A Nation at Risk

“A Nation at Risk”

By Joseph A. Mcdonald

Vol. 5, No. 4, 1983, pp. 8-10

The Report from The National Commission on Excellence in Education, “A Nation at Risk,” has generated tremendous reaction. Newscasts, newspapers, journals, and magazines, in the South and across the nation, are devoting more space than usual to a commission report. What does this document offer for our region’s schools which consistently rank near the bottom in test scores and finances? Unfortunately, the Report barely scratches the surface in its analysis of causes of our educational problems and thus reflects no understanding of the role that poverty and racism play in subverting ~ quality education. One of the reasons for the impressive’ and overwhelmingly favorable attention, in fact, is that it allows us to pay lip service to high ideals and express indignation over the state of education without having to make any fundamental changes that might threaten the status quo.

To quote from the Report, “We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted.” This line tells us that the report ignores the fact that our educational system does not exist in a vacuum. Its form and content are shaped by the larger society of which it is a part. We can never adequately understand education unless we first examine this connection to the larger society, yet this report fails completely to do so.

Instead, the Commission cites four specific areas of criticism about the educational process itself: content, expectations, time, and teaching. In a nutshell, content refers to curriculum and the easing of standards within the schools. Expectations refers to the decline in demands placed on students by graduation requirements, grading practices, college admission requirements, and so on. Time refers to length of school day and school year as well as extent of homework assignments. Teaching refers to training, abilities, shortages, and salaries of teachers. Finding fault with all four areas, the report recommends that we devise a new and tougher curriculum, raise expectations by implementing higher standards, lengthen the school day and year and assign more homework, and train and pay teachers better. The Report concludes with great optimism: “We are the inheritors of a past that gives us every reason to believe that we will succeed.”

It is almost impossible not to be offended by this report. Its obvious emphasis on symptoms rather than causes, the great care taken not to be too critical, its refusal to deal with issues of power and conflict, make it a document without teeth and without meaning for educational change. It therefore is a document, ironically, which supports the status quo, which argues for minor tinkering at best. It allows politicians, business leaders, and the middle and upper classes to demonstrate concern about education, to present themselves as high-minded citizens without committing themselves to any change which would threaten their interests. Its very acceptance by these elements of the population informs us of its ideological compatibility with these interests.

To be more specific, this document is a smokescreen for the real issue plaguing our educational system–the huge inequality characterizing our society. That the Commission could spend eighteen months researching and writing a document which does not mention inequality and class structure is a slap in the face of the poor, the working class, and minorities. Studies over the last twenty years (Coleman in 1966 and Jencks in 1972 are the most frequently cited ones out of a much larger number) conclusively show student performance is

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strongly related to socio-economic status, or class background. More than quality of schools or teachers, or money spent per pupil, or class size, or nature of libraries, this factor explains why some students do well and some do poorly. This explanation makes people uncomfortable since it represents a challenge, a moral challenge, to inequality. Thus it is ignored when possible and viciously attacked when publicized.

Class background is important because those with wealth, power, and status can use their resources to insure that their advantages are passed on to their children. Schools merely reproduce the inequality in one generation in the next generation. Tracking systems, teacher expectations, IQ tests, peer pressure, financing, and curriculum have all been found to contribute to this reproduction. Clearly, schools are not a vehicle for upward mobility. Again, this finding is rejected by most because it means that quality education for all is possible only through the reduction of inequality in our society. It is interesting, and telling, that the United States is second rate in education as well as in other areas indicative of the quality of life of citizens, such as infant survival rate and the availability of decent housing and medical care. All of these reveal the terrible consequences befalling a society when one-fifth of the people receive over forty-four percent of the income each year while another fifth receives less than four percent. The distribution of wealth (financial assets, property, valuables) is even more unequal. Since those who monopolize income and wealth are also those with significant political influence, programs involving income redistribution are kept to a minimum. And as long as inequality is unlikely to be reduced, publicity about the role of inequality in the production and maintenance of educational mediocrity is unwanted.

