WASHINGTON -- Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged
preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation
is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.
This report is concerned with only one of the many
causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds
American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American
people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools
and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United
States and the well-being of its people, 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. What was unimaginable
a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing
our educational attainments.
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. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement
made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled
essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We
have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational
society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of
the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined
effort needed to attain them. This report, the result of 18 months of
study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental
ways and to renew the Nation's commitment to schools and colleges of
high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land.
we have compromised this commitment is, upon reflection, hardly surprising,
given the multitude of often conflicting demands we have placed on our
Nation's schools and colleges. They are routinely called on to provide
solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home
and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve. We must understand
that these demands on our schools and colleges often exact an educational
cost as well as a financial one.
the occasion of the Commission's first meeting, President Reagan noted
the central importance of education in American life when he said: "Certainly
there are few areas of American life as important to our society, to
our people, and to our families as
our schools and colleges." This report, therefore, is as much an
open letter to the American people as it is a report to the Secretary
of Education. We are confident that the American people, properly informed,
will do what is right for their children
and for the generations to come.
is not kind to idlers. The time is long past when American's destiny
was assured simply by an abundance of natural resources and inexhaustible
human enthusiasm, and by our relative isolation from the malignant problems
of older civilizations.
The world is indeed one global village. We live among
determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete
with them for international standing and markets, not only with products
but also with the ideas of our laboratories and
neighborhood workshops. America's position in the world may once have
been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men
and women. It is no longer.
risk is not only that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently
than Americans and have government subsidies for development and export.
It is not just that the South Koreans recently built the world's most
efficient steel mill, or that American machine tools, once the pride
of the world, are being displaced by German products.
It is also that these developments signify a redistribution
of trained capability throughout the globe. Knowledge, learning, information,
and skilled intelligence are the new raw materials of international
commerce and are today spreading throughout the world as vigorously
as miracle drugs, synthetic fertilizers, and blue jeans did earlier.
If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain
in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational
system for the benefit of all--old and young alike, affluent and poor,
majority and minority. Learning is the indispensable investment required
for success in the "information age" we are entering.
concern, however, goes well beyond matters such as industry and commerce.
It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of
our people which knit together the very fabric of our society.
The people of the United States need to know that
individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy,
and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised,
not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance,
but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life.
A high level of shared education is essential to
a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture,
especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual
our country to function, citizens must be able to reach some common
understandings on complex issues, often on short notice and on the basis
of conflicting or incomplete evidence.
Education helps form these common understandings,
a point Thomas Jefferson made long ago in his justly famous dictum:
I know no
safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people
themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise
their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take
it from them but to inform their discretion.
of what is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: All,
regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair
chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind
and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue
of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature
and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage
their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also
the progress of society itself.
educational dimensions of the risk before us have been amply documented
in testimony received by the Commission. For example: International
comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that
on 19 academic tests American
students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized
nations, were last seven times.
Some 23 million American adults are functionally
illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.
percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally
illiterate. Functional illiteracy among minority youth may run as high
as 40 percent.
achievement of high school students on most standardized tests is now
lower than 26 years ago when Sputnik was launched. Over
half the population of gifted students do not match their tested ability
with comparable achievement in school.
The College Board's Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrate a virtually
unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over
50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.
Board achievement tests also reveal consistent declines in recent years
in such subjects as physics and English. Both
the number and proportion of students demonstrating superior achievement
on the SATs (i.e., those with scores of 650 or higher) have also dramatically
17-year-olds do not possess the "higher order" intellectual
skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences
from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay;
and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several
There was a steady decline in science achievement scores of U.S. 17-year-olds
as measured by national assessments of science in 1969, 1973, and 1977.
1975 and 1980, remedial mathematics courses in public 4-year colleges
increased by 72 percent and now constitute one-quarter of all mathematics
courses taught in those institutions. Average
tested achievement of students graduating from college is also lower.
and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions
of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such
basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation.
