A Nation at Risk? One class’ perspective.
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A Nation at Risk? One class’ perspective.

A Nation at Risk? One class’ perspective.

Coauthors: Cue, Katrina; Dunn, Kim Misener; Foxsmith, Eve Laney; Gash, Ashley; Nowak, Stacy; Santini, Joseph; Wright, Jordan

We are seven graduate students and one professor at Gallaudet University learning together in a course called Education Policy and Politics. This class incorporates technology and social media using avenues such as Google Drive, Twitter (follow #EDU860), and blogging to discuss course topics in and out of class. In addition, all of our class sessions are conducted via a web-based videoconferencing software allowing us to conduct classes either on-campus or off-campus. Participants access class remotely and all communication takes place using American Sign Language (ASL). We have participants from Rochester, NY, Spartanburg, SC, Denver, CO, and the greater Washington, DC area. This blog was typed live via Google Drive as a class project and the work below is a collective and collaborative effort between all members. It is still a little muddled, but then again, so is most discourse in education.

Thirty years after the seminal report A Nation at Risk (1983; ANAR) was published, we ponder the question of the state of education in the United States today. We will share our views here.  Prior to our class discussion, we read several articles and reports related to the state of education: ANAR,  a follow-up on that report 30 years later by Education Week, a history of education reform in the United States (Fowler, 2013), an overview of the Sandia Report by Huelskamp (1993), and an examination of how paradigms create politics by Mehta (2013).

ANAR was commissioned by President Reagan in response to growing public concern over the state of education. He left the responsibility for the commission appointments and process to the Secretary of Education. The issued report used hyperbole and scare tactics to argue that the United States lags behind the rest of the world in terms of educational achievement, standards and expectations. Some highlights of this stealth report are: 40% of high school students are unable to write a persuasive essay; the number of students demonstrating superior achievement on standardized tests has declined, and some 23 million Americans were, at the time of the report, functionally illiterate. To emphasize this point even further, “about 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate” (SOTW, p. 11).

The report also cited the concern and frustration of colleges and businesses with the degrading quality of newly-hired employees fresh out of school, and the cost of educating those employees. Such ‘travesties’ have been labeled as an education so mediocre that if the status quo of this report were thrust upon America, it would be viewed as “an act of war.” The type and content of the classes being taken by high school students was lambasted. A large chunk of a student’s graduation requirements were met by physical education courses, technical skills courses, and less of the rigorous advanced core courses.

The report shows that students continue to meet at or above competency in science. The report blamed these travesties on diluted standards and curricula and the easy availability of non-core classes which diverted students from achievement in more traditional courses. Recommendations included higher standards and longer school years.

Part of our questions related to the report revolved around the lack of citations. It quoted a lot of statistics as fact, but did not pinpoint the sources. Information gathering seemed to consist of visiting different locations and hosting luncheons and hearings. We noticed a relative lack of document analysis, and information gathering seemed to be of a singular-focused nature.  There were data presented as facts without any sources identified, making it suspect.

We also have concerns about who is deciding the direction educational institutions should move in.  The members of the commission that developed the report were all appointed by the Secretary of Education, and represented diverse roles.  However, of 17 members, only one teacher was on the commission, and that teacher was a teacher of the year.  Only two principals served on the panel.  There is no discussion of whether these people worked with any type of minority or disadvantaged populations.  This is problematic since the report notes at the beginning and the end that the report is intended to apply to parochial, private, and public schools.

It is interesting that given these significant weaknesses in the report itself, and the hyperbolic nature of the rhetoric that it has been as impactful as it has been.  Perhaps it was a perfect storm of sky-is-falling cries, a media willing to listen, and a complacent public ready to listen – regardless of the lesson.  (Altlhough negative news is always more interesting than feel-good news.)  Prior to ANAR  the purpose of education was determined locally, but after the report was disseminated, the rhetoric changed to follow the commission’s ideals (Mehta, 2013).  The role of education, according to the writers of ANAR, is for economic and workforce development.

A follow-up report regarding ANAR from the Huffington Post (Elliott, 2013) claimed that 30 years after ANAR was written, the situation has seen some variance but remains largely unchanged; 13-year-old students achieved only a 2-point gain in reading scores and 17-year-old students posted only a 1-point gain. In mathematics, the gains were 12- and 8-points, respectively. This article posited, however, that higher or changing standards could result in lower scores. Clearly, the issue of testing isn’t as simple and linear as politicians claim. As we have, Elliott also reports that the original Nation at Risk report didn’t have evidence to back the message up, although the concern and the message were very real.

We also read a discussion of the Sandia Report (Huelskamp, 1993), which was a much less-touted report about the state of education.  It was written by a group of scientists in the Sandia laboratory to explore the ideas presented in ANAR and determine if they are true. The Sandia report countered many of the indicators of risk presented in ANAR.  The Sandia report pointed out, among other things, how school enrollment has increased over the decades, more students are taking tests, and continuing on to receive higher education. Students that had previously not had access to educational opportunities were now being included with overall scoring.  Huelskamp also writes that the United States leads the world in terms of young people obtaining a bachelor’s degree. That is something to celebrate. More women and non-traditional-age students are enrolling in college.

Not only have we read these articles, but we have communicated our thoughts, feelings, and observations via Twitter. Many of us have expressed frustration with the reported statistics and we question the motivations, intentions and goals of those involved. The topics we’ve discussed have varied from the states’  rankings in education to international rankings to teacher pay.

Also, we must be wary and cautious of statistics and “facts” that are being touted in articles. One discrepancy was found between two published articles: SAT scores.  A Nation At Risk claimed that SAT scores dropped  (60?) points and gave the impression that education was declining.  Yet, Sandia reported that the lower SAT scores were due to more students taking this test which indicated that education in America was actually effective.

The ANAR report was distributed in 1983, less than 20 years after the Civil Rights Act encouraging school desegregation was adopted. During that time period, states slowly integrated, but there was a lot of resistance to this integration–and this report began to usher in the era of “school accountability” and emphasis on high-stakes testing. Additionally this era saw the emergence of “Affirmative Action” and there were associated fears in the population about “dumbing down” colleges. What effects did these social issues have on political decisions? In an editorial, Horn (2009) states “And so it was that the accountability through high stakes testing that took hold in the Reagan Era helped solidify the return to apartheid schooling, since test scores then and now were and are as predictable, as Alfie Kohn has pointed out, as the sizes of the houses in the neighborhoods where the tested children live. With no one wanting to buy a home in a neighborhood with low-scoring schools and the constant threat of school closure now under NCLB, the segregation of the poor has taken on new urgency as schools and communities seek to shed the poor who bring test failure with them to any school they attend.”

Our consensus is that education is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be.  The United States is the leading country with highest number of undergraduate degrees (Ansary, 2007).  Also, according to this post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, the United States is competitive with other countries on the PISA test in 2009.  Overall, the US is just above average and in the middle of the pack. This is not bad for a nation that does not routinely exclude children from receiving educational services. The state of education in the United States is interpreted in many ways by many different people and agencies. As with all interpretations, they are loaded with biases and prior experiences. Therefore, the state of education in the United States is up to you, the esteemed reader. What do you think?

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