January 1, 2024

Thomas Ultican: Hoover Institution 2023 “A Nation at Risk” Address

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As we bid its 40th anniversary goodbye, Thomas Ultican looks back at the true story of A Nation At Risk. Reposted with permission.

Amazingly, Hoover Institution marked 40+ years of “A Nation at Risk” (ANAR) by glorifying it. They published a 300+ page book, in November, claiming it was the stick that stirred the education reform pot. While their namesake’s mishandling of the 1929 Wall Street crash could be credited with inspiring Social Security, labor rights and many other New Deal reforms, ANAR brought nothing but pain to public schools. Fourteen writers, known for attacking public education and living on the right, created the material presented.

In 1983, Gerald Holton, then a physics professor at Harvard University, and a member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, drafted some of the most alarmist language in ANAR, including“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.”

Last year, I met James Harvey, who was responsible for getting ANAR ready to print. He viewed Holton’s line “to be utter bombast.” In a final editing session at the University of Utah, he and Commission Chairman, David Gardner, agreed to excise the line from the report. Harvey took ANAR back to Washington DC, gave the revision to the printer … and went on vacation.

Later, he learned commission member and Nobel Prize winning Chemist, Glenn Seaborg, had refused to sign off on the report until Holton’s line was restored.

When writing an ANAR thirty-fifth anniversary report for National Public Radio, Anya Kamenetz discovered the commission never set out to undertake an objective inquiry into the state of the nation’s schools. She wrote, They started out already alarmed by what they believed was a decline in education, and looked for facts to fit that narrative.”

A decade before, Florida education professor, James Guthrie, noted“They cooked the books to get what they wanted.”

Salvatore Balbones wrote Education ‘reforms’ big lie for Salon, observing:

“The commission included 12 administrators, 1 businessperson, 1 chemist, 1 physicist, 1 politician, 1 conservative activist, and 1 teacher. No students or recent graduates. No everyday parents. No representatives of parents’ organizations. No social workers, school psychologists, or guidance counselors. No representatives of teacher’s unions (God forbid). Just one practicing teacher and not a single academic expert on education.”

In ANAR, the most convincing evidence given that America’s public schools were failing was a bullet point on page 11:

“The College Board’s Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) demonstrate a virtually unbroken decline from 1963 to 1980. Average verbal scores fell over 50 points and average mathematics scores dropped nearly 40 points.”

This is the single most powerful piece of evidence providing proof that Americas’ schools were failing. It was also based on a lie or at best, ignorance.

In 1990, engineers at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico looked at the same data and found an error. Their findings appeared to have been suppressed. Gerald Bracey reported in Huffington Post, “Jim Raths of the University of Delaware and then an editor at the Journal of Educational Research made it the entirety of the May/June 1993 issue of that small journal.” That seems to be the only place it was ever published but some reporters and scholars saw the report in the early 1990s.

From their writings, we know the Sandia engineers disaggregated the data by race and sex. They found that every group advanced during the 1963 to 1980 period and continued to do so until 1988 when the data was gathered. The other simultaneous occurrence was the larger numbers of people testing every year. Increases were driven by poor, minority and female students, causing the test averages to drop.

ANAR was a fraudulent paper and America’s schools were actually healthy and doing well.

Selling a Fraud +40

Authors of Hoover Institute’s A Nation at Risk +40

Name Section Field About
Stephen L. Bowen Introduction Politician Paul LePage’s policy adviser and Director of Maine Heritage Policy Center.
Deborah Stipek Chapter 1 Education Former Director of UCLA Seeds School. Stanford Graduate School of Ed.
Maria D. Fitzpatrick Chapter 2 Economics Department of Policy and Management at Cornell University.
Michael Hansen Chapter 3 Economics Senior Fellow on Education Policy Brookings Institution; labor economist
Thomas S. Dee Chapter 4 Economics Stanford professor; member of the American Enterprise Institute
Robert Pondiscio Chapter 5 Education Senior Fellow at American Enterprise Institute; former teacher
Eric Bettinger Chapter 6 Economics Professor Stanford Graduate School of Education; education economists
Tom Vander Ark Chapter 7 Finance Executive Director of Education Gates Foundation; EdTech champion
Eric A. Hanushek Chapter 8 Economics Father of evaluating teachers using value added measures; Co-founder of CREDO
Michael T. Hartney Chapter 9 Political Science Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute; Hoover Fellow
John D. Singleton Chapter 10 Economics Professor of economics University of Rochester; Studies school boards.
Michael J. Petrilli Chapter 11 Political Science President at Thomas B. Fordham Institute; editor Education Next
Cami Anderson Chapter 12 Administrator In 2011, appointed Superintendent of Newark Public Schools
Margaret “Macke” Raymond Conclusion Political Science Director of CREDO; married to Eric Hanushek who was her professor in Rochester.

