But while the theory behind “A Nation at Risk” may no longer hold (mediocre education inevitably leads to a weak economy), the report’s desperate language may be more justified than ever, for American education is in turmoil.
Most troubling now are the numbers on educational attainment. One reason that the American economy was so dominant throughout the 20th century is that we provided more education to more citizens than other industrialized countries. “A Nation at Risk” noted with pride that American schools “now graduate 75 percent of our young people from high school.”
That figure has now dropped to less than 70 percent, and the United States, which used to lead the world in sending high school graduates on to higher education, has declined to fifth in the proportion of young adults who participate in higher education and is 16th out of 27 industrialized countries in the proportion who complete college, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
The striking thing about the performance of American students on international comparisons is not that, on average, they are in the middle of the pack ”” which was also true in 1983 ”” but that we have a disproportionate share of low-performing students. We are failing to provide nearly one-third of our young people with even the minimal education required to be functioning citizens and workers in a global economy.
This is particularly distressing news at a time when the baby boomers are aging and a growing proportion of the future work force comes from groups ”” members of ethnic and racial minorities, students from low-income families, recent immigrants ”” that have been ill served by our education system. The challenge today is to build access as well as excellence. That’s the new definition of “a nation a risk” ”” and ample reason for a new commission to awaken the nation to the need to educate all our young people.
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