The Department of the Navy, for example, reported
to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read
at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written
safety instructions. Without remedial work they cannot even begin, much
less complete, the sophisticated training essential in much of the modern
deficiencies come at a time when the demand for highly skilled workers
in new fields is accelerating rapidly. For example:Computers
and computer-controlled equipment are penetrating every aspect of our
lives--homes, factories, and offices.
estimate indicates that by the turn of the century millions of jobs
will involve laser technology and robotics. Technology
is radically transforming a host of other occupations. They include
health care, medical science, energy production, food processing, construction,
and the building, repair, and maintenance of sophisticated scientific,
educational, military, and industrial equipment.
examining these indicators of student performance and the demands for
new skills have made some chilling observations. Educational researcher
Paul Hurd concluded at the end of a thorough national survey of student
achievement that within the context of the modern scientific revolution,
"We are raising a new generation of Americans that is scientifically
and technologically illiterate."
In a similar vein, John Slaughter, a former Director
of the National Science Foundation, warned of "a growing chasm
between a small scientific and technological elite and a citizenry ill-informed,
indeed uninformed, on issues with a science component."
the problem does not stop there, nor do all observers see it the same
way. Some worry that schools may emphasize such rudiments as reading
and computation at the expense of other essential skills such as comprehension,
analysis, solving problems, and drawing conclusions.
Still others are concerned that an over-emphasis
on technical and occupational skills will leave little time for studying
the arts and humanities that so enrich daily life, help maintain civility,
and develop a sense of community.
Knowledge of the humanities, they maintain, must
be harnessed to science and technology if the latter are to remain creative
and humane, just as the humanities need to be informed by science and
technology if they are to remain relevant to the human condition. Another
analyst, Paul Copperman, has drawn a sobering conclusion. Until now,
he has noted:
Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education,
in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history
of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass,
will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.
is important, of course, to recognize that the average citizen today
is better educated and more knowledgeable than the average citizen of
a generation ago--more literate, and exposed to more mathematics, literature,
The positive impact of this fact on the well-being
of our country and the lives of our people cannot be overstated. Nevertheless,
the average graduate of our schools and colleges today is not as well-educated
as the average graduate of 25 or 35 years ago, when a much smaller proportion
of our population completed high school and college. The negative impact
of this fact likewise cannot be overstated.
and their interpretation by experts show only the surface dimension
of the difficulties we face. Beneath them lies a tension between hope
and frustration that characterizes current attitudes about education
at every level.
have heard the voices of high school and college students, school board
members, and teachers; of leaders of industry, minority groups, and
higher education; of parents and State officials. We could hear the
hope evident in their commitment to quality education and in their descriptions
of outstanding programs and schools. We could also hear the intensity
of their frustration, a growing impatience with shoddiness in many walks
of American life, and the complaint that this shoddiness is too often
reflected in our schools and colleges. Their frustration threatens to
overwhelm their hope.
lies behind this emerging national sense of frustration can be described
as both a dimming of personal expectations and the fear of losing a
shared vision for America.
the personal level the student, the parent, and the caring teacher all
perceive that a basic promise is not being kept. More and more young
people emerge from high school ready neither for college nor for work.
This predicament becomes more acute
as the knowledge base continues its rapid expansion, the number of traditional
jobs shrinks, and new jobs demand greater sophistication and preparation.
a broader scale, we sense that this undertone of frustration has significant
political implications, for it cuts across ages, generations, races,
and political and economic groups. We have come to understand that the
public will demand that educational and political leaders act forcefully
and effectively on these issues. Indeed, such demands have already appeared
and could well become a unifying national preoccupation.
This unity, however, can be achieved only if we avoid
the unproductive tendency of some to search for scapegoats among the
victims, such as the beleaguered teachers.
the positive side is the significant movement by political and educational
leaders to search for solutions--so far centering largely on the nearly
desperate need for increased support for the teaching of mathematics
This movement is but a start on what we believe is
a larger and more educationally encompassing need to improve teaching
and learning in fields such as English, history, geography, economics,
and foreign languages. We believe this movement must be broadened and
directed toward reform and excellence throughout education.
define "excellence" to mean several related things. At the
level of the individual learner, it means performing on the boundary
of individual ability in ways that test and push back personal limits,
in school and in the workplace.
Excellence characterizes a school or college that
sets high expectations and goals for all learners, then tries in every
way possible to help students reach them. Excellence characterizes a
society that has adopted these policies, for it will then be prepared
through the education and skill of its people to respond to the challenges
of a rapidly changing world. Our Nation's people and its schools and
colleges must be committed to achieving excellence in all these senses.
do not believe that a public commitment to excellence and educational
reform must be made at the expense of a strong public commitment to
the equitable treatment of our diverse population. The twin goals of
equity and high-quality schooling have profound and practical meaning
for our economy and society, and we cannot permit one to yield to the
other either in principle or in practice.
