Education reform is diverse, like the institutions it's reforming. This could look like a weakness. There is no national school system in the United States, and quality control across thousands of self-governing districts in 50 states is nearly impossible. Unequal distribution of resources is endemic.
But the diversity of American public education is in fact a strength. Dozens of experiments and approaches can go on simultaneously, and in today's information society, word of what works should get around, germinating fresh reforms.
A recent Rand Corp. comparison of student performance among the states underscored successful changes in a number of places, most notably Texas. Strengthening pre-kindergarten programs, putting more state money into schools in poor areas, and using test scores to monitor how schools are doing - none of these are exactly revolutionary ideas, but when applied diligently, the Rand study found, they make a difference.
A little more revolutionary, perhaps, is the project of a number of school districts just north of Chicago. These districts are pooling ideas to see if they can raise their students from a mediocre global ranking in math and science to "first in the world" - the name of their program.
The results over the past five years have been good. Students in participating schools shot beyond most other American children in their 1996 scores on the Third International Math and Science Study, which is used to compare achievement in various countries. They've just taken the test again (results out in the winter). The big question: Will the scores show that the US pattern of strong math and science scores in the early grades, followed by sharp declines in grades 8 and 12, can be reversed?
The project's success so far rests largely on the willingness of teachers in the various districts to meet regularly and share insights.
One last experiment. New York City is about to try something radical to turn around its worst public schools: private management. To begin with, five to seven of these schools will be converted into charter schools run by private education companies. As many as 50 schools could eventually be included in the program.
Charter schools run by private concerns exist in small numbers around the country. Some get high marks. On the other hand, large-scale experiments with privately run public schools - notably in Hartford, Conn., and Baltimore - have failed badly. The problems, including resistance from teachers' unions, can be fierce. New York's experiment will bear watching.
The testing of ideas - sharing successes and understanding failures - is what education reform should be about. The educators, like the students, have to keep learning.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society