We Grow Teachers

A Nation Still At Risk – Or Is It?

This morning, I read an article entitled “The Nation is ‘Really, Really, Really,’ At-Risk: U.S. Education Reform and National Security” (Tierney, 2012).  It prompted me to download and re-read the report that partly inspired the title of his post.  I found a copy of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) and started sifting through the tome.

Tierney mentioned in the article that he felt few of the recommendations made by the Commission were implemented and this intrigued me.  I immediately wondered why.  I had to see the report again to remind myself of their recommendations.  Specifically, Tierney said,

Twenty-five years later two curious results of the report might be made: (1) Next to none of the recommendations were ever enacted, and (2) the nation wasn’t at risk—or at least it wasn’t at-risk because of the specific problems delineated in the report (Tierney, 2012).

Twenty-five years later, Tierney (2012) went on, there is a new report out that claims that our national security is at risk because of the state of U.S. educational institutions today.  Our education “situation” is even more dire than the 1983 report claimed, according to U.S. Education Reform and National Security, by Joel Klein and Dr. Condoleezza Rice.  I have not read that report, mostly because Mr. Tierney says Chicken Little could have written it.  I’d rather not focus on the sky falling right now, but on what we can do to help reform education.  I will read it later, though.

I went back to A Nation at Risk, just for curiosity’s sake.  I had questions.  What claims did the Commission make?  Did they apply then?  Do they apply now?  I found quite a few items in the report that make me stop and think.

Claim Number One: The Curriculum Has Been Watered Down

In 1985, I entered one of the most rigorous high schools in the country.  I cannot speak to the veracity of the statement that students experienced a curriculum that was not as rigorous as it had been in the 60s.  I still consider freshman year of high school to be the most difficult year of school I ever experienced and the rest of my high school career was quite difficult as well, even though I was better prepared.

In the school I attended, we did not have elective courses that were like marshmallow fluff.  Instead, I took courses like “Contemporary World Conflicts” and “Philology and Linguistics.”  My music-major friends took courses like “Music Theory.”  My art-major friends took art-specific courses as well.  Perhaps some of my friends who attended other high schools could tell me what they had taken in high school.  Did anyone take “Bachelor Living,” a course A Nation at Risk claimed was available in 1983?  Perhaps you could tell me about courses you took in high school.  Send us a message on Twitter: @teachthought and / or @hmaccorkle.

Does claim number one apply today?  For some students it does not and for many others, it certainly does.

This morning, as my son was waiting for the school bus, he and his friend were talking about “Target Teaching,” a course they are offering to sixth graders at his elementary school.  I asked them what that course was.  Lucas responded, “That’s when you get to go to band – if you’re in band – or music, or speech, or whatever other extra classes you might have instead of missing math, like last year.”  Well, I think that is great!  That’s not watering down the curriculum, in my opinion; rather, that’s enhancing the curriculum by adding back what has been lost over the years of standardized-testing frenzy: art and music instruction.

I think that, by and large, we are not focusing on students’ creativity anymore, which is a shame.  My son’s district is an exception to the rule, as districts feverishly try to improve test scores or secure federal funding from ridiculous contests.  We’ve lost focus on one of the most important aspects of education: intellectual development.  TeachThought’s Terry Heick recently posted a couple of articles about the lack of creativity in instruction today.  The articles and the videos that inspired them demonstrate the need to bring back art and music instruction, as they stimulate intellectual activity, make students better thinkers, and have solid connections to reading and math skills. They are “Ken Robinson: There’s a Difference Between Cars & Kids and “Students as Intellectual Artists: Ken Robinson on Schools Killing Creativity.”

I am glad my son’s school is broadening the curriculum and making time for art and music instruction.  His school district has made AYP  (Annual Yearly Progress) every year, so they can make these changes.  However, as a substitute teacher in an urban school district, I can tell you that those elementary students will not have a course called “Target Teaching” this year.  Instead, they will have a scripted reading program, intensive math instruction, a little science instruction, very little social studies, and may see a music teacher and an art teacher once a month.  Since these schools have never made AYP, their mandate is to ensure the students are on grade level and improve test scores.  Something has to be sacrificed, so whatever is not on the test has been jettisoned.

When my husband was a student in that same urban district back in 1983, his high school offered a terrific arts program and an award-winning music program.  Their marching band was in high demand and would travel the country.  They had a planetarium in his high school, offered many AP courses, had teachers with PhDs, and graduated many well-educated young adults.  I wonder what happened?  He and his friends lament the state of their school district today and I am sorrowful with them.

Overall, I think claim number one applies more today than it did in 1983.

