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4.7: Are we really a nation at risk?

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    By Ed Farinholt

    Learning Objectives

    • Identify specific risks outlined in the 1983 "Nation At Risk" document.
    • Relate various means that the Public Education system has used to deal with the identified risks
    • Name at least one method available to address the qualification risks faced by U.S. Public education teachers
    • Identify some choices for increasing teacher motivation from a list of options


    Having been in school during the Ronal Reagan presidency and coming from a conservative political background these years were exciting to say the least. My friends and family were excited to hear that Dr. William Bennett had been named Secretary of Education and would be investigating the state of education systems in the United States. This article examines several of the risks identified by the National Commission on Excellence in Education headed by Dr. Bennett and assesses their relative merit vis-a-vie the advancements made in the United States public education systems.

    Identified Risks

    In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education enumerated the following risks faced by the public education systems at that time in an "Open Letter to the American Public" entitled "A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform." (Gardner, 1983) The impetus for this commission, and ultimately this report (hereafter referred to as NAR), was the precipitous decline of the competitive advantage the United States enjoyed in the realm of education compared to that of other countries. (Segal, 2004) While students abroad have long sought advanced degrees from many of the United States noted medical and legal engineering and technological degree programs there has been a noted decrease in the number of Unites States-born students in these schools.

    The NAR attempted to grasp for an ultimate direction the United States needed to take to insure the general increase in academic standards for both teachers and students. The directives of this article will focus on the recommendations made toward the public education system since they account for over eighty-seven percent of all United States students. (Hanushek, 1997) While the report from the Commission covers a wide berth of issues pertinent to the state of education, this article will deal with the risks identified in dealing with teachers.

    1. Teacher qualifications
    2. Teacher preparation weighted toward methods, vice subject matter expertise
    3. Salaries are not condusive to attract highly qualified and experienced individuals to the field
    4. Shortage of teachers qualified to teach such courses as mathematics, science, languages, as well as courses for gifted and talented or special needs students
    5. Compared to other countries, there are severe deficiencies in the relative competency of both teachers and students in the areas of math and science



    All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informal judgement needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself. (Gardner, 1983)

    While many erstwhile pundits have severely criticized the Commissions findings on the state of education, we will for purposes of this exercise address the ways these identified risks have been addressed to date. In truth, many of these deficiencies have been directly addressed in many of the High School programs throughout the country. We must also remember that public school education monies are largely dependent on local property tax dollars and heavy state and federal subsidies. It could be argued that local business investment in local schools may have a direct impact on supply of qualified graduates.

    In practice high schools are designed to prepare students for both degree-oriented academics or vocational careers. In terms of financials, “expenditure outside of instructional staff salaries, going from one-fifth of total current expenditure in 1890 to one-third in 1940 and to more than one-half in 1990. “ (Hanushek, p. 5). School budgets must now cover everything from teachers but extended administrative personnel and counselors with extended social and even psychological skills. During some of my own experience during teacher observation I learned that public schools are now in a situation that all applicants must be accepted and accommodated. In addition, the introduction of technical resources such as computers and sophisticated measurement technologies into the public school classrooms has further extended expenses. When you add the fact that these computers require software, licenses and extensive support resources the price tag for maintenance magnifies each passing year.

    Many regard the subsequent reforms imposed upon the education system as "laid down" and often missing the mark with regard to root problems faced by teachers. Teachers must now be equipped to handle a wide array of potential issues in their classrooms, especially with the onslaught of such conditions (properly or improperly diagnosed) as Attention Deficit Hyperac DisorderAcute Hyperactivity Disorder and those of students with English as a second language. While no one ever regarded the costs of providing and maintaining a public education system was ever going to be inexpensive, the jury is still out concerning the return on investment when the public schools attempt to effectively teach under such circumstances. No doubt this is why such programs as Standards of Learning (SOL) and demands for certification of all teachers has been promoted at both the state and federal levels.


    The publication of the NAR has resulted in numerous studies and controversies attempting to address some of the risks identified. Among those dealing with teacher qualifications, references were made to increased expenditures for both staff and non-staff resources. Schools today are equipped with technical devices such as cable television networks, local area networks, and sophisticated computer software in order to offer students access to the global world of educational opportunities. These in turn require staff who are well versed in these technologies, their maintenance and current uses of them in the global marketplace. The implications of this trend are staggering in terms of the support structure that will be necessary to keep students on an equitable if not a more advanced standing compared to students in other countries.

