Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 6/6.7.2

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A Nation At Risk: Are We Really?

By Jenna Bowen-Huertas

Learning Targets[edit]

After reading this article, students should be able to:

  • Explain what was said in the original report A Nation at Risk
  • Identify indicators that the school system is stable
  • Identify indicators suggesting schools are in trouble
  • Name reasons as to why the country's education system is struggling


In August 1981, the Secretary of Education created an organization called the National Commission on Excellence in Education. This vast group of people was instructed to research and collect extensive data on the condition, quality, and progress of American Education. By April 1983, the commission submitted a report called A Nation At Risk. The release plainly stated that American education was at serious risk and that it had become a mere fraction of the marvel it once was. The quality of learning was being washed away by mediocrity. It revealed a shocking list of facts and statistics regarding poor student performance and a general lack of knowledge among adults. The authors also went on to explain the dangers of living in a country that could expect to be surpassed in knowledge by other leading industrial countries. It even went as far as to suggest that those who couldn't keep up intellectually in the U.S should have certain rights and privileges revoked. ("A Nation At Risk," 1983)The initial reactions to this document varied from insult and outrage to commendation and praise. But to the majority of the population, the state of education had never been presented as being so endangered. And, after reading the brazen report that declared our entire society in jeopardy, the public all shared the same question. Are we really?

American Education is Stable[edit]

Once the controversial report was released, more heads than ever before were turned towards the condition and quality of schools and learning. (Wehner, 2009)Those appalled by the claims continue to defend education to this day. Evidence to support this side of the argument include a number of improvements made over the past twenty years. According to the National enter of Education Statistics (NCES), studies of high school sophomores show an increase in the time spent on homework. From 1980 to 2002, the percentage of those who spent more than ten hours a week on schoolwork increased from seven to thirty-seven percent. In addition, the numbers of high school graduates and of students enrolling in college have gradually and steadily improved over the past thirty years. (NCES, 2006) Other observations performed indicate a rise in the quantity of students taking Advanced Placement courses in high school. There has also been a rise in the average IQ test scores among youths. (Williams, 2000)

American Education is in Trouble[edit]

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.

These powerful words from the introduction to A Nation at Risk still ring true to millions of people. The consensus of much of the American public is that there exists a huge gap between what students are learning and what they are capable of learning. (Wehner, 2008) A plethora of studies have been conducted over the past several decades to assert achievement in the U.S. According to author of Education: Opposing Viewpoints, SAT scores have dropped 55 points on the verbal section and 23 in math. More than 40% of high school seniors scored below average in math on the 2005 National Assessment of Education Progress. ("Core Problems," 2008)The same test revealed certain "common knowledge unknown to a percentage of high school seniors. One third of the students were unaware that the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly half couldn't put 9% in the form of a fraction. A third couldn't name the countries that fought in World War II. Only 6% had the math skills of what was considered proficient a generation ago. The list goes on regarding other knowledge about the civil war, Brown Vs. Board of Education, Christopher Columbus, and numerous other not so well-known chapters of study. (Williams, 2000) With this shocking lack of information, its no wonder the country does so poorly on international assessments. According to the NCES, the U.S ranked 24th out of 29th on the 2006 international test measuring abilities in reading, math, and science. (NCES, 2006) American high-school seniors who participated in the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) placed 19 out of 21 developed nations in math and 16 out of 21 in science. (Bennett, et al.) In communities across the country, students graduate without basic reading and math skills. This can explain the high demand for remedial courses in college today. In 2000, one third of college students were required to take remedial classes. (Williams, 2000) However, in some institutions, such as California State University, that ratio was as high as half of all freshman. Employers all over the U.S feel the effects too. More and more employers report difficulty in locating applicants with the skills, work ethic, and capabilities to fill technologically challenging positions. The severe shortage in qualified Americans signifies that students leave school without the vital knowledge critical to our future. ( Bennet, et al.)

How It Became A Reality[edit]

The blame for the countries current state is aimed in several directions. The most popular include the intense focus on standardized tests, the unqualified selection of teachers, low standards, inadequate school funding, and outside social forces.

"It is not so important to know everything as to appreciate what we learn." -Hannah Moore

Students, teachers, parents, and other concerned citizens have come to detest standardized testing. "Test-mandates are choking the life out of classrooms." writes Sylvia Bruni, a teacher of 40 years from Texas. (Glickman, 2004) The current rigid focus on standardized tests eliminates any creativity, experimentation, or hands-on activities in the classroom. Schools can no longer provide the time or the opportunity for students to "explore their own interests or to encourage them to pursue learning outside of textbooks and assignments that are geared towards a single standardized test. (Glickman, 2004) In addition, the extreme emphasis on tests teaches kids how to memorize facts. They do nothing to help develop such skills as critical thinking, problem solving, arguing with conviction, invention and other skills desperately needed in the 21st century. (Schmoker, 2009)

Schools are dealing with high demand for teachers from coast to coast. Student enrollment is rapidly increasing and, qualified instructors are coming up short. Because schools cannot find able candidates, they are forced to either lower teacher qualification standards. (Glickman) The inability to recruit competent instructors denies students critical resources and, threatens the vitality of our nation. ("Core Problems", 2008)The alternative to hiring unprepared teachers is to use out-of-field teachers; meaning, classes would be taught by teachers who may not be certified or have academic majors in the field of study. Unfortunately, this happens twice as often in high-poverty schools. (Sawchuck, 2008) This perpetuates the achievement gap and contradicts our democratic principles.

