Education: “A Nation at Risk” Twenty-Five Years Later

At Cato Unbound, Richard Rothstein wrote the lead essay, which opens:

In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and consequently set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good.

The diagnosis of the National Commission on Excellence in Education was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.

…I do not suggest that American schools are adequate, that American students’ level of achievement in math and reading is where it should be, that American schools have been improving as rapidly as they should, or that the achievement gap is narrowing to the extent needed to give us any satisfaction. I only suggest that we should approach fixing a system differently if we believe its outcomes are slowly improving than if we believe it is collapsing. And we owe the latter, flawed assumption, to A Nation at Risk.

I didn’t find Rothstein’s essay very useful. He seems to be of the Krugman school of social policy, mainly criticizing education reformers and finding little fault with the monopoly public education system. As Sol Stern closed his essay:

Instead, he’s still waiting for the European-style welfare state that will never come.

There are three reaction essays: Michael Strong, Sol Stern, and Frederick Hess.

I didn’t find Rothstein’s essay very useful. He seems to be of the Krugman school of social policy, mainly criticizing education reformers and finding little fault with the monopoly public education system. As Sol Stern closed his essay:

Instead, he’s still waiting for the European-style welfare state that will never come.

I found the Hess essay especially compelling:

…Rather than ask why teacher colleges should hold a monopoly on teacher preparation, why technological advances were not yielding labor-saving practices or new efficiencies, or why schools and classrooms serving very different student populations should be expected to operate in similar ways and in accord with similar rules, the commission focused on recommending more academic courses, more instructional time, and higher standards for teachers.

…Along the way, little attention has been paid to the design of these efforts to deregulate a $500 billion a year industry, fostering a vibrant supply of effective providers, nurturing effective mechanisms for quality control, or understanding the multiplicity of arrangements and practices that stifle even nontraditional schools and service providers. For instance, the choice community has had next to nothing to say about the need for venture capital in education, about the ways in which personnel policies and benefit systems stifle new ventures, or about how consumer choices should impact the compensation and job security of educators and school leaders.

One result is that some who were once enthusiastic proponents of “choice” have reversed course and expressed doubts about the viability of educational markets — without ever having stopped to consider all the ways in which simply promoting one-off choice programs falls desperately short of any serious effort to thoughtfully deregulate schooling or promote a coherent K-12 marketplace. Indeed, some have abandoned the choice bandwagon with the same ill-considered haste that marked their initial enthusiasm.

For decades, we have poured money into schooling while seeing few obvious benefits. Current per-pupil spending in constant dollars more than tripled between 1961-62 and 2003-04, from $2,603 to $8,886. Pupil-to-teacher ratios plunged, from 25.1 students per teacher in 1965 to 15.3 per teacher in 2007. Meanwhile, educational progress has been disappointing, at best, over the past quarter-century. This is the epitome of pushing on a string. In an economy marked by new technologies, labor-saving devices, steady growth in productivity, and an evolving labor pool, we are hiring and deploying educators just the way we did a half-century ago. The result is that new investments have not delivered the hoped-for results.

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