Thirty years ago, the authors of A Nation at Risk told us: “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. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”
The worry in 1983 was that without better schools, our economy would collapse. That same worry continues to shape education reform today, a generation later. Our nation is indeed still at risk, but my sense is it is for different reasons.
In point of fact, the decades after 1983 were not the scene of a collapsing economy as A Nation at Risk would have predicted, but rather of a thriving one. The 1990s saw the largest expansion of the U.S. economy in its history. Economically, we are among the most productive workforces in the world.
When our economy dove into a tailspin in 2008, was it because poor reading and math scores were finally catching up to us? I would argue no. In fact, it was the likes of Enron and Lehman Brothers that torpedoed the economy: businesses and businesspeople who put little thought to the long-term impact of their actions while focusing almost entirely on the short-term gain. The mortgage crisis may stem, in part, from the poor math skills of borrowers, but far more blame would appear to lie in the inability of individuals to recognize or care that the mathematical wins that were making them rich would eventually make everyone poor.
Education is not only about reading and math. School is the place where students spend years of their lives being shaped by the values and messages, spoken and unspoken, by the adults around them. School, whether we want it to be or not, is the place where students are learning not only how to read but how to act and what to value. In this context, it should come as no surprise that a decade of No Child Left Behind—with its myopic emphasis on reading and math—has led to the introduction of the Common Core Standards—with their broader emphasis on critical thinking.
But we are still a nation at risk. As long as we reform our schools with unquestioned adherence to purely economic values, we may unintentionally ignore our impact on the skills and understanding that produce a just and equitable society in terms of class and race. “Education,” Paolo Freire wrote, “either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
There is no doubt that students need to learn key reading, writing, and math skills and that too many teenagers in urban schools still need these skills. And for many in public schools, there is so much we must do with our struggling students that to focus on matters of transformation and justice seems to be a luxury we cannot afford.
If we are to ever stop being a nation at risk, though, such a focus is a necessity, not a luxury. Eskolta has been working with schools and the NYC Department of Education to look at how, alongside basic academic skills, we can help students and their teachers focus on the behaviors and abilities needed to succeed in college and career. But we owe our students and our future even more than that. In our schools—including, and perhaps particularly, in urban schools serving struggling students from struggling communities—we must consider how the ability to think critically can help students not just to succeed in our society as it is, but to be the people who will help transform our society to become better.