American Educational History Journal
Volume 37, Number 2, 2010, pp. 367–386
Copyright © 2010 by Information Age Publishing
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved. 367
A NATION AT RISK
Committee Members Speak Their Mind
C. J. GOOD Curtis J. Good University of Pittsburgh
The role of federal involvement in education has, in recent years, become more and more prevalent. Such an involvement was not part of the histor- ical origins of education at virtually any level. Whether it was for eco- nomic reasons, defense of the nation, the accountability of American taxpayers, or the pursuit of better civic-minded individuals, federal intru- sion towards education certainly reached its highest peak over the last decade. The newest interventions have been more concentrated on the emergence of globalization and economic competition amongst nations, as well as, the prevailing ideology that America’s schooling system has been failing to prepare students for emerging global economic demands. Thus, we see today a focus on standards, goals, and measures to ensure that both students and teachers alike are achieving to their prescriptive maximum potential.
Curtis J. Good, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh, 8820 Britton Road, West Salem, OH 44287, (T) 330-357-6819, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Some educational historians have labeled the new emergence of this focus on standardization and accountability as having taken shape during the Reagan administration. Their primary reasoning for this theory would point to the release of the A Nation at Risk report that was issued in April of 1983 by the appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk (hereby referred to simply as Nation for the duration of this document) was an attempt to address the perceived decline in American education, but the public reaction (especially from those in the education sector) was not a positive response. This document attempts to, in an oral history approach, create a reflection of those com- mittee members involved in creating Nation and their recollections of the past associated with Nation along with their current feelings.
As Ronald Reagan began his first term, he appointed Terrel Bell as the Secretary of Education. For Bell, this appointment was of some concern, given that Reagan had long established (both from a political party plat- form, and as personal stance) his desire to eliminate the Department of Education that had just reached its pinnacle political status years prior under the Carter administration. The Department of Education had been tossed around the federal landscape for several decades, and had finally been awarded cabinet level distinction in 1979; a move that was not well received by those who felt education was a local matter. Regardless, Bell sought ways to address educational issues and address what was seen (by he and others) as growing concerns for the ways in which public education was operating (Bell 1988). The popular opinion for this period suggested that poor education was contributing to the difficulties faced in American unemployment and job loss. Bell discusses this perceived correlation and his bewilderment with this troublesome economic turn of events in Thir- teenth Man as a primary catalyst for the formation of the Commission and Nation (Bell 1988).
Bell wanted to address these weaknesses, especially if Reagan sought to downgrade the status of the Department of Education (Bell 1988; Gard- ner 2005). Bell was unable to secure the status of a more prestigious pres- idential commission to investigate the concerns surrounding education, a disappointment indeed, but he was able to create a cabinet level analysis (Bell 1988; Gardner 2005). He appointed David Gardner, his fist choice and the former president of the University of Utah and president-elect of the University of California, to lead the efforts and discover what contin- ued deficiencies existed in the American system (Bell 1988; Gardner 2005). Together with Gardner and Bell as leaders, the committee was
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made of the following members from varied areas of relation to educa- tion:
This was an eclectic group of educators, politicians, business elites, teach- ers, all with a civic-minded approach towards assisting the nature of edu- cation in the United States. Over the next eighteenth months, the committee read numerous reports, heard from teachers at multiple levels, made site visits to observe conditions, and spoke with businesses to discuss the state of current preparedness of employees. The work took place from March 1981 and was finally presented to the public in April of 1983. The document read short, a little more than thirty pages comprised the body of the document, and the findings and recommendations were quick and to the point. Reagan’s presentation of the document was met with a great
David P. Gardner (Chair) President University of Utah
Yvonne W. Larsen (Vice-Chair) Immediate Past-President San Diego City School Board
William O. Baker Chairman of the Board (Retired) Bell Telephone Laboratories
Anne Campbell Former Commissioner of Education State of Nebraska
Emeral A. Crosby Principal Northern High School
Charles A. Foster, Jr. Irnmediate Past-President Foundation for Teaching Economics
Norman C. Francis President Xavier University of Louisiana
A. Bartlett Giamatti President Yale University
Shirley Gordon President Highline Community Col- lege
Robert V. Haderlein Irnmediate Past-President National School Boards Association
Gerald Holton Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science Harvard University
Annette Y. Kirk Kirk Associates
Margaret S. Marston Member Virginia State Board of Education
Albert H. Quie Former Governor State of Minnesota
Francisco D. Sanchez, Jr. Superintendent of Schools Albuquerque Public Schools
Glenn T. Seaborg University Professor of Chemistry Nobel Laureate University of California
Jay Sommer National Teacher of the Year, 1981-82 Foreign Language Department New Rochelle High School
Richard Wallace Principal Lutheran High School East
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deal of concern. Nation was presented as an open letter, a ‘clarion call’ (as is used frequently to describe the efforts of the report) for the American public to both acknowledge and create change around the failures of American education.
