What’s Missing From Education Reform in America?

1983: “A Nation at Risk”

“Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. . . .”

So began the 1983 report to the American people commissioned by Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell. In 1981, Secretary Bell had appointed The National Commission on Excellence in Education to study the quality of education in America. The commission conducted many interviews with a cross section of the American public and compared courses high school students took from 1964
to 1969 with the courses they took from 1976 to 1981. Thefindings were dire:

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. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.

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.

Highlights of the Report:

Fundamental failures in the education system

  • Twenty-three million Americans were functionally illiterate.
  • The illiteracy among minority students was 40 percent.
  • Business and military leaders had to train new people in basic skills.
  • The country had lost gains in achievement following Sputnik and “dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible.”

Reasons For the Decline In Standards

  • Courses students took were diffuse.
  • Textbooks were dumbed-down.
  • Too many classes such as drivers ed offered as much credit for graduation as English, math, history, an science.
  • Teacher training focused more on methods classes than on academic courses.


Behavioral Trends That Led to Academic Decline

  • Weakness of purpose
  • Confusion of vision
  • Underuse of talent
  • Lack of leadership

The commission concluded that declining achievement could be reversed by broadening the vision of American education.  The scope of changes were evident in the commission’s recommendations to

  • equip students to know our literary heritage and how it enhances imagination and ethical understanding, and how it relates to the customs, ideas, and values of today’s life
  • enable students to grasp the difference between free and repressive societies
  • equip students to understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies; and
  • provide students with an introduction to the social and environmental implications of scientific and technological development.


The commission made very specific recommendations for initiating reform through the development of a solid core curriculum. What no one realized, perhaps not even the commission itself, was that nearly a decade and a half of declining achievement levels had compromised the ability of students and teachers to meet the challenge. Instead of confronting these problems, school officials sidestepped the issues by creating committees to study the situation. And what good is any study without data? The data came in the form of standardized test scores.

“Like gag me with a spoon,” —Valley Girls