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September 8th, 2008
A Nation at Risk: Are Our Schools Still in Peril?

It was exactly 25 years ago that President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education released a report that shattered any notion that America’s schools were performing well.

The report – Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform – came to a disturbing conclusion: our education system was falling behind the rest of the world.

“Our Nation is at risk,” the report stated. “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.”

The 18 members of the Commission made 38 recommendations for reform, divided across 5 major categories: Content, Standards and Expectations, Time, Teaching, Leadership and Fiscal Support. These recommendations set off a series of efforts on a local, state and federal level.

It was not the first time, of course, that America’s schools had come under such scrutiny. In 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik – the first space satellite – it set off a wave of paranoia. That wave resulted in a major push to improve our schools, and a dozen years later one of our greatest accomplishments as a nation: sending a man to the moon.

How have our schools fared since these wake-up calls? And are we still a nation at risk?

Some of the facts about education in America today, many of which are presented in WHERE WE STAND, argue that in many ways, we are. While the U.S. still leads the world as an economic power and innovator, other countries are fast catching up. And when it comes to education, many of them have already surpassed us. America once had the best high school graduation rate, but it has now fallen below 15th among industrialized nations. Our 15-year-olds perform below average in math, science, and problem-solving.

Earlier this year, Education Week published its annual Report Card, which included a portion titled: “A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students are Still at Risk.” Its conclusion? The obstacle to reforms in our schools is political, and ‘vigorous national leadership’ is needed to improve education.

Today, education experts say, it’s not the race to space that threatens the status of our schools. Instead, it’s the ever-changing, increasingly competitive global marketplace.

“We’re acting like our jobs are not going to leave, and that we’re going to be able to compete in a global market with a second class education in America – and that day is over,” says Geoffrey Canada, President and Founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. “We’ve allowed the rest of the world to get ahead of us.”


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