In order to construct an historical understanding of Nation and create new insights as to its formation and legacy, several members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education were interviewed (hereby referred to as Commission for the remainder of the document). Intervie- wees were identified by the members list located in the original Nation document archived on the Department of Education’s website. Every attempt was made to contact each member of the Commission in order to secure an interview. Of the original eighteen members, six were identified as being deceased. In addition, another seven members could either not be located, or, a determination of their living status or location could not be reached. In the end, five living and located members could be secured for in-depth interviews. The interviews were open ended and ranged from about 15 to 40 minutes depending on the schedule, openness, recol- lection, and detail of the interviewees. Members were not given a copy of questions or discussion points prior to the interview, but were instructed that their perceptions of Nation were being sought to better understand the events through a process of oral history. Interviews were conducted by phone over a period of four months. For each interviewee, the questions covered the same core area of analysis, but differed in length and specif- ics. In short, four key areas were being analyzed for further insights as to the member’s recollections and insights from their Nation experience. These areas were (1) perceptions of education prior to their participation with Nation, (2) the pervasive language of failure and immediacy called for and contained within the document, (3) the failures (from their per- spective) contained within Nation or left out of the final document, and (4) the lasting legacy of Nation and their feelings, emotions, and insights on the document in the present as it relates to the current state of education.
Some discussion should take place here to explore why these areas were covered with respects to constructing an oral history of member’s reflec- tions on Nation. To the first area of analysis, the perceptions of education prior to the Nation members meeting is altogether vital given that when any committee or group comes together to discuss issues they bring with them some insights on the topic to be dissected. In the case of Nation, the members each brought some insights on education, being impacted by the U.S. education system as a student, parent, or professional educator.
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However, given the uniqueness of each of these experiences it was deter- mined necessary to obtain these presumptions prior to committee work to see what insights members brought to the process. This also connects with the theories contained with Nation that schools were not performing to the level that would make them the best education system in the world. It is then important to understand what each member thought about the steady decline of American schooling prior to beginning their investiga- tions with the Commission.
The second area of analysis is connected to the powerful and detailed language contained within the report that describes in full a very apoca- lyptic state of the nation’s schools. An analysis is vital in the area of lan- guage given the magnitude of reaction it created amongst educators and the nation at large. One need look past the opening introduction to observe that report’s tone and findings would not be kind to America’s education system. It is therefore necessary to understand the reasons for such language, both in terms of vividness and reasoning. The members of the Committee, the original authors of the document, are the only ones who can speak to the motivation behind such an attempt.
Third, members were asked to relay their feelings on the failure, or failures, of Nation. This was deemed as vital given that while members may have agreed in a unanimous fashion to support the larger document in Nation, but certainly there had to be items those individuals wished were in the report, or were over exaggerated in the report. Perhaps their complaint lies in what happened after the report was issued. In any case, detailing the perceived limitations of Nation by the member himself or herself provides further insight on where the members have disagreed, or where the document may have been better constructed before its mass consumption. Gathering the reflective insights of the members is crucial in gaining these perspectives. Removing themselves from the Nation pro- cess for so many years has offered the members a more reflective view on specifics where the document may have failed.
Last, a present day reaction to Nation was obtained to represent the value that each member associated with the document as it stands today. Doing so offers each interviewed member the opportunity to reflect on Nation then, and think about its status in our present education environ- ment. In addition, it separated members from only thinking about the process involved from 1981-1983 to place the document in the context of our world today. This area of analysis also forced the interviewed mem- bers to decide whether or not the document helped in constructing the types of changes they hoped to see when they first put the recommenda- tions in place during Reagan’s first term. This is important to assess in any government issued report and given the time that has elapsed and
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changes to education in America since the original publication of Nation, it is extremely critical in this regard.
In order to construct findings and patterns, three primary resources beyond the interviews were also used for this study. David Gardner’s Earn- ing My Degree (2005), Terrel Bell’s Thirteenth Man (1985), and Gerald Hol- ton’s article A Nation at Risk “Revisited” (1984). Each piece offers first hand accounts of the thinking prior to the Commission meeting, how the pro- cesses of the Committee were carried out, and reflections about the reac- tion of the public and the lasting impression of the document. Given the fact that Bell was serving as Secretary of Education at the time and Gard- ner served as the chair of the Commission, their thoughts were particu- larly insightful around the formation of the Commission and the visions that inspired the motivation behind Nation. For his part, Holton’s reflec- tion gives great insight on the thinking of the Commission, the reasons behind the perceived failure label for public schools, the nature of the language and construction of the final report, and his view as the primary author of the report. These three documents served well in offering fur- ther insights in addition to what the interviews offered.
Provided is a brief summary of the (5) interviewees including their back- grounds prior to their Nation work and their current status. Some of the interviewees discussed how their roles helped them to be nominated for service, while others did not discuss how they became a part of the Nation process. The interviewees are Dr. Norman Francis, Dr. Gerald Holton, Annette Kirk, Yvonne Larsen, and Jay Sommer.
Dr. Norman Francis is the president of Xavier University in Louisiana, a role that he held for over four decades. Given his length of tenure, it is obvious that Dr. Francis was in the same role during the early 1980’s as he is now. During his interview he had spoke highly of the need for educa- tional reform during the period of Nation and what impacts the report could have had with further development of the recommendations.
Dr. Gerald Holton is a professor of physics at Harvard and former director of the Project Physics (also known as the Harvard Physics Proj- ect). Holton’s work with curriculum and school with Project Physics made him an ideal candidate for serving on the Commission. Holton was the primary author for the report and his A Nation at Risk Revisited (1984) offers an intriguing insight to his preparation, thinking, and reaction to the original construction of the report.
Annette Kirk had the lone distinction of being the only member identi- fied as ‘parent’ on the Commission. Beyond this status, Kirk was a former
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New York City schoolteacher and the wife of author and theorist Russell Kirk. Reagan himself nominated Ms. Kirk for the Commission. This, along with her status as ‘parent’, made the involvement of Ms. Kirk quite unique.
Yvonne Larsen was the president of the San Diego Unified School Dis- trict, one of the largest districts in the nation; she has since retired, but remains active in causes. Ms. Larsen did numerous amounts of work on the behalf of education within the State of California both prior to and after the Nation document. Larsen lobbied to Terrell Bell herself in order to become part of the Commission hoping to relay her views of an increasing decline in America’s educational system.
Jay Sommer had been selected for participation on the Commission primarily based on his selection as National Teacher of the Year during the 1981-1982 academic year. Sommer, an immigrant with Jewish- Czechoslovakian roots, is a former Holocaust survivor whose passion for education and motivation of youth is unparalleled. Sommer came from the New Rochelle School District where he was an instructor of foreign languages. He was the only member of the Commission whose primary responsibility at that time was that of a secondary educator.
Unanimously, without the aid of political pressure, each member of the Commission came into the process with the notion that schools were not meeting the needs of America’s young people. This was not only true of their views about education from 1981-1983, but also the decade or so prior to the forming of their commission. Bell, too, was convinced that Americans needed transformation and urgency in order to the secure the future of the American labor force and economic structure; a process he viewed that began with education (Bell 1988). Each member thought that change was needed, but yet their exceptional differences created unique visions of how that change should occur, or why some changes were more pressing than others. Each interviewee shared what thoughts they brought with them into the process and what their initial thoughts were. Holton described his views as the Commission began its formation:
When I was called up first to accept this invitation to join that Commission I said no. The reason was that the names of the fellow commissioners who were being approached showed me it did not contain some of the people I would have expected—somebody from the teachers union, somebody against the teachers union perhaps, more actual administrators of schools, and the like. It did have sort of very brilliant people. It had a Nobelist (Glenn Seaborg), of course, and one of my favorites (W.O.) Baker who had
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run the physics department of AT&T for a long time. I thought that this commission would have not quite enough background to do the work because we were called a Commission for Excellence in Education—espe- cially on the high school level. Then I got a telephone call from W. Baker, brilliant fellow—very persuasive. He said ‘Look, the problem you have will be cured if you join because you have a lot of experience with your seven years of work on creating Project Physics’—which had a very large number of students in high school we had trained a thousand teachers roughly every year. So, I was persuaded to join on one condition – that I would be able to write a minority report at the end.1
Holton further discussed the notion of school as ‘failures’ during this time period and why he had thought the education system needed to be exam- ined. As a physicist, his reaction was related in part to the National Sci- ence Foundation:
Two things to say, one is the failure was obvious to those who were paying attention, but actually if one looks at what was being discussed in major newspapers, you’ll find very little about the low level of high school educa- tion. It was not a headline kind of thing. As you know, Reagan did not like this Commission at all, because Terrel Bell—who hoped by having it that it would rescue the department of education, which it did; he talks about this is Thirteenth Man—so it wasn’t a headline thing. It was a great surprise at the end of it all, it became sort of a best seller, and so that’s one aspect. As to the NSF and other education things, after Sputnik there was of course almost an hysteria about upping our education, in particular science education and a number of good projects were launched with biologists, the chemists did a couple, physics, and another project was started before Sputnik. So there was a lot of work being done, training of teachers, classroom materials, and films and so on—great perfusion, hardly any of it now exists. Why, it has to do with Nixon turning against his science advisors who were not happy with his policies on the Vietnam War or missiles and the like…the NSF took a huge hit on its education budget. So, if you look at the curve of funding for science education and NSF, you’ll see that is coincides with Nixon’s disaffec- tion.1
