Why Are We Still a Nation at Risk? Probably Because We Haven’t Addressed the Risk Factors

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of A Nation at Risk, the seminal 1983 report that warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity in the nation’s schools.” American students were underperforming relative to other developed nations, the piece warned.

In the 30 years since A Nation at Risk we’ve made extensive changes to education policy. Standards based reform. Pay for performance. No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. More testing. More evaluation. Charter schools.

And yet, it doesn’t seemed to have worked. As the Washington Post explains, “its warnings still reverberate today, with 1 in 4 Americans failing to earn a high school degree on time and the U.S. lagging other countries in the percentage of young people who complete college.” Former education secretary William Bennett puts it bluntly: “If you look at those numbers, you get the story for 30 years. If there’s a bottom line, it’s that we’re spending twice as much money on education as we did in `83 and the results haven’t changed all that much.”

The reason for this, however, probably isn’t that America has noticeably crappier schools, but that it simply had then and has now dramatically more poor students than its competitors. Until we address that, it’s basically delusional to think anything much is going to change as far as education performance goes.

A Nation at Risk revealed that:

On 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.

Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.

About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.

Average achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now lower than… when Sputnik was launched.

If we didn’t address these problems we were in danger of losing “our slim competitive edge” in global influence. The sky hasn’t fallen yet, but economic observers continue to observe this imminent danger of losing our economic hegemony.

In December, 2012 the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement released national average results from the 2011 administration of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) . It revealed unsurprising trends. U.S. performance relative to other industrialized countries was low. This is also true of reading.

We still have a slim competitive edge. But we are also still underperforming relative to other developed countries like Germany, Japan, Singapore, South Korea.

Why is this? We don’t seem to have schools that are objectively worse. Our middle class kids do well compared to other first world nations. So what’s the real problem?

It might be that there are basically no poor students in Germany, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. We have 16.4 million. Since 1983, while we’ve changed a lot about education policy, we’ve also made no serious effort to improve social welfare policy.

A popular strategy for reforming low-performing, high poverty schools, is today to measure more and more stringently the performance of students and institue sanctions against schools that aren’t doing well. Can this improve achievement? Maybe this is just the wrong question. Perhaps it’s time to just address the poverty.

One tactic of school reformers is to concentrate on a “no excuses” philosophy. Yes, the students are poor and their parents didn’t go to college and they made not have good nutrition or adequate housing or dental care. But there are no excuses! Every child can learn! We will ignore these outside factors and merely concentrate on education. We will raise achievement if people just focus on results!

All of this is a little like if a doctor discovered that one of his patients, a 45-year-old man who’s smoked two packs a day for 25 years, has the early signs of emphysema. The doctor then proscribes a fancy cocktail of drugs designed to combat the disease . These drugs have all shown limited, positive signs of reducing the impact of the disease in small sample size. And then doctor doesn’t address the smoking.

Yes, it’s certainly possible that the drug cocktail will improve lung function and allow the man to live normally for several years. But if he doesn’t quit or reduce smoking the effects of this treatment are going to be pretty limited.

Oddly, however, discussions of education reform are often limited to schools, though parental income is the major factor in student achievement. The debate between, for instance, much maligned education reformer Michelle Rhee and American Federal of Teachers President Randi Weingarten about the effectiveness of teacher tenure is rather like two doctors arguing about the effectiveness of an emphysema drug like pirbuterol. Sure, the drug might do something, but if we don’t address the real cause of the disease, nothing significant is going to change.

It’s not impossible for poor students to perform well in school, of course. Committed teachers can raise the achievement of low-income students, a little, without addressing outside factors.

But this is the best way to raise achievement? Maybe it’s time to come up with a better long term strategy.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer