US education: How we got where we are today

Aug 18, 2014 by

The standardized state of US schools today grew from the Reagan blueprint, ‘A Nation at Risk.’ Why that legacy matters now.

By Sarah Garland –

TATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — On the last day of school in June, Principal Aurelia Curtis was harried. An auditorium full of teachers was waiting for her. But instead of congratulating them on a good year and sending off three retiring staff members, she was in her office signing the last of the 742 teacher evaluation forms for her staff of nearly 150 that she had to finish by an end-of-year deadline.

Ms. Curtis, a stern but beloved leader who shares her name with Curtis High School here in Staten Island, N.Y., where she began her career 30 years ago, spends more time these days filling out intensive teacher evaluations required by the state than she does talking to her teachers. Or that’s how it often feels.

“It has tied me up in so much paperwork,” she says. “I don’t have the time to have meaningful conversations with teachers.”

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Likewise, her teachers and students spend less time in meaningful discussions and more time worrying about the tests that will help decide those teacher evaluation scores. “We’re trying to quantify everything,” she says.

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The echo of ‘a nation at risk’Play

Infographic The echo of ‘a nation at risk’


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“The new system, is it better? I’m not convinced.”

Yet as the school year opens and students return to the sprawling Gothic building on a hill with views of the Statue of Liberty, Curtis will be starting on another pile of 700-plus forms meant to tell her which of her teachers are good and which aren’t. The new evaluation system, along with many of the other changes roiling American education, can be traced directly back to a set of old ideas – as old as Curtis’s tenure at Curtis High. The push for new teacher evaluations, new standards, new curricula, and new tests began with “A Nation at Risk,” a report published in 1983 that busy educators like Curtis usually don’t have much time to think about. But in many ways, the report has defined the careers of a generation of educators like her – and the educations of a generation of American public school students.

“A Nation at Risk,” commissioned by the Reagan administration in 1981, was a scathing appraisal of public education. Its authors – a federal commission of leaders from government, business, and education – spent two years examining American schools, and they were appalled at what they found. Standardized test and SAT scores were falling. The United States was dropping behind competitors such as Japan. The public education system was so bad that not only were US students unprepared to join an increasingly high-tech workforce, 23 million Americans were functionally illiterate. Worst of all, the report concluded, Americans were complacent as their schools crumbled, threatening the very “fabric of society.”

One of the most famous lines in the report said: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The document set off panic in a once self-satisfied nation and launched a movement to transform the public education system. A generation later, its effects are powerful. The excoriation of American schooling is what most people remember, but its actual legacy is ingrained in public education today.

The report’s five proposed solutions – improving content, raising standards, overhauling the teaching profession, adding time to the school day and year, and improving leadership and fiscal support – are clear in current reform. They can be seen in the spread of the Common Core standards, a set of streamlined but intense new standards introduced in 2009 that, though controversial, are still in use in more than 40 states; in new teacher ratings based partly on standardized test scores; and in the invention and rise of charter schools with longer school days and no union contracts.

via US education: How we got where we are today –

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