While Holton was pulled into the process, he did so not just because of his ability to write a descending report, but also because he thought science education in America was falling behind. Unlike Holton, however, not everyone needed convincing to join. Some, like Larsen, were excited about the opportunity, even going as far as lobbying for the chance to serve on the Commission. Larsen said of her appointment:
I was president of San Diego Unified School District, which was then about the seventh largest, now I think third largest, in the U.S. I went into it, I lob- bied to Bell for the position because I thought we needed to have some
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rationale dialogue for accountability and for giving the children in our schools the opportunity to have a good education.2
Jay Sommer’s appointment was related to his National Teacher of the Year status, but unlike some members, Larsen and Holton specifically, he had thought that the failure of school was more isolated and overblown:
…we were talking about inner-city schools, and we totally sort of, we left out the successes and that was deliberate . I mean there is no comparison between an inner city school anyplace, in Chicago and let’s say New Rochelle High School where I taught. So things were sort of obscured and covered up, but there were many schools that produced wonderful students and students who went on to colleges and careers. That too was an element of emphasizing things in such a way an element (of failure) would be cre- ated… mainly, America was not falling apart educationally, there was a seg- ment of American student that was and that is almost a natural consequence of things.3
While Sommer may have described a more isolated crisis in urban areas of the nation, Francis described a view of education that was similar to Kirk, Larsen, and Holton. His view, unlike that of Sommer, described a more alarming trend that existed everywhere:
At the time that this commission was created, I was President of the Univer- sity (Xavier). I was involved in many of what we call school things, college school relations and the like. At the time, in late 70’s, which in the research we did confirmed that young Americans, and when I talk about young Americans I’m talking about both black and white, were not doing as well as people, educators thought they should have at the high school level. This report was strictly aimed at high schools—evaluating what the schools were doing and so forth. In fact it did not surprise me when the research showed that roughly 50% of young Americans who were taking high school courses were taking general courses, not the kinds of work that would prepare them for college, junior college, certainly four-year college, or would not prepare them for the jobs that were developing in this county in the late 70’ and 80’s. It was described like students were coming through the cafeteria taking what they liked, but not what they needed. Meaning by that, if they didn’t like math or if they didn’t like English they were able to substitute some- thing else and they were allowed to do this, so that the chickens came home to roost. People started to see that these young people were not doing col- lege prep work or work, schoolwork that would prepare them for jobs after high school. I use the example of young people who were coming out of school who thought they were coming out of school and were going to be truck drivers, or drive for UPS or FedEx, didn’t know that they had to use a computer and those skills were going to be important. My point is, they
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were not taking good strong course work and the like. So, I knew that (that schools were failing) before coming in.4
Kirks added to the larger group consensus that schools were indeed fall- ing apart at the time. Kirk chose to discuss, in a similar fashion to Francis, that the curriculum for American youth was a primary of weakness that could use improvement. She said of the discussion of failure at the time:
Yes, I thought the curriculum had been watered down and that we had, as we spoke about, a cafeteria-style curriculum. I believe that in a country such as ours where we are trying to educate everybody and that we believe that people should participate in civic life and that in order to have the kind of civic life and the participation in the democracy that we have that we need to have educated citizens at least to a certain level and that there should be a common core in that education and that they should have at least a com- mon knowledge of certain historic and literary and political theories and such that they should that they all should have studied the great minds over the ages… I was very concerned that the social studies curriculum had got- ten water down so that instead of there being history taught, and geography, that now there was being taught psychology, archaeology, all kinds of other subjects within the social studies curriculum as it was now called.5
The idea that schools were lagging behind, then, was fairly pervasive amongst the group interviewed. Each member, even Mr. Sommer who thought the situation was more isolated, acknowledged that more could be done than what was happening at that time.
THE USE OF LANGUAGE
The body of the Nation document spoke to an education system that was failing the youth of America, and this level of language continued throughout the body of the document. The American education system was rarely applauded, nor were the instances where the successes of the system applauded and described. Rather, the report discussed the per- ceived drab reality that existed and prompted for change and reform for future generations.
