Education put to the test
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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
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."
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.