A Nation in Transition

Virtually everyone in the education community seems to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk.”  For many of us, 25 meant two things.  First, we got to rent a car without special surcharges.  Second, parents and their friends could start asking us the question, “So what are you going to do with your life?”

For more than a decade now, I have heard educated folks — those far more educated than I am — ask the latter, lamenting the future of “A Nation at Risk.”  We throw the term around all of the time, but fail to really delve into its deeper meaning.  I can try to explain it, but Eduwonk said it far better earlier this week — http://www.eduwonk.com/2008/04/timepiece.html.

So after two and a half decades, where are we … really?  We’ve spent a lot of time fighting the status quo, those folks who believed the schools simply needed more time and more money to fix what ailed them.  We went through a magic-bullet stage, where schools adopted anything and everything that vendors claimed could boost student performance or improve learning.  And we’ve spent the last seven years in the era of scientifically based learning, where research and “doing what works” is supposed to trump all.

I’ll be honest, I am not a true believer, and I don’t drive the Kool-Aid.  Eduflack believes in conspiracy theories and things that go bump in the night.  I’m a natural cynic who doesn’t worry if the glass is half full or half empty.  I want to know who took my damned water.  So it is very easy to see flaws and problems in a Nation, 25 years later.

But as I look across the landscape, I’d like to believe — to paraphrase Ronald Reagan — that we are better off now than we were 25 years ago.  Today, we are talking about student achievement and student ability on state standardized tests.  Today, we are putting research-based instructional models into the classrooms that need it most.  Today, we are focusing on high-quality teaching, giving our educators the support, PD, and such they need to succeed in their classroom.  Today, we are talking about a common national graduation rate, allowing us to effectively measure high schools across the city, the state, or the nation. Today, we are focused on outcomes, not just caught up in the inputs and processes of education.  We look for a return on investment, and we measure that return based on student success.

Don’t get me wrong.  We still have a LONG way to go.  “A Nation at Risk,” along with other reports that have come after it, provide us a collaborative blueprint on how to improve our schools, and more importantly, how to improve the quality and the impact of our schools.  We’re seeming select successes in pilots and programs across the country.  We’re seeing Reading First raising the test scores of young readers.  We’re seeing STEM programs engage all students in critical thinking.  We’re seeing teachers take a greater pride in their craft and defend their field with a zealousness not found in decades.

One author has opined that “A Nation at Risk” should be renamed “A Nation in Crisis.”  Based on what I’ve seen in the field, based on what I’ve heard and read from the experts, even this certified cynic has more hope than that.  We may be “A Nation in Transition” now, with the possibility of become “A Nation of Opportunity.”


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