One need not read beyond the first few pages for some of the most powerful and interesting statements pieced together by Holton. It stated:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by com- petitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that under- girds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American
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people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and col- leges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educa- tional attainments. 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. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possi- ble. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. (A Nation at Risk 1983, 7)
The language was not just powerful and condemning, but it also calls to mind the immediate need on the part of the American people to change the conditions, as they existed. Holton described a system that had not just fallen behind, but had developed into a national concern worthy of major reform. His ideas were not simply powerful; they were unique given that the American public had never before been introduced to such defi- ciency in the national education system. Holton went on to describe why the need for change should happen sooner rather than later:
History is not kind to idlers. The time is long past when American’s destiny was assured simply by an abundance of natural resources and inexhaustible human enthusiasm, and by our relative isolation from the malignant prob- lems of older civilizations. The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood work- shops. America’s position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer. (A Nation at Risk 1983, 8)
It was with these examples of damning and immediate language that one could see how the language of Nation would be used during the entirety of the report to have given the Commission proper perspective on the state of education. That emphasis on language was not by accident, and the various members demonstrated their thoughts about the use of such lan- guage. Holton and Kirk have generally described the language used in the body of the document as part of the ‘clarion call’ to the American peo- ple. Sommer, Larsen, and Francis offered telling descriptions of the pur- pose of such language and the thinking around its use within the
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document. Francis described Holton’s opening paragraphs of the begin- ning of the document by saying:
We had allowed ourselves to go to sleep in a school system not monitoring what was happening and think it was just a hyperbole just to say if somebody had done to us what we allowed to happen to ourselves we should declare an act of war—this is sort of mea culpa for us saying, hey no one did this to us but ourselves, because if somebody else had done this to us we would have declared an act of war to treat us like this, we were cheating our children.1
Francis described a system that had allowed itself to fail, and one that needed to recognize the degreed of their failures. Larsen further strengthened the insights of Francis more fully by addressing the milita- ristic nature of Holton’s lines. She described both the dominant language and the eventual title of the piece, saying:
We all felt that it was important, and “the rising tide of ” etcetera, and the opening words of the document were really a united intelligence of Glenn Seaborg and Gerald Holton. They wanted, A Nation at Risk, and we all agreed that was appropriate and the first few lines of our document. They all (the Commission) singed on, we wanted to get America’s attention and we thought you couldn’t do it with saccharin and sugar, but we could do it if we really, really told the story as it should be told and as it were realistic at that time. So therefore yes, we thought we needed strong language.2
The language of the document was then accurately described. It was a way for the Commission to sell the document and create a reaction. Sommer’s views on the language of the report offered the most critical examination of this language, even going so far to say the language was at times skewed to make it even more powerful. His assessment:
First of all, the schools were in bad shape, nevertheless, in order to be more effective some alarming language had to be used. That was immediately there, it was understood that we have to say things in an alarming kind of way – even to the point where the statistics may not have been quite correct, but the most important point really is that we were talking basically in terms of horrible schools.3
He had viewed the language of the document as serving a purpose for selling the ideas to the American people:
…and selling the document and to really – they called it a ‘clarion call’, to awaken people from their slumber. It terms of whether that is a success or not depends so much on different school districts, the response to improve the schools depending on individual principles and individual teachers as well.3
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Francis stated that this attempt at a short, descriptive piece was not only to sell the document to the American people, but also intentional so that media coverage would further cover the report:
…we wanted the reporters who were part of the American system of writing and reading to be able to read it and write about it in plain English. If we had written anything more, we would have not have gotten the kind of cov- erage we got. Of course, we used the kinds of language for it that did good sound bites for both the written and video (coverage).4
The language of Nation should be viewed in its actual intention. It was not simply a set of descriptors that were meant to fall flat, but rather an inten- tional way of communicating to the public as powerfully as possible the real need for examination and reform.
