3 Ways ‘A Nation at Risk’ Gave Voice to a New Generation of Education Advocates
In anticipation of the Reagan Institute’s Summit on Education, which commemorates the 35th anniversary of the release of "A Nation at Risk," is presenting a special series of articles, essays, and retrospectives on the report and its aftermath. We aim to provide a unique and engaging perspective on this influential publication.
The field of education reform has always been a complex and diverse endeavor, rooted in the belief that a nation’s strength and prosperity are intimately linked to the quality of its schools. This week, we mark the 35-year anniversary of the groundbreaking "A Nation at Risk" report. Widely regarded as a catalyst for reform, the report effectively conveyed the urgency of the situation with its stark opening line: "Our Nation is at risk."
While the report itself was a significant event in the history of public education, it is important to recognize that it is ultimately individuals who shape history. Over time, many advocates rallied around the cause and added their own ideas, expanding the horizons of educational reform. This led to the emergence of various approaches and possibilities that continue to shape the field today. Here are three ways in which "A Nation at Risk" empowered a new generation of advocates:
1. Empowering Civic Leaders: As the federal commission worked tirelessly in Washington, D.C., another commission, appointed by the government, was striving to improve higher education in Kentucky. Unfortunately, their efforts went unnoticed. Undeterred, the Prichard Committee was established as a nonprofit advocacy organization to give citizens a voice in elevating the state’s education system from its precarious position. Ultimately, the Prichard Committee played a pivotal role in advancing the Kentucky Education Reform Act, one of the earliest examples of standards-based reform. Today, similar civic-led initiatives are making significant contributions in other states, with influential organizations like Tennessee SCORE, Advance Illinois, and A+ Alabama leading the way.
2. Engaging Business Leaders: The call for standards-based reform articulated in "A Nation at Risk" also resonated with business leaders. The National Business Roundtable took the lead in galvanizing support, prompting the formation of CEO-driven business associations nationwide. While some of these efforts focused solely on the business community, others embraced a different approach by forming partnerships that included equal representation from business and education leaders. As businesses became more globalized, the influence of CEOs in specific states diminished, leading to a shift in advocacy models. However, notable examples such as the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education remain strong. Today, organizations like America Succeeds are reviving business-backed advocacy, emphasizing the crucial role of education in preparing the workforce for the future.
3. Inspiring Entrepreneurship to Enhance Teacher Quality: "A Nation at Risk" also highlighted the need for innovative solutions to enhance the quality of educators. The report emphasized that schools would struggle to improve if they continued to attract teachers from the lower quartile of college graduates. In response, Teach for America was created a few years later, offering a platform to attract top talent to America’s classrooms. This initiative, along with other innovative models such as TNTP, New Leaders for New Schools, and KIPP, sought to improve the delivery of education. The National Council on Teacher Quality, established in 2000, also played a significant role by conducting sustained research in the field. Today, the advocacy sector is more robust and diverse than ever, with leaders from various backgrounds testifying to the importance of ongoing improvements in our schools. Despite the multitude of voices, the pathways into education reform that were widened by the early work of "A Nation at Risk" remain evident through the numerous contributions of these leaders, who have continuously added fresh ideas and urgency to the cause.
This is just a glimpse into a much larger story. However, what is abundantly clear is that even amid diverse perspectives and approaches, the shared belief in the fundamental importance of education has guided our journey. It is the quality of our schooling system that fundamentally shapes a nation’s vitality and future prosperity.
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