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In 1983, President Reagan put out a report that said that, thanks to declining education, America was at risk. What did the report say? And was the country really at risk? In this lesson, we’ll examine the contents, impact, and criticism of the report.

A Nation at Risk

It was 1983.

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Hair and shoulder pads were big, Madonna’s first album was released, and the nation was at risk. In April 1983, President Ronald Reagan presented the United States with a 36-page report written by a special commission he had put together to examine the state of public schools in America. The report, titled A Nation at Risk, offered a grim picture of American education.

According to the report, American schools were getting worse: test scores were falling, millions of Americans were illiterate, and our teachers weren’t educated enough or paid enough. As the title of the report suggested, the entire nation was at risk of falling apart because our education was subpar. Other countries could swoop in and pass us in science, technology, and other areas where we had been the world leader. What to do?Let’s look closer at the report, including recommendations and critiques of it.


Reagan’s Nation at Risk report didn’t stop at decrying the state of America and how we were all going down the tubes. If it had, it would have been a very depressing read! Instead, though, it offered specific recommendations for how we could get back on track.

It suggested that there were specific things we could do to reverse the course and bring American education to safety. Included among the recommendations were several key points:1. More rigorIn the educational sense, ‘rigor‘ means ‘to make something more difficult.’ The report suggested that states increase the rigor of their curricula, challenging students to do better and graduate smarter.

2. New standardsSome states had already written standards, which stated that students would have to accomplish certain things to move through the grades and eventually graduate high school. But others didn’t have clearly defined standards. And the report was concerned that even those states that did have standards had made the requirements so lax that the students really didn’t have to do much of anything in order to pass.

The Nation at Risk report suggested that states adopt new, rigorous standards that required students to meet higher-level requirements to graduate.3. Teacher preparation and payThe report noted that some teacher training programs did not provide adequate training for teachers. In addition, teachers were paid far less than other fields that required a college degree.

As a result, there was a shortage of qualified teachers, especially in areas like science and math. Among other teacher-related recommendations, the report suggested that teacher training programs require more of prospective teachers and that teacher pay be tied directly to student achievement.


You might not have been surprised to hear the recommendations that I just described. State standards? Rigorous curricula? These things are pretty common topics in education today.

In fact, A Nation at Risk had a large impact on the way we run our educational system even today.Take the recommendations around more rigor and new standards. Since the report was released, states have continually increased the rigor in their classrooms, and every state now has a set of standards in line with the report’s suggestions. In fact, the majority of states have adopted the Common Core standards, a set of standards developed by educational experts for kindergarten through high school.Another area that A Nation at Risk had an impact on was on teacher training and pay. Since the report was released, many states have increased the requirements for how teachers can become certified, and many teacher training programs have become more rigorous. In addition, some places are now paying teachers based on how well their students do on standardized tests, as recommended in the report.

Manufactured Crisis?

There’s no doubt that A Nation at Risk had an impact on American education, from teacher pay to the Common Core standards. But was the report correct? Were we really in danger of falling apart as a nation due to issues with our educational system?Very quickly after being released, critics began to say that A Nation at Risk was not accurate. One of the more powerful blows dealt to the report came a few years later, in 1990, when statistical analysis showed that the declining test scores that Reagan and his contemporaries were concerned with might not have been declining after all.

A Nation at Risk noted that test scores over the past few decades had been declining. That was true overall, but when test scores were broken out by racial, ethnic, economic, and gender subgroups, analysis found that the test scores in all the subgroups had actually increased.How is this possible? Critics of the report pointed out that test scores at the beginning of the period were based mostly on white, middle-class boys. They were the ones who had the most access to education. But in the mid-20th century, as access to education broadened, many more subgroups were included in education.As a result, the test scores that were being reported as declining included groups who were still relatively new to the educational system and for whom the tests were not designed.

By breaking out the data by subgroup, critics showed that each subgroup was continually improving on the tests.In the mid-1990s, a new book was written that critiqued A Nation at Risk. The new book, The Manufactured Crisis brought the critique of test scores and other issues with the original report to light.

The authors argued that the Reagan administration had manufactured an educational crisis for political reasons.Whether the nation really was at risk or the crisis was manufactured, however, there is no doubt that A Nation at Risk had a long-term impact on education.

Lesson Summary

A Nation at Risk is a 1983 report put out by the Reagan administration that described how America’s educational system was failing to educate students well. Among other things, it recommended that schools become more rigorous, that they adopt new standards, and that teacher preparation and pay be evaluated. Over 30 years later, many of the report’s recommendations have taken effect. However, there have been many critiques of the report, including a famous book titled The Manufactured Crisis, which questions statistics used in A Nation at Risk.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this video, you should be able to:

  • Describe President Reagan’s 1983 report called A Nation at Risk
  • List some of the recommendations listed in the report
  • Analyze the impact and critiques of the report

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