Speculations on a Nation at Risk: Illusions and Realities; Recollections of A Nation at Risk May Be of the Sound and Fury, but as Far as the Schools' Curricula Are Concerned, Mr. Hewitt Argues, the Report Signified Very Little

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MAGICIANS present illusions. Commissioned reports and the writers who produce them sometimes do the same. Controversy continues to surround the findings of the Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination long after it was completed. And the same has been true of A Nation at Risk, ever since its publication in 1983. The two most controversial issues have been the report's role in the development and establishment of a new and permanent federal influence in national education policy making and the degree to which the report's recommendations set the direction for subsequent national education reform actions. Overall,the controversies feed into the perception that, at least since its publication, American education has been in a perpetual state of rolling crisis and reform. Are such claims real or illusionary?


The history of education shows the ebb and flow of ideas, grassroots movements, and special interests, often manifested through published reports issued by units of government, by established state or national organizations, and, more recently, by think tanks and nonprofit centers that unabashedly advocate for a variety of causes. These reports circulate information; summarize important views; describe contemporary situations, conditions, and practices; or advocate positions on educational matters. Some are familiar, such as the widely disseminated 19th-century annual reports issued by Horace Mann as secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education, which influenced thinking about the purposes, organization, funding, and curriculum of schools. Individual colleges have issued reports--Yale in 1828, Harvard in 1845 and 1945. Other wellknown wellknown reports articulated college entrance requirements for secondary school students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Issued under the auspices of the National Education Association, the most famous of these were the reports of the Committee of 10 in 1898 and the report of the Committee on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, the famous Cardinal Principles, in 1918.

A central theme in the history of report making is the improvement of curriculum--what students are to learn--viewed, according to particular constituencies, as preparation for college, knowledge for work,and sometimes both. It is also interesting that the written structure of the reports has generally followed a familiar progression: a statement or charge to the committee, organization, or persons assigned the task; an introduction and rationale citing the reasons for commissioning the report; the report proper, consisting of the findings and recommendations; and the appendices, providing the minutes of hearings, commissioned studies, commentaries, data, and other documents that form the evidence for the recommendations. Taken as a whole, the "report as narrative" constitutes a knowledge base of record that is useful for scrutinizing its potential importance and appraising its eventual influence. Embedded in that body of knowledge is the ever-present curriculum imperative--attending to issues about what schools should teach--a matter as fundamental to education reports and reforms today as in the past.


Like any report, A Nation at Risk must be understood in the context of its creation. A central consideration is the role of the federal government in educational matters. As I'm sure readers are aware, there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that explicitly creates a federal role in education. The U.S. government's role and authority have evolved through interpretation of various clauses in the Constitution. For example, there was no central federal administrative presence until the formal establishment of the United States Office of Education in the 19th century, and it was not until the Carter Administration that a U.S. Department of Education was authorized. The establishment of the department was a flash point, and A Nation at Risk played an important role in the politics swirling around the department and its survival. …


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