FAILURES OF NATION
Within commission work of this type, where multiple members attempt to reach a consensus on the main matters to be examined, it is expected that some items will be left out, or that some disappointments will follow the work that has been created. Of the Commission members interviewed, some like Sommer and Kirk would have liked the document to contain more discussion in certain areas, but the remaining interviewees expressed disappointments that move past the document itself and dealt with the follow through and what it has meant for education. As Holton noted, the Commission was formed to examine the question of excellence in schooling, and that focus no longer exists. He laments:
My main disappointment is that word excellence, as in the Nation, the word excellence has disappeared—there’s no commission to have excellence in education, there is no rewarding of very gifted students, which we badly need in every subject.1
Larsen and Francis did not discuss excellence, but they both discussed at great lengths the type of follow through they would have liked to have seen from this report. Francis said of this disappointment:
What is most important, perhaps a criticism for what did not happen was that States added requirement and standards but they did not provide, many, far too many schools in the urban centers and rural districts did not provide the prize to the teachers and the coursework that would have allowed them to achieve what we were talking about. Its one thing to hold you to a higher standard with requirements, but you have to add it to the curriculum offerings. Many schools did not change what they were offering
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young people at that time…my biggest concern was what happened after- wards for leaders in the school systems that read the report, agreed with it, but didn’t understand their depth of the responsibility.4
Francis clearly felt that the document lacked the necessary follow through to make it the type effective report the Commission would have hope for in their work. He was not alone in this regard, Larsen, too, addressed this lack of trickle down as her biggest disappointment with the work that the Commission performed:
I think that at this point in my life one of the biggest disappointments I have is that the Nation at Risk did not make the ground swell change across the country that we really hoped it would do…I would have liked to go for- ward with steps where we laid out more of a blue print for the future—but that too was difficult to see at that point in time with the world changing and all. It would have given people a little bit more of a recipe to follow than explaining what the challenges are and trying to give them the knowledge that we had at that point. It was a very difficult time, if we had been able to keep the Commission going for another year or two and officially moved as a body to try and send out the message, it might have been more helpful, but the fact that we all disbanded that day, with the exception of the few offi- cial forums were taking place—we didn’t have a united action plan for peo- ple to follow to improve the situation and that probably would have been helpful to do.2
Nation may have failed in some parts because it was not equipped with a set of instructions, but this may have been an unreasonable expectation of the Committee. Very little governmental reports have such detail follow- ing them and Nation could not have done things much differently. If the Committee members had wanted this type of procedural follow through, then the report could have easily been strengthened to further demon- strate the next steps in that process.
PRESENT DAY REACTIONS
As the report is currently viewed today, A Nation at Risk has often been portrayed as one of the early attacks on the American education system, and a pre-cursor for modern day federal involvement in the American education system. It is important, both in a historical and practical frame, to note that the Commission members interviewed for this piece fail to see their work in this way. Rather, as detailed by each of the interviewees, Nation was a response to growing need for education reform that was in no way intended to either support Reagan’s educational platform, nor create a climate in which educators were ridiculed or attacked.
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For Jay Sommer, he stated that he sees some lasting impact from the Nation report:
Sure improvements were made, but improvements were inevitable because there was plenty of room for improvement. The human condition is so com- plex; the panaceas are very few on the marketplace. There are all kinds of unexpected things that could happen and they did in a way. I really think that education was improved—nevertheless, there will always be a segment in the society that will not take full advantage of that. My feeling is that, though I don’t know how you would document this, that we awakened minority kids—Hispanics and black kids. I think we are doing much better with those kids than we did before. For that alone, it’s a fantastic thing. I have a determined thrust about this document—it had a profound influence on the educational system. Why? I don’t know—many things. Maybe the weather, life is like that.3
Sommer described that improvements were made, but was unwilling to award the credit for this reform to the Nation work. He recognized that the changes were going to come eventually and that Nation may have assisted in that process. Norman Francis, spoke more of the developments of the time and the immediate impact of the report shortly after its release reflects back on the lasting legacy. He suggested that he did see direct improvements stemming from the work of the Commission:
First the positives were the American public knew about the Nation at Risk and for a long time educators did, parents, legislators did so the first time in my history there was a national commission that got the attention of the public as this did. Businesses were spending a lot of their dollars reeducat- ing people who joined their companies who did not have some of the basic requirement that they expected in terms of reading analytically or writing appropriately or understanding math. Businesses were spending a lot of dollars. We were calling attention to things they said that they felt that they were seeing in their companies. So that report was very helpful in that regard. Teachers in particular thought that we took pot shots at them, that’s not what we intended but we were going to say what we thought. We didn’t say all teachers were bad but we knew the quality of teaching had to improve. Let me say to you that same thing is true today in particular in the junior high level where math and science is being taught…(overall) I feel good about, it was a great experience for me to travel and hear what people and expected and the like. A lot of people were glad that somebody had said it.4
Here, Francis described how the failures of the education system were observed. He went on to detail the impact that uneducated persons had on businesses and how the Commission was not seeking to blame teachers for this unfortunate situation. Larsen, for her part, had some of the same
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positive sentiments about her experience with Nation as the rest of her colleagues on the Commission, and she described what the report was meant to do for America:
I am very, very proud to have been a member of the National Commission on Education which drafted the document A Nation at Risk I think we were at a time in our nations history when we needed something of that nature and I think we were all united in the purpose that the work we were doing was good work and it was appropriate. We all put a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears into this document – we were proud of the finished product and were proud the day it was present to the people of the United States— and it was a document to the people, not to the all the administrations and the elected people—we were really trying to speak to the America people. I am proud that in some areas it was picked up embraced with greater fervor and enthusiasm. I think that its made some difference in areas of our coun- try, I’m sorry that it hasn’t been a uniformed type of approval and led to continued type of expansion and opportunity in education.2
It was altogether evident that each of the members enjoyed serving on the Commission and remained proud of the work they performed and the last- ing legacy of the Nation report. While each member differed slightly on the amount of impact, they were unanimous in the perspective that they felt the document got the attention of the general American public, something that up until that time was rather rare as it related to education.
