Thirty-five Years and Counting: How Long Can a Nation Be “At-Risk”?

The National Commission on Excellence in Education was formed in response to Terrel Bell’s (former Secretary of Education) view that the US education system was not producing a competitive workforce. The result –“A Nation at Risk” – included recommendations for content, standards and expectations, time, teaching, and leadership and fiscal support.

Sadly, much of what was said 35 years ago was said again 25 years later in “A Nation Accountable: Twenty-five Years After A Nation at Risk”, and is being said today – we are still a nation at risk.

April 2018 marked 35 years since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” and the media has published a number of reflections on the state of education in America today and commentaries on the barriers to providing an effective education for all American students.

Students wearing backpacks walking into a school building
[2] Image provided courtesy of Stanley Morales under Pexels License
The perspectives, commentaries, and recommendations presented in a 1992 special issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, “The Education Crisis: Issues, Perspectives, and Solutions”, are still relevant as to how behavior analysts can improve upon the recommendations in each of the five areas made by the National Commission on Excellence in Education 35 years ago.

Gilbert and Gilbert (1992) suggest that performance science can help us decide not only what the content areas are but also “what…we want our students to be able to accomplish as a result of learning history” (p. 47). Restructuring the curricular content from a performance science perspective could elucidate the performance outcomes necessary to create a competitive workforce.

Lindsley (1992b) advocates that educational standards and expectations be based on “continuous self-monitored performance frequencies…high performance aims and custom-tailored prescriptions” (p. 51) rather than waiting until long after the instructional period has passed to determine if learning has occurred.

Carnine (1992) argues that educators should pay more attention to what is done or accomplished in the time that students are in school as opposed to emphasizing how long or how many days per year students attend school (e.g., 7 hour school days or 200 to 220 school days per year).

Fantuzzo and Atkins (1992) note that teaching will be improved when behavior analysts create “a teacher-centered technology…[that] behavior analysts must craft methods that are responsive simultaneously to both student diversity and institutional constraint or fall victim to one or both” (p. 41).

Woman speaking into a megaphone
[3] Image provided courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio under Pexels License
Sherman (1992) asks that, “we build a society that provides opportunities for academic learning, communicates the value of academic learning, and reinforces successful academic learning” (p. 30). He goes on that, “within this kind of environment, we will find that our schools will be transformed. Until we do this, we will continue to have schools that are better than we deserve but still not good enough” (Sherman, 1992, p. 30).

If we “keep nibbling” (Heward, 2005, p. 340) and “speak out” (Sherman, 1992, p. 29), we can produce the societal reform that holds leadership accountable and removes barriers to finding the fiscal support necessary for the American educational system to move our nation from at-risk to one rich with opportunities.

I would like to thank Dr. Shahla Ala’i for the conversation we had regarding the topic for this post and for reminding me of the special issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis cited here.

Image credit:

  1. Cover image provided courtesy of Engin_Akyurt under Pixabay License
  2. Image provided courtesy of Stanley Morales under Pexels License
  3. Image provided courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio under Pexels License