A Nation at a Loss
April 25, 2008
By EDWARD B. FISKE
Saturday April 26th is the 25th anniversary of "A
Nation at Risk," a remarkable document that became
a milestone in the history of American education -
albeit in ways that its creators neither planned,
anticipated or even wanted.
- In August 1981, Education Secretary T. H. Bell
created a National Commission on Excellence in
Education to examine, in the report's words, "the
widespread public perception that something is
seriously remiss in our educational system."
Secretary Bell's expectation, he later said, was that the
report would paint a rosy picture of American
education and correct all those widespread negative
- Instead, on April 26, 1983, the commission
released a sweeping 65-page indictment of the quality
of teaching and learning in American primary and
secondary schools couched in a style of apocalyptic
rhetoric rarely found in blue-ribbon commission
- "The educational foundations of our society are
presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity
that threatens our very future as a nation and as a
people," it warned. "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."
- To his credit, Secretary Bell, a moderate
Republican who had been hoping for some political
relief from critics on his right, stood by these
unexpected words from his commission - and
thereby became the unwitting father of the modern
school reform movement.
- Secretary Bell's boss, President Ronald Reagan,
was also taken aback by "A Nation at Risk," although
for different reasons. He took office in 1981 with a
three-fold agenda for education: abolishing the
Department of Education, promoting tuition tax credits
and vouchers and restoring voluntary prayer in the
schools. Using the bully pulpit and purse of the
federal government to promote "excellence" in
teaching and learning was not on the list.
- When members of the White House staff saw an
early copy of "A Nation at Risk," they were distressed
to find no mention of their political agenda and
threatened to cancel the ceremony in which the
president would receive the first copy. Secretary Bell
and commission members replied that such topics
were at best tangential to their assigned topic of
excellence in teaching and learning.
- Eventually a compromise was reached. The
president agreed to receive the commission and
accept the first copy of "A Nation at Risk" at a White
House ceremony, and he used his remarks to reaffirm
his political objectives - none of which were
mentioned in the report. Several members of the
commission later confided that they left Washington
that day in a depressed mood, convinced that they had
been "used" and were destined to be ignored.
- Then came the biggest twist of all. "A Nation at
Risk" resonated with Americans, who seemingly
agreed that there was indeed something "seriously
remiss" in their schools. White House pollsters
picked this up. The president began visiting schools
all over the country, usually in the company of
Secretary Bell, who until then, as head of a
department scheduled for elimination, had never seen
the inside of Air Force One.
- The most important legacy of "A Nation at Risk"
was to put the quality of education on the national
political agenda - where it has remained ever since.
The last 25 years have seen a succession of projects
and movements aimed at increasing the quality of
American primary and secondary schools: standards-
based reform, the 1989 "education summit" that set
six "national goals" for education, the push for school
choice and, most recently, the No Child Left Behind
legislation. Proponents of each have taken pains to
portray themselves as the heirs of "A Nation at Risk."
- The apocalyptic rhetoric of the opening section
of "A Nation at Risk" isn't the only element of the report
that has had a lasting impact. One of the main ideas
enshrined in the document - that quality of schooling
is directly linked to economic competitiveness - has
also shaped the way Americans think about
education. This particular theory, however, hasn't
been borne out by history.
- In 1983, the causal connection between education
and the economy seemed obvious. Americans were
living in awe of the Japanese "economic miracle" and
assumed that it was made possible by a school
system whose students consistently routed ours on
all those comparative international achievement tests.
But then the Japanese economy soured - even
though it still had the same education system - and
we began asking ourselves another question: If
American schools are so bad, why is our economy
doing so well?
- With the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear that the
link between educational excellence and economic
security is not as simple as "A Nation at Risk" made it
seem. By the mid-1980s, policymakers in Japan,
South Korea and Singapore were already beginning to
complain that their educational systems focused too
much on rote learning and memorization. They
continue to envy American schools because they
teach creativity and the problem-solving skills critical
to prospering in the global economy.
- Indeed, a consensus seems to be emerging
among educational experts around the world that
American schools operate within the context of an
enabling environment - an open economy, strong
legal and banking systems, an entrepreneurial
culture - conducive to economic progress.
- To put it bluntly, American students may not know
as much as their counterparts around the Pacific Rim,
but our society allows them to make better use of what
they do know. The question now is whether this
historic advantage will suffice at a time when
knowledge of math, science and technology is
becoming increasingly critical. Maybe we need both
the enabling environment and more rigor in these
- But while the theory behind "A Nation at Risk" may
no longer hold (mediocre education inevitably leads to
a weak economy), the report's desperate language
may be more justified than ever, for American
education is in turmoil.
