Response to the Responses

First, thank you to the editors of Cato Unbound for inviting me to comment on the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, and then inviting me further to respond to reactions by Sol Stern, Michael Strong, and Frederick Hess.

My initial comment asserted that the analysis of A Nation at Risk was flawed in three ways: it claimed that student performance was declining in 1983, when it was not; it claimed that the nation’s economic problems were the fault of schools, when they were not; and it ignored the contribution that students’ social and economic conditions make to their learning. I concluded that Risk’s irresponsible and out-of-proportion condemnation of public schools led to a quarter-century frenzy of ill-considered reforms, culminating in the No Child Left Behind law which has ushered in a new era of “minimum competency” instruction of precisely the kind that the authors of Risk hoped to condemn.

I have made many of these arguments before, and so am familiar with critics like Sol Stern, and to some extent, Michael Strong, who caricature my argument. In the current issue of Educational Leadership, the magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, my article, “Whose Problem is Poverty?” is a comprehensive response to such caricatures. Briefly, my response is this: there are not “two Rothsteins” but one who has a more complex idea, but still not terribly complex, than Stern and Strong are willing to comprehend. My argument is not that school performance is adequate, or that schools are fully responsible only for student successes and not for student failures. Schools are neither fully responsible, nor fully free from responsibility, for student successes and failures. A strategy to substantially improve student achievement, both for middle and lower-class children, will require improvement in both schools and in out-of-school institutions.

The out-of-school institutions include, but are not restricted to, our health, housing and labor market institutions. They also include cultural factors. For example, both Stern and Strong want to argue with my claim that the SAT score decline in the 1960s and ’70s was primarily a composition effect. What careful analyses actually show is that half, and perhaps up to two-thirds of the decline was attributable to composition.[1] Attributing the other third to half is speculative, but probably due to a combination of school and non-school factors: an increase in less serious elective high school courses, less emphasis on writing, lower standards (grade inflation, automatic promotion, less homework), watered down textbooks (more pictures, less text), social factors (increased divorce rates and mothers working outside the home), too much television watching, and national demoralization, disillusionment, and loss of authority (from the Kennedy and King assassinations and the Vietnam War). All of these were probably responsible, according to the College Board panel to which Sol Stern referred, for some unmeasured portion of the non-compositional part of the decline.

Likewise, the rising test scores of the 1970s and ’80s were also attributable both to school and non-school factors. David Grissmer and his colleagues calculated [pdf] that about half of the narrowing of the black-white test score gap in eighth grade math during this period was attributable primarily to two identifiable demographic changes: higher educational attainment of black mothers, and fewer siblings of black children. Grissmer et al. could not explain the other half, but speculated that it might be attributable to improved schools as well as to social forces like school integration.

Michael Strong is correct to point out that the recent gains posted by black elementary and middle school students do not seem to be replicated in high schools. It seems reasonable to speculate that our high school organization is flawed. But it is also reasonable to speculate that other forces come into play — adolescent music that promotes violence, misogyny, and drugs, not academic success; continued labor market discrimination that makes high school achievement and graduation pay off less for black than for white youth, and so on.

Sol Stern and Michael Strong cannot have the simplistic all-schools or no-schools alternative they seek in analyzing the challenges facing our youth. If we want to substantially raise student achievement, both in-school and out-of-school shortcomings need attention.

Stern, in particular, engages in another caricature. He dismisses any consideration of social and economic reform that would bring students to school more ready to learn, by claiming that such reform is nothing other than “radical social and political reform… , an expansive welfare state [that] isn’t going to happen” and that it amounts to “waiting for the European-style welfare state that will never come.” This is too easy a dodge. There is nothing radical about, for example, ensuring that low-income children have adequate health care, providing an increased number of Section 8 housing vouchers so that more poor families have stable places to live, enforcing our anti-discrimination statutes, providing the parents of minority children with greater economic security (for example, by bringing the minimum wage back up to historic real levels, or giving hotel maids the same union protections that autoworkers once had), completing welfare reform by providing high-quality early-childhood care for working mothers, providing urban youth with high-quality after-school and summer opportunities that might compete with gang recruitment, and so on. These modest proposals, which would have a palpable impact on student achievement, are less radical than Richard Nixon’s domestic program. They do not amount to anything like an expansive welfare state. But Stern charges that the effect of such advocacy “is to let schools and teachers off the hook for failing to raise academic achievement.”

