In April 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released a report that sounded alarm bells about the state of K-12 education in the United States. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform upended conventional thinking about education. It argued America’s schools were producing “mediocre educational performance” and that students were being ill prepared for the future. Bruno Manno worked in senior policy positions within the U.S. Department of Education from 1986-1993 and is now a senior adviser to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Education Program. We talked to him about how the report helped reshape the nation’s approach to education.
Why was ‘A Nation at Risk’ considered so revolutionary?
Bruno Manno: Let me mention two reasons. First, it was not a wonky document – and that in itself was revolutionary at the time. It was an open letter to the American people. It was not directed to a specialized audience, like the K-12 community or policy makers in the K-12 community.
Secondly, the language used was plain English. There was very little jargon. There was a lot of drama to the language, some would say even apocalyptic language that was used to describe the state of education in the country. You had phrases like: ‘The education foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.’ Pretty drastic stuff.
Did that approach mark a big change in how education issues were addressed?
Bruno: At the time, education was pretty much the domain of the experts, the people who were in the K-12 field. Superintendents. District leaders. State leaders and colleges of educations. They were in charge – and [the feeling was] everyone else should mind their own business. A Nation at Risk basically disrupted that closed system by saying other people needed to be involved in the conversation about education, that the American people had a real stake in this topic.
What were the chief concerns identified? How did the report portray the threats facing education in America?
Bruno: The report focused on outcomes. It said the major problem that education has to confront is the achievement problem, that kids are not learning enough to participate fully in the kind of society and the kind of world that was emerging. It wasn’t an argument from the start for more money. It wasn’t an argument from the start about better school buildings, though those are important issues. It was, ‘We’ve got an achievement problem.’ It focused on solutions, on the need to create a learning society. It talked about content, expectations, time in the classroom and teaching. It was visionary in talking about setting high standards and expectations in education, and that we should have the same expectations for all kids. Out of that would come the effort to create standards in each of the content areas. The report sparked a discussion about the need for extended schools days, weeks and calendars and about teaching and the teaching workforce. The report focused on excellence in education and that became linked to equity. The idea was that schools can be excellent and still provide equitable opportunities to all students. For the next 35 years, these are things that would be the focus of reform efforts in in K-12.
The Reagan White House initially didn’t embrace the report. Why?
Bruno: The Reagan administration’s agenda for education was pretty straightforward and simple. First of all, it wanted to abolish the Department of Education. Secondly, it had a heavy reliance on choice as a mechanism for improving education. And it wanted to bring prayer back to the schools. That was the primary agenda. Well of course, almost every part of that ran into trouble with Congress—Democrats for sure, but even some Republicans—right from the start. Education Secretary Ted Bell thought that the report had to be more broadly based and conceived. There was a clash from the start.
Why did the White House ultimately embrace A Nation at Risk?
Bruno: The administration saw that it was getting front page attention and it captured the imagination of the American public, not only the education community. Secretary Bell tried to build on this interest. And Reagan’s second education secretary, Bill Bennett, saw a significant opportunity. He framed the administration’s agenda around what he called the three C's – content, character and choice. These themes were well received by Republicans. But Democrats also found things in the report that attracted them. For example, the emphasis on high standards for all kids, the same expectations for all kids, creating a real profession in teaching—these were seen as issues related to civil rights and social justice. They saw the report as a way to expose the system for what it was – a dual system with a big achievement gap between mostly white and minority kids.
The report focused on setting higher standards. What lasting changes did that result in?
Bruno: Going back 30 some years, there was no comparable state-by-state data on student achievement. There were standardized tests, but a report by Dr. John Cannell exposed that student performance was being mischaracterized and inflated, in what came to be called the “Lake Wobegon Effect,” referring to author Garrison Keillor’s fictional community where all children are above average.
At the time there was no comparable information state by state that offered a critical perspective on student achievement. That presented the administration with an opportunity to think about how to reorganize the existing National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to provide comparable and timely state-by-state data. The administration proposed reconfiguring the NAEP so it would produce state-by-state achievement data. What happened is a story in itself.
There was a conservative Republican administration joining forces with the U.S. Senate Education Committee chaired by the liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy crafting legislation that would open up a new domain when it came to information provided to the public about how well kids were doing on a state-by-state basis and internationally. At the time, this was a remarkable partnership and accomplishment.
Looking back, the focus on character, content and choice that developed from A Nation at Risk set the agenda for education reform over the past 35 years. They created the framework for debate about the need for testing and accountability and for choice-based reforms. The agenda set by A Nation at Risk has been remarkably durable.