"A Nation at Risk," the report issued 30 years ago by President Ronald Reagan's Education Department, was meant as a wake-up call for the country. It spelled out where the United States was coming up short in education and what steps could be taken to avert a crisis.
But its warnings still reverberate today, with 1 in 4 Americans failing to earn a high school degree on time and the U.S. lagging other countries in the percentage of young people who complete college.
"A Nation at Risk" spooked the public, urged an overhaul of how and what children are taught and sparked the school reform movement in the country. Current reform advocates such Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush can trace their work back to the report.
"We opened the genie from the bottle and said, `You aren't doing so well,'" said Xavier University of Louisiana President Norman C. Francis, a member of the commission that produced the dire warning. "For us, we felt good about the fact that we wrote something that needed to be said. We had the research. And we hoped we would have a greater measure of return."
At times, President Barack Obama has seemed to take his cues from the report.
"What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream," he said in 2009, calling for education overhaul to keep pace with other counties.
"Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us," he said.
Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and a former senior Education Department official, calls the report prescient. "The themes that it stressed - the increasing role of technology, globalization - is now the everyday stuff of education. But it wasn't at the time."
"I can't think of anything that painted with quite as broad a stroke as `A Nation at Risk,'" he added.
Its impact, however, was not as broad.
The commissioners urged extending the school year from 180 days to up to 220 days. The report also suggested an 11-month contract for teachers so they could spend their summers preparing for the next year. Neither recommendation has been put into widespread use.
The commissioners also said teacher salaries should be increased to be "professionally competitive." Again, there hasn't been near the movement commissioners sought. In today's dollars, the average teacher earned $46,700 in 1983 and $54,900 in 2010, according to the Education Department.
But some of the commission's other recommendations were put into practice, including a more rigorous curriculum. For instance, students graduating in 1982 had an average of 2.2 science credits on their transcripts. In 2009, that average number rose to 3.5 credits.
And the class of 1982 left high school with 2.6 math credits, compared with the 2009 graduates' 3.9 credits, according to Education Department data.
"The results are mixed," said William Bennett, who served as Reagan's second-term education secretary. "We have progress being paid to the right things: content, accountability. ... It was right about how we needed to beef up courses and how we needed to be stronger."
But when Bennett compares U.S. results with those of other nations, there's no reason to celebrate.
"If you look at those numbers, you get the story for 30 years," he said. "If there's a bottom line, it's that we're spending twice as much money on education as we did in '83 and the results haven't changed all that much."
American fourth-graders are 11th in the world in math in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the measure of nations against each other. U.S. eighth-graders ranked ninth in math, according to those 2011 results.
The Program for International Student Assessment measurement found the United States ranked 31st in math literacy among 15-year-old students and below the international average. The same 2009 tests found the United States ranked 23rd in science among the same students, but posting an average score.
It's impossible to compare the rankings before 1995, when these international math and science tests were first given. The first international math literacy and science tests were given in 2001.
Yet domestic tests show there have not been major changes in students' scores.
Between 1980 and 2008, 13-year-old students posted only a 2-point gain in reading scores and 17-year-old students saw just a 1-point gain during that time. The tests were scored on a scale of 0 to 500, meaning the change was statistically insignificant.
Similarly, 13-year-olds saw a 12-point gain in math scores between 1982 and 2008. Seventeen-year-old students saw an 8-point gain during the same time on math scores. Again, the tests followed a scale of 0 to 500.
"We haven't yet gotten near the payoff that we want and need in terms of achievement in 30 years," said Chester Finn, a former senior Education Department official who now heads the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank.
"The fact that 30 years later, despite all of the reforming, the gains are so modest, they ought to serve to energize and even panic today's policymakers," he said.
Of course, stagnant scores don't automatically mean stagnant learning; higher standards could yield lower scores.
Domestic measurements comparing U.S. students to one another are relatively new and tests aren't given every year. Also, tracing changes isn't as simple as looking at the United States' standing compared with other countries today.
What is clear is that "A Nation at Risk" cast the United States as on the precipice of collapse, not unlike the warnings that followed the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite, which caught Americans by surprise.
While other education studies urged action, none was as intentionally alarming as this one.
"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," the commissioners wrote. "As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. ... We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."
