"A Nation at Risk," or its full title "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform," is the landmark 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education for then United States President Ronald Reagan. The conclusions found in "A Nation at Risk" are arguably some of the pivotal turning points in U.S. educational history. At the time, the report contributed in an official manner to the growing realization that U.S. schools are not succeeding, and this started numerous federal, state and local reforms to improve the system.
The original commission that was tasked to report on American schooling was established in August 1981 by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. Eighteen members were recruited to sit on the commission that had representatives from the American educational system as well as the geographic, racial and ethnic diversity of the country. David Gardner, president of the University of California, served as chairman. Also on the commission were two other university presidents, one Nobel Prize winner, two local school board presidents, a corporate executive and other important American educators.
Once published and released to the press on April 26, 1983, "A Nation at Risk" became front-page news in virtually every daily newspaper in the United States. The commission's findings were much more negative than originally anticipated. Two key quotes from the report stand out: "a rising tide of mediocrity" and "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." Rather than having the intended effect of rallying the community around their schools in the hopes of improving standards, local communities instead began to attack their local teachers even though the report had generally praised their work.
The report found that standards and expectations in schools in the years leading to 1981 had been lowered. For example, at the time the report was being researched, 35 states required only a single year of mathematics and a single year of science for high school graduation. Textbooks were "dumbed down" -- in content and in vocabulary -- and, in response to continued lack of interest in education, educators had not worked hard enough to get parents committed to the education of their children.
The commission made 38 recommendations to be implemented in five main categories: content, standards and expectations, teaching, time, leadership and fiscal support.
• In the category for leadership and financial support, the commission noted that the government plays an essential role in helping "meet the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students, and the handicapped." The commission also noted that the federal government also must help ensure compliance with "constitutional and civil rights" and "provide student financial assistance and research and graduate training."
• In standards and expectations, the commission warned against inflating grades and recommended that "four-year colleges raise admissions standards and pass scores for standardized tests of achievement at major transition points from one level of schooling to another, especially at the transition point from high school to college or work."
• Regarding time, the commission recommended that "school districts and state legislatures should strongly consider implementing seven-hour school days" and a school year lasting between between 200 and 220 days.
• In the content section, it recommended that high school students study at least four years of English, three years of math, three years of science, three years of social studies and one-and-a-half years of computer science. It also recommended that students start studying a foreign language beginning in elementary school.
• In the teaching category, the commission recommended that teacher salaries be tied to their performance as well as being competitive with other jobs in order to attract the best candidates and be market-sensitive. It also said that teachers needed to be able to demonstrate their continued competence in the classroom.
The report did have some effect on the American education system, and standards did improve to some extent. Compared to their international peers, American children do relatively well in elementary school, but once they reach high school, they start to fall behind. It seems that the longer American students stay in school, the further behind the top international standards they fall. Americans on the whole still seem to be apathetic to the state of the American school system. Students are still lagging behind their international peers in subjects that are critical to the survival of a competitive American economy for example, science, math and especially physics.