American public education got a report card from the federal Department of Education recently. The marks were pretty good.
Is the government too easy a grader? Well, the yearly look at the state of US schooling did note areas in need of improvement. Compared with European and Japanese schools, for instance, courses taken by American youngsters are still considerably easier, particularly in mathematics.
And there are still big equity gaps in American education. Children from poorer families, often racial minorities, frequently attend schools that are less demanding academically. They sometimes have little access to the advanced courses that help open college doors.
But the overall picture, according to the department, is hopeful. More toddlers are in preschool programs, with particularly high participation among black families. More high school students are going on to college. Young women are now nearly 60 percent of the college population.
Even older Americans are returning to school in larger numbers, taking courses in their spare time.
But does all this mean more actual learning is going on? At the least, youngsters are taking more courses designed to challenge them, not just let them get by. Between 1982 and 1998, the number of students taking the toughest math courses in high school went from 11 to 27 percent. Nineteen percent took high school chemistry and physics in '98, compared with 7 percent 18 years earlier. And, on average, kids are taking three more courses during high school than they did back then.
But American public education defies averages and generalities. It includes intellectually vibrant magnet schools and special academies just blocks away from disastrous urban high schools. It includes super-equipped suburban schools and rural outposts short of textbooks.
Most of all, it includes an amazing array of people - many brilliant, many struggling to teach, or grasp, the basics.
What the national report card seemed to indicate, overall, is that the cumulative effort of nearly two decades of reform may be slowly paying off. The country values education more than ever, and is immersed in discussion and experimentation to improve education. That should mean even better grades in the years ahead.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society