Perfect Schools in 2013?

Two decades of national debate over how to fix public schools have come down to this: Within 12 years, the federal government expects all eighth-graders to be fully proficient in math and reading.

Such a goal, enshrined in a bill headed for the president's signature by Christmas, would be this decade's equivalent of landing a man on the moon.

It can be done, if all the key players can also be proficient in implementing the changes demanded in a set of grand compromises hammered out by congressional Democrats and Republicans.

Potential pitfalls are many. For starters, federal willingness to withhold money from states that fail to make educational changes has already been shown to be lacking. Lesser federal reforms passed in 1994 have been poorly implemented.

The nation obviously isn't yet accustomed to a strong federal hand in reshaping local schools. But President Bush's top political priority pre-Sept. 11 was to use federal leverage to hold public schools accountable for failing students.

Assuming he wins a second term, the president would also need to be held accountable for showing - over seven years in office - whether Washington can be the primary agent of change in education. If not, then that role should return to the current mix of local and state authority.

Also to be held accountable are teachers and administrators. If schools fail to show progress in test results of students, parents could then use federal funds for private tutoring or transfer their children to other public (and presumably better) schools. Eventually, a failing school's staff could be replaced. That's a complicated set of consequences, but one that can advance current efforts in states to provide solutions for frustrated parents with kids in bad schools.

A third group to be held accountable are the writers of state tests. First, they will have the test results held up to the light of day by being matched against a national test done selectively in every state. Second, they will be forced to write tests that won't result in teachers only "teaching to the test." That may be the hardest test of all.

This grand national experiment in public education comes with increased funding for many urban schools, which need a leg up to meet the 2013 goal. One flaw in that funding is that it relies on tagging students by their race, ethnicity, gender, and English-speaking abilities. That kind of victim-by-category accounting could be complicated and end up causing unnecessary divisions.

But course corrections will likely be needed as the US aims for one small step for a nation, one giant leap for every child.

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