TOMORROW is the 25th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk,” a remarkable document that became a milestone in the history of American education — albeit in ways that its creators neither planned, anticipated or even wanted.
In August 1981, Education Secretary T. H. Bell created a National Commission on Excellence in Education to examine, in the report’s words, “the widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.” Secretary Bell’s expectation, he later said, was that the report would paint a rosy picture of American education and correct all those widespread negative perceptions.
Instead, on April 26, 1983, the commission released a sweeping 65-page indictment of the quality of teaching and learning in American primary and secondary schools couched in a style of apocalyptic rhetoric rarely found in blue-ribbon commission reports.
“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 as a people,” it warned. “If 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.”