Ten years ago, the authors of the galvanizing report on the decline of American education titled it "A Nation at Risk." There was no doubt what they had in mind. Japan was on the move, dominating large segments of the American economy. What was at risk was stated in the report's first few lines: this nation's "preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation."
But what of the risk of inferior education to minority children, most of whom live in cities surrounded by suburbs with superior schools?
Except for a brief statement that "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," the report was silent.
It said nothing about desegregation, though urban schools were more segregated in 1983 than a decade earlier. It said nothing about academic "tracking," which segregates by race within a school. It said not a word about inequities in school financing that existed then and a decade later allow Montgomery County to spend $2,000 a year more on each student than Baltimore City.
Blacks spotted these omissions and worried that "A Nation at Risk" signaled the Reagan administration's retreat from the cities and from city children. They also feared that black children, behind at the outset, would have trouble keeping up as the stricter standards called for in the report were imposed.
They were right on the first count, but one of the unheralded success stories of the past two decades is that blacks have steadily narrowed the gap between themselves and whites in math and science proficiency, while their scores have increased by 20 points in the verbal SAT and 31 points in the math SAT. In the past 10 years, blacks have been the only racial and ethnic group to significantly increase their rate of school completion.
Rejoicing, however, has to be tempered by the knowledge that most African-Americans do not take the science and math courses in school that lead to careers in an increasingly technological world. Low-income blacks are virtually shut out of college-preparatory classes if they attend schools with large enrollments of students like themselves -- poor and black.
Moreover, since 1983, the social environment for young people in the cities has deteriorated, if we measure the conditions that plague children: poverty, guns in the schools, illegal drugs, AIDS, unemployment, teen-age pregnancies.
Educators such as Freeman Hrabowski -- a mathematician and acting president of UMBC, who established the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program on his campus -- are demonstrating that African-Americans (particularly black males, who are at a distinct disadvantage) can succeed in any field if they are nurtured, expertly taught and presented with role models.
The authors of "A Nation at Risk" perhaps didn't realize it, but there is a connection between the risk to America's economic preeminence and the risk to its children of color. By the turn of the century, women and minorities will constitute more than half of the work force. If these individuals are not well-educated now, we won't be a nation at risk; we will be a nation in dire crisis.
Tomorrow: No Daring Reforms