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A Nation at Risk, National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983). This study summarized the sad state of U.S. education saying: "Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. . . . [T]he 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 educational attainments. If an unfriendly foreign power ha attempted to impose on America the mediocre education performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament." (p.5)

The study caused great concern and set off a wave of reforms. However, many of the reforms suggested have not been enacted. A number of books and articles around the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk analyze where we are. The one theme that seems to come thru amongst the myriad reforms tried is one that has been resisted - providing merit pay for teachers, with higher pay to attract and retain better teachers, and master teachers to guide young teachers, provide consistency and provide a career path. The desire of teachers to be independent and the teacher unions fighting to preserve the existing seniority and tenure systems have thwarted such reforms.

The following is a summary of the recommendations from A Nation at Risk:

A: Content. Higher requirements for high school graduation, with specified requirements for English, math, science, social studies, computer science, and foreign language (starting in the elementary grades).

B: Standards and Expectations. Standardized tests, higher admission standards for college, more challenging materials in textbooks.

C: Time. A longer school day or year, more homework, work skills instruction in the early grades. More administrative help for teachers, special classes for disruptive students, promotion and graduation based on academic progress, not age.

D: Teaching. (1) High competence standards, (2) higher and performance based salaries, (3) 11 month teaching year, (4) career ladders -beginning instructor, experienced teacher, and master teacher, (5) non school personnel for immediate shortage of mathematics and science teachers, (6) Incentives to attract outstanding students to the teaching profession, and (7) Use master teachers who design teacher preparation programs and supervise teachers.

E: Leadership and Fiscal Support. Government should provide the leadership and money to implement the recommendations.

A Nation Reformed? American Education 20 Years after A Nation At Risk, edited by David Gordon (2003, Harvard Education Press). This book contains a series of articles by professors of education, researchers and school officials.

Susan Fuhrman, Dean of Penn Graduate School of Education, describes reform efforts as fragmented and sometimes contradictory. The initial Excellence reforms (increasing course requirements, more stringent teacher certification) and Restructuring reforms (more local control in exchange for accountability) failed to improve student performance. This was followed by Standards reform (uniform testing) which has produced some results. Charter schools, vouchers and privatization have been tried in some areas, with success being unclear. Challenges remain in scaling reform, addressing inequities and providing coherence from the fragmented reform efforts.

Richard Elmore, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests that local discretion in return for performance doesn't work because it doesn't address how to improve performance. The same educators who gave us the flawed system we have today are being asked to perform better. He suggests hard work needs to be done to improve the knowledge and skill of teachers, and to improve resources and support.

Tim Knowles, a school deputy superintendent in Boston, says that school principals need to be focused on working with teachers to improve instruction, not just keeping buses running and kids safe. The principal should observe what teachers do, be able to recognize quality instruction, and give feedback and advice to the teachers. The principal should allocate support resources, taking advantage of interns, parents and support staff. He queries whether principals need a business officer, so the principal can focus on instructions, or whether master teachers should be used for teacher training and mentorship.

Kim Marshall, a former principal of an inner city elementary school, lists 10 barriers to student achievement. He believes that Massachusetts mandating high stakes MCAS tests in 1998 had a dramatic positive impact on all of them. The 10 barriers are (1) teacher isolation, (2) lack of teamwork, (3) curriculum anarchy, (4) weak alignment between standardized tests and classroom curriculum, (5) low expectations, (6) negativism, (7) a harried principal, (8) not focusing on results, (9) mystery grading criteria and (10) no school wide plan.

Pam Grossman, a professor at Stanford's School of Education, says that reforms did not do a good job of raising teacher salaries sufficiently and providing master teachers and career ladders. Instead, teacher credentialing was made more difficult, cutting the supply of trained teachers, and emergency credentials have been used to bypass the new requirements. New teachers are needed because there continues to be high turnover for teachers due to inadequate support.

Jeff Howard, an education consultant, says the reforms after A Nation at Risk have not made much of a difference. He blames low expectations, especially for minority students, and a lack of consensus about the fundamental objectives of education. The low expectations he says are evident in A Nation at Risk itself, which cautions that a drive for excellence must not be at the expense of equitable treatment of our diverse population. He says the two are not incompatible. He recommends (1) building consensus on the mission of education - knowledge and applications skills to use the knowledge in new situations, with standard tests to measure this, (2) convince educators that all kids are capable of meeting the new standards, (3) use assessment data to drive changes in strategy.

Maris Vinovskis, a professor and researcher, says we need large-scale, long-term federal research and development of better education methods.

Our Schools & our Future ... are we still at risk?, edited by Paul Peterson, Hoover Institution Press 2003). This book out of the Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank, says student performance gains have been minimal despite lots of money being thrown at Education. One cause is that many of the reforms proposed by A Nation at Risk were thwarted by powerful teachers unions. In particular, proposals for teacher merit pay and longer school days and years have been effectively blocked. The teacher unions supported cutting class sizes, although not a recommendation, resulting in more teacher jobs.

The $100,000 Teacher, by Brian Crosby (Capital Books, 2003). This book by a teacher argues for making teachers professionals. He notes that teachers work in sweatshops, with no administrative support for copying, etc., no respect and meeting duties that don't leave time for them to do their jobs. He says tenure and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. Teachers should give up tenure in exchange for higher pay, and teachers should be accountable. He points to successful master teacher, or mentor programs in Rochester (a career ladder), peer review in Toledo to dismiss incompetent teachers, and merit pay for teachers in Cincinnati.

