A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform is the 1983 report of American President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education. Its publication is considered a landmark event in modern American educational history. Among other things, the report contributed to the ever-growing assertion that American schools were failing, and it touched off a wave of local, state, and federal reform efforts.
The commission consisted of 18 members, drawn from the private sector, government, and education. The chair of the commission was David Pierpont Gardner. Secretary of Education T. H. Bell sought to have the commission be presidentially appointed. Reagan did not concur, and Bell used his own authority as Secretary to establish the commission and appoint its members.
As implied by the title of the report, the commission's charter responds to Terrel Bell's observation that the United States' educational system was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce. Among other things, the charter required the commission to assess the "quality of teaching and learning" at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, in both the public and private spheres and to compare "American schools and colleges with those of other advanced nations." The report was primarily authored by James J. Harvey, who synthesized the feedback from the commission members and the memorable language in the opening pages: "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" and "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
Presidential commissions on education have been relatively common since The Truman Report in 1947. Other notable groups include Dwight Eisenhower's "Committee on Education Beyond the High School" (1956), John F. Kennedy's Task Force on Education (1960), and George W. Bush's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, also known as the Spellings Commission, which produced "A Test of Leadership" (2006).
The report surveys various studies which point to academic underachievement on national and international scales. For example, the report notes that average SAT scores dropped "over 50 points" in the verbal section and "nearly 40 points" in the mathematics section during the period 1963-1980. Nearly forty percent of 17-year-olds tested could not successfully "draw inferences from written material," and "only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps." Referencing tests conducted in the 1970s, the study points to unfavorable comparisons with students outside the United States: on "19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times".
In response to these and similar problems, the commission made 38 recommendations, divided across 5 major categories: Content, Standards and Expectations, Time, Teaching, Leadership and Fiscal Support:Content: "4 years of English; (b) 3 years of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science" for high school students." The commission also recommends that students work toward proficiency in a foreign language starting in the elementary grades.
Standards and Expectations: the commission cautioned against grade inflation and recommends that four-year colleges raise admissions standards and standardized tests of achievement at "major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work."
Time: the commission recommended that "school districts and State legislatures should strongly consider 7-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year."
Teaching: the commission recommended that salaries for teachers be "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based," and that teachers demonstrate "competence in an academic discipline."
Leadership and Fiscal Support: the commission noted that the Federal government plays an essential role in helping "meet the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students, and the handicapped." The commission also noted that the Federal government also must help ensure compliance with "constitutional and civil rights," and "provide student financial assistance and research and graduate training."
A Nation at Risk was at odds with several of President Reagan's stated policy initiatives for education: "voluntary prayer under school auspices, tax credits for tuition payments and abolition of the department of education".
In 1990, Admiral James Watkins, the Secretary of Energy, commissioned the Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico to document the decline in the Nation at Risk report with actual data. When the systems scientists broke down the SAT test scores into subgroups they discovered contradictory data. While the overall average scores declined, the subgroups of students increased. In statistics this is known as Simpson's paradox. The three authors presented their report. David Kearns, Deputy Secretary of Education allegedly told the authors of the report, "You bury this or I'll bury you" but Diane Ravitch disputes this quote. Education Week published an article on the Sandia report in 1991. Unlike the Nation at Risk report, the Sandia Report critique received almost no attention.
On the 25th anniversary of the release of A Nation at Risk, the organization Strong American Schools released a report card showing progress since the initial report. The organization's analysis said:
While the national conversation about education would never be the same, stunningly few of the Commission’s recommendations actually have been enacted. Now is not the time for more educational research or reports or commissions. We have enough commonsense ideas, backed by decades of research, to significantly improve American schools. The missing ingredient isn’t even educational at all. It’s political. Too often, state and local leaders have tried to enact reforms of the kind recommended in A Nation at Risk only to be stymied by organized special interests and political inertia. Without vigorous national leadership to improve education, states and local school systems simply cannot overcome the obstacles to making the big changes necessary to significantly improve our nation’s K-12 schools.
Salvatore Babones has criticized the composition and competences of the committee:
The commission included 12 administrators, 1 businessperson, 1 chemist, 1 physicist, 1 politician, 1 conservative activist, and 1 teacher. ... Just one practicing teacher and not a single academic expert on education. It should come as no surprise that a commission dominated by administrators found that the problems of U.S. schools were mainly caused by lazy students and unaccountable teachers. Administrative incompetence was not on the agenda. Nor were poverty, inequality, and racial discrimination.