NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Johnny Still Can't Read

May 16, 2003

It has been 20 years since "A Nation at Risk," the 1983 report on education in America, concluded that the "intellectual, moral and spiritual strength of our people" were threatened by a failing education system.

The report recommended better-educated and -qualified teachers, regularly assessing teacher and student performance, and performance pay for better teachers. It also proposed a much stronger curriculum, particularly in math and English.

So, how have we done? Although "A Nation at Risk" did not recommend increased spending, more resources have been poured into public education:

  • Federal spending under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has risen from $4 billion a year to $22 billion.
  • In the most recent fiscal year the nation as a whole spent $480 billion on elementary and secondary education.
  • Since "A Nation at Risk," inflation-adjusted teacher pay is up 12 percent and per pupil spending is up 60 percent.

But in regard to most of the recommendations of the 1983 report, there has been no progress at all.

  • Classes are smaller -- an average of 18.6 pupils per class then, 15 now -- and there is more emphasis on English and math.
  • However, performance pay for teachers has not been implemented, and there are 70 percent fewer teachers with master's degrees.

SAT scores have declined. National Education Assessment Program test scores have risen marginally, but are still low:

  • The 2001 NAEP test scores show only 32 percent of American fourth-graders can read proficiently or better.
  • As The Wall Street Journal summed it up: "63 percent of black fourth graders, 58 percent of Hispanics, 60 percent of children in poverty, and 47 percent of children in urban schools scored at 'below basic' competency levels, which means they can't read."

Source: Pete Du Pont (NCPA policy chairman), "Two Decades of Mediocrity," Outside the Box,, May 5, 2003.

For text


Browse more articles on Education Issues