Claim Number Two: We Don’t Expect Much of Our Students

When I read in A Nation at Risk that most high school seniors in 1983 only had one hour of homework, I was appalled, mostly because I always had at least three hours of homework a night in high school and wondered how the others got so lucky.  (I’m just kidding about being appalled, but am telling the truth about my workload.)  I asked my husband, who graduated in 1985, if he had a lot of homework in high school and he laughed heartily.  “If I did, I didn’t do it!” he said, but also said that he rarely had any.  Perhaps the claim in A Nation at Risk was right, but I think it was more my husband’s lack of academic discipline than anything else.

Does this point in claim number two apply today?  I think it does, but I think that districts are responding to the issue by recommending new homework guidelines. When I was student teaching in 2010 – 2011, for instance, the students I worked with rarely had homework.  Some of them did not like me because I assigned it.  Ah well, you can’t please everyone all the time, I suppose.  Just a couple of years later, the situation is changing.  My son’s district, the district in which I was a student teacher, and the surrounding districts have re-committed to homework.  The new rule is: Teachers will assign 10 minutes of homework for every year they are in school.  Since my son is in sixth grade, that means he is to receive at least 60 minutes of homework a night from his teaching team.

I believe in homework, if the homework makes sense.  For instance, why waste class time reading an entire chapter of a novel when the time could be better spent discussing what the students read the previous evening?  Conversely, why waste class time having students answer questions when reading the novel aloud would be more productive?  Circumstances matter.

Something I wholeheartedly agree with from the report is this:

“Minimum competency” examinations (now required in 37 States) fall short of what is needed, as the “minimum” tends to become the “maximum,” thus lowering education standards for all (The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 19).

I believe this has only worsened over time, especially with the onset of NCLB testing. Therefore, I believe that aspect of claim number two still applies today: Because of standardized testing and AYP, we have lowered our standards.  We shall see, I suppose, what happens with the implementation of Common Core, which is supposed to help teachers establish a more rigorous curriculum.

I also agree with the report when it says that more teachers and scholars should be involved in textbook creation.  There are studies out there that show textbooks are rife with mistakes.  One study, by the scholar James Loewen, is now a classic: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1996).

The reason that textbook quality has degraded over time (i.e., the reading levels have been lowered), the Commission says, was / is because we expect less of our students and think they are less capable than students were in the past; they say that “market demands” have pushed quality in that direction (The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983).   I wonder what “market” are they talking about, because most of the teachers I know complain about the quality of textbooks and some refuse to use them.

Why are / were publishers lowering expectations when educators should always promote HIGH expectations for students?  I agree with Jaime Escalante and Rafe Esquith, who said that if we have high expectations, students will rise to meet them – and I have heard the same from many educators over the years.  Shouldn’t textbooks reflect what teachers expect?

Claim number two still gives us a lot to think about 25 years later.

Claim Number Three: Students Don’t Spend Enough Time in School

My son will tell you that one of our arguments centers on the length of the school year.  I think that school should be a year-round affair, with generous vacation time in between semesters.  He thinks I’m crazy.  Ah well, you can’t please everyone all time.  It is true, though, that students in the U.S. spend a lot less time in school during a typical school year than those in Europe and Asia, for example, and I believe it has hurt student progress.

I can also attest to the fact that poor classroom management often leads to less real instruction time.  Last year, as a substitute teacher, I often observed teachers spending a lot of time trying to get classes under control.  There are so many reasons why this is so and it is shameful, but it’s not necessarily the teacher’s fault.

Claim Number Four: Teacher Shortages in Critical Areas

In 1983, educators were already complaining about the lack of STEM educators.  I found that interesting and wonder why we’re still complaining about it.  Why was that not made a priority back then, so we would not have this shortage now?  Now that is a very interesting question, in my opinion.  I would love to hear your thoughts.  Send a message on Twitter: @teachthought and / or @hmaccorkle.

A Case for Continuous Improvement

When I was a business analyst, I learned about the continuous improvement perspective.  My boss was committed to the idea that we always have room for improvement and should always strive to make things better.  That makes sense, right?  Of course.  You would be surprised, however, how many people resist change, even if it means that things will be better.  Should educators strive for improvement?  Of course!  Are we a nation still at risk – or were we in 1983?  I’m not sure if we were then.  My experiences differ with the mainstream and I need more information before I can provide a definitive answer.  I believe we are now and we need to adopt a continuous improvement attitude toward reforming education.  I do believe, however, that the sky isn’t falling – yet.


Loewen, J. W. (1996). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster.
The National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983, April). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. The National Commission on Excellence in Education. Retrieved from http://datacenter.spps.org/uploads/SOTW_A_Nation_at_Risk_1983.pdf
Tierney, B. (2012, September 10). The nation is “really, really, really,” at-risk: U.S. education reform and national security. 21st Century Scholar. Retrieved September 10, 2012, from http://21stcenturyscholar.org/2012/09/10/the-nation-is-really-really-really-at-risk-u-s-education-reform-and-national-security/

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