I think of “A Nation at Risk” as the Gulf of Tonkin incident or “Iraq has WMD’s” of education reform, a decades long war launched by a lie.
And like Vietnam and the Iraq invasion, “A Nation at Risk” was motivated not by reason or empirical evidence, but faith and ideology.
“Education is the civil rights issue of our time” has become such a cliché that our most recent three presidents have all invoked it either in spirit or using those exact words, as President Trump in his first joint address to Congress in 2017.
If this is true, we are fortunate to have a remedy for achieving equality, one that has been shown to work previously, desegregated schools.
As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones outlined in a two part report on This American Life, “The Problem We All Live With,” the single greatest tool for shrinking the achievement gap is desegregation. It is also a solution which we seem incapable of embracing, as demonstrated recently by white parents from New York’s Upper West Side seemingly ready to riot over a proposal to make space for minority students at their high performing school. In these parents’ minds their children had somehow earned the right to a “good” school, and the mere presence of minority students would inevitably be somehow “unfair.”
And yet, research again and again has demonstrated that proximity to white students shrinks the achievement gap for minority students without harming the outcomes for white students.
Separate but equal has always been a lie.
The damage of “A Nation at Risk” is almost too great to reckon with. I believe you can draw a straight line between “A Nation at Risk” and the erosion of public support of public education until we have finally arrived at a point where teachers must put themselves on the line conducting wildcat strikes to save what needs saving.
We have the blueprint for pursuing equality. We had it in 1983 when a desired political outcome dictated policy and overrode the evidence. Hell, we had it 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and we had it in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. What needs to be done hasn’t changed. The question is if those in power will be brave enough to step back from the big lie and dig in on the much more difficult truths.