Five years ago, a carefully drafted report on America's schools was released under the title, "A Nation at Risk." Warning that a "rising tide of mediocrity" was threatening U.S. education, the study called for a drastic reform of the school system.
Unlike the studies by most government-sponsored commissions, the report did not cause a brief splash, then fade away. Somehow, it struck a deep nerve that touched off an education scramble that is still going on. Heightened awareness of the need for better schools still lingers.The five-year anniversary of that report is being evaluated this week in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The thumbnail assessment of five years of reform can be summed up as follows:
(1) Lots of good things have happened to make America's schools better, and (2) much remains to be done. In the latter category, there is a feeling that the "losers" in the educational system the dropouts, the under-achievers, many minorities have not been helped all that much.
For Utahns, the "Nation at Risk" report has special significance. First, it was ordered by Utahn T.H. Bell, then U.S. Secretary of Education. Second, the chairman of the commission was David P. Gardner, former University of Utah president, who personally wrote much of the original draft of the report. And third, Utah has special problems trying to cope with the reforms urged in the national study.
Bell, now a professor at the University of Utah, says the pressure for school reform must continue. Gardner echoes this view, saying another 10 to 15 years of effort is needed to produce enough momentum.
Officials at the Utah State Office of Education agree. Like some 40 other states, Utah has raised high school graduation requirements, strengthened academic courses, and provided a career ladder for teachers. It has experimented with new teaching techniques and is one of the nation's leaders in integrating computers into the classroom. Student scores are up.
Like the rest of the nation, Utah needs to do more to individualize instruction, identify earlier those students who are in academic trouble, do more for the students who are not college-bound, and find better ways to evaluate how the state is doing. In addition, classes are too crowded and teachers remain underpaid.
Some states have been able to raise taxes and pour more money into improving their schools. Utah, with its rapidly burgeoning school population, has had to resort to major tax increases just to stay even.
The higher taxes have caused some backlash against schools, yet Utahns cannot afford to short-change the state's educational system. The dangers of mediocrity raised by the "Nation at Risk" report have not ceased to exist.
The future of Utah rides on excellence in education. It would be a disaster to sell tomorrow's birthright because of concerns over today's taxes.