In a brisk 36 pages, the authors warned that schools were not preparing students for their future and cautioned that the country would suffer. In some ways, the same warnings have appeared in most reports on education in the last decades.
The report continued, "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."
Last year, another commission borrowed that indictment of mediocrity in similar language.
"The sad fact is that the rising tide of mediocrity is not something that belongs in history books," concluded a Council on Foreign Relations panel led by former New York City schools chief Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
When the Reagan-era commission began its work, no one expected the report to be so critical. In fact, Reagan campaigned for president on a pledge to dismantle the same Education Department that convened these leaders.
Instead, the commissioners brought together experts and original research to make the case for an expanded role for education. They wrote a document that Reagan eventually would wrap himself in, travel the country to promote and use as a rhetorical prop during the final decade of the Cold War.
"This was much more a political document. ... A lot of this was just bombastic, plug-and-play rhetoric," said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Where it excelled at language, it came up short on specifics, he said.
The data the commissioners used to reach their conclusions and recommendations 30 years ago pale in comparison to what researchers today have. The report sparked volumes of tests and rankings now common to measure students.
"Gosh, I think they got the message right, but the facts weren't strong enough to back them up," said Whitehurst, the Brookings scholar who was the first chief of the Education Department's current research arm. "A report trying to draw the same conclusions today would have more research."
Even so, the report has its place in history.
"It's been the most influential report on education in my lifetime. It was so blunt," said Michael Rebell, a professor of law and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. "It gave us the whole standards movement."
Francis, a member of the original commission, said the report should have scared Americans into much more sweeping action.
"We were saying in 1983, `This is a global society emerging and you need to worry about this now,'" he said.
Yet, despite the urgency, the report yielded no significant legislation and many of the problems it identified have not been solved.
"I still think we made a contribution," Francis said. "But maybe it could have been much more. But you never look back."
TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Law enforcement officials searched the home of a second Mississippi man implicated in the mailing of ricin poison-laced letters to the president and a U.S. senator after charges were dropped without explanation against the man arrested in the case last week.
Everett Dutschke, whose home was searched Tuesday by dozens of officials, some in hazmat suits, had feuded with Paul Kevin Curtis, a 45 year old celebrity impersonator who has said since his arrest that he had nothing to do with the case.
The search began early Tuesday afternoon. At about 8:30 p.m. CDT, two FBI agents and two members of the state's chemical response team left his property and began combing through ditches, culverts and woods about a block away from his house in the neighborhood.
So every now and then, crews will tow the planes around the Texas tarmac a bit to make sure the tires don't rot, then send them back into exile until they can finally get permission to commit the aging aircraft to the boneyard.
It's not an unfamiliar story.
Idle aircraft and pricey ship deployments underscore the contradictions and conflicts as Congress orders the Pentagon to slash $487 billion in spending over the next 10 years and another $41 billion in the next six months. Yet, at the same time, lawmakers are forcing the services to keep ships, aircraft, military bases, retiree benefits and other programs that defense leaders insist they don't want, can't afford or simply won't be able to use. The Associated Press interviewed senior military leaders involved in the ongoing analysis of the budget and its impact on the services and compiled data on the costs and programs from Defense Department documents.
The Pentagon long has battled with Congress over politically sensitive spending cuts. But this year, military officials say Congress' refusal to retire ships and aircraft means the Navy and Air Force are spending roughly $5 billion more than they would if they were allowed to make the cuts. In some cases Congress restored funds to compensate for the changes, but the result overall was lost savings.
In other cases, frustrated military leaders quietly complained that they were being forced to furlough civilians, ground Air Force training flights and delay or cancel ship deployments to the Middle East and South America, while Congress refuses to accept savings in other places that could ease those pains.
Along the eastern seaboard, two Navy cruisers — the USS Anzio in Norfolk, Va., and the USS Vicksburg in Mayport, Fla. — were scheduled for retirement this year but both are now sitting pierside. Navy leaders will soon schedule the ships for significant repairs and begin readying their crews so they can go back into service.
Altogether, Congress is requiring the Navy to keep seven cruisers and two amphibious warships in service, eliminating the $4.3 billion the retirements would have saved over the next two years.
"A lot of it comes down to parochial political interests," said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "No member of Congress wants to have a base closed in their district or to have a fighter squadron relocated out of their district."
Members of Congress argue that they believe the Pentagon sometimes makes bad decisions and other times may purposely target programs that have broad support.
