Thirty Years at Risk-Introduction

It’s not difficult to identify seminal moments in our nation’s history to explain or justify the reaction from our country to those moments. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to our direct involvement in World War II even though the United States was heavily involved prior to December 7, 1941. The current War on Terror had its seminal moment on the crystal clear morning of September 11, 2001. At the exact time of the attack on the World Trade Towers in New York City, this author was a first year public school superintendent in the small west-central Texas town of Ranger.

For public educators, the seminal moment for the political and media driven war on public education began thirty years ago this month on April 26, 1983 when President Ronald Reagan accepted a report commissioned by an education department he wanted to abolish, from a Secretary of Education that did not serve during his second term as President. The Secretary of Education was Terrel H. Bell and the name of the report was A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.

For thirty years, politicians have used school reform for election campaign fodder and the media’s thirst for negative reporting have merged into a devilish marriage which slowly works to dismantle this county’s most important public institution. Strangely, education reform appears to be the only topic that both Democrats and Republicans can agree and those who push back against the constant attacks on the system of public education are labeled as keepers of the status quo.

The aftermath of a NAR is a scattered trail of school reform measures that we know today as high stakes standardized tests which hold schools and teachers accountable for student test scores, career ladder/merit pay performance bonuses for teachers that come and go as state budgets allow, value added measures (VAM) that evaluates teachers on student’s academic gains, state developed curriculum and teacher appraisal systems, school intervention teams, turnaround teams, campus reconstitution (school closure), a newly developed national curriculum (Common Core State Standards) and soon to be utilized national tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, ESEA (Elementary and  Secondary Education Act) reauthorization that produced No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school vouchers which are intended to direct public school funding to private schools , and the federally sponsored Race to the Top grant which mandates many of the reform measures into one neat package. The list of reform measures is far too lengthy to go into detail concerning each program but the beginning of the reform measures remains the same; they all started or gained significant traction as a result of the thirty-six page federally sponsored report ingeniously written as an open letter to the American public.

This author’s entry into public education as a middle school teacher during the 1982-83 school year coincided with our nation’s political reform measures targeting our public education system. Because we are fully aware of the results of a NAR, the purpose of this and future writings will be to provide a perspective into the events that led to the publication of A Nation at Risk by focusing on these primary questions:


  1. What was the background of the 18 members that comprised the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) that authored the A Nation at Risk?
  2. What information were the NCEE members provided to formulate their opinions?

About ourschoolsblog

Rickey Williams is the author of this blog and began his career in public education in 1982. He has a deep respect for educators and the mission of public education. The author earned his doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in Educational Administration. As an adjunct, he teaches graduate level courses to aspiring campus principals. His public education experience includes teaching math and coaching to secondary students (6-12), leading campuses as the high school principal, and leading districts as the superintendent. Foundational beliefs about public education include: Students and staff must feel safe and valued while in school. Educators and parents who promote and value an education enhance a child’s education. Students must be given the opportunity to reach their academic and social potential through high expectations, sound curriculum, and differentiated instruction. Enthusiastic educators have a passion for teaching and continuous professional growth. All district employees will be examples of professional and ethical conduct and will promote and enhance a positive and collaborative school climate.
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