Nation at Risk: 25 years since the report
Posted by Jeffrey Roy on April 27, 2008
Twenty-five years ago this week, Americans awoke to a forceful little report that changed public education. It is fruitful to revisit this report, as we consider the choices that face the citizens of Franklin with an override vote.
On April 26, 1983, in a White House ceremony, Ronald Reagan took possession of “A Nation at Risk.” The product of nearly two years’ work by a blue-ribbon commission, it found poor academic performance at nearly every level. It warned 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.” The complete report can be viewed by clicking here.
In its most alarming text, the report noted the following:
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. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
The report kick-started decades of tough talk about public schools and reforms. In Massachusetts, it led to the McDuffy and Hancock decisions from the Supreme Judicial Court, education reform, and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). At the conclusion of its McDuffy decision, the court set out broad guidelines regarding the nature of the duty to educate. The court stated that:
[a]n educated child must possess ‘at least the seven following capabilities: (i) sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization; (ii) sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems to enable students to make informed choices; (iii) sufficient understanding of governmental processes to enable the student to understand the issues that affect his or her community, state, and nation; (iv) sufficient self-knowledge and knowledge of his or her mental and physical wellness; (v) sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage; (vi) sufficient training or preparation for advanced training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently; and (vii) sufficient level of academic or vocational skills to enable public school students to compete favorably with their counterparts in surrounding states, in academics or in the job market.’
McDuffy v. Sec’y of the Executive Office of Educ., 415 Mass. at 618-19, 615 N.E.2d at 554 (quoting Rose v. Council for Better Educ., Inc., 790 S.W.2d 186, 212 (Ky. 1989)).
On the federal level, it culminated in 2002’s No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration law that pushes schools to improve students’ basic skills or face ever-tougher sanctions.
The Nation at Risk report made five key recommendations: 1) High school graduates should master four years of English, three of math, science and social studies and one-half year of computer science; 2) Schools should adopt “more rigorous and measurable standards” and expectations; 3) Schools should “strongly consider” seven-hour days and a 200- to 220-day year; 4) Better teacher training; salaries should be “professionally competitive.”; and 5) Citizens “should hold educators and elected officials responsible” for leadership and fiscal support to drive reform.
In 25 years, the Franklin School system has made tremendous progress on all recommendations except for the school calendar. The result has been stellar academic performance, to the point where our students have gained acceptances at the top universities and colleges in the nation. Making these changes has required an infusion of money. The state has contributed as a funding source, and presently pays more than 50 percent of the Franklin school budget. But state resources are beginning to dry up, and we must turn to the local community for funding to continue our progress.
Without additional revenue from an override, the School Committee must make budget reductions mostly in personnel, because it has exhausted all other areas for significant cuts. What this means is the loss of approximately 43.5 teaching positions – 16 at Franklin high, 12.5 at the middle school level, and 15 at the elementary level. This will erode the Franklin School system and undo the significant progress that has been made in the last 25 years. The discussion on the override question should center on whether our community finds these cuts acceptable, or whether they are willing to pay more for the critical services they expect and deserve.
The authors of the Nation at Risk report understood that a high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom. They went on to say that for our country to function, citizens must be able to reach some common understandings on complex issues, often on short notice and on the basis of conflicting or incomplete evidence. Education helps form these common understandings, a point Thomas Jefferson made long ago in his justly famous dictum:
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.
As you consider what to do over the next few weeks relative to the override question, please keep in mind the warnings we received 25 years ago. And keep in mind that we have seen dramatic changes in the world in those 25 years. This heightens our duty and responsibility to make certain that our children receive a rich education that will enable them to compete on the world stage.