Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


A Nation at Risk

After studying the American education system, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published an alarming federal report entitled A Nation at Risk in April 1983. This report claimed that American "students were not studying the right subjects, were not working hard enough, and were not learning enough. Their schools suffered from slack and uneven standards. Many of their teachers were ill-prepared" (Finn, p. 17). This report also warned that "our social structure would crack, our culture erode, our economy totter, [and] our national defenses weaken" (Ibid, p.17) if the United States did not make immediate attempts to remedy the situation by finding a cure for our fatally-ill education system.

A Nation at Risk was an important landmark in the history of school reform in the United States. Because of its sobering and grim prediction that America would soon be engulfed by a "rising tide of mediocrity in elementary and secondary school" (Kantrowitz et al, p. 46), this report was a forceful call for major changes in public education. Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, education has become a permanent issue on the national agenda, rather than just a local and state issue. Two presidents have made "educational excellence" a major part of their campaigns. "The business community, weary of having to run its own remedial programs, [has also] joined the crusade for a better-trained work force to compete in a global economy" (Ibid, p.46). On the local level, many states and districts have raised academic standards and instituted new testing programs. Others have enacted comprehensive education-reform legislation, which add to graduation requirements, decrease the average class size, require teachers to take literacy exams, require students to pass standardized tests, redesign teacher-licensing requirements, and much more (Finn, 1989). Raising teacher salaries and increasing the average per-pupil expenditure were also results of the awareness and concern for the poor state of American public education brought on by A Nation at Risk. A Nation at Risk was a key catalyst for nation-wide education reform.

The publication of A Nation at Risk led to an education reform wave known as the "excellence movement." Throughout the past century, continual school-bashing has also led to numerous education reform movements. For example, in the late 1970s, there was a smaller, but similar reform movement commonly known as "back-to-basics." During this time, evidence of illiterate high-school graduates became a source of alarm in the United States. As a result, some states adopted "minimum-competency laws and other measures designed to ensure that those getting diplomas from the public schools would possess at least rudimentary skills in the three R's" (Finn, p.17).

Whether the United States was suffering from economic difficulty or social unrest, schools were typically seen as scapegoats for all of the nation's problems. Blaming American public education was a widespread practice, especially during the second half of the century. School-bashing occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s due to social protest. During this time, the nation was overwhelmed by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement, and the Watts riots. Because most of these protesters were college-aged individuals, schools were often blamed for the uprising of students and youth.

Also, because the United States felt it was falling behind in the space race during the post-Sputnik hysteria, another direct assault on American public education began. Watkins, the secretary of energy in 1990, demanded that our nation pick up "its bootstraps and find a new mechanism to obtain science and math literacy ... Education program are going to be a matter of mission" (Tanner, p.290). Public schools needed to be reformed drastically and give priority to the sciences and mathematics.

During the 1990s, an increase in drugs, street violence, gangs, and teenage pregnancies were also blamed on schools. The American public education system was not fulfilling all of its responsibilities. Rather than blame the federal government, the community, nor the family for these social and moral problems, the nation blamed schools for not educating youngsters and failing to keep youth off the streets. In the eyes of the nation, the schools were to be "raising" these children and young adults to be upstanding, moral, and productive members of society.


Finn, Chester E. Jr. "A Nation Still at Risk." Commentary, May 1989, 17-23

Kantrowitz, Barbara et al. "A Nation Still at Risk." Newsweek, April 19, 1993, 46-49.

Tanner, Daniel. "A Nation 'Truly' at Risk." Phi Delta Kappan, December 1993, 288-297. 

Prepared by Elizabeth Vietvu (UCLA)

DS Home Page     Back to Index     Suggest or Submit a Moment

Website © 1996-2002  Daniel Schugurensky. All Rights Reserved. Design and maintenance by LMS.
Last updated on September 08, 2002.