American Portraits

A Nation at Risk: Responsibility and the National Commission on Excellence in Education

In this lesson, students will learn about the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education and the succeeding efforts at responsible education reform in America. They will also determine ways they can be responsible.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


The report began:

Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, 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…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. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves…Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the Nation’s commitment to schools and colleges of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Who is best equipped to be responsible for decisions regarding the education of young people?

Virtue Defined

Responsibility is accountability to myself and others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education and the succeeding efforts at responsible education reform in America. They will also determine ways they can be responsible.


  • Students will analyze the Commission’s actions to improve education.
  • Students will evaluate who is best equipped to take responsibility for education in America.
  • Students will apply their knowledge to determine ways to be responsible in their own lives.


In 1946, President Harry Truman established a commission to study the state of higher education in the United States and make recommendations for any needed improvements. Prior to this, education had generally been considered one of the reserved powers left to the states under the Tenth Amendment. However, American education became more and more a federal issue. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson each established committees or task forces to measure the condition of education in America, as have more recent presidents.

Throughout the 1970s, a variety of studies compared academic achievement of American students to that of students in other industrialized countries, and most of those reports indicated that American education was falling short. What was wrong in our schools? In 1980, several federal agencies were combined to create the U.S. Department of Education, a new office in the president’s cabinet. The goal was to guarantee equal access to education and to spur educational excellence across the nation. The Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan was Terrell Bell, and he appointed the National Commission on Excellence in Education. In 1983, the commission issued its report, entitled “A Nation at Risk.”


  • Reserved powers
  • Tenth Amendment
  • Preeminence
  • Innovation
  • Undergird
  • Civility
  • Mediocrity
  • Bleak
  • SAT scores
  • Comprehensive
  • Charter school
  • Goals 2000: Educate America Act
  • Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)
  • No Child Left Behind Act
  • Common Core State Standards
  • Contentious

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was the Commission’s purpose?
  • Why did the Commission take actions regarding American education?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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