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36 Years Later: A Nation Still at Risk How We Are Failing Our Young Learners and How We Can Make It Right

The Brief

Thirty-six years have passed, and in 2019, the nation is still at risk. Children are not on equal footing as they enter kindergarten, and children of color, as well as children living in poverty, are more likely to fall behind. Drawing on the explosion of research over the last two decades on how children develop, this brief serves as an update to the commission’s report. It highlights the need for a new shared vision and for a public commitment to ensure all children have positive, high-quality early learning experiences.

Policy Brief

“Our Nation is at risk.” This stark pronouncement, issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education nearly four decades ago, caught the public imagination and triggered a national anxiety about America’s competitive standing in the world that still influences education policy debates today. In its landmark 1983 report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Education Reform, the commission—which had been created by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to review the state of education in the United States—went on to warn that “a rising tide of mediocrity” was eroding the country’s educational foundations and threatening “our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Thirty-six years have passed, and in 2019, the nation is still at risk. Children are not on equal footing as they enter kindergarten, and children of color, as well as children living in poverty, are more likely to fall behind. Drawing on the explosion of research over the last two decades on how children develop, this brief serves as an update to the commission’s report. It highlights the need for a new shared vision and for a public commitment to ensure all children have positive, high-quality early learning experiences.

Over subsequent decades, the concerns raised in A Nation at Risk framed most discussions about education in the United States and inspired numerous reforms at the local, state, and federal levels. But despite these efforts and some positive changes—average SAT scores rose modestly between 1983 and 2018,2 for example, and more Americans than ever go to college—few would say that the U.S. educational system is delivering satisfactory, let alone stellar, results. American students routinely rank well below students from other developed countries in highly publicized international assessments, and a sense that the United States is not keeping up, particularly in math and science education, continues to be pervasive. In sum, there is wide agreement that the United States is still falling far short of the ideal articulated in A Nation at Risk:

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All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to secure gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby serving not only their own interests but also the progress of society itself.

To understand why, and to devise more successful strategies to address the risk, this brief argues that the United States needs to widen its focus beyond the K-12 system, which was the subject of the original A Nation at Risk report. With the benefit of four more decades of research into brain development and early childhood education, today parents, educators, and policymakers have a much stronger appreciation for the critical importance of children’s earliest experiences and environments in terms of later learning and life outcomes. It made sense 36 years ago for the National Commission on Excellence in Education to focus on kindergarten and beyond— after all, that was where the public responsibility for educating America’s children was understood to begin. In 2019, the nation knows more.

Most important, researchers know that the goals of giving every child “a fair chance” and the tools to develop their potential “to the utmost” cannot be achieved without addressing the fact that millions of children start kindergarten each year already “ahead” or “behind” their peers—not because of their innate potential, but rather as a result of dramatically different circumstances in the first years of life. Since learning begins at birth, efforts to address educational inequities must also begin at birth—with quality early care and learning systems that help ensure all children have an equal opportunity for lifelong success.
Widening the focus of the policy discussion to include the earliest years, as well as subsequent primary and secondary education, does nothing, of course, to simplify the challenges—on the contrary. There is currently no “system” and no defined institutional framework for improving educational opportunities and developmental conditions for very young children. Rather it has been up to parents and families to manage child care—and, increasingly, to juggle the demands of child care and work—in the earliest years. Given the primacy of the parental role during this critical period, the question is not how to shift or supplant the responsibility of parents and families as children’s first and most important educators. Rather, the question is how to support parents and families ingiving their children the best start possible.

The question is how to support parents and families in giving their children the best possible start.

The following sections of this brief elaborate on the need for a new, shared vision and public commitment to early care and learning. Mirroring the structure of the original A Nation at Risk report, it begins by defining “risk”—both in terms of an updated understanding of risk and in terms of some broad indicators of risk. The discussion of risk, in contrast to that of the earlier report, emphasizes early childhood development and learning more than international comparisons; similarly, the focus on indicators of risk offers fewer statistics on test scores and school achievement and more data points on the economic and social trends that are shaping children’s early care and learning environments in this country. The last two sections of the brief identify reasons for optimism and offer some concluding thoughts.

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