The 1983 A Nation at Risk Report is Revisited
In April 1983, a report was issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by President Ronald Reagan on the recommendation of Secretary of Education Terrel Bell. The Commission’s membership included educators, businesspeople, and office holders.
Bell’s reason for forming the Commission was “the widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.” He solicited the “support of all who care about our future.” Bell created the Commission based on “responsibility to provide leadership, constructive criticism, and effective assistance to schools and universities.”
The Commission’s study focused on specific concerns and remedies associated with the quality of teaching and learning in public schools and higher education. Concerns addressed the question of what schools should be for and how well they responded to that objective.
The resultant A Nation at Risk report concluded that for our country to remain strong and competitive, mediocre schools must create clear learning goals and achieve excellence.
Mediocrity was d the result of many factors. Excessive expectations which diminished education’s ability to prepare students to work intelligently and creatively in a competitive environment.
More significantly, the report commented forcefully on the need for “the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society.”
Especially poignant with today’s divisiveness and rancor was the following sentence: “For our country to function, citizens must be able to reach some common understandings on complex issues, often on short notice and on the basis of conflicting or incomplete evidence.”
Another prophetic observation: “All, regardless of race, class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.”
The Commission found American students neither prepared for the competitive workplace nor participation in a society that required “higher order” intellectual skills. Students demonstrated inadequate technical proficiency and insights “relevant to the human condition.”
Excellence was defined as related to setting and meeting high expectations for all students “according to their aspirations and abilities” through lifelong learning. The report’s key designation was “The Learning Society,” making education a pervasive characteristic of day-to-day living not limited to schools alone. The Commission found no such condition existed, nor was there a public commitment for attaining one.
Unlike today, the primary concern of the Commission was eclecticism in school goals and curriculum.
It was an era of high school mini-courses, middle school exploratory programs, “whole” student development, and other curricular objectives that focused on students’ emotional, psychological, and physical development. Experimental programs involved interdisciplinary subjects, learning styles, and elevating student self-esteem.
The Commission’s criticisms were aimed at those programs. Its solutions tightened expectations and ensured that students meet high standards. Included were traditionally accepted strategies such as demanding curricula and textbooks, testing, homework, graduation requirements, time in class, and stringent college admission standards. Improving the quality of those entering the teaching profession was a frequently stated imperative.
National or state subject area standards, high stakes tests, data collection and use, and measures of teacher accountability were either not in place or not being developed in 1983. However, many or most of those practices were later implemented and justified based on the Commission’s report.
A Pandemic-Induced Nation at Risk
While a few conditions remain, our school problems today are not what they were in 1983. They are worse.
COVID reporting explains the problem every day. Parents, school patrons and students are confused and often disheartened. Teachers, principals, superintendents, and board of education members are frustrated and dismayed. Solutions seem to be associated with “returning to normal,” but that status quo no longer exists.
Although the 1983 report is dated, it offers points that might define a new normal. To answer the question, “What are schools for?”
Sections of the report describe a society we should strive to create, to ready students for work and meeting life’s challenges. Of value are:
- “Hope and Frustration”
- “Excellence in Education”
- “The Learning Society”
- “The Tools at Hand”
- “The Public’s Commitment”
The crossover between 1983 and today is the need to define and measure mastery of student learning. Commission members in 1983 defined mastery using traditional assessments and indicators of accomplishment. They accepted the usual measurement tools and criteria. Content to be mastered was in approved curricula and textbooks. That definition morphed into standards and use of summative high stakes tests. Proof of student mastery was associated with high stakes test results and teachers were held accountable for student success on those tests.
The pandemic exposed seven flaws in that way of achieving learning mastery:
(1) mastery is not defined within curricula used in classrooms
(2) teachers are not participants in designing their curricula
(3) instruction is not linked to specific learning intentions found in a curriculum
(4) learning intentions in Bloom’s hierarchy beyond remembering and understanding (applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating) are not easily measured and recorded statistically
(5) teachers are not prepared to teach to true mastery
(6) teachers are not allowed to use formative assessments to verify mastery
(7) time is insufficient to ensure that most if not all students master intended proficiencies
Schools that gave prior attention to achieving student mastery through well-constructed local curricula, linked to compatible instructional processes, maintained student learning during the pandemic. Their teachers had been thoroughly involved in all aspects of curricular content, instructional design, and assessment of student learning. Such involvement provided a solid instructional platform when they were forced to use online instruction.
Today’s schools are at risk because governmental micromanagement has marginalized local decision-making, diminished the role of professional teachers, and defined excellence in terms of standardized test scores.
The small group of leaders (Rebecca, Barbara, Ken, and Bryon) will discuss how to use the old 1983 report to address public acceptance of the proposed modifications initiated by the language arts subject area committee.
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