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After 30 years, still a 'Nation At Risk'

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columns Jamestown, 58401
Jamestown Sun
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Jamestown North Dakota 121 3rd St NW 58401

It all started during the President Ronald Reagan administration when a "blue ribbon" committee startled the country with a dismal prognosis for American education in a report called "Nation At Risk."

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This was reiterated by No Child Left Behind legislation, a federal blueprint for upgrading education laid out by President George W. Bush. This law set out the goal of having every child in America reading at grade level by 2014. As Congress now considers renewal of the law, there isn't an educator in the country who believes that the goal will be achieved.

The federal government has opted to become some sort of national school board because international test scores indicated that we were 25th in math and 21st in science among the developed nations. The high school class of 2011 scored the lowest SAT scores of all time.

Most of North Dakota schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in the 2010-2011 go-around. Of the 179 school districts, only 77 made the grade. Awash in prosperity, there is no excuse for us to be running this kind of a school system.

North Dakota is not alone. Many schools across the country got failing scores. The problem is nationwide.

The national reform efforts for the past 30 years have been made to cope with a world economy. However, states and local school districts think locally. Consequently, they have been resisting reform efforts.

It should be obvious that education reform will not happen rapidly enough to gain ground on the likes of India, China and Japan. As we have seen over the past 30 years, major education reform is virtually impossible in the United States for a variety of reasons:

* Parents are key players in the education process and they will not change their lifestyles to help their children develop an affinity for learning. They expect the schools to pick up their failures.

* Too many homes consist of mixed unstable relationships that impair the learning process.

* Authority over education is so fragmented among the national, state and local governments that decisions cannot be made. The national government may have the international perspective, but the states have the laws and the school districts have the students.

* States resist mandates from the national government and school districts fight mandates from state governments. It's the good old American attitude of "you can't tell me what to do." This creates a political environment that obfuscates change.

* Technology has made it possible for students to avoid learning through a variety of shortcuts to high school and college degrees. The stampede to online education will dumb down quality instead of raising it.

* Our students spend too little time in class compared to students in other countries. We have too many sports, too short of a school year and too much binge drinking.

* Compared to students in other countries, American students lack the personal discipline it takes to compete on the world stage.

* Upgrading the educational system is expensive and the public is unwilling to pay for the quality required to compete globally.

Because we are unable and unwilling to attack the deficiencies head-on, we end up with Band-Aid experiments -- such as special schools -- that create the illusion of progress but none of them are reaching the parents, the children, the schools, the school boards or the legislatures across the country.

The gains made since Reagan's blue ribbon committee report have been incremental at best. We may be picking up the pace but not enough to compete on the world stage. We are still a "Nation At Risk."

(Lloyd Omdahl, of Grand Forks, is a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and state budget director)

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