The consensus at this week's American Enterprise Institute forum was that standards had declined in the years leading to 1983, that they had not recovered, and the country would do well to restore them. But one panelist challenged this assumption, saying the apparent deterioration was really a function of more students finishing high school and going on to college.
Terrence Bell, President Reagan's first Secretary of Education, charged the National Commission on Excellence in Education with evaluating the state of America's high schools. In April 1983, the commission issued a sweeping indictment, citing rising mediocrity and the need for extensive reform.
On Tuesday four experts - Michael Cohen, Lynne V. Cheney, Chester Finn and Marc Tucker - addressed the question of how much has changed in the two decades since the report was issued.
Cohen is president of Achieve, which was founded by governors and corporate executives after the 1996 education summit to help states pursue standards-based education. He was an assistant secretary of Education in the Clinton administration.
Cohen said the report was a powerful document that got a number of things right. For example, it called for higher standards and a more focused and rigorous core curriculum for all students, standardized national ("not federal") achievement tests, and incentives for new teachers.
States significantly increased funding, and the federal government has become a "senior partner" in high school education.
Despite all this, "We're still a nation at risk," Cohen said. The gains hoped for 20 years ago have largely failed to materialize. Why?
First was the assumption that the schools were filled with faculty and students who would make significant progress when freed from the shackles of bad regulation. The difficulty in improving this "capacity" was underestimated.
Reform also was hindered by fragmented state and local governing structures. For example, high school curricula were not geared either to college entrance or workplace requirements.
The federal "No Child Left Behind Act," which President Bush signed in January 2002, requires states to test students frequently and imposes a 12-year timetable by which every state and every school must bring each student up to proficiency.
Cohen said most of the reform efforts that have been underway during the past 20 years have been at the elementary, not the high school, level.
Cheney is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on education policy and standards. She was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1986 to 1993.
Cheney said that although "A Nation at Risk" resulted in hundreds of reports and education summits, as well as the expenditure of billions of dollars, "there has been very little to show as a result."
Reading scores are essentially the same, and in math American 12th graders rank 19th out of 21 nations. Only 11 percent of 12 graders achieved a proficient level in a National Association for Primary Education history exam.
Cheney offered the theory that many of the "reforms" engendered by "A Nation at Risk" haven't been reforms at all. In fact, the "reform" movement has been co-opted to strengthen the status quo.
She made her point with an example. In 1999 it was reported that the Educational Testing Service was revising its "praxis" examinations for new teachers, which test content mastery, "to reflect the standards for teachers written by subject matter associations." But those associations defined education as a student-directed enterprise. Teachers in this model act as facilitators or guides rather than imparting knowledge.
The standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of English, Cheney said, were vague and free of content. Reading is thought of as "the construction of meaning" rather than decoding.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, she said, places great importance on the idea that students should "create knowledge" for themselves and rely on calculators starting in the primary grades.
The National Council for the Social Studies, Cheney said, "also conceives teachers as facilitators who -- rather than teaching subject matter that they command -- arrange for students to have 'experiences' through which they can learn." The council's 178-page set of standards is silent about specific people, events and places students should learn about.
Cheney said that for the Social Studies council: "The best projects for satisfying these abstract aims ... are not ones that involve contemplation of the past but those that encourage political activism in the present, such as 8th graders lobbying to change the local school board's budget priority or high school students examining 'their complicity as consumers in the exploitation of workers and resources.'"
These are three of the groups that revise the praxis exam.
The exam, she said, asks those tested to identify "risks" for young children associated with a "teacher-centered" approach to education. One answer key states: "Research suggests that an overemphasis on academic skills may undermine the development of children's disposition to use the skills they have acquired."
In 2003, "all hope for substantive change is dead," Cheney said.
She cited the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, made up of 11 leading educational scholars assembled by Stanford University's Hoover Institution. The task force noted that one reason why "A Nation at Risk" produced so little improvement is that the authors of the 1983 report underestimated the resistance to change from "the organized adult interests" in the public education system.
Cheney said they also underestimated the ability of those interests to co-opt reform and divert the energies of parents and others interested in changing the schools.
"Real reform will not take place through old organization," she said. "New structures are required." Particularly promising is the American Board for the Certification for Teacher Excellence, which will offer tests that measure knowledge of subject matter and teaching methods. "Individuals who wish to be certified through these tests will not be required to complete a particular set of education courses," Cheney said. "Pennsylvania has adopted the program as a route to full certification, and I hope many other states will follow."
Also sensible, Cheney said, are valid assessments of students' academic achievement.
