A Nation at Risk was mainly concerned with the high-school years. It wasn't until the report's last pages that it finally alluded to education in the early grades:
The curriculum in the crucial eight grades leading to the high-school years should be specifically designed to provide a sound base for study in those and later years in such areas as English language development and writing, computational and problem-solving skills, science, social studies, foreign language, and the arts. These years should foster an enthusiasm for learning and the development of the individual's gifts and talents.
Throughout Risk, the authors expressed the concern that higher skills like comprehension and problem solving were being neglected in favor of mere basic skills such as number facts, phonics, and spelling. The path to education improvement was seen to lie not in the substance of what was taught in the first eight grades, but in the higher order proficiencies that were systematically inculcated, This emphasis on early-language and "problem-solving" skills rather than on early content was a fundamental mistake.
It was natural for the writers of Risk to seek reform where the most obvious declines had appeared. But it seems probable that the watering down of high school was less a cause of its lower scores than a consequence of a gradual decline of learning in the early grades. Risk's attitude toward the early grades reminds me of the comment many years ago of a repairman who came to fix a leak in our washing machine. He asked my wife where the leak was, and she replied, "At the bottom." He looked at her knowingly and said, "Yeah, that's what they all say." The authors of Risk saw declines at the high-school level, so they focused attention there when the problems began elsewhere.
Research has shown that a student's reading competence in 1st grade predicts his achievement in 11th grade. Fortunately, reformers and legislators have recently begun to emphasize early literacy--a promising advance in thinking and policy. But this welcome new emphasis on the early grades may not yield the hoped-for improvements in equity and overall achievement if, while correcting for an earlier neglect, we persist in ignoring the content taught in students' formative years.
Consider the fact that some high-performing education systems, such as that of Japan, do not stress formal higher-order skills--such as "learning how to learn," or focusing on problem-solving skills--in early schooling. They pay much closer attention to the sequence and coherence of the content a child receives in the early grades. Nonetheless, the scores of their 8th graders on the so-called higher-order skills connected with reading and reckoning, such as comprehension and problem solving, are not only higher than ours, but are also more equitably distributed among social classes.
Moreover, these results have been achieved within the context of nationalized, bureaucratic, non-market education systems. This is not intended as a dismissal of current efforts to introduce more competition into American schooling. It's possible that nations like Japan would elicit even better...
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