Op-Ed: A One-Size-Fits-All Education Model Doesn’t Cut It—And Never Will


The landmark 1983 education report A Nation at Risk begins with this dire statement: "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."

In detail, the report revealed the growing educational deficits facing American schoolchildren at that time. It emphasized that America could fall even farther behind other industrialized nations if it failed to act.

It's been 30 years and we must ask ourselves, how far have we truly come?



In 1983, the commission that wrote A Nation at Risk made 38 recommendations, including those focused on professionalizing teachers and raising standards and expectations. They also emphasized the need for more time on tasks for students, essentially longer school days and longer school years.

Now, 30 years later, we spend twice as much on K-12 education and have failed to implement most of the recommendations suggested in the report. Not surprisingly, today the educational outputs of our children are virtually the same as they were back then—if not worse.

This begs the question: Why haven't the major recommendations from A Nation at Risk been put in place? The answer lies in our over allegiance to a one-size-fits-all system that we as a nation seem unwilling or unable to change. 

As more of those parents start to organize, mobilize, and force their leaders to listen, the education politics of yesteryear...will be replaced.

Take for instance longer school days and years. The only way that can happen is by changing nearly every union contract in every school district in America, which would be virtually impossible. Just look at Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel's modest proposal to lengthen the school year was met with such fierce opposition that the teachers eventually went on strike.

How about higher standards and expectations? Two words demonstrate the inherent challenge associated with that goal: Common Core. The intensity of the debate over the Common Core demonstrates how difficult it is to codify higher educational standards.

But the real barrier to meaningful change is political, as emphasized by the nonpartisan Strong American Schools when it issued its report card during the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. That organization's analysis included the following passage:

While the national conversation about education would never be the same, stunningly few of the Commission’s recommendations actually have been enacted. Now is not the time for more educational research or reports or commissions. We have enough common sense ideas, backed by decades of research, to significantly improve American schools. The missing ingredient isn’t even educational at all. It’s political. Too often, state and local leaders have tried to enact reforms of the kind recommended in A Nation at Risk only to be stymied by organized special interests and political inertia. Without vigorous national leadership to improve education, states and local school systems simply cannot overcome the obstacles to making the big changes necessary to significantly improve our nation’s K-12 schools.

Have the politics of education changed enough over the past five years to suggest a greater opportunity to do what is needed to make schools work better for our kids? Probably not.

What has changed however, is the patience level of parents and community leaders who have suffered through countless superficial reform plans while far too many neighborhood schools continue to rot.

As more and more of those parents start to organize, mobilize, and force their leaders to listen, the education politics of yesteryear and the top-down education reform approach seen today will be replaced by a true grassroot, parent, and consumer driven movement for meaningful student-centered reforms in our schools.

In turn, 30 years from now, it won't be a flat-lined education service delivery putting our nation at risk.

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Kevin P Chavous is a noted attorney, author and education reform leader. As a former member of the D.C. Council, Mr. Chavous helped to usher charter schools and school choice into the District of Columbia. Currently, Mr. Chavous runs The Chavous Group, an education consulting firm and serves as the Executive Counsel for the American Federation for Children.