Low standards add to the decline in academic achievement. Teachers and parents tend to agree that standards are much lower today then they were when they were in school. Low expectations for students lead to unprepared high-school and college students. By creating such classes and assignments that do not ask much of its pupils, students begin to want to stay away from hard work. Any rigorous coursework is met with little or no effort. (Glickman, 2004)

"The poor performance of schools and the lack of achievement among many of our own students is indeed about money." -Bill Cosby

Schools today are receiving less funding than ever before. They are under extreme pressure with new directives that are creating larger budgets for tests, more requirements, and unfunded programs. This just further contributes to the growing gap in education given to the wealthy kids in comparison with the poor. Senator Jim Jeffords reveals that 60 years ago, the federal government set aside almost 11% of the national budget for education. Today, school funding receives just under 3%. (Glickman, 2004) Without the appropriate financial compensation, schools cannot provide the qualified teachers, updated teaching methods and technology that American students deserve.

It must not be forgotten that many social factors affect the output of student success. Playing an important role are irresponsible and/or uninvolved parents. A child's upbringing is crucial in the development of a caring, intelligent, well-rounded student. The growing rate of employed teenagers can also be a concern. Time spent in the workforce is time taken away from studies. (Williams, 2000) But typically, one of the most significant factors is the economic status of students. Those living in low-income households generally perform poorer due to the poor quality of the schools in impoverished areas. All the problems held to blame for low student performance are highly associated with areas in need. For every hopeful student waiting for their acceptance letter to college, there are thousands who won't ever share the experience due to their financial situations of which they have no control. (Scully, 2008) In fact, a study in 2001 revealed that the high-school drop-out rate was six times higher for the poorest 20% of students versus the wealthiest 20%. (NCES, 2006)

My Thoughts[edit]

From what I've witnessed in school, I can characterize the state of education as dismal. My personal experiences in high-school forced me to realize that my peers were ill-equipped to handle the most basic aspects of life. The fundamentals of math, science, reading, and writing were practically absent. This realization is disturbing enough. But what startled me the most, what still worries me today is the priorities of the youth I encountered. My peers cared so little about learning, humanity, themselves or their future. When did these things become invaluble? The aimless attitudes are the most shocking trend in students today. In The Path to Purpose, author William Damon discusses this very idea. His studies confirm that 25% of youths show no drive, no interest in achieving something purposeful with their lives. He continues to say that a sizable portion of college students seek careers based on the salary, regardless of the actual work. Damon also mentions a professor at UCLA who has also noticed a "drift in the intentions of college students from developing a meaningful philosophy of life toward being very well off financially." (Glazer, 2009) Has education become so unappealing, so riddled with defects that students don't even want to learn? Despite all the obstacles that education faces, the country must never give up. In order to prove to students everywhere that an education is worth the effort, our nation has to put forth the effort to correct its flaws.

"Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental." -W.E.B. DuBois


Bennet, W.J., Fair, W, Finn, Jr., C.E., Flake, f.H., Hirsch, Jr., E.D. Marshall, W. et al. (1998) A Nation Still at Risk [Electronic Version] Policy Review, from [1]

"Core Problems," 2008. Retrieved February 1, 2009 from [2]

Glazer, Nathan (2009) Purposeful Youth [Review of the book The Path to Purpose]. Education Next 9(1) 76-77

Glickman, Carl (Ed.) (2004) Letters to the Next President. New York and London: Teacher's College, Columbia University

"A Nation at Risk," 1983. Retrieved January 20, 2009, from [3]

National Center of Educational Statistics (2006) The Condition of Education. Retrieved January 18, 2009, from

Sawchuk, Stephen (2008) Out of Field Teaching More Common in Poor Schools. [Electronic Version]. from [4]

Schmoker, Mike (2009) Measuring What Matters. [Electronic Version]. Educational Leadership 66(4). Retrieved January 31, 2009, from [5]

Scully, John H., (2008) The Real Cost of Educating Low Income Students [Electroniv Version] from [6]

Wehner, Peter (2009) Reality Check [Review of the book Real Education]. Education Next 9(1) 76-77

Williams, Mary E. (Ed)(2000)Education: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press

Test Your Knowledge[edit]

1)What was the purpose of the original report A Nation At Risk?

a)to inform the Secretary of Education the dangers of home schooling

b)to report on the condition of education

c)to inform the public of the stable and flourishing state of education

d)to report to the Secretary of Education of the positive reforms advancing the education system

2)Which of the following is NOT a reason for schools being stable

a)increased IQ scores

b)decreased high-school drop-out rates

c)decreased time spent on social activities

d)increased time spent on homework

3)A Teacher wants to take her students to a museum to expose them to marine life. However, it's near the end of the school year and, she still has a lot of material to cover. She decides to skip the trip most likely due to:

a)low school funding

b)low standards in schools

c)the students went to a museum last year

d)emphasis on standardized tests

4)If the average math score for American students taking the TIMSS was 43%, the average math score for all the international students who participated might have been:





Answer Key: 1)b 2)c 3)d 4)d

Jbowe017 (talk) 22:07, 7 February 2009 (UTC)

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