About April 2008
In April of 1983, the Ronald Regan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education released a landmark study, “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” which diagnosed the ills of American education and set forth a list of prescriptions for fixing what seemed to be a flailing educational system. It’s been twenty-five years now since the report. So how are we doing? The country hasn’t fallen apart yet, but the schools don’t seem to be getting better, either. Can aggressively policed federal standards finally give American kids a leg up in the competitive world economy? Maybe schools and teachers really do just need a lot more money for a surge in the war on underachievement. Maybe a sprinkling of charter schools here and vouchers there will inspire the public schools to reach beyond complacent mediocrity. Or maybe the status quo system is beyond repair and needs to be fundamentally restructured around principles of choice and competition. Does anything have a prayer of working? And if so, what?
This month’s lead essay comes from Richard Rothstein, a former national educational columnist for the New York Times and research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, who offers a fresh assessment of “A Nation at Risk” and the lessons we can draw from its fate. Commenting this month we’ll have Michael Strong, co-founder of FLOW, education entrepreneur, and former charter school principal; Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who recently made waves with his article “School Choice Isn’t Enough”; and Frederick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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.”
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.”