Thirty Years Later: Still At Risk

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the landmark education report, "A Nation At Risk." Decrying a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the nation's K-12 education system, "A Nation At Risk" was a clarion call to serious, systemic education reform.

And, indeed, this U.S. Department of Education report launched reforms that sounded good, but have produced very little. We've seen efforts by successive presidents in both parties -- National Education Goals (Bush I and Clinton), No Child Left Behind (Bush II), Race to the Top (Obama) -- numerous magic bullets (vouchers, choice, charters, contracts, closings), and countless scapegoats (parents, teachers, principals, schools, poverty, governors, the unions, demographics). Throughout much of this time, countless "education governors" have made education a priority, and literally hundreds of associations around the country have pursued reforms. With various fits and starts, fads and failures, the American business community has embraced computers in the classroom, mentoring, greater early childhood investments, and now STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

Two relatively constant features characterize this period. First, education spending has continued to rise -- far faster than inflation on an aggregate and a per-student basis. Second, the educational performance of our young people has been dismal and declining. We too often award high school diplomas to students who cannot do second-grade arithmetic, and we have no clear consensus as to what American high school graduates should know and be able to do after 12 years of school.

The fundamental policy question today is precisely what it was in 1983: if we are outspending the rest of the world on education, why aren't we out-performing the rest of the world?

When he ran for president in 1988, then Vice President George H.W. Bush said he wanted to be this nation's first "education president." So, in September 1989, President Bush convened a summit with all but one of the nation's governors in Charlottesville, Virginia, out of which came six national education goals to be achieved by 2000. One of those goals promised that by 2000 we would be first in the world in math and science. Two years ago -- or precisely 10 years after we were to have achieved the goal, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued a comprehensive report by its Program on International Student Assessment that tested 500,000 15-year-olds in more than 60 countries. The tests focused on reading, math, and science. In reading, the United States placed 17th. In math and science, we ranked in the low twenties.

How do we explain these pathetic results?

I would point to three explanations: we have lowered our standards (to the extent that we have standards at all), we have been reluctant to impose real rigor and accountability for performance, and too many of our young people are lazy.

The last paragraph will strike many as politically incorrect, but occasionally the truth hurts.

We have no common understanding of what our students should learn during their K-12 experience (although the National Governors' Association is now doing work to create core curriculum standards). We cannot determine how we want to hold teachers, students (and parents, for that matter) accountable for learning. And our young people simply don't put in enough time.

Before the Internet age, I stumbled across a report that said that the typical 5th grader at home, each day, spends three to five minutes reading ... and 130 minutes watching TV. I don't know what those figures might be today, but we have a national "time on task" problem throughout our entire educational system -- and that includes pre-K through postsecondary.

So on the anniversary of "A Nation At Risk," can't we agree that there will be no more reports, studies, commissions, or feel-good speeches? We need an urgent action plan that begins right now.

I can point to three campaigns that actually changed people's behavior during the last 50 years: the anti-smoking campaign, the campaign to establish and enforce laws mandating that people wear seatbelts, and the public awareness campaign to stop drug abuse. Not one of these efforts succeeded 100 percent -- but each one resulted in far more than just marginal improvement in the behaviors they tried to address.

Can we launch a similar campaign for educational performance in this country -- not reform, not study, but an effort to change the behavior of the American people? Here's who might be involved:
  • Bill Bennett -- a former education secretary with a knack for stirring the pot, in positive ways
  • Bill Clinton -- an education governor who, as president, also championed education goals
  • Roy Romer -- an education governor of Colorado who went on to head the LA school system
  • Roy Bostock -- an advertising exec who chaired Yahoo!, Northwest Airlines, and the Partnership for a Drugfree America
  • Clayton Christensen -- Harvard's expert on disruptive innovation
  • Michael Bloomberg -- New York's impatient mayor with a penchant for getting people to do good things for themselves
  • Merryl Tisch -- the Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents
  • Andreas Schleicher -- head of the OECD's PISA project who could bring an international and comparative perspective.

This group should also include an expert in behavioral change and a venture capitalist with a track record of backing successful innovation.

I'd suggest that this effort spend no public money; it can be funded initially -- and probably in its entirety -- by Mayor Bloomberg, President Clinton and Chancellor Tisch. The goal would be to develop an action plan with a concrete timetable for tangible results. This initiative would also bypass -- disrupt -- the traditional authority channels which have dominated the education-reform debate since 1983.

As Clayton Christensen observes, truly disruptive innovation usually occurs outside of existing structures and networks. This is because existing systems are incapable of adjusting to massive change. Our current education system, for example, has both parents and students convinced that we're the best in the world -- until an external source like the OECD produces solid data to the contrary.

We need to try "whatever it takes": incentives, penalties, new organizational structures. Moreover, we should not be reluctant to look at those countries which are the best in terms of educating their children. We spend far too much time trying to explain why those countries and their results are somehow different from the United States. We should drop the arrogance and stop the excuses.

When "A Nation At Risk" was published, there was no Internet, the Soviet Union was still one nation, and China was only beginning to flirt with democracy and market capitalism. Today, we have fierce global competition, and the most important investment we can make in our children's and our country's future is to ensure that they receive a world-class education. Let's not spend another three decades debating and studying what to do. Let's do what Americans typically do when they face a challenge: get it done.

Charles Kolb is president of the New York-based French-American Foundation-United States. From 1997 until 2012, he was president of the Committee for Economic Development, and he served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy in the George H.W. Bush White House (1990-1992).