To do so would deny young people their chance to
learn and live according to their aspirations and abilities. It also
would lead to a generalized accommodation to mediocrity in our society
on the one hand or the creation of an undemocratic elitism on the other.
goal must be to develop the talents of all to their fullest.
Attaining that goal requires that we expect and assist
all students to work to the limits of their capabilities. We should
expect schools to have genuinely high standards rather than minimum
ones, and parents to support and encourage their children to make the
most of their talents and abilities.
search for solutions to our educational problems must also include a
commitment to life-long learning. The task of rebuilding our system
of learning is enormous and must be properly understood and taken seriously:
Although a million and a half new workers enter the economy each year
from our schools and colleges, the adults working today will still make
up about 75 percent of the workforce in the year 2000. These workers,
and new entrants into the workforce, will need further education and
retraining if they--and we as a Nation--are to thrive and prosper.
a world of ever-accelerating competition and change in the conditions
of the workplace, of ever-greater danger, and of ever-larger opportunities
for those prepared to meet them, educational reform should focus on
the goal of creating a Learning
At the heart of such a society is the commitment
to a set of values and to a system of education that affords all members
the opportunity to stretch their minds to full capacity, from early
childhood through adulthood, learning more as the world itself changes.
Such a society has as a basic foundation the idea
that education is important not only because of what it contributes
to one's career goals but also because of the value it adds to the general
quality of one's life. Also at the heart of the Learning Society are
educational opportunities extending far beyond the traditional institutions
of learning, our schools and colleges.
They extend into homes and workplaces; into libraries,
art galleries, museums, and science centers; indeed, into every place
where the individual can develop and mature in work and life. In our
view, formal schooling in youth is the essential
foundation for learning throughout one's life. But without life-long
learning, one's skills will become rapidly dated.
In contrast to
the ideal of the Learning Society, however, we find that for too many
people education means doing the minimum work necessary for the moment,
then coasting through life on what may have been learned in its first
quarter. But this should not
surprise us because we tend to express our educational standards and
expectations largely in terms of "minimum requirements."
And where there should be a coherent continuum of
learning, we have none, but instead an often incoherent, outdated patchwork
quilt. Many individual, sometimes heroic, examples of schools and colleges
of great merit do exist.
Our findings and testimony confirm the vitality of
a number of notable schools and programs, but their very distinction
stands out against a vast mass shaped by tensions and pressures that
inhibit systematic academic and vocational achievement for the majority
In some metropolitan areas basic literacy has become
the goal rather than the starting point. In some colleges maintaining
enrollments is of greater day-to-day concern than maintaining rigorous
academic standards. And the ideal of academic excellence as the primary
goal of schooling seems to be fading across the board in American education.
we issue this call to all who care about America and its future: to
parents and students; to teachers, administrators, and school board
members; to colleges and industry; to union members and military leaders;
to governors and State legislators; to
the President; to members of Congress and other public officials; to
members of learned and scientific societies; to the print and electronic
media; to concerned citizens everywhere. America is at risk.
are confident that America can address this risk. If the tasks we set
forth are initiated now and our recommendations are fully realized over
the next several years, we can expect reform of our Nation's schools,
colleges, and universities. This would
also reverse the current declining trend--a trend that stems more from
weakness of purpose, confusion of vision, underuse of talent, and lack
of leadership, than from conditions beyond our control.
is our conviction that the essential raw materials needed to reform
our educational system are waiting to be mobilized through effective
natural abilities of the young that cry out to be developed and the
undiminished concern of parents for the well-being of their children;the
commitment of the Nation to high retention rates in schools and colleges
and to full access to education for all; the
persistent and authentic American dream that superior performance can
raise one's state in life and shape one's own
dedication, against all odds, that keeps teachers serving in schools
and colleges, even as the rewards diminish; our
better understanding of learning and teaching and the implications of
this knowledge for school practice, and the numerous examples of local
success as a result of superior effort and effective dissemination;the
ingenuity of our policymakers, scientists, State and local educators,
and scholars in formulating solutions once problems are better understood;
belief that paying for education is an investment in ever-renewable
human resources that are more durable and flexible than capital plant
and equipment, and the availability in this country of sufficient financial
means to invest in education; the
equally sound tradition, from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 until
today, that the Federal Government should supplement State, local, and
other resources to foster key national educational goals; and the
voluntary efforts of individuals, businesses, and parent and civic groups
to cooperate in strengthening educational
raw materials, combined with the unparalleled array of educational organizations
in America, offer us the possibility to create a Learning Society, in
which public, private, and parochial schools; colleges and universities;
vocational and technical schools and institutes; libraries; science
centers, museums, and other cultural institutions; and corporate training
and retraining programs offer opportunities and choices for all to learn
all the tools at hand, the public's support for education is the most
powerful. In a message to a National Academy of Sciences meeting in
May 1982, President Reagan commented on this fact when he said: This
public awareness--and I hope public action--is long overdue.... This
country was built on American respect for education. . . Our challenge
now is to create a resurgence of that thirst for education that typifies
our Nation's history.
