Time for a political pop quiz:
What has received billions of extra dollars over the past decade or more - while also pursuing hundreds of new ideas - but still does not have much to show for it?
Answer: public education.
The jury's still out on whether the school reform movement, despite noted progress, will achieve its two primary goals anytime soon:
1. To ensure that all children reach a basic level of learning;
2. To ensure that the next generation is smarter and more well-rounded than the last one - and also as smart as kids in other rich nations such as Germany and Japan.
The first goal - known as the "equity" - may be easier to reach sooner. (See story, page 17.) That's because Americans since the 1960s have accepted the profound idea that every child can be educated through high school - and also deserves to be.
That's not a matter of justice, but rather a giant leap in human thinking - that every child has the capacity to learn and to rise above any apparent limitations, such as poverty, handicaps, race, genetics, or the stigma du jour.
If Sesame Street can prove every toddler can learn to read, then public schools can ensure all their graduates can do algebra and write an essay.
It's no longer a matter of only offering a high school education to every child, or even - at its worst - granting a diploma even though a student only coasts along on "social promotion" and grade inflation.
Now results in learning do matter. And the capstone of this historic transformation in public thinking is the education bill that President Bush will sign in coming days.
This new law demands all states to test students for minimum reading and math skills from grades 3 to 8. Low performers can receive extra help, either through tutoring or by moving to another public school. The states have 12 years to - at last - "leave no child behind" in education.
Such reforms should push political and education leaders to ask taxpayers to put even more dollars into schools. Local voters have been demanding more bang for their education buck. Now with reforms more closely tied to accountability, taxpayers can feel better about supporting the expanding task of lifting all children through better schools.
The second goal - passing on a smarter and more well-rounded generation - will be more difficult. That's partly because this goal is of greater concern in wealthier schools, where efforts to upgrade the quality of learning often run into a complacency that says the current education is "good enough."
But the rapid pace of the digital and global age is forcing schools to teach higher levels of thinking and more nimbleness in the ability to transfer skills between fields. And parents want smaller class size, computer training, and better (and better-paid) teachers to make sure their children don't graduate with skills for yesterday's jobs.
But even more, society at large is demanding more of its young citizens in a range of life skills, from knowing how to make marriages work to being socially responsible in business, environment, and the community.
Just crafting a career and learning how to make money - as complex as those have become - aren't enough for public education. Jarring events such as the Columbine massacre and the Sept. 11 attacks have served as bugle calls for teaching values, ethics, and discipline - without crossing the line into teaching religion or meddling in a child's personal life.
Now, instead of teaching the politically correct approach of infinite tolerance toward any point of view, there's more "zero tolerance" toward behavior that hurts and dishonesty that corrupts. Schools are reclaiming the concept that right and wrong have a brickwall reality.
Tolerance has its limits when bullies go unchallenged, kids take rifles to school, and teachers blame American policies for terrorists flying planes into buildings.
The values-in-education movement that formed during the Watergate era of the 1970s has yet to find a home in most public schools. That breakthrough in the reform movement still needs help. And it likely won't come through a new federal law.
Rather, it will come when more citizens take responsibility beyond just paying taxes and push schools to learn faster than their students do.