He cites a study that teachers in Europe and Asia differ in that they are paid more (in line with other professionals, like engineers), graduate level teacher preparation is required or encouraged, student teachers have a year internship with a master teacher, exams of subject matter and teaching knowledge are an entry requirement into teaching, and extensive time for learning and collaborative planning is included in teacher schedules.

The 2% Solution, Fixing America's Problems in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love, Matthew Miller (Public Affairs, Perseus Books Group, 2003). Miller proposes a number of grand compromises for different problems. For education, he proposes giving teachers the higher pay Democrats want in exchange for the merit pay and school choice that Republicans want.

Tough Choices or Tough Times, the report of the new Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, National Center on Education and the Economy. This is a study by a non-profit funded by the Gates and Hewett Foundations, among others. The commission members include former Congressmen, industry representatives, school executives, teacher union representatives and others. The book points out that other countries, such as India and China, are now competing with the US in the high skilled labor market, at lower wages. With the Internet, many jobs can be done anywhere, and companies will hire the best at the lowest cost (Indian engineers make $7500 annually with the same qualifications as US engineers who make $45,000). The proportion of the world's highly educated workers produced by the US has been and continues to fall, as we have been caught and passed by other countries.

US universities continue to be the best in the world, but grade schools and high schools have fallen behind. The US led in education through most of the 20th century, being the first to institute universal education, then benefiting from scientists escaping from Germany before World War II and an influx of students from Asian countries in the late 20the century, who would then stay and work in the US. But now, other countries have caught and passed us in education and many Asian students are going back to their own countries after graduating.

Since A Nation at Risk came out, the US more than doubled spending on education, with only modest improvement. Standards testing is now used, but it is multiple choice, not essay, and thus doesn't teach the creative, out of the box thinking needed for the US to maintain its lead. Multiple choice tests are by definition in the box tests.

The Commission proposes changing funding, so money is provided at the State, rather than local, level, and follows the student to encourage competition among schools for students (this has been implemented successfully at the city level in San Francisco). Teacher pay should be increased, and be based on merit. If pensions are included, are actually somewhat competitive. But talented young people prefer money now, and don't know that they would stay in teaching long enough to earn a pension. Thus, pension money could be moved to up front salary and portable 401Ks, with existing teachers having the option of opting in or staying with their pensions.

Universal pre-school is proposed. Also, coordination of social services with schooling to help the disadvantaged, such as by putting all under one authority, such as a mayor (as has been done in New York recently, with great success). By providing programs for kids until 5, and help to their families, the disadvantages of a poor home situation can be addressed. The US economy is healthy because of the waves of immigration it has had over the past 15 years, and we can't afford not to train those immigrants so our business have a talented labor pool to draw on.

As a way to help with the funding, board exams are proposed at the end of the 10th grade for those that can pass. This will free up funding by not having to pay to teach students the last two years of high school who get jobs right out of school or go on to trade schools. The money saved can be used for pre-school and teacher pay. Those going to Universities can go to a community college first, and possibly enter a university above the freshman level. This will provide motivation to students, since they can get out of school earlier if they work harder, rather than marking time.

To cut bureaucracy, the commission proposed principals be given free reign on how to spend the money they get (which is based on the number of students). Also, school boards would not run schools, but would contract with others (such as private companies, groups of teachers, etc.). The school boards would then become performance contract managers.

Finally, the report proposes training of people in the workforce, since these people will be the largest part of our workforce for some time, and will need more advanced and creative skills.

The report lists facts that must be faced:

  • a disproportionate share of our teachers are the less able college students
  • we tolerate waste, failing young students when it is less expensive to fix, and remediating later (teaching in college what should have been learned earlier)
  • this inherently inefficient system has gotten more inefficient over time, despite small gains due to standards
  • growing inequality in family income is contributing to growing disparity in student achievement
  • we have failed to motivate students to take tough courses and work hard
  • teacher compensation rewards time of service, not quality, and doesn't attract the best
  • our testing system rewards routine work, not creative thinking
  • except school superintendents, power and responsibility are not in the same people in administration
  • most of the people who will be in our workforce are already in it
  • it is difficult for adults to get continuing education

A number of steps are recommended:

  1. Establish Board Exams after 10th grade, with students who fail remaining in high school, and those that pass going to community college for a 2 year technical degree or to prepare for a 4 year university.
  2. Use savings of not having 11th and 12th grade students in high school to recruit teachers from top 1/3 of college students, provide an early education system for 3-4 year olds, provide resources for disadvantaged (but query about added costs for community colleges?)
  3. Increase teacher pay, with career ladders, less money to pension (401K instead), more money for salaries.
  4. Change standardized tests to focus on creativity, teamwork, and other tasks crucial to today's workers.
  5. Schools funded by state, administration contracted out, students could choose school based on published performance.
  6. High quality education for 3-4 year olds.
  7. Abandon local school funding in favor of state uniformly weighted per-pupil funding.
  8. Enable adults to get educated with same new skills.
  9. Fund accounts for adults to get continuing education.
  10. States should create regional economic development authorities to coordinate education with development strategy.

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