Schools Monday: Two Worlds of Education
In this business, it's easy to conclude that we're two nations, sharply divided in every which way. I hear from hundreds of readers each week, and they tend to represent two very different slices of society--people who are doing well and people who are struggling to get by. Since I write a lot about schools, I tend to hear from parents of school-age kids, and they too cleave into two distinct realities: One in which kids are driven to succeed and parents are intensely competitive on behalf of those children, and the other in which just getting through school is a daunting challenge marked by obstacles that can almost seem like they add up to a conspiracy against them.
Sometimes the impressions created by reader mail are way off the mark; like the phone calls on a talk show, the mail can be unrepresentative, dominated by the extremes. But in this case, the readers seem to be spot on. The 25th anniversary of the landmark study of American education, "A Nation At Risk," has occasioned a whole bunch of reviews of where we stand in our schools today, and the answer is clear: Pretty much where we were a quarter century ago, meaning that 25 years of expensive and extensive reforms have amounted basically to nothing.
The big headline quotations from the original report were tough statements that we knew in our guts were dead right: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." And this: "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." (The authors of the report were part of that tide of mediocrity: They couldn't even use the word "presently" correctly.)
What happened in the aftermath of that report? States raised standards and then the feds got into the act, seeking to force the nation's schools toward more rigor by requiring a vast regimen of standardized testing--the No Child Left Behind revolution.
Some revolution. Yes, at the high end, more kids take AP courses, chemistry, physics, and calculus. But three of ten high school students still don't take Algebra II, the most important indicator of whether a kid will end up in college. And two-thirds don't take physics.
The percentage of students who graduate from high school has nudged up only a bit, from 66 percent in 1995 to 70 percent in 2004. And those who do stay in school aren't getting a whole lot from the experience: In 2005, only one third of high school students scored at the proficient level in reading and fewer than a quarter of students did so in math. Even if they do make it to college, one in four U.S. students require remedial work to get through their first year on campus.
Have standards really gone up? Hardly. Only 18 states and the District require high school students to take a college-prep curriculum and 11 of those states allow kids to opt out of that requirement, according to the Stagnant Nation report.
We test the living daylights out of kids, but still subject them to dumbed-down, boring textbooks; thin courses; inexperienced teachers; and one of the shortest school years in all of the industrialized world.
And the gap that separates black and Hispanic children from others in school achievement has gotten only barely narrower.
What to do? We've tried all manner of cheap ways to fix the problem, anything we can think of that can be accomplished with existing structures and personnel. And we've tried some expensive experiments too, small settings with individualized attention. Sometimes that helps, but frustratingly enough, sometimes it doesn't.
Some school reformers give up after a couple of decades of this. Some go off and start their own schools, deciding that large-scale reforms cannot make a difference in a single lifetime, but that individual connections to students truly can change lives. That seems to be the most satisfying and perhaps most effective path. Politics has little to do with this: People who despise the public schools and go off to home-school their kids or start charter schools are often just as successful and satisfied as those who believe that public schools are the essence of our democracy and therefore decide to teach in the most difficult of schools, or to start small-scale, rigorous programs that take end runs around the bureaucracies.
To read the report on the past 25 years is probably to become despondent about American schools, but to work with kids is almost always a richly rewarding path. Perhaps that's the lesson of the past quarter century. Big solutions may sound great, but rarely produce much progress. The answers lie at the lowest possible level--one-to-one.
At noon today, please join me to discuss "Washington 2025," my cover story in the Post's Sunday Magazine looking at two possible futures for the D.C. area. We'll gather at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
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