15 Years of School Reform: New Ideas, Modest Results Educational Choices Abound as Classes across the US Resume This Week

By Scott Baldauf, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

15 Years of School Reform: New Ideas, Modest Results Educational Choices Abound as Classes across the US Resume This Week


Scott Baldauf, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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

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. …

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