Still at Risk, but Not at Sea

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Twenty years ago in April, the National Commission on Excellence in Education gave the country a wake-up call with the release of “A Nation at Risk,” the report whose warnings about the prevalence of low expectations and low performance in American schools set the stage for today’s educational standards movement.

To celebrate the anniversary, Education Week asked a range of experts to assess the progress made since the report was issued. The consensus: We are still at risk.

Students’ academic course loads have increased, but the quality of courses has not. Poor and minority students are still underrepresented in advanced courses, in spite of research that shows that these are the students whose life trajectories are most affected by the rigor of their schooling.

But we are not, I think, as much at sea as we were two decades ago. Voices and perspectives that were locked out of the discussion are now gaining volume and authority.

Student voices, for example, were absent in the report 20 years ago. But they are increasingly factored into the recommendations of more recent efforts, such as “Raising Our Sights,” the 2001 report issued by the National Commission on the High School Senior Year. Even more importantly, youth are being polled and involved in ways that fundamentally alter adults’ understanding of the reality of school and that expand opportunities for students to be active shapers and critics of their own education.

Researchers like Michelle Fine (City University of New York) and Jacque Eccles (University of Michigan) have been interviewing and surveying students for more than a decade, helping to bring legitimacy to their concerns about school environment and teacher engagement by demonstrating that children learn better in schools where they feel known, respected and challenged.

National organizations such as LISTEN Inc., What Kids Can Do, the Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing and Listen Up! – flanked by dozens of local groups across the country, like Californians for Justice and the Philadelphia Student Union – are helping teens translate their ideas into action.

But something more important than student voices was missing in the “Risk” report. There was no acknowledgement of the larger context of students’ lives.
One primary benefit of recent efforts to solicit youth opinions is that scholars, administrators and advocates have begun implementing youth-centered reforms that not only acknowledge that learning does not stop at the end of the school day or the school grounds, but that this is often where learning starts – especially for low-income, minority urban youth. Fueled in part by the small schools movement, there has been an explosion of innovative efforts to “blur the lines” between the school day and out-of-school time, between school and community-based settings, and between formal and informal learning. Organizations such as Jobs for the Future and the Coalition for Community Schools have led this drive at the national level.

What is amazing is that this wave of youth-centered reforms was called for 10 years before “A Nation at Risk.” University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman chaired a federal panel of experts who issued “Youth: Transition to Adulthood,” a provocative but unheralded report that took a critical youth-centered look at education as the key gateway institution to adulthood. The report challenged the assumption that schools, as currently structured, are where young people should be spending their time, questioning both the relevance of the curricula and the rationale for the autocratic structure. The report recommended that the role of high schools be limited and that we help students find reality-based sites for learning that would better prepare them for adulthood.

The Coleman report was one of the first policy documents I read as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago. I recently pulled my dog-eared copy off the shelf and found that I had highlighted the same passages that Theodore Sizer, professor emeritus of education at Brown University, quotes in an Education Week commentary (April 23). “Schools are not a complete environment,” wrote Coleman, adding that they were also not empowering environments.

Many dismissed the Coleman report because it de-emphasized the importance of high schools. I carried the report with me because it emphasized the importance of helping young people find multiple opportunities for learning.

Coleman died in 1995. Were he alive, I believe he would be pleased to know that even though the report has been forgotten by many, the recommendations are finally being followed.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. This article and links to related readings are available at