A common theme in most of the essays presented is “ANAR did not cover this really important topic” and instructs readers about its importance. ANAR’s 38 recommendations are along the lines of fixing unacceptable teachers but not eliminating elected school boards. It seems blowing up the education system never occurred to the commission and that is criticized as a weakness by some of the authors.

ANAR did kick off an era of school reform that continued gaining momentum into the twenty-first century. In chapter 5, Robert Pondiscio claims, “Decades of education reform have left policymakers, educators, and students alike fatigued and unimpressed.” (Page 109) These reforms were often so misguided, destructive and self-serving that the word “reform” became an odorous term.

At its core, ANAR was an attack on the teaching profession. Chapters three and four address this. Michael Hansen observed ANAR did “encourage bringing qualified people from other occupations into teaching to support hard-to-staff fields, and these policies gained momentum.” (Page 66) Hansen cites Teach for America as a particularly outstanding example of an alternative certificate program. Evidently, college graduates with no training, mostly hired by charter schools to teach scripted lessons, are venerated by Senior Fellows from the Brookings Institution.

In the wake of ANAR, President Reagan backed merit pay for teachers. It is a reform with a long track record of failure, pre-dating ANAR and Reagan. When the present state controller of Houston’s schools, Mike Miles, was in Dallas, he introduced a merit pay program based on value-added measures. It unsurprisingly resulted in a drain of experience from the district. Senior teachers quit and left. It was one more example of merit pay not producing the hoped for result.

In chapter 9, Michael Hartney does not hold back on his anti-public school feelings. Christopher Rufo’s Manhattan Institute colleague says American K-12 education “is burdened by a century-old, one-size-fits-all governance model that prioritizes adult rather than student interests.” (Page-181) The “one-size-fits-all governance model” is also known as democracy. It is the system where local communities control their schools through elected representatives. The malarkey about prioritizing adults over students is meaningless rhetoric. No one other than parents cares more about students than public school teachers and officials.

Hartney calls for privatizing schools as the solution to his claimed burden. He states, “[F]or chronically low-performing systems, policymakers can disrupt the ‘district as monopoly’ education provider by pursuing a portfolio management model (PMM) strategy that takes districts out of the business of running schools and instead has them provide performance-based oversight in a diverse ecosystem of regulated, but still autonomous, schools of choice.” (Page-181) This piece of “argle-bargle” means turn your community’s schools over to private operators. Someone may get rich but the well-run, responsive public schools will be gone.

Michael Petrilli writes in chapter 11 that “student achievement plateaued and even started to decline in the 2010s.” (Page 226) He postulates that the softening of the No Child Left Behind accountability might be responsible. More likely, the hyper-focus on testing and standards were responsible for a general slowing in education progress since 2000.


It appears that Stanford’s Hoover Institute right-wingers are more interested in ending public education than reforming it.

A Nation at Risk started out as a fraud. Schools were not failing but ANAR produced phony data to show they were. Sure there were big problems within the public education system. Dale Russakoff’s The Prize documented extreme corruption within Newark, New Jersey’s public schools. Violence levels were unacceptably high in some school districts. However, ANAR ignored those problems. Instead, they speculated about how poor American scholarship opened the door for the Japanese taking over auto production, Koreans dominating steel and Germans ruling machine tools.

BUT they were wrong!

Those “terrible” American students were busy inventing the computer industry … internet, I-pad and smart phone, followed by a great surge in biotech. Maybe Glenn Seaborg won a Nobel Prize but he was completely blind about America’s schools or what good education looked like. He was a chemist, not a pedagogue. Conspicuously, there were no pedagogues on the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Today, ANAR is still a weapon for undermining public schools. It is embraced by people on the far right to do away with public education while also attacking anything else belonging to the commons.

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