How much impact from an eloquent report?


• by Joe Nathan, 4/25/08 • Our house was dark, and it should not have been. I wondered what the problem was. For the last week in spring, 1985, I’d been meeting with state governors and their staffs about key education problems and solutions. It was heady stuff. Now, I was home, eager to see my wife and our three young children.

My wife, who had been and still is a teacher, was glad to see me. “The power is off, the kids have been throwing up and I’m exhausted.” So the heady policy talk of school reform faded for a few days, as I helped our children regain their health, and my wife slept a lot, regaining her strength.

But there was a huge contrast between provocative, stimulating conversations with state governors, and life in Minnesota.

This came to mind as I re-read “A Nation At Risk”. This was a federal report on education issued 25 years ago this month. It produced a huge amount of discussion, and many new laws. But how much impact in schools did it have?

The report skillfully described huge problems:

“Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States…the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people…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.”

The National Commission included former Minnesota Governor Al Quie, along with a local school board member, two principals, a superintendent, a public school teacher (National Teacher of the Year 1981-82), three college presidents (Yale, University of California and Xavier in New Orleans), two university professors and one businessperson. Several University of Minnesota professors were invited to write papers or testified to the Commission.

Ultimately, the Presidential Commission’s suggestions included a longer day and longer year, more core academic requirements, higher standards, and higher, market-sensitive, performance-based salaries for teachers. (The report is at

Governors, state legislators, members of Congress, educators, unions, parents, foundations, etc. responded quickly. New legislation was adopted, new school board policies approved.

But as I look at titles of essays and testimony that helped inform the report, it’s clear that we remain challenged by the same issues today. Here are examples of hearings and commissioned papers: Science, Math and Technology Education, Language and Literacy, Teaching and Teacher Education, College Admissions and the Postsecondary Education, Adoption of Effective Schools Programs, Education for the Gifted, Achievement and Quality of Student Effort, Value Added, In-service education, Time on Task.” These are among the hottest topics in schools today.

The gap between our house and my conversation with governors reminded me of the gap between a report and classrooms. I’ll say more in coming weeks. But despite “A Nation at Risk” and hundreds of subsequent reports, we are not yet where we want – or need to be.

Joe Nathan,, directs the Center for School Change