As summer officially comes to an end, millions of American parents are taking part in that timeless ritual of trust: sending their kids back to school.
The low point for that trust came in 1983, when federal officials issued a dour report card on the nation's schools called "A Nation at Risk." That spirit of discontent, however, unleashed the modern-day education-reform movement, one of the most creative periods in the history of American public education.
Today, parents have more public-school alternatives than ever before, from independent "charter" schools to magnet schools that focus on arts, science, ethnicity, high-tech, and even back-to-basics curricula.
But after a decade and a half of experimentation, what has education reform accomplished? Are the hundreds of independent charter schools providing parents with a better option to conventional public schools? Are tougher academic standards producing smarter graduates? And are states that are "leveling the playing field" between rich and poor school districts providing an adequate education for the whole?
"America is still a nation at risk," says Bruno Manno, a researcher at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "Just one-third of high school seniors are proficient readers, with a quarter barely able to read at all. Only 16 percent are proficient at math."
Those statistics are neither better nor worse than they were 15 years ago. "That doesn't mean there is nothing of merit going on," he adds, "but it's spotty. Think of charter schools. There are only 700 of them in a nation that has 80,000 public schools. That's a pebble in an ocean."
Turning the tide on that ocean of underperforming schools is a monumental task, experts say, requiring the steady commitment of all members of society: parents and teachers, business and political leaders.
"There are anecdotal good stories all over, but we are far away from overcoming the crisis," says Christine Johnson, a researcher in urban education issues at the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States in Denver. "It's not time to fall asleep."
By far, the nation's fastest growing reform effort is the charter school movement, with more than 700 schools operating in 29 states. Charter schools are exempt from most state and local laws, allowing them to adopt any curriculum or teaching style, but they must prove their students are receiving a solid education in order to receive public funding.
Charter schools' greater freedom to experiment with teaching styles attracted Scott and Heidi VanGenderen of Boulder, Colo. This year, the VanGenderens have put their two girls, Nora and Emma, into Horizons, a K-8 charter school.
"We are very grateful for Horizons," says Mrs. VanGenderen. "The arts and sciences are taught creatively, with outside experts brought in. And Spanish gets taught in kindergarten."
When Minnesota passed the nation's first charter-school law in 1991, many critics worried that charter schools would draw the brightest and wealthiest students from conventional schools. But recent surveys show that charter schools are attracting a diverse student body, particularly in areas where the schools are the worst off. Half the children in the nation's charter schools are from ethnic minorities; in conventional public schools, one-third of the children are minorities.
Charter schools are "the best thing to come along in education in 20 years," says Joe Nathan of the University of Minnesota's Center for School Change in Minneapolis. "I have never seen anything that has spread so rapidly and has generated so much passion and intense enthusiasm."
This enthusiasm is important, because charter schools rely heavily on the volunteer efforts of parents and teachers alike. Charters on average receive only 80 percent of the funding the conventional public school receives, and few have enough money to run a bus service.
Mr. VanGenderen says the number of charter schools will be "self-limiting. It takes a lot to make a charter school happen and keep it going. Parents at our school help clean classrooms and sometimes teach. Not everyone is willing to work this hard."
While some families say creativity and hard work will turn schools around, others say the solution is in imposing tough academic standards that apply to children in all schools.
For 13-year-old Jay Kircher, tough standards mean he's in for a difficult year.
"The coursework is definitely a lot harder," says the eighth-grader, who returns to Rocky Run Middle School in Fairfax County, Va. "It's a little bit stressful, but I do like the course selection that eighth grade will offer me."
Some academics, including the American Federation of Teachers, consider Virginia's "Standards of Learning" for math, English, science, and social studies to be a national model. Beginning this school year, all students in Virginia will be tested for proficiency in Grades 3, 5, and 8, and with end-of-course exams in high school.
Nationally, the idea of setting clear academic standards has come to dominate recent discussion about improving schools. President Clinton has urged the creation of a system of national tests to measure the results of these standards. But he faces strong opposition from conservatives, who worry that national standards could expand the federal role in education, which has always been a state responsibility.
Most experts are withholding their opinions on the effect of standards until more states, including Virginia, start testing their students and tracking test scores. But some say that standards alone won't solve the problems of the nation's schools.
"The standards movement is a wonderful thing only if there are the resources to carry it out," says Charles Abelmann, a lecturer at the Harvard University School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. "Without those resources, the gap between the haves and have nots can only get wider."
Parity in spending
While many states are trying to reform education one school or one textbook at a time, others are trying to level the financial playing field so that every school, rich or poor, has an equal fighting chance.
In New Jersey, one of at least 12 states under court order to amend school-funding inequities, there have been recent signs that more money is finally beginning to help inner-city students catch up with their suburban peers. The state now gives more aid to 28 poorer districts and gives more decisionmaking power to teachers over how that money is spent.
For Janet Rich, who has taught in the impoverished city of Paterson, N.J., for 30 years, it's been an eye-opening taste of the power of money. "I would say that finally we are getting some of the money trickling into the classroom," Ms. Rich says, adding that the schools now have more money to spend on books and in-class libraries, teacher-training workshops, and computers. "With our hands on the money, we could decide to do things like that."
Other districts are using the extra state funding to add new Advanced Placement courses for high school students, rebuild century-old buildings, and hire teachers' aides for overcrowded classrooms. Many urban schools also have to pay for nonacademic needs, such as security guards and metal detectors.
Some critics worry that much of this money has been squandered in school systems with major social problems. But Margaret Goertz, a professor with the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says these fears have not been borne out.
"What we found was, in the districts that had stable leadership, they made very good use of the money and were able to use the money to catch up" to some of the suburban districts, says Dr. Goertz, who has studied New Jersey's funding reform.
But even with state aid, New Jersey's playing field is far from level. Poorer districts on average spent $1,674 less per student in 1994 than did districts in affluent areas.
Tracking the impact of money on student achievement has also been difficult. Like many states, New Jersey has not linked its new curriculum standards to statewide tests. And Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's effort to use standards, rather than funding, to level the playing field were rebuffed this year by the state Supreme Court.
For now, the best evidence of improvement comes from teachers like Paterson's Janet Rich. She's convinced that, at least at her school, they've turned a corner toward spending money wisely to benefit students.
"Too often, ... the teachers really had no say-so in how the money was spent. And classroom teachers' priorities are much different than administrators'," Rich says. "So, for us, this was a major breakthrough."
* Vince Winkel in Boulder, Colo., Jonathan P. Decker in Washington, and Neal Thompson in Paterson, N.J., contributed to this report.