FINDINGS FROM INTERVIEWS
In detailing what was uncovered during the interview process (along with the three primary written pieces of Bell, Gardner, and Holton,), six main themes came to the forefront. In this section, each of these areas will be discussed to describe their importance and to better understand the Nation document as a whole. Detailing each of the areas gives a better analysis of how Nation was either misunderstood, or not examined more fully in a manner that gave it the credit for being a complex document.
(1) Failure apparent at the start of the Commission, and then reaf- firmed. The idea of failure in regards to the American education system was not just perceived according to the committee, because the committee spent eighteen months of investigation to come to their conclusions and exhausted any number of resources to support their findings. While the committee may have entered into the Commission process with some feel- ing that school systems were failing based on data and reports that they obtained prior to meeting, their presumptions were confirmed not only by the new data they were exposed to, but also the numerous parties they
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interacted with during the eighteen months of work. The Committee spent a vast amount of time conducting interviews with various levels of educators in high schools, and they felt that their impressions of where schools were lacking was confirmed over and over again by the various parties they met. It is important to note, however, that though the Com- mission met with parties and conducted site interviews, it has been acknowledged that rationale for these problems may have differed between those in schools and the Commission. Commission members did relate that educators often commented that difficulties were often con- nected to funding restrictions, not the curricular or philosophical under- pinnings the Committee focused on in their report.
(2) The political nature of the document was known. The Committee members (as was well reported) knew and understood the political nature of the event and what they were about to embark on during the Nation process. Today, as is often written in the histories of Nation, an assumption is sometimes constructed that this Commission was somehow duped, or unaware of what their report could mean. Only one interviewee, Norman Francis, discussed his surprise with how the document was presented to the American public by Reagan. The rest of the members stated they knew the position of the White House and how they would see this docu- ment. If the Committee is not portrayed as being used, then they are often cast as being politically aligned with right-wing motives to degener- ate such a negative analysis of American schooling. It is evident, however, that through discussions with the Committee members that they were indeed not influenced by such partisan politics and followed the thinking of collective group to increase the performance of American schools. The Committee members were adamant that though politics might have put them in the room together, they all sought to raise the performance of American schools and to secure a better America in the process.
(3) Committee members were not aware of the potential impact of the report. Every member interviewed shared the same opinion that no one on the Committee ever felt that this document would have such attention. Holton, for example, stated that he was writing the opening of the report for Reagan alone as the sole audience. This is an important fact that is often not discussed as it relates to Nation. Had the Committee sought to write a document that they knew would be disseminated as widely as it had, perhaps they may have rethought some of their posi- tions. Some shared that had they known that the document would have been so powerful and long lasting; they certainly would have revisited exactly what was said more closely. While everyone felt the language was strong and imperative, it was done so to draw real attention to the matter at hand. The Committee members used the language to serve the pur- pose of drawing attention to the problem at hand, but they did so with a
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modest hope, not a guarantee that every American would stand strongly behind reform in education.
(4) Members were disappointed that direct change was stifled or slowed. Several members felt that the report inspired reaction, but no real follow through, most especially at the state levels, and beyond. Fran- cis and Larsen specifically addressed how the concerns and recommenda- tion went nowhere and left the document to fall flat. Therefore, it had success in getting America to recognize and realize a problem, but failed to do anything about those problems. This was not just an insight of many of the members, but for Larsen and Francis their biggest regret about the document. They felt the document would have been better served had it addressed a next step, and if the Commission (either as it was con- structed, or newly constructed) could have continued the work to build excellence in American education.
(5) Nation was to examine the secondary education level exclusively. The report was to only focus on the issues facing high school students, nothing beyond that, though some passing mentions of pre-high school reforms do exist within the report. When Nation is credited with being critical of all K-12 American education it is done so in error, the Commit- tee was not intending to examine areas beyond the high school level— thus the increased focus on schooling as it relates directly to labor follow- ing high school. This relationship to employment and schooling as it relates to Nation is not done for the mere attempt to connect education solely to economic utility, but to question the readiness of those who may be heading directly into the workforce or military service following high school. Therefore, as has been observed by others, an accurate picture of education cannot be constructed when it is only focusing on one aspect of the entire system. This point is made to first place Nation in its proper context, and second to point out by many what can be considered a major flaw.
