The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents."... ...Paul Copperman.

Commentary of the Day - July 26, 2003:  A Nation Still At Risk?

As most readers of The Irascible Professor know, the IP is both a physicist and educator.  Although semi-retired, he attempts to keep up in both areas by maintaining memberships in a number of professional organizations.  All of them make sure that his mailbox at Krispy Kreme U. is never empty.  Last week the July 2003 issue of the APS News showed up on schedule.  The APS News is the house organ of the American Physical Society intended primarily to keep members abreast of news of interest to the physics community.  It contains a mix of meeting announcements, analysis of political issues that affect the American scientific community, and off-beat news stories related to physics.  One regular feature is "The Back Page".  The entire eighth page (19" by 22") is devoted to a commentary on an issue that the editor feels would be of interest to the physics community.

The July "Back Page" commentary is an attempt by Gerald W. Bracey to convince us that the conclusions of A Nation At Risk were false when written back in 1983 and remain false today.  For those of you who don't remember, A Nation At Risk was the report that concluded that there had been a serious decline in the quality of the nation's schools over the previous two decades.

Bracey's main arguments are that the connection that the report drew between the failings in the educational system and the decline in American productivity and competitiveness that had begun to concern political types in the early 1980's was not substantiated by the facts; and, that the report was intended mainly to further the political aims of the Reagan administration as it prepared for the reelection campaign of 1984.  There actually is a grain of truth in these arguments.  The Reagan administration was busy cutting a number of social welfare programs, and A Nation At Risk provided cover for Reagan as he proposed a number of reforms to the nation's educational system.  And, the connection between the decline in American competitiveness and the mediocre quality of its educational system was somewhat tenuous.  There were many factors at work in the 1970's and 1980's that caused the United States to become less dominant in the world economy.  America's industrial base, particularly its heavy industry which enjoyed spectacular growth in the 1940's and 1950's, was becoming obsolete at the same time that heavy industry in Europe and Japan finally was recovering from the effects of World War II.  The combination of high labor costs, inefficient plants, and the reluctance to invest in modernization probably had more to do with the loss of competitiveness than problems in our educational systems.

However, a close reading of A Nation At Risk reveals that its conclusions about the problems that were endemic in the schools of the 1980's were pretty much on target even if the rhetoric used to get Americans to pay attention to the report was overblown.  In fact, many of those problems remain today, and at least some of the predictions contained in the report were prescient.  This was not, as Bracey contends, a political hatchet job on America's public schools.  It was instead, a reasonable assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the system, by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.  The commissioners, who had been brought together by Reagan's education secretary, Terrel Bell, were not a group of political ideologues.  They were highly respected individuals.

They included David P. Gardner (president of the University of Utah and president-elect of the University of California system), Yvonne W. Larsen (immediate past president of the San Diego school board), W.O. Baker (retired chairman of the board of Bell Labs), Anne Campbell (former commissioner of education for Nebraska), Emeral A. Crosby (principal of Northern High School in Detroit), Charles A. Foster, Jr. (immediate past president of the Foundation for Teaching Economics), Norman C. Francis (president of Xaviar University in Louisiana), A. Bartlett Giamatti (president of Yale), Shirley Gordon (president of Highline Community College in Midway, WA), Robert V. Haderlein (immediate past president of the National School Boards Association), Gerald Holton (professor of physics and professor of the history of science at Harvard), Annette Y. Kirk (Kirk Associates), Margaret S. Marston (member Virginia State Board of Education), Albert H. Quie (former governor of Minnesota), Francisco D. Sanchez, Jr. (superintendent of the Albuquerque Public Schools), Glenn T. Seaborg (Nobel prize winning professor of chemistry at Berkeley), Jay Sommer (1981-82 national teacher of the year), and Richard Wallace (principal of Lutheran High School East in Cleveland Heights, OH).  This was a very diverse blue-ribbon commission by anyone's standards.  These were not a cabal of political operatives out to trash public education.  Over a period of 18 months they held a total of 17 public hearings and meetings to hear testimony from scores of sources, to evaluate the findings and recommendations of the Commission's staff, and to formulate the report.

Bracey claims that the Commission merely spun questionable statistics and test results to bolster their conclusions about competitiveness.   However, upon close reading one finds that the major focus of A Nation At Risk actually was on the steady decline in the quality of the American high school education and the implications that would have for the future.  The commissioners may have gotten it wrong on the immediate connection between educational quality and competitiveness, but they were prescient in other respects.  Namely, that a high school graduate who had drifted through the increasingly popular "general curriculum" rather than taking either of the more demanding college preparatory or vocational tracks would be ill prepared for the coming economy.  The commissioners could not have been more correct.  The gap between rich and poor in America never has been greater.  The well paying manufacturing jobs that were the mainstay of the middle class largely are gone.  They have been replaced by low paying service jobs.  The high paying jobs are in knowledge industries where increasing productivity has reduced the demand for workers, and where only the very highly skilled have a chance at employment.

Bracey goes out of his way to focus on those indicators of educational mediocrity in A Nation At Risk that could be explained away by other factors such as the increasing number of students taking standardized tests such as the SAT; but, he ignores those indicators that cannot be explained away so easily.  For example, the report comments on the large number of students who need to take remedial mathematics and English courses when they enter college.  Well folks, guess what, those of us who teach at the college level know that far too many students enter college with poor English skills and poor mathematical skills.  Here in the California State University system roughly 50% of our entering freshmen, students who graduated in the top third of their high school class, must take remedial English or remedial mathematics.  More than 36% of our entering freshmen cannot read at college level.  These figures haven't changed for many years.  The problems were there in the 1980's, and they are still there today.

Bracey is concerned that too many people use the public schools as a convenient political whipping boy to advance their own partisan or ideological agendas.  He also is concerned that good news about the public schools never receives much play in the press.  The IP shares those concerns.  There indeed are folks out there who would like to see the public schools fail, and the press always seems to give more coverage to bad news about the schools than to good news about them.  There are many excellent public schools staffed with fine teachers in this country.

However, at the same time, there are a host of problems in American public education that need to be dealt with -- not the least of which is the poor academic preparation of public school teachers.  The authors of A Nation at Risk correctly identified this problem early on.  Pretending that this and other problems in public education don't exist will not help correct them.  Read both Bracey's commentary and A Nation At Risk, then decide for yourself if we are a nation still at risk.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.