On the Fourtieth Anniversary of A Nation at Risk

By: Dr. John McLaughlin

If you’re younger than 46, or the parent of someone who is, the education your family received was deeply influenced by a short federal report that launched a period some say is still underway – The Reform Movement.  In spring of 1983, the US Department of Education issued A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.  While it was short on policy specifics, it contained two sentences that galvanized the Reagan administration and became a national rallying point.

Those two sentences:  

“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… “

“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.”

A Nation at Risk had many critics, some were data analysts and researchers who objected to the interpretation of academic progress and the backgrounds of the reviewers. Their concerns were dismissed and A Nation at Risk, again short on policies recommendations, became the foundation of high stakes testing, more demanding academic and attendance requirements, as well as charters schools and a host of numerous widespread and significant consequences. 

The report became wrapped in a chamber of commerce mindset to make sure American school children were trained to compete on the global stage. The nation’s fixation on job preparation arrived in the era when people expected to hold jobs, work for the same employer, for decades.  Today, workers are expected to hold many, often unrelated jobs – not a single-industry – a reality that ongoing training and industry shifting in such a rapidly changing economy is essential.  The world changed, the job market changed, technology arrived, and AI is here. Now, employers and schools are scrambling to connect education and employment.

Hundreds of education white papers are issued every year by governments (state, federal, and local), foundations, think tanks, and corporations.  Most of them have no impact on improving schooling.  A modest and low-expectations report, A Nation at Risk, hit at an opportune time within an opportune administration and had an unexpected and long-lived impact.  Time and the changes noted above make it less relevant as the years pass.  But it influenced your life. 

Today, we have the ability to provide a personalized and truly lifelong learning opportunity for everyone in America.  The technology is there, the finances are in place, the knowledge is abundant.  What is lacking is the systemic will to change, the complacency of non-public schools, and ability to see schooling as something different than today’s adults experienced.  Galileo accepts the challenge of creating schooling as it can be not as it has been.  Education and training for all.  Galileo is the future of schooling. 

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