Education put to the test

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last year, Kristin Kearns Jordan took advantage of a recently minted law that allowed her to create a charter school in one of New York City's poorest neighborhoods. As soon as the public middle school opened, the dynamic Ivy Leaguer and her staff offered students something many had never experienced before: smaller classes and intensive instruction in reading and math.

This year, Ms. Jordan's young scholars at Bronx Preparatory Charter School - selected by lottery and largely from minority, low-income families - lit into their annual standardized tests and punched out average increases of 39 points in math and 10 points in reading.

Further south, in Philadelphia, English teacher Lynn Dixon surveys the classrooms she has worked in for 20 years and sees a less promising picture. Her tenure in the deeply troubled urban system has not left her optimistic. "I've just seen the same thing happen over and again," she says of

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reform efforts, including the city's recent move toward smaller schools and longer academic periods. "They come up with one thing that needs to be the answer, but it never is."

Ten years into one of the most sustained drives to reform education in American history, the outlook for the nation's schools is decidedly mixed.

It's not for lack of effort: In urban and suburban schools alike, attention has been focused on reducing class sizes. New and clearer standards have been developed for what kids at each grade level should be able to learn and do. Students take many more state-mandated tests; soon, in more than 20 states, they won't be able to graduate without passing them. There is also more interest in requiring prospective teachers to prove subject mastery. More children are able to choose the public school they attend, and in a handful of cities they can even use public or private vouchers to help pay for private school.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to ensure that students who graduate from high schools in the United States will have the skills to match the degree. But has the sometimes-frenzied focus on schools actually made them any better?

"The trend is very much in the right direction," says Paul Reville, executive director of the Pew Forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. "We've recognized we have a problem, we've clarified methods, we've put in place systems, and now we're identifying challenges in improving practice. It's very encouraging."

Daunting tasks

Despite a hopeful spirit among some reformers, the trajectory of US education remains uncertain. Congress has just hammered out an agreement on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which will give the federal government unprecedented influence in the nation's classrooms. It provides states with more funding for education and mandates annual reading and math tests in Grades 3 to 8.

Yet, the increased focus on accountability and measurable outcomes offers no guaranteed path to better academic performance, and the challenges are daunting.

Many educators still work in underfunded districts where there is not a single science lab and where books have not been added to the school libraries since the Johnson administration. The achievement gap between races is persistent, despite repeated efforts to wipe it out. And American students who compete well internationally at the elementary level fall further behind their international counterparts as they move into higher grades.

In addition, because of a recession made worse by the terrorist attacks, a $12 billion shortfall in state education spending is projected for this school year. New York City has cut remedial Saturday classes, while California has put a hold on extra dollars once promised to struggling schools.

"Since Sept. 11, the resource issue has become a difficult one," says Gary Natriello, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University in New York. "It will be more difficult to make progress now."

It has been just over a decade since a group of governors moved to put education at the top of the national agenda. At a 1989 summit, they outlined a system that would leave no child behind - a relatively new idea in the US, where 50 years ago only about half the population graduated from high school. The loss of manufacturing jobs and the move into an information- and technology-based economy put an urgent spin on the issue.

"We no longer have an economy where we can afford to have only a small set of educated people," warns Dr. Natriello.

But some charge that progress toward the goal of widespread success for all students has been minimal - and too slow. A decade of innovation, they insist, has produced only pockets of success, as at Bronx Prep, that are virtually impossible to replicate.

Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests present a murky picture at best when it comes to searching out gains. Although one of the goals of the 1989 summit was to make US students the world's top performers on math and science tests within a decade, on the 2000 NAEP science test, US fourth- and eighth-graders made no progress with respect to weak 1996 results. High school seniors' scores actually slipped a bit during the four-year period, with only 18 percent achieving "proficiency" in science, causing Education Secretary Rod Paige to glumly proclaim that "our hopes for a strong 21st-century workforce are dimming."

On NAEP math tests, fourth- and eighth-graders did show some progress, but 12th-graders' scores declined. And even though fourth-graders posted improved results on 2000 NAEP reading tests, fewer than one-third of them were reading at grade level.

Higher standards, or conformity?

The mere fact, however, that so much of the discussion about education reform remains tied to such test results is discouraging to some educators. They worry that the current drive toward quantifiable results is leaching life and creativity from the nation's classrooms - further alienating many kids already turned off by school.

Reformers counter with the argument that for decades, devotion to local control has prevented the development of anything like a national curriculum. The result has been a sort of crazy quilt of classroom goals and standards that can vary widely even within the same town.

Many argue that such lack of standardization had become a major obstacle.

"There is increasing agreement that to have something dramatically different happening from one fourth-grade classroom to the next is a problem," says Mary Fulton, policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "That's the way it always was in this country, and really it was not OK.

