Washington --- On the heels of recession in 1983, the time was right for the nation to take notice of the landmark report ''A Nation at Risk,'' issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.
We were told that our national security was jeopardized by a school system that was failing to graduate students with sufficient skills to compete in a global marketplace, and that ''the educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.''
Though there was no national response, it was clear to many of us state governors that, as President Clinton has often said, ''what you learn, determines what you earn.'' We learned what critical components are need to move education forward:
* Higher academic expectations for all students, regardless of background or economic status.
* Long-term goals set and assessed annually.
* School restructuring and professional development to help teachers help all students master a challenging curriculum.
* Coalitions of parents, school leaders, businesses, educators, legislators and other leaders to sustain the comprehensive changes.
* Flexibility from burdensome regulations coupled with incentives and opportunities for schools, districts and states to devise and implement their own action plans.
* Adoption of high standards that spell out what students should know and be able to do.
In my home state we undertook a drastic overhaul of our schools. South Carolina reforms had many of these critical components and therefore there were concrete results. Through the 1980s, in South Carolina, we saw test scores measuring basic skills rise across the board in most grades. Enrollments in tough courses such as chemistry, advanced foreign language study, and advanced-placement classes doubled. More students continued their education after high school, either in college or in job training. And the need for remedial help at all levels of education dropped by one-quarter. South Carolina teachers agreed that we were doing a lot of things right. And that was true.
In fact, in states and school districts across the country, serious work was being done, and others took up the challenge in the mid 1980s and early 1990s. Some reformers focused on teacher preparation, others on the needs of individual students. Some said reform was a matter of changing the curriculum, while others looked to restructuring within the school and some looked to the family or the community at large.
Still there was no national view that would relate one aspect to another, that would assist the state and local reform efforts.
There was a glimmer of hope in September 1989, when the nation's governors and the president met in Charlottesville, Virginia, for an ''education summit.'' Out of the historic meeting came six national education goals to be met by the year 2000. Today, three years later, these goals still are not in formal national policy.
Piecemeal reforms simply have not been enough. Still missing was a national response, an acknowledgment from the federal government that we must systematically re-examine an antiquated turn-of-the century model.
As ''A Nation at Risk'' stated, ''History is not kind to idlers.'' Well, we are finally ready to take the next step.
On April 21, President Clinton took initial action to provide a national response by introducing the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. This bill provides a framework to create a partnership for change, including fundamental reform of schools linked to voluntary national and state standards that define what our students should know and be able to do, better learning opportunities for all students and schools that take more responsibility for improved results, all designed to help create a world-class, high-skill, high-wage work force. The bill recognizes that each child must have the ''opportunity to learn,'' to attend a school with well-trained teachers, a solid curriculum with instructional materials and technology -- essential elements of a quality education.
Where is American education? Against the standards set by ''A Nation At Risk,'' some progress has been made. In many schools, we can see more challenging high school graduation requirements. We see more students with at least some grounding in basic skills and generally, a small closing of the achievement gap between minority students and white. But in ** test after test, far too few of our students score no higher than basic levels of competency on challenging subject matter. We remain near the bottom in international comparisons.
While some students in some schools are now learning near world-class levels, for too many students the textbook and homework still compete with the television set. Pretty good is not good enough. We need a national effort to upgrade education. We need to go from a ''A Nation At Risk,'' to ''A Nation on the Move.'' Goals 2000: Educate America is one critical first step . . . but it will take all Americans getting involved to improve education.
Richard W. Riley is United States secretary of Education.