discussion of school reform at the U.S. Department of Education marking the twentieth anniversary of its publication, Finn said:

The Commission was naive in a way that most commissions are – this may be the besetting sin of commissions – it sort of assumed that what the world needed was good advice about what to do differently – that if you would present a package of good advice things would change.

The commission failed to reckon with the forces of resistance to change…the commission ceased while those who didn’t want thing to change stayed where they’d been in positions of power…

So if the people proposing change believe that advice will do it alone and then go home leaving in place the people who don’t want to hear that advice and who are in control – we shouldn’t expect very much to change, should we?

Rank and file Republican voters are still waiting for those they elect to show some real leadership on this issue. It is a sad anniversary indeed.