Chester Finn is a noted scholar of education, author, and chairman of the Koret Task Force.
"Twenty years after "A Nation at Risk," most of the trend lines are flat," Finn said.
Commission members diagnosed the performance problem in 1983, but "didn't quite get the causes right" and were "naïve" in believing that the education system, if given good advice, would change its ways.
"Deeply entrenched interests would ensure it wouldn't change unless forced to," Finn said. "And the Excellence Commission couldn't force anyone to change because it delivered its report and went out of business."
Now external standards-based forces, culminating in the No Child Left Behind Act, are being applied.
Finn said the Koret recommendations focus on accountability, choice and transparency. Accountability means that every education provider who receives public money is held to a rigorous set of statewide academic standards and assessment of student performance. Choice means the decisions of parents rather than bureaucrats drive the education enterprise. Transparency means those who seek information about a school system should be able to get it.
Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and a leader in the movement for standards-based school reform, had a different take.
He said "A Nation at Risk" was based on the false assumption that American education had declined precipitously in the years leading up to 1983. "There is actually no evidence for that," Tucker said. The fall in SAT scores was caused mainly by much larger numbers of students taking the test.
"A Nation at Risk" "set us off in the wrong direction," Tucker said. Its theme was "Paradise Lost," and the answer was supposed to be "Paradise Regained." But that was an attempt to reconstruct the educational excellence of a bygone era that never existed, Tucker said.
However, Tucker said that although the report got the problem and the solution wrong, it focused the nation's attention on school reform at just the right time -- a period of economic globalization.
"Fifty years ago, the United States had one of the most even distributions of income in the industrialized world," Tucker said. "Now it has one of the least equitable. Fifty years ago, we prided ourselves on educating everybody, while others educated only an elite. Now the spread of performance in this country, from the least-educated tenth to the best-educated tenth, is among the greatest in the industrialized world -- and our top tenth is not at the top. The bottom third of students in the United States is probably the least well-educated bottom third in the industrialized world.
"Demand for skilled workers has been skyrocketing for 25 years. Demand for unskilled and semi-skilled workers has been plummeting." This surplus of unskilled workers drives wages down for that group. "Even though we've been doing a better job, slowly, of educating our students, it hasn't come anywhere near catching up with the demand for skilled workers." That creates a shortage of skilled workers that drives their wages up.
"It is still probably true that at least half of the cohort leaves high school with no more than 8th grade literacy," he said. "Statistics show that you can't support a family on that."
The authors of "A Nation at Risk" "made a terrible mistake," Tucker said. "They thought that the specifications hadn't changed; it was the performance of our schools that had changed and all they had to do was get it back up to what it was."
But the performance of the system had been improving "pretty steadily" for years -- in the aggregate and on average -- and it continued to improve after 1983.
Rather, the world had changed. "For years we could run an economy in which kids coming out of high school with an 8th-grade level of literacy could do well. ... We now faced a world in which kids coming out of high school -- with or without a diploma -- with an 8th-grade level of literacy were facing disaster. We were facing a radically different specification for what our country needed. "
Nearly everybody would have to be educated to a standard to which the United States had brought only a much smaller proportion of Americans before. "We tend to forget that it was not expected that most kids would finish high school," Tucker said. Many went to vocational schools, and there was no opprobrium for dropping out.
Cheney was unconvinced. She said "a substantial body of research" says the enlarged pool of test-takers cannot account for the precipitous drop in SAT scores.
Tucker said research has shown that all countries with successful education systems -- unlike the United States -- have academic standard and curricula that include few choices.
He questioned whether the state departments of education have the "capacity" to implement what Congress has mandated in the No Child Left Behind law. They don't have the staff, training or expertise to do so, he said. "It's not there."
Finn said most "alternative" routes to teacher certification are in fact controlled by the teachers' colleges, and this trend is increasing. So "alternative" certification is really in the hands of people who control conventional certification.
Tucker said teachers' certification should be based only on whether they can pass a performance test, and requirements for courses in education should be removed. A good, although expensive, test exists in Connecticut, he said.
Tucker also would scrap the term "alternative certification."
"I would just call it certification. Let anybody who can meet a very rigorous test of subject matter knowledge and teaching ability, including their record with respect to the students that they have thus far taught, be the measure of whether someone teaches. I would do much the same for school principals. ... Principals are bailing," he said.
Make teaching attractive to people who have alternatives, Tucker urged. Create really good standardized tests, because teachers really do teach to tests. Many American tests, however, are designed to be irrelevant to the curriculum.