Response to “What ‘A Nation at Risk’ Got Wrong, And Right, About U.S. Schools”

This post is written in response to “What ‘A Nation at Risk’ Got Wrong, And Right, About U.S. Schools” published by nprEd on April 29, 2018

I was frankly shocked and concerned by the analysis of one of the most important documents in U.S. education policy.  Kamenetz and I can agree on this: “Very few government reports have had the staying power.”  I would add that very few people outside of education, and even within education, truly grasp the impact this document has had on our public schools.

Where Kamenetz and I start to diverge, however, is in analyzing what exactly that impact was.  The article poses that the main impact of ‘A Nation at Risk’ is that it has put education in the media spotlight.  Meanwhile, as the title suggests, it is described as a successful document in that it has done so much good for our schools despite being full of manipulative quantitative data.

Lying with statistics is not unique to education or policy. Manipulating statistics to tell a story, however, reveals that there is some kind of agenda behind telling that story.  It is not about presenting an objective scientific reality.  Kamenetz states that “…talking to two of the original authors of ‘A Nation at Risk’ [I learned that] they never set out to undertake an objective inquiry into the state of the nation’s schools.”

Instead, Kamenetz argues that the authors “started out already alarmed by what they believed was a decline in education, and looked for facts to fit that narrative.”  If this is true, then it was a highly unethical document (the word ethics is mentioned zero times in the article), and that the agenda of “upgrading America’s education” needs to be analyzed.


More on the impact of a narrative of improving schools

Can we really say that this document has had a positive impact on our schools? Really?  Even in the article, schools are noted for doing more with less: Achieving similar SAT scores to a time when states are receiving less total state funding.

So what is the positive impact then?  Schools are receiving less funding, our secretary of education is lowering the department’s education funding, and teachers have to work miracles to get “results.”

The narrative of schools needing improvement has been subversive at best and destructive at worst.  Have you experienced as a teacher working under intense pressure and demands only to be told by the nation that you are failing?  And then, because of those “failures,” you won’t receive support, you will be cast aside as “not quality.”

Something this article misses entirely is the new role that government now plays in school accountability and defining quality.  Words such as “outcomes,” “results,” “success,” “best for kids,” have become synonymous with test scores. This narrow definition of success has resulted in constant discussion of achievement gaps, lack of teacher quality, discourses of “continuous improvement,” and a social imagery of teachers as incapable.  Teacher quality discourses position teachers to be in performative environments whereby their success is determined by test scores.  Families and children are edged to competing against each other or to feel anxiety when their children aren’t meeting the mark.

A more complex description of the impact of “A Nation at Risk” is that teachers, families, children, and school administrators are feeling more anxious about education than ever before.  Kamenetz states this as a positive impact, I state it as a toxic mindset that has captured and confined real innovation and possibility in education.

Could it have been any other way?

I sympathize with the desire for more positive recognition on education and educators in our country.  Our current state of affairs, however, is a mostly negative view on what the state of education in our country whereby educators are described in terms of what they lack, and what they are incapable of doing.  Ask educators: These criticisms feel unfair given the cards they are dealt.

What would help in education policy is a narrative of solidarity and support for educators.  Someone at some level needs to believe in the educational project enough to coalesce our country towards making it a priority to have well-resourced schools with positive organizational cultures.  Focusing in on the deficits, the lacks, the gaps, and the risk is fear-mongering.  I’m hard-pressed to believe that fear-mongering results in long-term sustained mobilization.  Is that what we are seeing now?  Are people in droves supporting our schools because they believe in the mission? Or do we have a society that believes our schools are so defunct that they aren’t worth fixing?  Ask Betsy DeVos what she believes. She’s in charge.

We cannot, also, continue to define success by narrow measurements on specific content areas.  You may argue that they indicate future “success” and that is why they are measured.  But I ask you what is “success?”  Is it only about workforce preparedness? Getting a job?  This much can be said about our last few decades of policy: Things are getting worse for marginalized people and getting better for the ones on top.  What are we doing to destabilize or interrupt this disparity?

Thinking about the BIG problems of the world in ecological destruction, overpopulation, hate crimes and persecution, energy shortages, food insecurity, poverty, water shortages, and more, can’t we imagine standards that lead towards collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving? Can’t you imagine standards on teaching anti-oppression, activism, allying with others?   Yet our imaginations of education are so narrowly focused on getting a job that we might ardently defend our narrow educational scope. That any other way of thinking about education is “not quality” or  “not useful.”

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1 Response

  1. Patrick Burk says:

    Mr. Oh provides an insightful analysis regarding the impact of A Nation At Risk. What is alarming about the discussion of the historical context to this watershed publication is that the authors had a preconceived outcome in mind that clearly reveals a level of bias that renders their conclusions suspect to say the least. As Mr. Oh points out, the publication disconnected outcomes from the level of investment into education, and totally disregarded the importance of American commitment to a K-12 experience for every child. Many of the countries to which we were compared then and now do not share either characteristic. Mr. Oh also points out that this document prompted a shift in American educational policy toward an overdependence on external assessments of student academic performance which were used to label schools as “failing” and others as “exemplary” in ways that largely tracked poverty and racial characteristics with little understanding of the impact of system characteristics, such as, class size, instructional materials, age and condition of buildings, teacher turnover, poverty and family mobility. These, and many other characteristics, impact student outcomes that are missed when we simply label schools as failures. We have now lived through 35 years with a conceptualization that schools have failed when, perhaps, the more appropriate issue has been that we have failed our schools. Thanks to Mr. Oh for raising these issues so clearly.

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