40 Years after ‘A Nation at Risk’: What Worked, and Meeting the Challenges Ahead

Bowen: A new research series from the Hoover Institution details the breadth of the reform efforts the landmark report inspired.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Forty years ago, the release of A Nation at Risk (ANAR) led to what is known today as the modern school reform movement. With its calls for increased academic rigor, more productive use of instructional time, more effective teaching and more impactful leadership, ANAR set policy and practice changes in motion at every level of the education system.

In incendiary language that still echoes four decades later, the report warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” that was “eroding” the “educational foundations” of the nation. “What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur,” the authors wrote, “others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”

Policymakers wasted no time responding, with governors of both parties quickly adopting the report’s recommendations including raising graduation requirements, strengthening teacher certification and evaluation systems, and increasing instructional time. In the decades that followed, countless additional attempts at reform were launched at seemingly every level.

But what has resulted from this constant, decades-long churn of change?

In a new series of papers to be released by the Hoover Institution on Dec. 12, a dozen scholars set out to answer that very question. In examining the reforms enacted over the past four decades, each author focused on the impact of these efforts, digging into the evidence base and providing lessons for today’s education policymakers.

  • Stanford University’s Deborah Stipek kicks off the series by diving into the rapid expansion of early childhood programming. The “operative phrase,” Stipek concludes, is “high quality.” Programs that “meet high-quality standards” have “the most potential to move the needle on improving student achievement.”
  • In her analysis of “whole child” education models, Cornell’s Maria Fitzpatrick finds “promising evidence from a few programs in a few settings” but cautions policymakers to be sure to maintain a “focus on academics by investing in tools that we know work,” such as improving teacher quality.
  • Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explores ANAR’s recommendations for strengthening the teacher pipeline, and the tensions between the need for more, versus more effective, teachers. This tension, he writes, “coalesced into two different approaches to teacher reform that frequently came into conflict and worked at cross-purposes.”
  • Hoover senior fellow Tom Dee focuses on efforts to better evaluate and support teachers. Dramatic policy interventions followed, writes Dee, such as new evaluation, professional growth and compensation models, but “uninformative, low-stakes assessments of professional practice and rigid single-salary schedules are still the norm.”
  • Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, describes what he sees as a “new willingness to question longstanding classroom practices.” He makes the case for “a strong, knowledge-based curriculum” that will allow teachers to “develop subject matter expertise, help struggling students and make connections with families.”
  • Hoover senior fellow Eric Bettinger focused his research on “within-system” innovations such as reducing class sizes, adjusting the length of the school day and year, and creating specialized schools. Despite “continuous experimentation and innovation,” he writes, what may be most notable about these efforts is their “failure to be scaled up or to generate impacts when scaled up.”
  • Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, dives into “the 40-year shift from print digital learning,” which he characterizes as “gradual, chaotic, expensive and largely ineffective at transforming learning experiences and outcomes.” The introduction of artificial intelligence, he says, marks “the beginning of a new era” that will “change how we work and learn.”
  • In his exploration of school finance, Hoover senior fellow Eric Hanushek finds that despite ever-increasing K-12 spending, “it has not been possible to describe when funds are particularly effective or ineffective.” He suggests a new approach to school funding based around “setting up incentives so the decision-makers take actions that lead to better student outcomes.”
  • Hoover fellow Michael Hartney investigates efforts to reform a “century-old, one-size-fits-all governance model.” Innovations such as mayoral control and site-based management hold promise, he writes, and he encourages policymakers to overcome the “failure of imagination” that burdens schools with “bureaucratic structures and work routines.”
  • In his study of school choice, the University of Rochester’s John Singleton concludes that such policies can “cause public schools to raise their quality in the face of competition.” There are, though, “important gaps in knowledge” around the “impacts of school choice on students’ long-run success,” which will be critical to address as choice options expand across the nation.
  • Michael Petrilli, Hoover research fellow and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, dives into the standards-based reform movement that has “dominated education policy” in recent years. Education researchers need to continue exploring “what exactly schools did” to generate the learning gains that came as a result of these efforts, he writes, but there are “clear lessons” for policymakers.
  • Cami Anderson, CEO of ThirdWay Solutions, closes out the research series by describing the “enormous challenges” of “whole-system” reforms like the one she led in Newark. “Transformative and disruptive systemic change will never be quick or tidy,” she writes, but “real, material gains” can be realized by “stepping back and asking what the shared goal was for the entire community.”

This analysis could not be timelier. The nation’s schools face an ongoing cascade of challenges, not the least of which is the continuing impact of COVID-19 learning loss. Federal pandemic relief funding is scheduled to sunset next year, creating a fiscal cliff for school systems. Student absenteeism continues to be a serious issue, and  student population declines in some areas, driven by longer-term demographic trends, will present school and district leaders with hard choices.

Hoover’s new research series digs deeply into the past 40 years of reform to better understand what worked, and why, and to provide policymakers with key takeaways and recommendations.In the conclusion to their report, ANAR’s authors wrote that the road to reform would “take time and unwavering commitment” as well as “widespread, energetic and dedicated action.” Four decades of widespread, energetic and dedicated action did indeed result. The imperative today is to better understand what worked, why and how the nation and its schools can best meet the challenges ahead.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today