Mike Rose: Parallels Between 1983 Governmental Report on Education and Today

Latest blog post by the author of "Possible Lives" reexamines “A Nation at Risk” and the rhetoric of failure.

Mike Rose’s latest blog post, “A Nation at Risk” at 35, examines a report issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 1983. The UCLA research professor of education notes that “A Nation at Risk” set up a defeatist perspective on public education that has since continued to taint the national conversation on schools.

“Here are some of the explosive sentences from the opening two paragraphs,” writes Rose. “You will recognize them, or you will have heard echoes of them: ‘Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.

“’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. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.’”

Rose further points out the systemic conditions surrounding education that cannot be blamed on those it serves.

“It is terribly unjust that so many poor children, children of color, and immigrant children receive a sub-par education,” he writes. “It is a serious personal liability for an adult to not be able to read and write beyond a rudimentary level, and if tens of millions of us have a good deal of trouble reading and writing, that has significant civic and economic ramifications. These and other problems with education in the United States should cause outrage and lead to action.

“But one hard lesson learned from “A Nation at Risk” is that the way problems are represented has major consequences. This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms. We seem beguiled by a rhetoric of decline, this ready store of commonplaces about how awful our schools have become.”

Rose writes that the self-defeating stance, “blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization.”

Rose cautions against making school “a punitive experience” by attempting reforms and creating curriculum based on preconceptions of failure, and shortsightedness of education as merely a driver of economic success.

“If we determine success primarily in terms of test scores, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning—and, as well, we’ll miss those considerable intellectual achievements which aren’t easily quantifiable,” he writes. “If we judge one school according to the success of another, we could well diminish the particular ways the first school serves its community. In fact, a despairing vision will keep us from fully understanding the tragedies in our schools, will reduce their complexity, their human intricacy. We will miss the courage that sometimes accompanies failure, the new directions that can emerge from burn-out, the desire that pulses in even the most depressed schools and communities.”

“One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise,” posits Rose. “How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy. A legacy of “A Nation at Risk” is a way of seeing that obscures the careful vision we need when working to improve our schools.”

To read “A Nation at Risk at 35” and explore “Possible Lives” and other books by Professor Rose, visit Mike Rose’s Blog.