Report Card On Reform Efforts In US Schools

Failing schools jeopardize support for public education, and educators are taking the threat seriously. That's the message in three new reports by the US Department of Education.

For anyone who cares about public schools, the must-read of the lot is the 74-page guide on "Turning Around Low-Performing Schools." There's no formula for success here and no quick fix. Instead, case studies signal how sustained an effort is needed to break the expectation of failure and help kids meet high standards.

In San Antonio, reformers trimmed back the 2,600 courses taught in the high school to refocus the curriculum and create smaller learning communities. Community School District No. 2 in New York City cut administrators to free resources for staff development. Long Beach, Calif., educators mandated school uniforms and saw school crime drop 76 percent.

If there is a consistent lesson in such reform efforts, it's that a school cannot improve if it does not first establish order. That's what's significant about a second report, which measures a national effort to keep guns out of schools.

Some 6,093 students were expelled from public schools last year for bringing a firearm to school. The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act requires states getting federal funds to expel for one year a student who brings a gun. This is the first report to track results. Most expulsions were in high school, but 34 percent occurred in junior high, and 9 percent in primary school.

A curious footnote explains why the District of Columbia reported no expulsions, despite troubles with guns in school: "the District has a policy in place, but the policy was not enforced in 1996-97."

A third report aims to influence the debate on President Clinton's initiative to reduce class size in Grades 1 through 3 to an average of 18 - a proposal that has yet to win over Republicans. The report releases no new data, but claims a trend in recent research that confirms the value of smaller classes to higher achievement. The report notes experts disagree on how to interpret this evidence.

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