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An Important Moment 35 Years After A Nation at Risk

April 30, 2018
Marc Sternberg speaks at RISE 2018.
It’s time for a renewed commitment to measurement and accountability in schools

Thirty-five years ago this month, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform – a transformative report that has helped reshape education policy over the past four decades.

At the Walton Family Foundation, where I lead the K-12 Education Program, we think of A Nation at Risk as the moment in which our strategy – founded in the two enduring ideas of choice and accountability – was conceived. And so we take the occasion of its 35th anniversary as a moment to pause and reflect – both on how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

Today, hundreds of thousands of children living in low-income communities are in new kinds of schools – private schools, public charter schools, traditional district schools – that are succeeding in a manner that is widespread and pervasive, proving beyond any doubt that quality schools at scale are possible for every child in every neighborhood.

When we think about the ‘new basics’ that were highlighted in A Nation at Risk, we should look to these schools – full of classrooms where students are developing skills for continuous learning and educators that are innovating and fostering creativity.

These are the types of schools that the National Commission on Excellence in Education could have only dreamed of when it released the report. This progress is something to celebrate.

Our view is that the publication of A Nation at Risk marked the moment at which the need for accountability at scale was first articulated. It was the moment at which our nation acknowledged broadly that school systems should be held to account for outcomes and that we had to get serious about measurement.

The publication of A Nation at Risk marked the moment at which the need for accountability at scale was first articulated.

But today, we fear that this legacy and commitment to measurement and accountability is itself at risk and needs refortification.

For years, a bipartisan group of policymakers across the country have built education policy on three essential ideas. First, parents have the right to know how schools are performing. Second, they have the right to choose their child’s school. And third, these schools must be held accountable for the results of student learning.

As President Reagan said: “All of American education needs to be accountable for the only result that matters: student learning.”

But what was once a fundamental and essential principle to improving our public schools – accountability for student learning – can no longer be taken for granted. This is especially true as the Every Student Succeeds Act rolls out, as responsibility for measuring student learning becomes primarily a state responsibility – putting state and local leaders in new positions of authority at a politically polarizing moment.

A conversation about the new basics must include a standard definition of what great schools look like.

There’s so much to celebrate. But hard work is ahead. I say this as a former teacher and school leader who knows firsthand how important strong, meaningful performance measures are.

That is why today is so important. A conversation about the new basics must include, at its root, a standard definition of what a great school looks like and how we think about measuring and reporting on its success. Reading and math proficiency and growth are essential to measure and know; but so are new and novel measures about things like kindergarten readiness and workforce preparedness.

As we best try to prepare our children for the demands of college, career and citizenship, we must challenge ourselves to address what the future of education looks like. What are the new new basics?

This article is adapted from Marc Sternberg’s remarks at RISE 2018.

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