    Teachers are obtaining advanced degrees and in many states must obtain certification from state mandated programs in order to teach. While these have been requirements for a number of years the breadth and extent to which these qualifications cover subject areas pertinent to modern classrooms has significant bearing. Skills such as assessment, familiarity with current technology and multimedia are bearing fruit in terms of involving students and enhancing educator's means of communication and lesson planning.

    Tuition tax credits have resulted from the long and bitter battle for vouchers for parents seeking some relief from the taxation burden when in fact they chose to send their children to private schools. Whether for spiritual, advanced placement or special needs, the public school system did not always offer students a suitable environment to excel.

    Standards of Learning (SOL) requirements have applied to children in public schools to gage their progress but unfortunately have caused the negative effect of pressure upon teachers to instruct toward specific test goals rather than tailor classes according to the more laudable intrinsic and formative form of pedagogy. The summative aspect of SOLs provide only a benchmark but have treated the objective of learning as the proverbial black box. (Black and William, 1998) Mr. Black and Mr. William contend the focus ought to be on the process of education and the use of formative assessment to insure students are on target with learning objectives and assisted as needed should they fall behind.

    Charter, private and home schools have increased in number during the last ten years and bear witness to the increased participation of parents into the educational welfare of their children. Studies have shown that Charter schools have both increased the aptitude of both students who excel in public schools and minority students who would not otherwise have means or access to the advanced technologies or skilled teachers these institutions employ. (Hoxby, 2004) Home schooling have burgeoned and while their effectiveness has largely been at the primary school level, the author's experience is that the issues of limited socialization and technological opportunities faced by home schooled children are more than compensated by innovative parents pooling their collective resources to meet these needs. With this population of students growing yearly it would behoove the public education systems to study their methods.

    Another consideration maybe that the problems with education today lay squarely in the laps of parents and guardian involvement in their children's learning. Given that the composition of students throughout the United States has become multicultural, the fact of cultural variances with regard to expectation of parents in regard to their children's knowledge levels brings to bear a much broader element of adaptability by teachers than even ten years ago. The rate of growth of Hispanic full-time teachers increased 2.7 percent to 5 percent between 1998 and 2003. (Weinberg, p. 10) Arguments have been made for bi-lingual education and in many states such as California, Florida and Texas.

    Arguments have been made for bi-lingual education and in many area of this country such as Southern California and much of Texas and Florida this may in fact be a necessity. Following an original supposition of this article one could forcefully contend that if answers to educational reform should be indicative of the local community than in fact what happened in the Salinas high school district provides an excellent example of parental activism with regard to not just what their children ought to be taught but how it should be taught. (Arriaza, p. 14) This argument as been argued at a more universal level by Mr. Author Combs who notes that “educational reforms which do not have whole-hearted support of those who must carry them out are a waste of time, effort and taxpayer's money.” (Combs, p. 4)

    Another risk which was not broached by NAR was that of morals. When I was in elementary school I remember seeing videos about family planning produced by Planned Parenthool and videos discouraging from drug use like the plague. As an adult, I am offended that I only received part of the story with regard to these ethics while the Christian point of view was not even considered. Today school teachers and administrators cannot even provide an aspirin to a child without a release from the parent or doctor. Yet this same student can receive counseling about such moral decisions as birth control or abuse prevention with no consultation of the child's guardian. (FCPS, 2008)


    School reforms ought to be a continual process. Unless public schools are constantly questioning their direction, their curriculum, and their motivations the changing world will continue to force their obsolescence. So in answer to the title of this article, the author proposes a resounding “YES.” Risks are a part of life as everyone can attest. In fact it is the human condition to not only contend with but to face and conquer risks each day. While the right to education by all is firmly upheld in these United States there are many troubles introduced and even some ethical considerations which are inadvertently compromised. The degree to which our nation's educational systems, whether public or private, contend with the ever changing educational requirements will effect the competitiveness and even the moral fortitude of today's students. The ability to effectively teach our young the skills required to think, judge and choose properly, based on sound learning principles, will ultimately decide the degree of success our future leaders will have facing the challenges of the world.


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    Black, P., & Wiliam, D. Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. London: School of Education, King's College. Retrieved October 17, 2008 from:

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