Exactly 40 years ago, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was published, sending tremors throughout the United States in general and in every corner of K-24 education in particular. The report, a result of an 18-member Blue Ribbon Commission tasked with providing an unblinking eye on the state of U.S. education at the time, was almost literally explosive. Perhaps the ominous sound bite that is most often highlighted is, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Billions of dollars of resources spent yielded lackluster results.
Naturally, other nations were keen to examine this exposé, particularly because then-President Ronald Reagan opposed the creation of the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education which composed ANR – Secretary of Education Terrel Bell ensured that it was written and published. Further, it was widely known that Reagan was actively seeking to abolish the Department of Education altogether. Who would not want to know about the “rising tide of mediocrity” that had become synonymous with education in the U.S. and reluctantly exposed by a U.S. president who saw his own Department of Education as superfluous?
The furor which erupted as a result of A Nation at Risk and the billions of dollars spent chasing the avenues of solution over the decades since have been picked apart and critically judged by countless researchers, superintendents, and politicians. ANR made the bold statement, “Nationally, our educational systems are unremarkable and dysfunctional” while simultaneously demanding, “And what are we, as a nation, going to do about it?” Suffice to say, the causal effect of ANR was immediate, far-reaching and costly. Yet 40 years hence we are still very much, in terms of educational successes, “a nation at risk.” The current conditions which put education in the United States at risk are a combination of new challenges and stubborn, decades-old issues.
The United States is a nation at risk for some of the same reasons that existed in 1983 and for others that people did not imagine then. Our K-12 public schools, for example, have ever-increasing learning gaps between affluent and poorer populations. The data stunningly indicates that the darker the skin of the student in the U.S., the lower the quality of the education they receive. In the United States, the most accurate predictor of high performance in education continues to be a student’s zip code, that is, the more affluent the family, the higher the academic performance. By some measures, the learning gaps that existed in the U.S. in 1983 have widened, not narrowed.
This book does not examine A Nation at Risk in any significant way. It does, however, illustrate and describe many persistent challenges as they relate to appropriate leadership in both the private and public sectors that share a great deal of commonality. I will make the case that True Leadership is desirable and sought-after everywhere because it is transferable to both public and private sectors. Great leadership is great leadership.
We are still A Nation at Risk.
We are at risk because, though we know what stellar leadership looks and feels like, we have promoted a culture that protects the poor leadership and the Devil We Know. We criticize those who lead us with selfless vision while rewarding egotistical leaders which discourages those among us from pursuing leadership. As a result, we collectively commiserate in our complaints and discouragement, yet continue to permit those we recognize as poor leaders to remain in positions of leadership.
We are at risk because we in the United States don’t hold hope of working alongside much less becoming a True Leader© because we don’t know how to get there. Though most people in the U.S. have only experienced True Leadership© briefly, they have had some measure of contact with True Leaders and recognize that it exists. Lacking a road map to better leadership, it exists in folklore, like a unicorn or Bigfoot.
We are at risk because we have been duped into believing that private sector leaders are better equipped to lead than public sector leaders. In the United States, there is a dichotomous relationship between public and private sectors wherein the two camps know little or nothing about one another. These divisions are seen in several significant paradigms, especially as it relates to leadership. Principal among them are:
Compensation is more generous in the private sector than in the public sector. You want to earn a higher salary? Eschew public sector leadership which is perceived by many in the U.S. as jobs for losers and those who can’t make it in the private sector.
The perception that private sector leaders work harder or put in more hours than the public sector leaders.
Public sector leaders operate in a not-for-profit universe while private sector behaviors are grounded in a for-profit mindset. The former is not driven by the expansion of profit margins while the latter measures performance on making financial gains.
Public sector leaders see their human capital as an investment while their private sector counterparts see their people as an expense.
We are at risk because we have endorsed a narrative that our performance in the workplace and in our schools was better in the past than it is today. This phenomenon of recalling the past as better than the present is a longstanding human behavior. Our blindness to a frank and clear comparison based on reliable data minimizes True Leadership which depends on a certain measure of risk-taking into an unknown future.
We are at risk because we yearn for something better yet are frightened of the changes that would bring desired improvement. Fear of change is a fundamental human tendency rooted in primordial behavior: many creatures (in addition to humans) will stand motionless at the open door to their restrictive cage. True Leadership relies on calculated risk and preparation so flight to a new and better environment is achievable.
The United States will continue to be a nation at risk as long as any one of us permits grating voices who call for further investment in private sector schools while perpetuating the maintenance of sub-standard leadership. Many conservative politicians hold financial interests in the proliferation of charter and private schools steer public funds to their pockets while de-funding public education. Still think the U.S is a democracy?
©️Copyright by David Samore. This excerpt is from True Leadership: Why Fair Play and Open Arms Always Win (2023), by David Samore, Ed.D. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.