(6) The audience of the report was unknown. While the Committee knew what it was commissioned to examine, the audience it was writing for was, at best, in question. Although Nation is subtitled as an open letter to the American people, there exists some inconsistency with this. The Committee had virtually no idea the document would be so widely read and disseminated, some felt it would only be an internal document (as Holton described earlier), but all agreed that they never imagined the eventual reaction and influence of the study. Therefore while the report serves initially as a ‘clarion call’, it begs the question of to whom was the call being issued to if the document was perceived from the beginning as not having adequate room for dissemination. With numerous parties to serve, and a difficulty in understanding how far reaching the report would be, it would be greatly challenging to construct a document so politically
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charged not knowing exactly where it would end up eventually. It is fairly evident, then, that the document is written to speak about the lengthy number of corrections that can be made to the United States educational system, but it is done in such a general format that it aims to cover any of the numerous areas where correction to the system could be made. No real primary matter comes to the forefront of the piece and anything from the length of the school year to the age at which children should pursue foreign language study are considered as part of the recommendation for the report. The report then has no primary direction, so it covers as many areas as possible because of this factor.
Having heard the opinions and insights of several members of the Com- mission, it is not hard to fathom that almost thirty years later Nation is still discussed as a major piece of educational history. The meaning behind this longevity is really three fold. First, Nation, like any report commis- sioned by the Executive Branch, is bound to serve some political purpose. It is up to the leaders of our political structures to decide in which direc- tion a report will eventually head. With Reagan’s stance on education at the time, it is not hard to imagine which direction he planned to take this document, it is however unfortunate that the Committee was not under the same understanding. For them, the document was genuinely a devel- oped insight on ways in which education could be improved for future generations. They were not intending on attacking any specific stake- holder in the education realm, but rather were hoping that dialogue from multiple levels might work to create the kinds of changes they deemed necessary for education to be a priority again in America.
Second, beyond the political nature of the document is an aspect about Nation that often gets ignored. The Committee was focused on increasing excellence—that is, how to make American schools as high performing as any in the world. The Committee was not seeking to expand the status quo, or to make sure schools were adequate; they were offering insights and recommendations on making schools markedly better. Had they attempted to simply state whether or not most students got a decent edu- cation, or whether or not most teachers were meeting the demands of stu- dents, their report may have looked extremely different than the one they produced. Knowing that this Commission wanted to perpetuate excel- lence in the American system changes the way in which most would exam- ine Nation.
Finally, especially for those who do not look fondly upon Nation, it is important to remember that in almost any instance positive outcomes can
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spring from negative situations. Bell states in Thirteenth Man that he cre- ated an appreciation for what was happening in the American educational system, similar to the post-Sputnik reactions from decades prior (Bell 1988). Why this may have been the furthest extent of Bell’s intention, his unintended consequence may be larger. The Commission was successful in creating dialogue about the issues facing education in America; so suc- cessful in fact that Nation is still discussed to a large degree in our present day environment. This attention to education threw the ideas ‘failure’ and ‘decline of global competiveness’ into play, and therefore education became an important platform from that time on for Reagan and presi- dents to follow. So, while Reagan may have started his presidency with hopes of eliminating the Department of Education from cabinet status, how could he when America was in an educational crisis? Nation may have its faults, but its theories and suggestions of American academic decline gave education a place in political and national conversation and may have inadvertently saved the Department of Education. The ability of this report to save the Department of Education, for nothing else, should be remembered for that contribution to America’s educational system.
1. Holton, Gerald. Interview by author. Tape recording. Kent, OH., 16 September 2009.
2. Larsen, Yvonne. Interview by author. Tape recording. Kent, OH., 15 Sep- tember 2009.
3. Sommer, Jay. Interview by author. Tape recording. Kent, OH., 24 June 2009.
4. Francis, Norman. Interview by author. Tape recording. Kent, OH., 10 Sep- tember 2009.
5. Kirk, Annette. Interview by author. Tape recording. Kent, OH., 10 Septem- ber 2009
Bell, T.H. 1988. The thirteenth man. A Reagan cabinet memoir. New York: The Free Press.
Gardner, D.P. 2005. Earning my degree. Memoirs of an American university president. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Holton, G. 1984. A nation at risk revisited. Daedalus 113 (4): 1-27. United States Department of Education. A nation at risk: The imperative for educa-
tional reform. washington, DC: 1983.
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