Education put to the test
(Page 3 of 3)
"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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."