- Most troubling now are the numbers on
educational attainment. One reason that the American
economy was so dominant throughout the 20th
century is that we provided more education to more
citizens than other industrialized countries. "A Nation
at Risk" noted with pride that American schools "now
graduate 75 percent of our young people from high
- That figure has now dropped to less than 70
percent, and the United States, which used to lead the
world in sending high school graduates on to higher
education, has declined to fifth in the proportion of
young adults who participate in higher education and
is 16th out of 27 industrialized countries in the
proportion who complete college, according to the
National Center for Public Policy and Higher
- The striking thing about the performance of
American students on international comparisons is
not that, on average, they are in the middle of the
pack - which was also true in 1983 - but that we
have a disproportionate share of low-performing
students. We are failing to provide nearly one-third of
our young people with even the minimal education
required to be functioning citizens and workers in a
- This is particularly distressing news at a time
when the baby boomers are aging and a growing
proportion of the future work force comes from
groups - members of ethnic and racial minorities,
students from low-income families, recent
immigrants - that have been ill served by our
education system. The challenge today is to build
access as well as excellence. That's the new
definition of "a nation a risk" - and ample reason for
a new commission to awaken the nation to the need
to educate all our young people.
- Edward B. Fiske, a former Times education editor,
is the author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges.
Source: Op Ed New York Times, April 25th 2008
25th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk
- Global Business Confidence
- Global business confidence fell to a record low in
mid-April. Businesses' assessments of current
business conditions are bleak as are their views on
the strength of sales. Equipment investment is
holding up much better, but it too has weakened
notably in recent weeks. Hiring intentions in April are
consistent with another month of job losses. Financial
services firms are glum. The only good news in the
report is tentative indications that the inventory
drawdown is abating. Asian confidence is also
holding on better.
- Risk of Recession
- The U.S. economy is contracting but the current
downturn, which we believe began in December, is
expected to be short and mild, similar to the 8-month
downturn of 2001. With the current downturn
developing, the Moody's Economy.com probability of
recession eased to 56% in March, compared to
February's 62%. Additional actions by the Fed are
increasingly likely as the fallout from the housing
correction and credit crisis intensifies.
- Durable Goods (Advance)
- Durable goods orders fell 0.3% in March following
a 0.9% decline in February (as revised). The
consensus forecast had expected a 0.6% gain in
orders. However, orders excluding transportation rose
1.5%, in line with expectations, and the March report
was much improved over prior months. Core capital
goods orders were flat over the month. Shipments fell
for the second consecutive month and inventories
- Jobless Claims
- In a surprise move, initial jobless claims plunged
33,000 to 342,000. In recent months, claims had been
trending higher, and this most recent drop is likely due
to the volatility often seen in the series.
- New-Home Sales (C25)
- The March report on sales of new homes paints a
very dark picture for current housing activity. According
to the Census Bureau, sales plummeted by about 9%
from February to 526,000 annualized units, well below
expectations. Further, Census revised downward the
February sales. The median price was down by 13%
from one year ago and the months of inventory shot up
- Existing-Home Sales
- Weakness is pervasive throughout the housing
market. On par with expectations, existing home sales
declined by 2%, to 4.93 million annualized units,
according to the National Association of Realtors. The
months of inventories increased slightly to 9.9
months, although the inventory data is not adjusted for
seasonal factors. The slide in house prices
continues, with the median price falling by nearly 8%
from one year ago.
- OFHEO Purchase-Only House Price
- The monthly house price index rose by 0.6% from
January to February, though this still adds up to a
2.4% fall in prices compared to February 2007. Since
peaking in April 2007, the house price index is down
by 3.1%. Regionally, the largest price increases were
in New England and the East North Central region,
while the Mountain region and the South Atlantic are
still experiencing modest declines in prices. The
modest overall increase in February indicates that the
national housing market might at last have bottomed
out and begun to rally, although many of the areas
worst hit by the housing crisis will not experience
rising home prices for some time to come.
- MBA Mortgage Applications>Survey
- The Mortgage Bankers Association's market
composite indices finished down for the week ending
April 18. A surge in fixed mortgage rates reduced the
overall volume of applications, especially for
refinancing. The composite market index finished
down by 14.2% from the previous week, led mainly by
a 20.2% decline in the refinance index. The purchase
index also fell substantially, by 6.4% from the previous
week. This was a week of overall tight credit
conditions, and therefore fewer applications.
- Mass Layoffs
- The number of layoff actions involving at least 50
workers from a single establishment in March was
1,571, compared with 1,672 in February. They involved
157,156 workers, compared with 177,374 in February.
All numbers are seasonally adjusted. The number of
layoffs may have fallen month over month, but are still
expected to rise in the coming months as the U.S.
labor market remains weak.
- Chain Store Sales
- Chain store sales fell 0.7% in the week ending
April 19, according to the International Council of
Shopping Centers. Little of the prior week's gain was
retained. Year-over-year growth dipped to 1.4%.
Weather was reported as neutral for sales; high
energy prices were blamed for the weakness.
- Oil and Gas Inventories
- Crude oil inventories rose by 2.4 million barrels for
the week ending April 18, according to the Energy
Information Administration, compared with
expectations of a 1.2 million barrel build. Gasoline
inventories fell by 3.2 million barrels, below
expectations of a 2.3 million barrel decline. Distillate
supplies fell by 1.4 million barrels, below the expected
0.3 million barrel decline. Refinery operating capacity
soared by over 4 percentage points to 85.6%. This
report is bearish.
- Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report
- Underground storage of natural gas rose by 24
billion cubic feet during the week ending April 18,
below consensus expectations of a 29 bcf build. Total
underground storage was 1,285 bcf as of April 18, 274
bcf less than a year ago and 25 bcf below the five-year
average for this time of year.
Source: Economy.com 2008
|THIS WEEKS LEADS
- Guitar Center
- Guitar Center, Inc. trades as Guitar Center at 214
- The stores, selling musical
equipment, occupy spaces of 8,000 sq.ft. to 16,000
sq.ft. in power and strip centers as well as
- Growth opportunities are
sought throughout the existing market during the
coming 18 months.
- Typical leases run 10 years.
- For more information, contact
- Guitar Center, Inc.,
- 5795 Lindero
- West Lake Village, CA 91362;
Web site: www.guitarcenter.com
- Helzberg Diamonds
- Helzberg Diamond Shops, Inc. trades as
Helzberg Diamonds at 268 locations nationwide.
The stores, selling fine jewelry, occupy spaces of
1,400 sq.ft. to 1,700 sq.ft. in malls.
opportunities are sought throughout the existing
market during the coming 18 months.
cotenants include fashion retailers.
- For more information, contact
- Marla Worthington,
Diamond Shops, Inc.,
- 1825 Swift Avenue,
North Kansas City, MO 64116;
- Web site:
- Jason's Deli
- Deli Management, Inc. trades as Jason's Deli at
184 locations throughout AL, AR, CA, CO, FL, GA, IA,
KS, KY, LA, MO, MS, NC, NE, NM, NV, OK, SC, TN, TX,
UT and VA.
- The restaurants occupy
spaces of 4,500 sq.ft. to 5,000 sq.ft. in freestanding
locations and strip centers.
- Growth opportunities
are sought throughout southern FL; Atlanta, GA;
Chicago, IL; Charlotte, Raleigh, Carey, Greensboro
and Winston-Salem, NC; SC; Hampton Roads, VA
and Washington, DC during the coming 18 months.
- The company prefers to locate in major metro
- For more information, contact
- Deli Management, Inc.,
- Beaumont, TX 77702;
- Web site:
- Quiznos Sub
- Quiznos Sub operates 5,000 locations nationwide
- The sandwich shops occupy
spaces of 1,100 sq.ft. to 1,700 sq.ft. in malls, lifestyle
and strip centers and urban/downtown areas.
Plans call for 500 openings throughout the existing
markets during the coming 18 months.
leases run 10 to 15 years.
- A vanilla shell is
- Major competitors include Subway.
Preferred demographics include a daytime population
of 5,000 within one mile.
- The company is
- For more information, contact
- Quiznos Sub,
- 1475 Lawrence
Street, Suite 475,
- Denver, CO 80202;
- T.H. (Terrel Howard) Bell was born and
educated in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. When Bell was
eight his father died. Bell graduated from the Albion
Normal School in Idaho. After this he served as a
school superintendent of various schools in Idaho
- Bell spent much of his professional career in
Utah. He served as a sergeant in the Marines during
World War II, and returned to Idaho to get his
- After earning a B.A. from the Southern
Idaho College of Education at Albion in 1946, Bell
started a career as a high school teacher and bus
- He later earned an M.A. from the University
of Idaho in 1954, and a Ph.D. in education from the
University of Utah in 1961.
- Prior to serving as the
U.S. Secretary of Education under President Reagan,
Bell also served as the Utah Commissioner of Higher
- Appointed last in the Reagan cabinet, Bell was
expected to preside over the dismantling of the
Department of Education, but ran into the legal
requirement that such a dismantling required
legislation. He was well known, admired and repected
in education circles, having risen from high school
teacher through college professor to administrative
positions. Bell stood out as a humble man in an
administration of moneyed people -- he drove a U-
Haul truck from Utah to Washington when he moved,
probably the only member of the Reagan cabinet to do
- In 1981, Bell convinced Reagan to appoint a
commission to study excellence in education. The
1983 report of the National Commission on
Excellence in Education, titled A Nation at Risk, started
the drive for education reform with its conclusions,
which included the claim that the nation was
threatened by "a rising tide of mediocrity."
- Though education's importance was highlighted
by the reform drive, Reagan continued to try to reduce
funding at the Department of Education.
served for Reagan's first term, resigning in January
- He returned to Utah, and joined the faculty at
the University of Utah.
- In 1988, he published his
memoir entitled The Thirteenth Man: A Reagan
Cabinet Memoir (ISBN 0-02-902351-3).
- "There are three things to emphasize in teaching:
The first is motivation, the second is motivation, and
the third is (you guessed it) motivation." Terrel H. Bell,
U.S. Secretary of Education, 1981-1985 (Bell, 1995)
- Bell died in Salt Lake City, Utah on June 22, 1996.
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