most recent (1982) Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the
Public Schools strongly supported a theme heard during our hearings:
People are steadfast in their belief that education is the major foundation
for the future strength of this country. They even considered education
more important than developing the best industrial system or the strongest
military force, perhaps because they understood education as the cornerstone
of both. They also held that education is "extremely important"
to one's future success, and that public education should be the top
priority for additional Federal funds. Education
occupied first place among 12 funding categories considered in the survey--above
health care, welfare, and military defense, with 55 percent selecting
public education as one of their first three choices. Very clearly,
the public understands the primary importance of education as the foundation
for a satisfying life, an enlightened and civil society, a strong economy,
and a secure Nation.
the same time, the public has no patience with undemanding and superfluous
high school offerings. In another survey, more than 75 percent of all
those questioned believed every student planning to go to college should
take 4 years of mathematics,
English, history/U.S. government, and science, with more than 50 percent
adding 2 years each of a foreign language and economics or business.
The public even supports requiring much of this curriculum for students
who do not plan to go to college. These standards far exceed the strictest
high school graduation requirements of any State today, and they also
exceed the admission standards of all but a handful of our most selective
colleges and universities.
dimension of the public's support offers the prospect of constructive
reform. The best term to characterize it may simply be the honorable
word "patriotism." Citizens know intuitively what some of
the best economists have shown in their research, that education is
one of the chief engines of a society's material well-being. They know,
too, that education is the common bond of a pluralistic society and
helps tie us to other cultures around the globe. Citizens also know
in their bones that the safety of the United States depends principally
on the wit, skill, and spirit of a self-confident people, today and
It is, therefore, essential--especially in a period
of long-term decline in educational achievement--for government at all
levels to affirm its responsibility for nurturing the Nation's intellectual
perhaps most important, citizens know and believe that the meaning of
America to the rest of the world must be something better than it seems
to many today. Americans like to think of this Nation as the preeminent
country for generating the great ideas and material benefits for all
The citizen is dismayed at a steady 15-year decline
in industrial productivity, as one great American industry after another
falls to world competition. The citizen wants the country to act on
the belief, expressed in our hearings and by the large majority in the
Gallup Poll, that education should be at the top of the Nation's agenda.
[Editor's Note: In1983,
found that not enough of the academically able students are being
attracted to teaching; that teacher preparation programs need substantial
improvement; that the professional working life of teachers is on the
whole unacceptable; and that a serious shortage of teachers exists in
key fields. Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter
of graduating high school and college students. The teacher preparation
curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in "educational methods"
at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350
institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time
of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses,
which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.
The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year,
and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time
and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little
influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook
selection. Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers,
severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of
mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in
education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped
students. The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly
severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics
teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers
in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere. Half of the newly
employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified
to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools
offer physics taught by qualified teachers. Then the Commission recommend
that State and local high school graduation requirements be strengthened
and that, at a minimum, all students seeking a diploma be required to
lay the foundations in the Five New Basics by taking the following curriculum
during their 4 years of high school: (a) 4 years of English; (b) 3 years
of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies;
and (e) one-half year of computer science. For the college-bound, 2
years of foreign language in high school are strongly recommended in
addition to those taken earlier.Also, that schools, colleges, and universities
adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations,
for academic performance and student conduct, and that 4-year colleges
and universities raise their requirements for admission. This will help
students do their best educationally with challenging materials in an
environment that supports learning and authentic accomplishment. Also,
that significantly more time be devoted to learning the New Basics.
This will require more effective use of the existing school day, a longer
school day, or a lengthened school year.]