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Twenty years after 'A Nation at Risk'

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If it seems no US politician ever makes a speech today without insisting that education is his or her top priority, a quick glance back exactly 20 years may explain why that is.

On April 26, 1983, a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the Reagan administration released "A Nation at Risk" - a report chock-full of strong language and disturbing findings on the state of education in the United States.

"Our Nation is at risk," the report stated. "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people."

Test scores were falling, schools were asking less and less of their students, and US schools increasingly were failing to stack up against their overseas counterparts, the report asserted.

In many respects, "A Nation at Risk" fired a shot heard across the US. A state of emergency was declared. The federal government couldn't afford to leave education to state and local governments.

In 1989, then-President George Bush convened a governors' conference on education, directly inspired by the report, and 13 years later his son signed the No Child Left Behind legislation into law. Because of "A Nation at Risk," the federal government has an unprecedented and probably irreversible role in education.

But for all the debate, increased spending, and national attention, has anything improved in US schools since the release of "A Nation at Risk"?

"The answer to that question all depends on where you're sitting," says Gary Natriello, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "Plenty of people sitting in plenty of places would say that not much progress has been made."

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