"Certainly that has been a pattern, they've cut Guard and Reserves in areas where it's clearly unwise and Congress steps in to put the money in," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee.
While the Navy sought to retire the seven ships, the Air Force wanted to save more than $600 million by retiring C-130 and C-5A cargo aircraft, three B-1 bombers and 18 high-altitude Global Hawk surveillance drones.
Congress disagreed, adding various requirements that the Navy and Air Force maintain the ships and aircraft, and in some cases added money to the budget to cover them. Fifteen of the C-5A Galaxy aircraft no longer set to retire are at Lackland, while 11 are at Martinsburg, W.Va., and are flown by the Air National Guard there.
A senior Air Force official said the service determined that it didn't need all of the aging aircraft. And it pushed to cut the Global Hawks because defense officials determined that the U-2 spy plane, first produced more than 50 years ago, was better suited for the high-altitude surveillance job and would cost less money.
The official also noted that while lawmakers rejected plans to retire the Galaxy aircraft, congressional appropriators did not add back money to pay for the fuel or the manpower to fly them. Similarly, the three B-1 bombers will move into backup status and likely will be used infrequently. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the budget, so requested anonymity.
The decision to block retirement of some C-130s, however, reveals how narrow, yet critical, the political interests can be. Pennsylvania lawmakers declared victory last month when they reversed the decision to retire eight C-130s and shut down the 911th Airlift Wing near Pittsburgh. Local officials and business owners argued that the base, which uses space at Pittsburgh International Airport, provides an economic boost to the entire community.
Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey, a Democrat, lobbied Pentagon leaders and fellow lawmakers to keep the wing. They argued in a letter to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that "the 911th is a very efficient and cost effective installation" and that closing it could be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Pentagon officials have also been thwarted in their broader efforts to shut down costly and underused military facilities around the country. Congress rejected the department's request last year for two more rounds of base closings, as lawmakers objected not only to the prospect of taking jobs and dollars out of a region's economy, but also questioned whether closing the facilities actually achieves the promised savings.
Pentagon budget chief Robert Hale acknowledged earlier this month that the department spent $35 billion on the base closure round in 2005, and while it saves $4 billion a year, officials won't break even until 2018. The expense is largely because a number of new facilities were built even as some were merged and closed.
"Would a (base closings) round be effective in providing rapid savings? Unfortunately, history has emphatically told us, no," Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., said during a recent hearing on the Base Realignment and Closures program. "I believe that aggressively moving forward with the BRAC round could significantly harm our military power and their ability to project power."
Currently, the department saves about $8 billion a year on the four rounds that were carried out before 2005. The Pentagon has proposed another round in 2014 that Hale said would save $1 billion to $2 billion a year. Pentagon leaders insist that the military still has nearly 20 percent too many bases and facilities.
"There is still excess infrastructure," Assistant Army Secretary Katherine Hammack told the House Armed Services Committee last month. "I was just on one (base) that had 800 buildings and we were utilizing 300 of them."
Perhaps the most significant cost savings historically opposed by Congress are Pentagon efforts to scale back military retirement benefits, including proposals to increase premiums or co-pays for retirees.
"I think there's a misunderstanding in Congress about what it is that would change," Harrison said. "They tend to associate changes in retirement benefits with changes to veterans benefits."
But changes to retiree health care would only affect the approximately 17 percent of the service members who stay in the military long enough to qualify for retirement, and those are usually more senior officers who already have a higher income. Veterans' benefits more often help those with lower incomes, and they are included in the Veterans Affairs Department budget, not the Pentagon's.
Turner faulted department leaders for some of the problems with those broader issues.
"I think on policy shifts you need a more holistic approach, and the Pentagon usually doesn't engage Congress in discussions of finding cuts or program changes. They send them up as missiles for Congress to deal with, instead of using a deliberative approach."
Harrison said the Pentagon needs to do a better job explaining and selling its arguments for such politically unpalatable spending cuts.
"If you actually try to do smart targeted reductions, like closing bases, like actually reducing the size of the workforce, targeted cuts have winners and losers," Harrison said. "And Congress has not been willing to make those tough decisions."
As a result, he said, lawmakers resort to broader, across-the-board cuts, such as the furloughs.
"It spreads pain across evenly," he said. "So everyone can wash their hands of it."