A Nation at Risk: The [Tired] Imperative for Educational Reform
In 1983, the Federal Government commissioned a report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Its charter stated that the United States' educational system was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce and required the commission to assess the
“quality of teaching and learning” at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, in both the public and private spheres and to compare “American schools and colleges with those of other advanced nations.” The report covered five major areas: Content, Standards and Expectations, Time, Teaching, Leadership and Fiscal Support.
Clearly, this 34-year-old report represents the touchstone of America's current educational reform efforts, policies, beliefs, and practices. It was based, of course, upon the science and knowledge of the time. Thankfully, science has evolved.
In 1983, I was 14 years old and a student in a public school system in a small community in Michigan's Thumb region. I lived next door to my grandmother, who was beginning to exhibit the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. At the time, very little was known about the disease and it was scary to see my grandmother devolve from a proud, intelligent person to one who struggled to function on her own.
Recently, I heard an interview with a medical researcher who specializes in Alzheimer's disease. Given my grandmother’s suffering, I am particularly interested in this topic, including my own risk. The researcher, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, shared five adult lifestyle, activity, and intervention factors that are key to a healthy brain:
- What’s good for your heart is good for your brain - exercise is critical.
- A shortage of sleep is as damaging as smoking. Seven to eight hours of sleep a night are vital.
- Eat a healthy diet, including less red meat and more fiber, olive oil, and nuts.
- Move mentally and socially, meaning learning in ways that truly challenge your mind; and engage in positive, caring relationships.
- Manage stress and anxiety.
(See the entire PBS program, Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts)
As I devour the research on child development, talent and intelligence, well-being, and achievement, I am struck by the similarities found in Alzheimer’s research. Not just in middle age or older adulthood, but throughout the entirety of life, every single one of us needs these things, every day, in order to achieve. In fact, Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, states this about stress and anxiety:
“The belief that bad events are caused by personal, permanent, and pervasive factors
robustly predicts depression and poor school achievement… Pessimism is a risk factor
for depression in school-children in exactly the same sense that smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer, and may even be a bigger risk factor.”
Research has certainly evolved since 1983. We know so much more now about the brain and human development. We understand that there is a strong link between our mental state, our physical state, and our levels of achievement.
Eleven years ago, I came across a school of thought called “Cultures of Thinking.” Here, teachers in schools create conditions in their classrooms where thinking is valued, made visible, and advanced as part of the regular school day. After all, if educators are not aware of what a child is thinking, how can they help the child grow their knowledge?
Within a Culture of Thinking, the idea exists of a dispositional view of intelligence - what you can do with what you know is as important as your knowledge level. The skills of open-mindedness, collaboration, creativity and innovation, communication, and metacognition (or, thinking about your thinking) are vital.
As I studied Cultures of Thinking and worked to create them in the schools I lead, I was not aware of the relationship between metacognition and health. Admittedly, I did not realize that helping a child develop his or her thinking skills could contribute positively to lifelong physical and mental well-being. Only through further study did I come to understand that an acute awareness of the source and accuracy of our own thinking is determinant, along with other lifestyle, intervention, and activity factors, in the quality of the lives we live.
It is Time for a New Foundation for Educational Reform
There is much debate in the public, private, and educational sectors as to the quality of our schools and the best ways to make them better. And still, A Nation at Risk (1983) presents the touchstone of America’s educational reform agenda. Yet, without question, newer knowledge, research, and science drives reform efforts in many of the advanced nations to which America’s schools are compared.
It is time for America to take up a new foundation upon which to base its educational reform efforts, policies, beliefs and practices, particularly with regard to the relationship between social, emotional, and physical well-being and academic achievement. Alas we know without question that you cannot have one without the others.
Think about it, please!