Since the 1989 summit, 49 states (Iowa is the lone holdout) have adopted statewide standards, spelling out what children in each grade must be able to know and do. For many reformers, that kind of clarity is a necessary starting point for improvement. Now, with national testing requirements looming, curricula in classrooms across the country are likely to become even more unified. But whether that kind of one-size-fits-all approach will promote or harm learning remains the subject of debate.

Noreen Connell, executive director of the New York-based school-watchdog group Educational Priorities Panel, says that much of what she's been witnessing in the city's public schools since 1989 troubles her. "You walk down the halls of these low-performing schools and you hear all the teachers giving the exact same lesson," she says. "A decade ago I could not have predicted that there would be so much micromanagement of the schools, so many high-stakes tests, so much anxiety about imposing standards, and so much imposition of cookie-cutter curricula."

But Ms. Connell has also been noting something encouraging: "I used to go into elementary schools in the early 1990s and see kids filling out blanks in workbooks. They had never actually written a sentence. Today, when I go to elementary schools I see them writing essays, reading books. The fourth-grade [state] test really stressed writing, and that forced the issue."

As much as she's always disliked the idea of teachers "teaching to the test," lately, Connell says, she's come to feel that "it's neither good nor bad, it's just inevitable."

What worries many, though, is the thrust toward conformity. While it may boost the bottom line, it could drag down high performers. Horror stories are rife of certain classes and specially crafted projects created by gifted teachers being dropped from schedules. Science projects that teach kids to track weather, history lessons shaped around an in-depth look at the Constitution - these kinds of explorations are often under attack because they subtract time from preparing students for standardized tests.

"There's got to be art, there's got to be gym," Connell says. "To make school a workhorse for math and language arts is not fair."

What seems a step forward for a school that has failed to provide the basics could be a step back for a more successful school that's moving beyond basic competency.

One of the greatest misunderstandings in the education debate, says Jack Jennings, executive director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, is the failure to separate the challenges faced by poorer urban schools from those faced by wealthier suburban schools.

"People mix up the two problems and slip back and forth when they talk about them," he says. Inequities in financing have fostered a complex set of problems in city schools. Parents from more affluent areas, meanwhile, worry that their children's needs are overlooked in the push to set minimum standards for all and enforce them through testing.

Even top-rated public schools, Mr. Jennings adds, are not as successful as they should be. His view seems substantiated by a recent international assessment that shows US high- schoolers straggling behind their Japanese, Korean, British, Canadian, and Australian peers in reading, math, and science.

This kind of rankings have given ammunition to conservatives who argue that introducing marketplace-style competition into the world of education will force schools to either improve or lose their students.

School choice, better teachers

The emphasis on school choice has done much to increase national interest in both independently run public charter schools and school vouchers, but so far there is little evidence to prove that either of these innovations can spark widespread improvement.

In Pennsylvania, for instance, only two out of the 77 charter schools created there since 1997 either meet or exceed the state average on standardized tests.

However, charter-school proponents argue, these new, less bureaucratic public schools have yielded intangible benefits, including the involvement of talented individuals - like Jordan at Bronx Prep - who once wouldn't have been drawn to public education as a career.

In fact, the next important step, say many experts, is to focus on the recruitment, training, and nurturing of talented teachers and administrators.

"I've seen a big change for the better in New York City schools," says Roseanne Scollieri, assistant principal of PS 62 in Queens and a 30-year veteran of the school system. "The administration is much more supportive, more responsive to our needs." The curriculum, too, she believes, has been honed to foster learning.

Others, like Ms. Dixon in Philadelphia, see little that encourages them. She's frustrated by the degree to which policymakers continue to turn to academic theorists for the answers, rather than to experienced classroom teachers.

Still, says Professor Reville of Harvard, improvement is occurring, albeit slowly.

"There's a laser-like focus on instruction and the quality of teaching and learning," he says. Reformers are looking at the work that classroom teachers do, and trying to learn from them about their best practices.

Reville cautions that this phase of reform will require patience. "Many charlatans will continue to come and go, offering quicker-fix solutions, yet this kind of reform we're pursuing is far and away the best hope," he says.

Although many people are concerned that the ripple effects from Sept. 11 may divert attention and resources away from education reform, Reville predicts the opposite. Never before, he says, have the schools been more vital to national interests. His hope is that Americans will think harder about the role schools can play in creating a better society.

Natriello agrees. "The education system is about a lot more than math and science and academic skills," he says. "It's about teaching people to be Americans and to live in a democratic society. There's a real opportunity right now for us to begin making that connection."

Jennings believes that patience will prevail. Americans "have more agreement on the importance of this than we do on almost any other issue," he says. "It's like the war in Afghanistan. You don't eliminate terrorism in one fell swoop, and neither do you reform the education of 45 million kids overnight."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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