Educational Reform: Finding a Solution for a Nation at Risk

The education system of the United States is in grave danger of falling far behind other industrialized nations. But why? Why are our schools lagging behind as compared to our international counterparts?

In 1983, National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, which suggested that the nation’s education system was not reaching the standards of excellence and rigor necessary. It also opined that other problems with the U.S. education system placed the nation at risk of falling well behind other industrialized nations. The “risk” in the title referred to the consequences of a failing education system to the economy, and the ability of the nation to compete with other nations. The Nation at Risk report stated that the nation “in effect [had been] been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

The National Commission on Excellence in Education attributed the declining state of education to problematic situations in four areas: the high school curriculum, expectations of students, the use of time, and the quality of teachers. According to the commission, the high school curriculum had become diffused and diluted and lacked a central purpose. A decline in expectations of students was exemplified by a reduction in assigned homework, weakened college admissions requirements, and a decline in the expectation that students would enroll in courses in math, science, and foreign language. When the commission analyzed how American students used education-related time compared to that of peers in other industrialized nations, they found that American students spent less time on schoolwork and spent this time ineffectively. The commission proposed that the quality of teaching was in jeopardy, principally because more academically capable students were not being attracted to the teaching profession, and teacher education programs needed to be overhauled. They also mentioned that key subject matter areas (e.g., mathematics and science) had serious teacher shortages.

A Nation at Risk was published in an era of mass discontent with the public education system and had a considerable impact. The nation set about introducing reforms based on the recommendations in the report. Changes included extended school hours and, in some instances, extended school years; the introduction of more challenging learning materials; more careful monitoring of requirements for and progression toward graduation; and teachers’ assigning more homework and examinations. The report also forced many states to improve teacher qualifications and to overhaul teacher education programs that prepared teachers for licensure.

A Nation at Risk precipitated a number of reforms well into the 1990s. Many states adopted standardized academic content within the framework of a curriculum in conjunction with standardized tests to assess student performance. The intent was to increase student performance while preparing them to meet nationally defined standards. The reforms of the 1990s were characterized by the use of high-stakes tests, defined as tests that have specific consequences for the test taker, along with impassioned arguments for and against increased use of standardized tests. An example of a high-stakes test is a state-required test that students must pass before they can receive a high school diploma. Students unable to pass the test are denied a diploma.

These reform efforts were the target of criticism from teachers and other education advocates. Teachers feared that their classroom autonomy was being reduced, because they were now required to conform to national standards. They also criticized the fact that national standards were not necessarily relevant to the learning needs of students in their local communities. Some critics argued that the use of standardized tests adversely affected minorities, because the tests were rarely made culturally appropriate and were written for the majority. Critics maintained these changes would be a detriment to students who did not perform well on standardized tests for any number of reasons. The most negative aspect of standardized testing associated with standards-based education is that it represents a one-size-fits-all approach to measurement and does not account for differences among learners, schools, and districts.

There’s no contesting that the scores show that U.S. academics are falling behind international standards. However, the jury’s still out as to what to do to bring those scores up. Standardized testing may be a way to uniformly measure one type of success, but it’s definitely not a final fix, nor a very speedy start. If anything, it’s only highlighted that there is a problem – and education needs to do its homework and find a solution.

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