This is absurd. We can “chew gum and cross the street” at the same time. If we want to raise student achievement, we should improve schools and provide children with better health, housing, and economic security. The notion that if we do the latter, we can’t do the former, lets political and corporate officials off the hook. We absolve these leaders from responsibility for narrowing the pervasive inequalities of American society by asserting, contrary to evidence and experience, that good schools alone can overcome them.

Finally, I thank Frederick Hess for his graciousness in acknowledging the accuracy of my analysis of A Nation at Risk. Rather than invent artificial points of disagreement, he appropriately took the space which Cato Unbound offered him to put forward his own views about school deregulation in general and teacher quality in particular. Michael Strong also took the opportunity to use much of his space for advocacy of charter schooling as his preferred reform.

I neither have the space for, nor is a forum about A Nation at Risk the appropriate place for, a response in detail to these suggestions. That would be an entirely separate discussion, for another place and time. I acknowledge that I do not know enough about teacher quality to express an informed opinion about what is necessary to improve it. [2] I have written about choice and charters elsewhere and will make only one brief point here.

Michael Strong makes the appropriate claim that “with minimal barriers to entry, there will be many failures. In order to decide whether we want successful educational innovations, we must first decide whether we are prepared to accept many experiments that fail.” This is the crux of the matter. As I and my colleagues wrote in The Charter School Dust-Up, regulation exists for the purpose of setting a floor on quality. An unintended consequence is necessarily to set a ceiling as well. Michael Strong cites KIPP and Green Dot schools, as well as his own experience, as illustrations of how that ceiling can be shattered. But as we now have accumulating data that, on average, charter and voucher school performance is no better than that of regular public schools, if some students are doing much better in charter schools than they otherwise would have done, others are doing much worse. Our debates about choice have typically ignored the latter group. If we deregulate the teacher market, we will undoubtedly attract some very high quality teachers who might not have made it through the certification hoops. We will also attract some incompetents, who will do serious harm to our children. How many of the latter are we willing to tolerate in order to gain the benefits of the former? Before developing an opinion on Hess’ and Strong’s views, I’d like to hear more about how they propose to address this widely ignored aspect of choice.


[1] I reviewed these analyses in greater detail in my short book, The Way We Were? (Century Foundation, 1998), p. 51-61.

[2] Actually, my impression is that nobody yet understands teacher quality well enough to make coherent proposals for reform. See my colleague Jennifer Rice’s short book, Teacher Quality; Understanding the Effectiveness of Teacher Attributes (Economic Policy Institute, 2003).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Twenty-five years ago this month, a Reagan-appointed blue-ribbon committee published a blockbuster study, A Nation at Risk, about the sorry state of American education. In this month’s lead essay, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein gives his critical assessment. “In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good,” Rothstein writes. “The diagnosis … was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply, education entrepreneur Michael Strong challenges Rothstein’s key claims about the success of public schools and their relative unimportance for the further economic advance of the poor. He argues that the attachment to the status quo system of public education is “irrational.” Drawing on his experience as the principal of a successful charter school, Strong emphasizes the importance of the freedom to innovate. “The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.”

  • The Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern detects “two Richard Rothsteins.” The first praises the public schools for improving student performance and for narrowing inequalities in student achievement. The second argues that nothing further can be done by the schools; for added progress we need other forms of social and political reform. “Either schools are able to significantly overcome family and neighborhood deficits that children bring to the classroom (and therefore ought to be judged by that standard) or they cannot be expected to overcome the social and economic deficits,” Stern writes. “But [Rothstein] perversely insists on having it both ways.” In stark contrast, Stern argues that test scores have become worse, that schools bear the responsibility, but that they can improve through a regime of standards.

  • Frederick Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, concedes the premises of Richard Rothstein’s argument but contests their implications for the future of education. According to Hess, the key failing of A Nation at Risk was its too-easy acceptance of “the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.” As a consequence, the nature of teaching and teacher education has barely changed, despite deep changes in the broader labor market. And even the school choice movement has fallen victim to “the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements.” Hess concludes that “we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.”