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DEMOCRACY AT RISK: Twenty-five Years After A Nation at Risk, New Report Says that United States is “Even More” At Risk

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"While it has become customary for us to believe that there is no room for additional funding for education, we are spending far more than these proposals would cost on the wasteful—and often tragic—outcomes of thoughtless policies that put our society at ever greater risk.”

Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Policy in Education, a new report from the Forum for Education and Democracy, argues that federal education policy over the last twenty-five years has been “inconsistent and shortsighted,” lacking a strategic approach for developing and investing in education that addresses the needs of a democratic society. It calls on the federal government to take on fundamental issues of equity and investment that only it can tackle.

“As practitioners, researchers, and policy analysts who have long been involved in developing successful schools, we are gravely concerned about the inability of the current federal role to support the breadth, depth, and quality of education our children need for a 21st century life—one in which they will need to solve problems we cannot yet fully envision, using knowledge and technologies that have not been invented,” write the conveners of the Forum for Education and Democracy in the report’s foreword. “Signs abound that the path we have taken in educational reform has led us astray.”

The report, which was issued to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of the landmark report, A Nation at Risk, notes that federal education policy has moved away from the commitment to equal educational opportunity found in the 1960s and early 1970s and from the focus on research, development, and innovation associated with the post-Sputnik years. The enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it argues, has left the federal government even further removed from these previous goals, and left state and local governments to deal with equity issues while federal policy has encouraged innovation at the margins.

Noting that the “promise of NCLB,” is its “focus on achievement for all students” and its “insistence” that all students be taught by a “highly qualified” teacher, the report says that NCLB has emphasized basic testing skills at the expense of higher-order thinking and performance skills that are needed in the twenty-first-century job market such as applying knowledge to complex, novel problems, communicating and collaborating effectively, and finding, managing, and analyzing information. It argues that ignoring these skills has slowed student gains in math achievement, largely halted progress in reading, and pushed American students toward the bottom of international rankings in math and science.

But not all has been lost in the twenty-five years since A Nation at Risk’s release. The report notes that successful policies and innovations have been launched and that some schools have been redesigned or created that have produced large achievement gains for students. However, these achievements have not been systematically embraced and, as a result, are unevenly spread throughout the system.

In outlining a new federal role that would improve and transform schooling, the report calls on the federal government to become much more actively involved in gathering and sharing promising educational practices to help educators. Such a policy would take proven initiatives to scale and provide “intensive and highly focused research, development, and dissemination to document such achievements and create tools and professional learning to help them spread.”

To help reduce the gaps in educational attainment that exist between students today, the report says that the federal government should commit to paying off the “educational debt” that is owed to the nation’s most underserved children. “Just as questionable fiscal policies have saddled our young people with an enormous monetary debt, our nation faces a huge educational debt resulting from hundreds of years of unequal educational and economic opportunity,” it reads.

It calls on the federal government to equalize federal funding across states and to insist on greater comparability in spending across schools and districts. It also criticizes the federal government for funding only 10 percent of most school budgets, an amount that it says “does not meet the needs of the under-resourced schools where many students currently struggle to learn.”

Because so many teachers, especially those in low-income schools, enter teaching without the knowledge and skills to teach students effectively, and do not receive the supports they need to stay in the profession and succeed in it, the report calls on the federal government to invest in a new “Marshall Plan” for educators. The proposed plan would underwrite the preparation of 40,000 teachers annually, seed one hundred top-quality urban education programs, ensure mentors for every new teacher hired, provide incentives to bring expert teachers into high-need schools, and improve professional learning opportunities for teachers and principals.

The report also recommends federal support that allows communities to provide all children with adequate learning supports in the form of preschool, health care, libraries, and parents who are literate. It envisions schools as centers that enhance learning opportunities for all community members and provide resources to allow parents and others to be engaged in students’ education.

These reforms would cost an estimated additional $29 billion annually, an investment that the report notes is similar to “one month of U.S. involvement in Iraq” and “about 3 percent of the Bush administration’s tax cuts …. While it has become customary for us to believe that there is no room for additional funding for education, we are spending far more than these proposals would cost on the wasteful—and often tragic—outcomes of thoughtless policies that put our society at ever greater risk,” it reads.

More information on the report, including video from the report’s release event, is available at http://www.forumforeducation.org/foruminaction/index.php?page=31&item=430.

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