We can go even further. Perceptive analysts, over the years, have pointed out to us that our educational system is actually performing the exact function intended. Corporations, and politicians who must count on corporate support, have certain needs. One of these is for a labor force to handle semi-skilled and unskilled jobs without undue complaint, armed only with the skills necessary to punch a clock, follow directions, and tolerate repetitive, meaningless work. Our work world has been so deskilled and dehumanized that the talents and abilities basic education transmits can be reduced to a minimum. Corporate America does not need well-educated people in great numbers. The ones that are needed can be supplied by the middle and upper classes. Middle level management can come from the middle and lower middle levels with occasional upwardly mobile working-class students allowed as proof that anyone can make it. In South Carolina, for instance, the textile industry has strongly opposed Governor Riley’s call for increased taxes to improve the state’s poorly funded school system. The industry does not want to lose the large number of semi-skilled and unskilled workers that the schools currently provide.

The schools thus accomplish two important goals. One, they keep industry supplied with an ample supply of workers, and two, they insure that wealth and power remain in the same hands from generation to generation. Those who are exploited by these goals have the least amount of power in our society to protest. Thus the only changes publicized are those that would tinker with the system.

But if this system is working as intended, why would political and economic elites support the report and the tinkering (as they have been doing)? I can think of several reasons. One, criticism of education has become quite pervasive. This report might mollify the critics and coopt the issue of educational-change, insuring that proposals are acceptable to the elites. It also demonstrates, falsely, to the parents of children being cheated by our educational system that help is on the way. And it serves a further ideological purpose in this regard by telling all of us that the problem lies within the educational process which, if modified, would work well (with the implication that children will have only themselves to blame if they do poorly).

Second, the Report offers a scapegoat for the tremendous economic difficulties we are facing today. It strongly suggests that our loss of dominance in worldwide markets and the faltering of our automobile and steel industries have been caused by the “rising tide of mediocrity” that afflicts our educational institition. There is no mention, of course, of monopolistic practices, failures to invest in new equipment, continued production of larger cars because of the greater profits expected, expensive mergers, and the host of other problems which lie at the bottom of our current economic morass. Instead, our schools are to blame.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the Report does reflect some serious economic concern being felt by multinationals. The very first line of the document states, “Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” Some tinkering, therefore, is actually desired by the economic and political powers that be to bring U.S. education more in line with the demands being placed on our corporations by changes in the world economic system. Specifically, education needs to be more technical, more mathematical, more computer oriented. Social science is valuable only so that future executives can understand the geopolitical parameters of the battle against Communism and the exploitation of the Third World.

The Report falls woefully short in its portrayal of the personal and humanitarian purposes of education. Little concern is expressed over the failure of our schools to stimulate critical discourse, social criticism, and other safeguards of democratic ideals. For the economic and political elite, education is an instrument, an instrument to promote advantage for a few and to instill acceptance, conformity, and complacency in the many. Elites in the South do not want the schools to become sources of challenge to right-to-work laws or to the low levels of voter registration among blacks. As long as public schools continue to be mechanisms for maintaining inequality, these elites can continue to hold a disproportionate share of the region’s wealth and power. At the same time, they can send their own children to the segregation academies.

Until we come to grips with class and racial inequality

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in our society, education will continue to serve the needs of the few. Reports such as this offer no hope for significant change. The Commission fails to mention even basic problems such as variations in funding of schools depending on the wealth of local areas. It does not mention the continued housing discrimination which keeps minorities in poor neighborhoods, the job discrimination which makes it difficult for the poor and for minorities to obtain good jobs even if they succeed in school, or the need for continuation and improvement in special programs for the disadvantaged.

That the Report fails to mention such elementary ideas and instead opts for minor tinkering with curriculum, teacher training and school days is sufficient reason for progressives to reject it, loudly. The Report is worse than meaningless. It will be used in justifying challenges to teacher unions, making curriculum more conservative and purging progressive personnel and ideas. Its omissions and the uses to which it will be put place the report squarely behind the status quo.

Joseph A. McDonald is assistant professor of sociology at Newberry (SC) College. He its currently investigating the impact of textile mill closings on Southern workers and communities.